You will hear and read all the time about getting your game to live and breathe. This is obviously a metaphor, but what for? If you are new to role-playing and game mastering you may actually wonder what this means and how to do it? Well, let us clear this up. A living and breathing world refers to having the player’s in the world feel like it reacts the same as a true reality would. There is a LOT of material that tries to cover this in print and on the web. I will add my own little bit to it and try to point you to resources I find valuable.
Focus on more than just the player characters
To make a world truly breathe you must consider the denizens of it. By denizens, I mean any active element of the world itself. It may be the Warlock planning the doom of the king or it might be the volcano he lives in. This does not need to be an arduous task. It can happen in a short time after you are done with developing the main part of the adventure. All you need to do is consider what, if anything, will happen with their plans and how could this be noticed, or affect, the players. So, let us take for example our Warlock and his fiery topped mountain for an example…
Once I have finished developing the dungeon of deathtraps that the players are going to run through. I have a beautiful map and all of the statistics of the traps, creatures and rivals that the players may encounter. Sitting down I go through the main players in my world. First off I make the decision that the volcano of the Warlock has a minor eruption. This will occur at the start of the contest into the dungeon. The results on the adventure are there are earth tremors, flames in the sky and smoke. Not to mention I will make the entrance to the dungeon collapse as the players begin to enter causing a hazard. Due to this, I add a couple of notes to my planning for this event. Then I think about the Warlock. I decide this eruption is because he is preparing the mountain for a ritual that involves sacrificing the Star Diamond (the prize in the dungeon so hotly contested). Then, realising that for him to be preparing for this he must have a party of adventurers either willing or unwittingly doing his dirty work in the competition. I choose a group of rivals and decide they are unwitting pawns. Recognising this connection I place a letter on the fighter that is an invitation (a fake one) from a patron. A gala ball to celebrate their acquisition of the diamond! The letter is actually from the Warlock and he seeks to kill the party and take the prize he seeks.
How does this breathe?
Only one of the events I plan for above will definitely occur. The eruption will be an event that causes direct involvement from the players. The players may encounter the other group depending on their actions in the dungeon. So where is the value of this? The value is two-fold. Firstly, your world is advancing and changing regardless of player’s actions. This is the hallmark of a world that breathes by itself. Sure, the players should and will change the face of your world with their actions but the world needs to progress without them too or it does not breathe. Secondly, this advancement provides hooks that your players may wish to follow up independently. Maybe they decide to approach the patron for the hard-earned gala where they stole the gem. Maybe they seek to find out why the fiery topped mountain exploded – after all, the priests are saying that it was a sign from the God of the Forge.
But I do not know all of the major players in my world yet.
The style above works really well if you have a good idea of who, or what is in your world. Maybe you have not done a lot of development. Perhaps you are really not sure where this campaign is headed. Again, this is easily handled and you can put some of the work onto the players to provide unexpected developments to occur. This style is great in the Dungeon World style of play where you add something relatively unknown to you as a GM and allow the players to fill in the blanks.
I would develop the night’s game and then sit back and think how can I make the world breathe. I decide to add an earthquake that does the same to the front of the dungeon as the volcano did in the above setting. It makes for a dramatic start and shows the players that the world is alive. Punch this home with a few buildings collapsing and the like makes the players realise that you may destroy things that normally are permanent fixtures. Secondly, I add a scroll case on one of the rival groups that contain a letter from a patron. If they find it, I ask the players to tell me who the letter is from and what it says. By doing this the players create a hook for themselves that may be irresistible for them to follow after that adventure. “It is from the dragon Azuma and he has offered the group a magical item in return for the diamond!”. Sounds like an awesome basis for next game. As this style tends to be a bit quicker I add a secret room to one of the chambers. I do not populate it but if it is found I will simply ask the players what they see when they open it and roll with the description.
Who should I focus on?
The examples I have given focus on the big bad of the setting. In reality, you should consider all sides of the coin. You may not need to think of every NPC in your game but the ones that receive regular time with the players or are acting out plots in the background should have some consideration. The friendly blacksmith at the forge with the lovely husband may be having an affair with the cooper! But this need not be a demanding task. It is fine to say in most cases – nothing happens this week. To breathe does not mean that everything has to have a hook every week. Think of your own life – how often do major events, or even noticeable events to your routine occur? Think of the big things that are happening in your game and then think of what may make things interesting for the rest of your cast.
In between your major adventures is the downtime for the player characters. Some of the players will have clear goals in this and others may appear disinterested, or just want to spend more time on the big ticket adventures. Downtime is gold for making your world breathe. It is here that they get to meet the characters that populate the world. They see here the effect they are having with their adventures but also, when a world breathes, can pick up on the changes that are occurring that they have no influence over.
There must be a level of serendipity to player characters lives. This can be achieved just as well in downtime as not. Do not focus on just the characters that are doing crafting. Make sure there are events that happen to all the players. If one player only likes the big ticket adventures and says they state their character is “Just going to stay drinking at the Inn” have something happen to them there. A great example is they get mistaken for a thief and the city watch descends. This shows them your world is dynamic and not to be taken for granted. Likewise, if a character wants to do stuff in downtime, do not just make it a series of crafting rolls. Perhaps the lookalike thief breaks into their tower and steals that vial of Phoenix blood they need to make the magi staff.
A brilliant example of how you can do this is actually (and I know it seems to be this blog’s flavour of the month) in the Conan Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of. They have a specific phase of the game for downtime called Carousing. It involves both covering what a player wants to do, their upkeep and random events. This helps to keep your players feeling they are in a dynamic environment.
Keep the changes!
Don’t allow your world simply to reset after each adventure. If a change happens (e.g. you knock the Inn down with a meteor) it should not be available next week. Or if it is, it should be a ramshackle tented Inn on the site of the burned-out ruins. How cool is that?! Reverting to the status quo that was in place when they started adventuring is completely against the point of a living, breathing world. That is unless you are running a campaign in the style of Groundhog Day. That is another super cool idea!
There are two resources that have truly shaped the way that I run games and make my worlds breathe. The first of these is a role-playing game that shows you how to top-down build a setting and consider the machinations of major players. You see, machinations should happen, even if the players do not involve themselves and stop them. That means there are repercussions for ignoring events which is what happens in a world that breathes. That role-playing game is Stars Without Number (reviewed here) or Silent Legions (reviewed here) or pretty much anything by Sine Nomine Publishing! These games have a diverse world building system which considers the advancement of plots and threats. There is probably still a bit of work to do in the minor cast but these games are the real deal in creating vibrant and living worlds.
The second that I would mention is Apocalypse World Second Edition (which I reviewed here). If you can handle a very adult game approach (language and sexual content) then get this game and take a look at the way it creates threats and uses a threat map to track them between games. Any game style can apply this so look at it from an idea basis, not the specifics for Apocalypse World. Though, it is a great game; play it if you can. This system is simple and easy to do. It is the basis for a lot of what I say to do on this blog in fact. Dungeon World has a version of threats called Fronts that I found really confusing. If you want the best way that the World style of games offers, look at this one.
I have said a lot in a short space. The truth of the matter is that allowing a world to breathe in your players’ mind is an art. It will take effort and time to get it right but you can. These concepts are simple enough but can get overlooked due to time constraints. The effort is worth it. Achieve this and you will hear your players talk about the little hooks that are there because you changed things. If the players get the diamond and the letter in the dungeon of deathtraps there will be a discussion about that at the start of the next game! Keep working on it and you will find your world changes in ways you never envisioned. This is great for a GM because it means you are learning about your world right alongside your players! Remember to breathe and keep rolling!