BBR Project: Better World 1

The world!

The world!

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the Build a Better RPG project, but it has not been forgotten. Last time we talked about combat — beyond that, however, the second most major element in most RPGs is the world.  It’s tied in to the story, usually (though often only trivially) and acts as a backdrop to allow various types of characters and enemies to appear.

In a great majority of RPGs, the world exists on exactly two scales; a virtually barren world map, and then (somewhat) detailed cities. This is the result of the usual mimicry of the earliest genre entries, and it’s one a lot of people think are still vital today. The reason for the split is pretty clear — in the World map, there are three elements; locations you can enter, obstacles, and encounters. The world is a fairly empty place, however, usually consisting of a dozen cities around the globe with a few more dungeons or other dangerous locales.

Generally in RPGs, the world is supposed to be a dangerous place that is mostly unexplored. So on the world map you get regularly ambushed by monsters and the like — because that’s what happens. Most people don’t think about the why — random encounters are a hold over Dungeons & Dragons, where you would roll on a table to see what baddies would appear to attack the party. These days, less D&D players are actually using random encounters because it often jumbles the story up. It’s sort of odd behavior, and it’s stranger still that we’re generally presented with only the options of kill or flee. (But then we’re back to combat, so let’s away from that.)

The purpose of the world is generally to give the player a sensation that they’re traveling a long distance without actually making them travel a long distance. It’s an obnoxiously designed city-select screen.

Cities aren’t much better. They’re usually safe, or predictably safe at the least. More recent games have gotten in to the habit of making them in to actual locations to explore, but ultimately cities generally consist of three things: Shops, additional story details, and plot/quest hooks.  You can talk to people and buy new equipment, but it’s generally all very straight forward. Sometimes you have to talk to specific people and there’s a small puzzle or some back-and-forth walking, but that’s about it.

Some excellent exceptions to the rule include Earthbound, Chrono Trigger and Fallout 3 (as well as Morrowind and Oblivion for the same reasons, though Fallout 3 is the superior example). Earthbound had no world map; it was a series of interlinked towns and roads. While this made the player’s path distinctly linear, it wasn’t a bother, as each area between cities was actually a place to explore.

Chrono Trigger is actually one of the worst offenders when it comes to the world map; illustrating a world the size of a small island, populated by probably a few hundred people at a time. It didn’t however have any random encounters on that map; all of it’s encounters took place in city-and-dungeon-like locations which were all richly detailed explorable places.

Fallout 3 made the distinct between cities and the world map for essentially practical reasons only. The outside world was as interactive as anywhere else in the game, and travelling between places meant legitimately crossing distances — in fact, Fallout 3 even made walking around in the desert a lot of fun while you explored, looking for ruins and other tidbits.

Now, Fallout 3 is an example of a 3rd important facet that most RPGs fail to consider; world scale. Both Earthbound and Chrono Trigger are games that take place on a global scale, and both have a hard time representing that scale. Fallout 3 however takes place inside of the DC Washington area; it’s small, compared to Earth. Virtually minuscule. It’s plot is a little bit bigger than that, but not by much — it’d be a stretch to say that it’s plot exceeds the United States, or maybe North America.

What you learn over time, if you spend time building worlds is that a fun world to play in is a detailed world. Most of us start by assembling a carnival; a series of attractions spread out, each of which with it’s own style and sensation — players run from attraction to attraction as they’re made available until they run out of things to do; then they’re done. Each location in the world has a purpose or two for the plot, and receives an appropriate amount of detail for that amount of plot.

Over time, the carnival style wanes and gives was to an exhibit style; a single, or small series of locations that are richly detailed and interactive. The world shrinks, and instead of dozens of cities, you end up with only a few cities, or sometimes just one city. GTA4 is an example of a game that decided it wanted to be one believable city, and succeeded. Fallout 3 is very similar in that regard. The end result is less locations that are more vividly defined; players spend more time in the same place, happy to do so when that place is interesting.

The design of a world in a game has a lot to do with all of the other elements. So, for the BBR game, we want to think about smaller scale, I think. If we spend more time on the details, we’ll have a richer mythos, and a richer environment, which is a step directly towards having a richer game.

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