Not Exactly Mailbag: Worldbuilding from a Mechanic

Monkey graphicsTwice this year I’ve spoken about matching story and mechanics — once for the Oxford/London IF Meetup, and once as a keynote talk at the Malta Global Game Jam. Both times, I mentioned the idea of using mechanics as the basis of world-building. I’ve done this both with the letter-changing powers of Counterfeit Monkey and the Lavori d’Aracne sympathetic magic of Savoir-Faire and Damnatio Memoriae. (I’ll talk a bit about all of those games below, so beware moderate spoilers, if you care.)

In Malta, one of the questions I got after my talk was “how do I know what questions to ask when world-building?” and I suggested having a look at conventional fiction guides for world-building. It seemed like a fair response at a time, but as I’ve had a look at some of the world-building guides out there, I felt that most of them didn’t necessarily translate directly to the types of strategies I use for this cause. So I’ll belatedly go into a little more depth about that now, in the hope it’s useful to someone (whether or not ever seen by the original questioner).

If you’ve got mechanics, that typically means you’ve got

  • an action/set of actions for the player to perform
  • some kind of world state that is affected by those actions in some way

And that’s all we need to ask world-building questions.

If the action explored is something people do in the real world (even in restricted circumstances), then this becomes an occasion for research: a cooking game might occasion research into real-world restaurants, or a driving game might be a good reason to look into real-world car-racing. Or we might ask ourselves, what changes to the real world would make this activity much more prevalent or raise the stakes of the outcome? (See: zombie games with a lot of parkour action.)

If the gameplay action is not tied to anything in the real world, though, we may need to invent a context that makes sense of it.

  • Is the player the only person who can do this kind of action? Are there others who can do it?
  • Is the action restricted to certain groups? If so, how does that affect the balance of power in this world? Are there prejudices around those people? Class structures, customs of inclusion or exclusion?

In Savoir-Faire, magical powers go with aristocratic birth, which means that there are a lot of jealousies and resentments surrounding them — and suspicion attaching to an apparently peasant-born person who displays those abilities. In Counterfeit Monkey, the ability to change objects based on the spelling of their names is facilitated by technology, but also requires a particular linguistic environment — which provides an incentive for the government to be quite rigid about what languages are spoken and how they are spelled.

Those sorts of questions lead us on to questions of economy:

  • Can the action be used to supply basic needs like food, sleep, shelter, or sex? How does this work, and what are the effects on day-to-day living?
  • Can the action kill, heal, transmit information at a distance, etc.? Are there reasons you might want a practitioner on the battlefield or in a hospital?

In Counterfeit Monkey, there are at least theoretical ways to apply letter-changing powers to provide significant resources to economically disadvantaged regions, and that goal drives one of the major characters.

Meanwhile, the Lavori d’Aracne allows for body parts to be linked to inanimate objects, if you’re daring/foolish enough to try, with the result that (for instance) the person can feel whatever happens to the inanimate object. And there are also one-to-many links. Obviously all that has kinky applications, which the feelies for Savoir-Faire allude to — this is hardly a dominant topic of the game, but there’s an implication in the surrounding materials that the aristocracy is considered decadent for all the usual reasons but also because they’re mostly likely having a lot of weird magic sex.

And of course, the action of the story can cause demand as well as supply:

  • Does this action require inborn talent, training, magic, technology, economic advantage?
  • What (if any) resources are required to enable the action? Where do those resources come from? Are they common or rare? Easy to create or difficult? How does this resource (and trade therein) affect the local economy?

And as a spin-off of those:

  • What might super-charge this ability? What if the user had much more than the average amount of talent, training, or resource? What might they be able to do then?

In the world of Counterfeit Monkey, with the right technology and sufficient power, it’s possible to create abstract objects, not just concrete ones. Initially, that’s just a curiosity of a few puzzles, but it eventually becomes critical to the plot.

If we’ve got economy and politics, we should have history and philosophy, too:

  • Was this type of action formerly more or less common than it is now, and if that changed, why? Was there a specific moment when it became possible? When it faded away?
  • Have people intentionally tried to influence whether this action existed or ceased to exist?
  • How do people explain how this action functions? Does it tie into their religious beliefs? Their science? How accurately are they able to record, measure, and study this action, and are they inclined to do so? Is this the basis of a meticulous technology, or a source of arcane and secret stories?

In the world of the Lavori, the aristocratic magic has largely died out by the late 20th century, for reasons that are only partly understood — but a big part of the reason is the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th century, and the French Revolution in particular. Up to that point, people rationalized the ability as being tied in with their theological beliefs on the will of God and the divine right of certain leaders.

In Counterfeit Monkey, word-based object-changing didn’t become possible at all until language communities reached a critical size — until there were enough speakers in one place.

If this type of action is common in the game but not common in the real world:

  • How does the world be different from our own to accommodate the prevalence of this ability?
  • Is there anyone who might want to control or police this activity? Are they successful? Why or why not? (Possibly the action is controlled in some regions and not in others.)
  • What makes the action more effective or less effective?
  • Are there rules about who can do this action? Customs or etiquette?
  • Are there people who lose the ability? People who might be expected to have it, but don’t?
  • Can children do this action? If so, does this complicate childrearing? If children are born without the ability, at what point does the ability arise and how is that onset handled?

In Counterfeit Monkey, the player moves through a society where letter-changing abilities are common, but require both technology and energy; the government has placed limits on what technology may be distributed to the general public, but over the course of the story, the player may find her way around more and more of those limits.

If the action is rare in the game:

  • How might people react when they see it going on? Will it provoke fear, admiration, excitement? Jealousy, anger?
  • Will people understand what they are seeing?
  • Are there other known practitioners of this ability? Historical agents that had it? Is there mythology around this kind of person?
  • Will this ability cause special problems in any particular setting?
  • How might this action be used to circumvent what is socially normal?
  • Can it be used for crime? If so, how might it be detected and who would be involved in policing it or using it in this way?

Meanwhile on the world state front:

  • Why is the world set up the way it is to start with? (This is often a relevant question for things like platformers, if we want to take their narrative at all seriously: platforming settings are not sensibly designed for people to walk around normally, but why not?)
  • Which aspects of world state are “real” from the perspective of fiction? Typically, for instance, a character’s score is not considered to belong to the world of the fiction, so other characters won’t notice and comment on it explicitly. But there are times when it’s interesting to play with state aspects that might otherwise be considered off limits and meta.

All of this is basically scratching the surface — there’s tons more you could do with this. But perhaps you have the idea.

From these kinds of questions, we can get a backstory for the world; conflicts and backstory that might shape the main characters; possible motivations for an antagonist; barriers for level design.

I often find plot elements this way, not just background material, especially by looking at the extreme or unusual ways of using the power in question. For instance, in Counterfeit Monkey, it’s possible to bring abstract concepts into the physical world. Take the M out of LIME and you get an object that represents the concept of a LIE. It’s also possible to make people, in a kind of rudimentary way, though this is discouraged — but take the R out of CARD and you get a CAD, a rakish figure from an old novel. Those facts together mean it’s even possible to make an abstract person — and in the endgame of Counterfeit Monkey, you meet Atlantida, the setting’s equivalent of Marianne.

This is important narratively — the protagonist has been trying to escape this setting, and fighting its government and culture the whole time — and at the same time it’s paying off the mechanical learning the player has been doing throughout the game.

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