What makes a setting fun?
Conflict, conflict, conflict!
There are a lot of similarities between world-building for a roleplaying game and world-building for a story. Open up any book of advice for fiction writers and it will tell you that a conflict is essential for an interesting story – and the books are right. You can write a story without conflict, but it’s going to make the reader want to light the pages – or the author – on fire 99 times out of 100. This is one of the few times where the RPG designer has a harder time of it than the fiction author: if you design a roleplaying setting without conflict, it’s going to put your players to sleep 100 times out of 100.
Your setting needs conflict. What is conflict? Conflict is what happens when one character wants something, and someone or something opposes that goal. Indiana Jones wants the Ark of the Covenant, and he’s opposed by the Nazis. Luke Skywalker wants to become a Jedi, and he’s opposed by his own impatience and anger. Winston Smith wants to be free, and he’s opposed by the entire society of Oceania, embodied in Big Brother. Your Dungeons and Dragons characters want to plunder the dragon’s horde, but the dragon isn’t just going to let them walk in.
You need both halves of the equation: a character with a desire, and something that stops them from achieving it. If you have a character that wants something and gets it with nothing slowing him down, that’s boring – think of a roleplaying campaign where you enter a dungeon, kill everything inside without breaking a sweat, and haul back so much loot that you destabilize the local economy. Likewise, if you have a character that doesn’t want anything, there’s no story – they stay at home and never go out adventuring. This is why the dude that always brings a brooding loner to the party is so annoying: the brooding loner doesn’t want anything, so he’s impossible to motivate except by telling his player “if you don’t go with the party, you may as well not show up to the session.” The same goes for a character that wants something, but not enough to fight against any opposition. If your party hears about the dragon’s horde and wants the treasure, but when they hear about the dragon they decide to go into accounting instead, that’s probably not an interesting game – unless the dragon comes to them, or the party ends up running for their lives after auditing the Mob.
Keep in mind that conflict does not have to mean violence. This is the most common type of conflict in roleplaying games, perhaps because it’s clearly identifiable, with prizes for the winner (loot) and a loser (death). Still, non-violent conflicts can be just as exciting as a fistfight or bombing run. Conflicts of words or wits provide a reason for characters to put their reputations on the line, and the stakes can certainly be deadly serious – think of every time in a game you had to convince a guard to let you into a secure facility, or when you had to convince the king that approaching orc army was real and needed to be stopped.
Now we know what conflict is and why it matters. So what does it have to do with world-building? Tune in later for Part II, where I talk about making your setting not suck by setting up conflicts.