A big selling-point of tabletop RPGs – possibly a legacy of the era they appeared in, the liberal 1970s – was their non-competitive, open-ended aspect. Individual players wouldn’t “win” games, the group would only achieve its goals through co-operation. Most games replaced victory conditions with points-based progression systems, which meant that games rarely ‘ended’ as such – the most common structure would be a series of adventures, referred to in gamespeak as a “campaign” (another hangover from the hobby’s wargaming roots).
Which raised the question – how should these adventures be linked? If games were to be heroic sagas, even the most dice- and rule-driven demanded a context. And with context came continuity, and as the hobby developed the idea of ‘worldbuilding’ became more prominent.
It was present from the beginning, actually: early D&D rulebooks made reference to the “Greyhawk” and “Blackmoor” campaigns run by the game’s creators, though detailed descriptions of these settings didn’t surface until the 1980s, when it was apparent that they hadn’t been put together with much coherent thought. The World Of Greyhawk “campaign setting” was fairly typical of Dungeons and Dragons worldbuilding: a hotchpotch of countries with funny names (“the Flannaess”, “Mystara”) ruled by portentious-sounding bodies like the “Council of Eight”. Detail was in short supply: a scattering of exciting though barely described wars would provide the setting with the bulk of its history, and individual countries would be described as sharing ancient emnities, but most of the more colourful locations were simply swiped from Earth history and culture. Every setting would come complete with its own Scandinavia, full of berserkers and giants, and from the mid-1980s it became fashionable to bring ninjas and samurai from isolated pseudo-Japans into play. The approach was mix-and-match, with little thought to causality or consequence, but it fulfilled its function, at best providing players with recurring elements and slight background colour to bring play to life.
As with a lot of role-playing culture, Tolkien was claimed as a supposed model, but the confusing and messy patchwork-quilt continents of D&D “campaign settings” bore no relation to Middle-Earth. One of the reasons is that Tolkien simply isn’t a ‘worldbuilder’ as the RPG generation would understand it. Middle Earth was never meant to function as an ‘alternate world’ – it’s a vehicle for twin interests in philology and mythology, and so its “history” is no such thing. Middle Earth – the Shire possibly aside – has no economy, no society, no culture, and so none of the shifts and changes in these that might constitute a ‘history’. What it has is a series of languages, and a system of cause-and-effect based on the mythological principle that objects, bloodlines and individuals have destinies that can shape and prefigure events generations later. This isn’t a criticism of the man – Lord of the Rings would be a much less resonant and popular book if, say, it had opted to source its central conflicts in a series of trade disputes. (And the idea of family and individual destiny is hardly absent from real-world history: look at the Bushes in Iraq).
The point of Middle-Earth is to provide the events of Tolkien’s books with contextual weight, not to serve as a functioning ‘model world’. Fair enough, you might say, that’s the point of a D&D campaign setting, too. But just as the huge power imbalances between fantasy fiction characters prove hard to put into gaming terms, so a sense of mythic destiny is hard to come by in a game where the players are supposedly free to take any decision they like: high stakes lead to linear games. The muddled grab-bags of Greyhawk and Blackmoor may not have been particularly pretty or convincing but they were fit for purpose, flexible enough settings for the players to muck about in at low or high power level without really damaging them.
(The early RPG closest in spirit to Tolkien’s work, incidentally, was Empire Of The Petal Throne, much cited and very little played. It was roughly contemporary with AD&D, and presented a science-fantasy world called Tekumel, with Mesoamerican and Imperial Chinese influences and assorted alien races. Reissued by admirers many times, its complete lack of commercial success points up one of the main difficulties of RPG worldbuilding: do it too well and you find yourself having to give your players huge fun-killing wodges of background reading.)
The most successful – in play and commercial terms – RPG world was Glorantha, the setting for the original RuneQuest game. It estabilished and fulfilled the basic criteria for game world design: make something that adds meaning and richness to the playing experience, while still allowing for as much freedom as possible for players. The basic question any roleplaying setting has to answer is: can it credibly accommodate groups of freelance adventurers of varying power levels? The Glorantha playing area, with a volatile status quo based on the interaction of a Romanesque empire and assorted free tribes and a backstory that nicely blended the mythic and historical, offered a good answer. Players could feel they were part of a larger narrative, and an increasingly important part, without the burden of carrying the whole story limiting their actions. The best settings, and Glorantha is a good example, tend to have an easy to grasp background and focus on an interzone of individual opportunity created by said background: in other words, RPG settings worked best when they stopped trying to imitate European epic sagas and started drawing inspiration from American frontier stories.
(Glorantha helped make RuneQuest the leading alternative to D&D. So naturally, when another company bought the RQ rights, they junked Glorantha entirely and set the game in a slightly tweaked Bronze Age Europe.)
The next I Was A Goblin will be about how worldbuilding developed in the 1980s, and about my own fumbling attempts to create campaign settings.