Describing Rather Than Defining
When I started at TSR in the ‘90s, 2nd Edition D&D was still in full swing. But I had started playing 15-20 years before that, with the little brown booklets. OD&D, as it’s called. Very soon after, I switched to 1st Edition AD&D and played that throughout the 80s. As a new TSR designer, though, I hadn’t actually played D&D for a few years—in fact I think I’d only played 2nd Edition once. (Shhhh…I didn’t tell anyone that at the time. It’s our little secret.) Of course, once employed there I leaped into the current game—the rules, the culture, the audience—as much as possible. I ran games, played in games, talked to fans, and so on.
The biggest difference that I encountered from my roots in OD&D to the then-current 2E wasn’t the rules or the books, but in fact, the way people approached the setting. In the 70s, the vast majority of us, knowingly or unknowingly, set our games in a quasi-medieval (and misunderstood) Europe with some of the names changed and magic and monsters added. Most people really never gave it much thought. Worldbuilding was more or less, “Middle Earth, Conan, Elric… okay, you’ve got the general idea.” Dungeon Master creativity came not so much in the world as in the adventures. To be more specific, the dungeons. Clever traps, fun encounters, weird magical effects, and so on were the focus.
By the 1990s, though, this changed. Sort of, anyway. DMs spent a lot more time thinking about that larger world outside the dungeon. And this was considered a change for the better by many—a “maturing” of the hobby. Even though most people still ended up playing in quasi-Medieval worlds that were basically (misunderstood) Europe with some of the names changed and magic and monsters added in. The important thing was that my quasi-medieval Europe was different from yours. This kind of worldbuilding made DMs feel bigger and more accomplished, I think—more like Tolkien (and the countless fantasy fiction authors who were recycling Tolkien at the time).
In short, when RPGs started, and you got two DMs in a room, they’d have a conversation that would include sentences that started, “Well, in my dungeon…” By the 90s, those sentences started with “Well, in my world…”
And that’s fine, I suppose. While I love worldbuilding, I resent the implication that it’s somehow a more important or sophisticated task than creating adventures and encounters. And speaking of which, I also resent the idea that it’s somehow lazy to use an existing setting (either one designed for the game, or one you just like from a book you read or a movie you like). Not everyone is Tolkien, and no one should feel dejected or intimidated if worldbuilding at that level isn’t their jam.
However, I want to dive deeper into this transition and look at some of the unintentional changes it wrought.
Gaming in general, I think, was diminished by the insistence that sophisticated worldbuilding trumped encounter design. In the 70s, I could just throw together something geared to be fun and challenging for the players, like a room where gravity worked strangely, or a wall with a bunch of buttons that produced weird effects, and nothing stopped me. But eventually, as worldbuilding became more prominent, the community, the books, and the magazines pushed DMs to explain things so they make more sense. In other words, we needed a reason to have a weird gravity room.
And that by itself isn’t terrible. In fact, it could take a game to a whole new level, which is fantastic. Except that for a lot of DMs—and designers—it was just easier not to have those weird and fun dungeon rooms or kooky monsters. (And again, they did this with an air of superiority, deriding such “funhouse” encounters as childish, far less mature than their pseudo medieval political campaigns or whatever.)
This “maturing” of the game—this emphasis on worldbuilding over dungeon building or encounter building—didn’t encourage creativity, it hampered it.
The shift in the hobby was considerable. Books became more about the history of the wars in some land the PCs might never actually visit than about what the PCs were supposed to be doing in the adventure right now. This hurt actual play at the game table. More and more, people were buying RPG books to read rather than use. And again, I love reading RPG books, and I love intricate, well-developed fantasy worlds. But the point of the hobby is to sit around a table and have fun with your friends, creating characters and stories.
The emphasis on worldbuilding also created a shift in the nature of what an RPG does. Worldbuilding—as opposed to adventure or encounter design—encouraged definition rather than description.
Description tells the GM and players what things are like right now in the current moment of the game. On stage, as it were. Definitions tell them what a thing is like in the world as a whole. Henceforth. Forevermore. Definitions limit where descriptions do not. It’s the difference between saying, “The duramite sword protects the wielder from magic” and “the dwarven smiths of the world work exclusively with a material called duramite, which resists the power of magic.” The first statement describes a cool weapon. The second is worldbuilding, which is great, but now all dwarven weapons in the world have been defined as made from this metal, henceforth.
But worldbuilding isn't done exclusively by definition. Both are worldbuilding, actually. Description is just gradual worldbuilding. A lot of different descriptions, in the aggregate, become worldbuilding. The world emerges from observing all those different descriptions. You learn about the dwarves, for example, not from some overarching definition, but from all the various pieces of lore amid the descriptions.
Truthfully, definition is hasty worldbuilding. You’re making the decision on the subject all at once, usually at the beginning. You’re locking things in early on, and not providing a chance for things to grow later on, organically.
An even more straightforward example is this: “the worm-thing with three horns is a demon” versus “the worm thing with three horns is one of the six types of demons.” The first is description, the second, definition. Definition puts limits on creation (there are only six types of demons now).
And as a side note, if you’re doing your setting writing in a shared world, and thus with other writers—some of whom may work on material in that setting years down the road—description rather than definition is always a better choice. Those future writers will be cursing your name while they work if you’ve hemmed them in with lots of definitions.
Why? Because description provides flexible detail. Someone can come along and create ten new kinds of demons based on some great idea they had. You’ve left room for them, in other words. Definition is inflexible detail, and discourages further development or embellishment without having to change “canon.”
In the earliest days of roleplaying, if you encountered a horrible beast that was like a big eye with a mouth and ten smaller eyes on eyestalks you probably would have said, “Holy crap, what is that?” (And hopefully ran.) You had no idea if the creature was one of a kind, or one of many. You had a description of it, but the context for how it manifested in your imagination and your understanding was blurry at best. Strict worldbuilding changed that, so now beholders had a place in the ecology. They had a society and a culture. (They eventually had their own 2nd Edition book.) And if such context made them more fun in adventures, or suggested new and fun encounters with them, great. But if it puts more limitations on their use in games, or reduces them to such a known quantity that they become dull, well… that’s not great.
Game design genius Jonathan Tweet once stated that one of the strengths of D&D is that it defines the fantasy world. It doesn’t just say that there are griffons, but it tells us how much they can carry when they fly and how tough they are in a fight. He’s not wrong, but let’s recognize that not every roleplaying game needs to service that same need. Not everything benefits from the strict fetters of definition.
At the launch of 3rd Edition D&D, I was the champion of something we called “the return to the dungeon.” In retrospect, what I was really after was the less-catchy “return to giving DMs the freedom to make encounters based on fun more than anything else.” Because that was a loss I was still feeling after working on the game for almost a decade.
Like most things, moderation and a happy middle ground is probably the order of the day. Somewhere between the “anything goes” nature of the early, unstructured days of roleplaying and the high-minded worldbuilding of later decades lies a promised land of game and setting design. Just remember amid all the intricate worldbuilding and vast setting definition to leave some space for adventures and encounters that are just developed with the goal of being fun—and maybe even occasionally surprising and wacky.