Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Asking "What Then?", or, What Makes a Good Setting Good?

Let's subvert Tolstoy: all bad settings are all alike, but all good settings are good in their own way. 

What makes for a bad fantasy setting? In my view, a lot of it can be put down to coming up with decent ideas, but failing to follow through on them by asking the critical question (or series of questions): "What then?"

For example: "In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists." A concept you can work with, but which on its own is boring. But ask, "What then?" and things become interesting. In Kingdom X, the people are nonviolent pacifists, so what then? Well:

  • They presumably have to defend themselves still, so maybe they build huge walls, miles high, around their cities. Or maybe they live in towns made on stilts in the middle of inaccessible lakes. Or maybe they make huge armies of protective golems who physically sacrifice themselves in order to foil attacks. Or...
  • They are still people, so sometimes they will want or need to hurt or kill each other. How do they achieve this? Maybe they are expert poisoners and come up with thousands of variants, renowned across the world. Maybe they create loopholes in the rules and there are guilds of lawyer-assassins who are paid vast sums to come up with new ones. Maybe they contrive ways to commit violence against each other in absolute secrecy. Maybe they hire outsiders, not bound by the rules, to do their dirty work for them. Maybe...
  • 'Nonviolent' might exclude the killing of any living thing. So what do these people live on? Where do they get their protein? Perhaps they raise giant mushrooms. Perhaps they eat their own dead in elaborate rituals. Perhaps they are like the Masai and keep cattle (or, let's get creative, and make it giant beetles/iguanas/alpacas/swans) whose blood they drink. 

What you'll notice is that all of these ideas then lead on to further "What then?" questions. The nonviolent pacifists eat their own dead. So what then? Well, what do you do if you're in need of protein? Find somebody who is dying and wait patiently by their bedside. Maybe if somebody is dying everybody in the local villages comes rushing to argue over the body. Maybe peoples' corpses are subject to elaborate legal dispute, resolved by nonviolent contests or rituals. Maybe people leave different body parts to different people in their wills. Maybe there is a black market in body parts. Maybe outsiders, who are not bound by the rules, hunt and kill members of this society in secret to sell their flesh. And so on.

The classic example, for me, of the failure to really follow through on decent ideas is Planescape. All of the Planescape Outer Planes are based on interesting concepts. Bytopia has one layer on top of the other one, facing it, like an upside down mirror! The Beastlands is inhabited only by intelligent animals! Carceri is an infinite prison! Acheron is an infinite battlefield! Arcadia is the land of cloying, restrictive benevolence! And so on. But none of the designers ever really then stopped to think: "Ok, so - what then?" Er, well, it's just like D&D always is, but isn't the background idea neat

At the opposite end of the sphere is Jack Vance, the master at coming up with initially bland-sounding ideas and then burrowing so deep inside them that they become unique and powerful. (The Face is probably the classic example of this, in which he takes the concept of 'desert planet' and transforms into something altogether wonderful.) Frank Herbert's Dune (while we are on the subject of desert planets), is another such example: you have to use a particular substance in order to perform interstellar travel. "Ok, what then?" Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: people colonise Mars. What then? And one must not forget, of course, The Left Hand of Darkness. There's a planet of ambisexuals - what then? 

If you want to come up with an interesting setting or an interesting concept to use in a setting, you can do a lot worse than flicking through the Monster Manual and applying this technique. "There are gargantuan birds, called rocs, in this setting. What then?" "There are lycanthropes in this setting. What then?" "This world has deadly puddings. What then?" The results write themselves. (It can also be done by flicking through the spells. "In this setting, people can go invisible/create fire/create illusions/charm each other with magic. What then?")


  1. Thats alot of how I like to wool gather when thinking about my campaign.

    And you may have, inadvertently, reminded me how to rediscover my campaign world and motivation to play/explore it again.

    Thank you. I thought it was lost.

  2. Have you by any chance seen the City-State generator over at Grand Commodore D&D blog? I found that it was MAGNIFICENT at giving you the pieces you need - the framework - for an interesting geographic area, and then driving all those questions of "What then?" I highly recommend it for anyone doing worldbuilding, especially if they find themselves at an impasse of some kind. The results are universally applicable to pretty much any game system or even as a unique place or places in a pre-defined game setting. The tables and subtables generate a framework that is just specific enough to give you direction and just ambiguous enough to make things interesting - here's an (incomplete) example of the framework that is generated. It took me about a minute to roll up.

    A provisional republic with their wealth source based on incredible works of stained glass. They wear traditional costumes. Recently, this place has been gripped by a narcotics epidemic where the narcotic in question also happens to be an extra-cosmic transceiver. The most famous building is a monastery known for the monks’ ability to navigate via echolocation hymns.

    To me, that description naturally brings up so MANY "What then?" questions! It has the ambiguity to give you tons of room for filling in the blanks but enough specificity to provide direction so that you don't get stuck trying to come up with the bits you are filling in. What do the costumes look like and who wears them? Has the extra-cosmic information coming in through the narcotic epidemic started to influence what is depicted in the stained glass the city is famous for? How do the monks fit in? Do they have their own traditional costumes? What do their hymns sound like?

    Your post brought that generator so strongly to mind I just had to say something. It's one of the best tools I've seen for driving those questions that you need to answer to make an interesting place. I need a push every now and then when I'm writing or coming up with material for D&D and I found the generator to be incredibly helpful. I hope you don't mind if I link it - if you prefer I keep my comments link free I will do so in the future.

  3. Indeed! I find following a premise halfway toward realism -- not so far to be boring, but with enough constraints to be interesting -- gives the best results.

    That is, working out "what does the ogre in the cave eat?" without necessarily working out a complete caloric profile.

    1. Yes, there's definitely a sweet spot. Knowing when to stop is also important. But sadly too many people stop at the initial premise.

  4. Excellent post, thanks. I was thinking recently about how weird it is that a huge part of the RPG hobby is worldbuilding, and yet how really bland/lazy most of the output is (and I include my own efforts here).

    It's like we all love fine art, but in practice are collectively fine with just daubing toddler-level efforts in primary colours. Yes, that looks vaguely like a house, I guess, job done.

    1. I do think there is a good reason for that in the sense that ultimately there has to be a game, and the more esoteric the setting the harder that tends to be. But yes, a bit more creativity wouldn't hurt.

  5. Very good post.

    I find that a good setting also lets the DM come up with some answers. "what then" is very important. But "why" also is.

    For example, in yoon-suin, slugmen are all magic users. The "what then" is very clearly explored in your setting. But you never said "why" this is the case.

    aaand by leaving that very important question unanswered, it allowed me to answer it as a GM, and it had a HUGE impact on my "version" of Yoon Suin. (I'm quite pleased with my answer, but hey, this is your blog not mine so I won't elaborate haha).

    So leaving some "room to grow" for the GM is very important - so unanswered questions by themselves are not necessarily an indicator of a bad setting. I think rather the problem is when the question has a bland boring answer. For example, a kingdom where everyone can fly has huge implications. The GM can elaborate on a lot of them. But if the setting is detailed in such a way that the answer of "what is the impact" is apparent - there is no impact - then there is a problem.

  6. I love doing the "what then" to figure out the implications of an idea. The guy who is probably the greatest world builder of all time, Tolkien, was continually revising things in world in large part by thinking through the implications of idea and often discarding them if they didn't fit his overall vision. To bring up a somewhat controversial subject he personally had a hard time with the Orcs once he really thought through what their existence meant to his world.

    1. Let the nominations for "Greatest Worldbuilder of All Time" begin!

    2. Tolkien is unusual in that he only ever really came up with one world. I suppose you can divide 'the Great Worldbuilders' into those who just spend most of their time detailing one setting, and those who create lots and lots of them.

  7. Good post Noisms.

    I'm not sure I've ever used that particular wording but each time I come up with a concept for a game I do ask myself, 'How does this apply to the players?'. The most important part of any element I add is to determine why my players and/or their PCs show care about this thing.

    Can they interact with it? What happens if they do?
    Can they go there? Can they be from there?
    Can they buy it, sell it, or trade for it? What's it worth?
    Can they be it? Is this species, occupation, rank accessible to a PC?

  8. I wonder what a "realistic" land inhabited by talking animals looks like?

    1. Great question and one I often think about. Redwall and whatnot don't seem to cut it!

  9. The "what then?" really matters an enormous amount for fiction writing as well. Even if you get a lot of details wrong, if you really delve into the "what then?" it feels so much more rich and real. You can see this with ASoIaF/GoT. Martin has his share of flaws as a writer but he really nails this, you can see each event having a whole slew of unexpected consequences as its effects ripple out across the world. The show originally had a good bit of this too, even if truncated, but once the show stops following the book the "what then?" just stops. Big events happen that have literally zero consequences outside of the most direct ones, there's no delving into how people are reacting to these big earth-shaking events. They just happen and then everyone shrugs while the build-up starts for the next one. You can see this in a lot of other shows where big events happen, but people just mostly shrug and get on with their lives instead of there being a web of cause and effect.