GM Toolbox, RPGs, Video Games

Worldbuilding of Warcraft: Lessons on setting design from WoW’s latest expansion

Like millions of other people, lately I’ve been completely engrossed in World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Legion. It’s a great addition to a the storied MMO with tons of evocative scenery. While riding around on my enchanted sylvan panther, I’ve been continually impressed by the thought put into each of the different “zones” in the game. Whether a video game, a tabletop game, or work of fiction, solid worldbuilding typically follows the same rules. In worldbuilding discussions, you’ll often hear one of the most basic rules as. “Have a Sense of Place”. In other words, settings need to feel distinct and able to connect with players. I like to break this rule down a bit further. Settings with a strong sense of place need to have atmospheric or sensory qualities that help capture the imagination of our audience. Namely: theme, history, and purpose. We’ll go through each of these ingredients below with examples from Legion that illustrate their effective use.

Distinct Themes:

The various “zones” or levels of Legion have strong themes that offer insight into what kind of stories we can expect to see and evoke a deliberate emotional response in players. The first zone I played in Legion, Aszuna, featured crumbling ruins of an ancient elven civilization latticed with rivers of crystallized magical energy. It’s a majestically decrepit place. A graveyard for a culture built and destroyed by magic. From the visuals alone, we immediately have a sense of grand scale, a bygone age, and of the consequences of power ungoverned by reason. Each of the game’s other zones invoke a distinct feel as well. It’s the old adage of “show, don’t tell” in the most basic sense and precisely why a distinct theme can be such a powerful tool in setting design. This kind of approach works well for an epic fantasy game like Legion but the same tools could be brought to bear in a different genre of game. A hallway in an abandoned hospital, with cracking paint and the buzz of flickering lights, can evoke a sense of intimacy and dread appropriate for Call of Cthulhu or another modern horror game.

A Sense of History:

If themes add depth to the present of a place, then a sense of history provides depth to a setting’s past. It’s important that a place feel lived in for not only the last week, but for years or even millennia depending on what you’re aiming for. So how does one do that? One easy way is to show how populations and geographic features have shifted over time. In Legion, a race of magic infused super-elves called Nightborne once had a sprawling empire. Throughout Legion, you’ll find ruins of their once great civilization punctuating the landscape. In modern times, the Nightborne have regressed to living in one massive city. To protect themselves (and keep others out) of their territory, the Nightborne erected a massive dome of energy around their city. The ruins and the magical dome are both visual cues that immediately convey a message: first, these are a people in decline and secondly, these are a people fearful of the outside world. Both elements contribute to the suggestion of a larger narrative against which the story of the game takes place.

A Clear Purpose:

Another important aspect of setting to consider: is it plausible given the rules of the world/game/story? Does the geography of the place make sense? What impact have people made on the landscape? If it’s a man-made place like a city, where do people eat? Are there parks or other kinds of recreational spaces? If it’s a tomb or some kind of man-made structure, is it built in a logical way? To be clear, you don’t have to make everything make sense, but make sure it’s a conscious choice. A setting can be completely nonsensical if that’s what the setting calls for. In that same vein, a city ruled by a cruel tyrant probably has very few (if any) places for people to have fun.

Have any thoughts about setting or examples of great settings from video games? Share them in the comments!

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