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!

Advice, GM Toolbox, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Bonus Edition! When PCs do the unexpected.

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. This time we talk about how to roll with the punches when your players do something that throws your carefully laid plans out the window…

This week, I talked about building do-it-yourself adventures. This prompted a great question from a reader on Twitter:

It was, basically, “How do you improv when players do things you don’t expect?”

Let’s revisit the Necromancer example from the last post. The PCs arrive at the High Muckety-muck’s glorypalace to recieve his quest.

GM (as the High Muckety-muck): “I have summoned you here today to-“

Bubba (playing the 3rd level Angrybeard Battleslayer Hastybooze Thunderguts): “I stab him in the neck.”

GM: “Are you sure you want-”

Bubba: “I stab him IN THE NECK.”

GM: “You…DO realize that will-”


GM: “OK….”

Something like this happens to every GM at some point. Since a GM’s primary responsibility is to keep the action moving, improvising when the game takes an unexpected turn is a skill you’ll need to use often. But reacting on the fly in any context can be challenging. The feeling of being put on the spot can cause us to freeze up and make it hard to get the game moving again. Here’s a couple of things to think about when players throw you a curveball:

1. This is an opprotunity

As mentioned in the prior Behind the Screen post, your players will collectively be smarter than you and they’ll do things in ways you can’t account for from time to time. When players throw you a curveball it can be an opportunity to give your players a sense of agency in the plot and that’s vital for the longterm health of your game. If players feel trapped into proceeding down a predetermined path, they’ll lose interest and it will be less fun for everyone involved. So, even if it’s a good thing, how do you deal with it?

2. Start with the consequences

Back to the earlier example. So Hastybooze kills Prince High Muckety-muck. The party has just attacked, maybe killed, someone important. They’re outlaws now at a minimum. They’ll probably have to fight their was out of Muckety-muck Castle. If they can do so, what will they do then? Now maybe the PCs choose to ally with the Necromancer instead? Or maybe they strike out on their own? The fallout of the party’s actions will create conflicts and plots that will get help you get un-stuck

3. Take a break if you need it

Don’t hesitate to take a break and take time to adjust your plans. If it seems like you’ll need more than a little break, suggest ending the session there and break out a board game. There’s no harm in taking the time you need to think it through, and no longer feeling “put on the spot” could help get your creative gears turning again.

4. Talk about it with your players

Your players (most of the time) want the game to run as smoothly as you do. Encourage them to weigh in if the events they set in motion could cause the game to go in a drastically different direction. After all, tabIetop RPGs are a shared storytelling experience and your players have a stake in keeping the game fun. Your players may be able to help suggest a direction the game could go in. They might also want to change their mind and have a do-over. In all cases, error on the side of what would be the most fun. If that means Hastybooze the Angrybeard shows mercy and allows the High Muckety-muck to finish his script, a little retconning won’t hurt anyone. Except that Necromancer. She’s out for blood.