Build Gardens, Not Museums
Worldbuilding comes with perils, not the least of which is often the tendency for a designer or writer to want to answer all of the questions he puts forward. This is a natural instinct. It creates a feeling wholeness and integrity. It suggests that the created world is a logical place, and that cause has effect. From a perspective of vanity, it demonstrates that the designer knows what he’s doing: No loose ends means nothing can unravel.
Where’s the fun in that?
If you’re a writer, leave some loose threads. If you’re designing a game world, leave some of those stones unturned. The interstices, the lacunae, that’s where a world comes alive because they invite the creative participation of the readers or the players. A player or reader who finds a gap or shadowy bit in your world uses her imagination to fill that gap or shine light there. It makes her feel the world is partially hers.
(I’m not saying make your plot a sloppy mess — but we’ll cover plotting more in part two of this topic.)
Now, many worldbuilders don’t want to hear this. They hold up their worlds as bits of virtuoso craftsmanship, unassailable, unchangeable works of sovereign genius.
But that’s not interesting. If the player can’t change the world through his actions, or if the reader’s every bit of creative enjoyment takes a back seat to the writer’s omnipotence over the world, that leaves the audience disengaged. Especially in the modern communication medium, participation is key.
That’s not to say a writer needs to relinquish his “canon,” or that a game world needs to be slave to every passing player caprice. Writers, your readers don’t commit their details to print or digital permanence unless you let them, but they’re going to remember your work for far longer if you let them come along for the ride instead of just watching from the station. Gamemasters and designers, you’re building the world on a macro level, but isn’t it all really just a stage upon which your players can shine? Doesn’t it exist for them to explore, solve, and wonder about?
After all what’s more compelling, a block of quarried stone, or a sculpture?
This was the stock in trade for Vampire when I was running it. The writers and I would spend a few paragraphs putting together a situation or setting, and then we’d cast a bit of mystery over the idea by suggesting that the opposite might be true. Prince Umbrageo holds the city in his iron grip… or does he? Who are those vampires over there? Is there some truth to the fledgling Martina’s claim that she holds the Prince in blood thrall? What’s the real story here? Even if a chronicle never investigated that little quandary, it made the fictional world seem like a bigger place. It gave the sense that not all of the answers had been discovered, that some mysteries still exist.
Not everything fits in a neat little box. That, friends, is where the imagination can shift into high gear. Even though it’s tertiary to the central story (which it must be, because a world of nothing but smoke and mirrors is as unfulfilling as a “museum world” in which you’re not allowed to touch anything), the little things keep boiling in your players’ or readers’ minds. It keeps them coming back to you, hungry for more.
Next time: putting the theory in practice. Get out your gardening gear, as we’ll be planting some fecund seeds of doubt.