Learn From My Mistakes Series Issue 07: The Pitfalls of Poor Worldbuilding

Hello and welcome back to Learn From My Mistakes; the series where I explain how to not be like me. This past week I just finished up my latest campaign called Cosnia. While we had a lot of fun with this campaign, I didn’t exactly do my best. Over the course of this adventure, I made several mistakes that ended up hurting the world and gave my players a sub-par experience. I’d like to talk about those mistakes today in an effort to see what I could have done better, and to show you what pitfalls you can avoid in your games.

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Lesson 1: Not Worldbuilding Enough

For this new campaign, I came up with the idea of using the RPG Microscope to build a brand world with my players. The idea is that I would have less work to do when it came to building the world, and my players would also have a sense of ownership of it. The idea worked well enough in the beginning. My players helped me to create a sprawling history and a fascinating world that defied all typical Dnd expectations. It was a ton of fun to build and showed off a lot of creativity from the group. We had a lot of great ideas thrown around and we had the beginning of a fantastic creation.

There was one small issue that I did not address, however. After we built the world with Microscope I incorrectly assumed that the world was complete and was ready to bring to the table. I showed up next week doing minimal work outside of the session and immediately encountered several issues. Microscope enabled me to have a unique idea for a world, with plenty of threads to pull upon, but it was not a complete world ready to play in. Locations and characters were only vaguely talked about, and nothing was fleshed out to completion by me. If I had spent some time outside of the Microscope session to add to what we had already created, I would have made one of my best worlds yet, thanks to the help of my players. Instead, what happened is we had a lot of great ideas, but the execution of those ideas was really poor and hurt the integrity of the campaign. I tried to use Microscope as a crutch to enable laziness and came to the table with a shell of a world.

Spending some time out of the session to add some more content to the world around them would have done wonders for my first session. Instead of throwing lame plot hooks at them, I could have just shown them a world and asked them what they wanted to do in it. Looking back at my first session, I would have greatly benefited from starting with A Map With 3 Hooks. Using the ideas gathered in the first session, I could have laid out a world with a lot of things to do, while still keeping my load light as a DM. Instead, I had 1 location planned, and when my players had to retreat I had to scramble to come up with more world on the fly, instead of simply having the surrounding area already planned out.

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Lesson 2: Prepare World Not Plot

Due to a lack of worldbuilding, in the beginning, I ran into another issue later on. I was planning my sessions as if they already had a defined plot to them, instead of preparing the world around them. Prepare World Not Plot is a style of DMing that I discovered early on in my career, but seem to have forgotten for this campaign. My prep time for sessions involved me asking what the players would most likely end up doing, and then building a series of events that would occur from that. Instead of fleshing out the world further and adding new locations and characters to the map, I only added locations that I would be certain the players would visit. If my players decided to go off track (which they did plenty of) I was skilled enough to come up with something on the fly, but the world felt flat and empty. If I had prepared the world around them instead of planning for the plot, not only would the world have felt more alive, but the plot would have naturally progressed from the world around them.

An example that really highlights this problem is when my players commandeered an airship. I introduced the airship full of bad guys as a way to egg them on towards finishing their quest. Instead of running away from it, they decided to take control of it. I wasn’t expecting this, but I wholeheartedly encouraged them to take over the ship which they managed to do successfully. It was a lot of fun, but as soon as the ship was captured, 100’s of miles of the world could be ignored and was. I didn’t describe the scenery because I hadn’t planned that far ahead, nor did I introduce any new obstacles. They simply went and ticked off each point of the quest in an effort to save a world that was flat and empty.

The difference between preparing for plot and preparing the world changes how you improvise. When you plan for a plot, improvisation becomes a crutch used to pull your party back on track. When you plan out a world, improvisation becomes a storytelling tool that shows off the world around you and propels the campaign forward. Planning plot was one of my biggest mistakes of this campaign and happened because I didn’t flesh out the world sufficiently in the beginning.

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Lesson 3: Lack of Engagement

Another issue that I personally had with this world was a lack of engagement from me. While I still thought that this world was really fascinating and fun, for me personally I did not feel as drawn to this world as I usually do. Typically, when I DM, one of my favorite aspects is just diving into a world and getting lost in it. I didn’t experience that with this world and without that spark of interest to push me forward, I didn’t ever devote time to worldbuilding outside of the game.

This is an issue that should have been addressed in the original Microscope session and could have been avoided. I didn’t add enough things that would have kept me engaged and mostly relied on my player’s interests. After we had built the world together, I didn’t have any desire to continue building. It lacked a lot of things I typically enjoy (Epic High-Fantasy) in favor of a genre that I’m less interested in, but was something my players wanted to explore. (Post-Apocalyptic SciFi). I didn’t realize it at the time, but choosing this genre made me less interested in the world right from the beginning.

A potential fix for it could have been changing the tone of the campaign to better suit what I enjoy. I could have talked to my group and explained to them that I was lacking engagement with the world, and a change in tone might reinvigorate my love for it. Instead, I didn’t say anything about this lack of engagement and the world ended up suffering for it. Changing what you are used to can be a lot of fun, but you have to keep an eye out for when you start to get bored of this change of pace and correct it before things start to suffer for it.

 

Conclusion

Do I think this campaign failed miserably? Hardly. This campaign was still a lot of fun, and each week we got together to laugh and have a good time. But, I didn’t do as nearly as good of a job as I had hoped I could have done. Almost all of my issues in this article can stem back to the poor worldbuilding I gave Cosnia in the beginning. Had I created a more fleshed out world from the start most of these mistakes would have never come up. Instead, I tried to rely on my improv skills to create scenes out of nothing, but when I had nothing to work with everything was much more difficult. This was a very good lesson for me to learn, even if it meant that this campaign with a ton of potential had to suffer for it. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!

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