Worldbuilding Strata

Worldbuilding Strata

Reflections on our Interview with Jon Bell

I’ll start by saying this: Jon gets me. He just does. He’s the type of guy that sends me a list of D&D adventure premises based exclusively on bear puns which is exactly the kind of thing I want almost all the time. More bear puns, please.

Anyway, I’m super excited we had this chance to talk with him about world building because I’ve had the opportunity to play some games he DM’d (Dungeon Mastered) and I love the worlds he makes. One thing that caught my ears as I was listening along in the background of this episode was what I’m going to term ‘world building strata’. Different layers of world building.

Jon makes use of this in Table Top Roleplaying (TTRPG, or just ‘tabletop’) because his players are making the world with him. You see, as with many things, there’s a spectrum here. Some media the creator tells you how it is, in others you partner with your audience a little more. Tabletop is on one extreme end of this spectrum where your players are your audience but they’re also collaborating. They are actively present in the world you made and they (partly depending on their personality) make their presence known. The result is that a game master (the person that puts the game together for the players) can invest tons of time into an intricate set piece only for their players to light it on fire literally (but fictionally). So how do you make a world for them to interact with? You stratify (make layers). In short some elements of your world are both real and not real, established and not. Schroedinger’s world.

The practical outplay of this is present in the podcast, name a place, you might know roughly where it is, you may have some key features outlined but other than that it’s collaboratively made. Your players enter it, as Seth’s river rafting rogue did, and then you start making together. The key elements of Jon’s plot are present here, he has an idea where he wants to go with it but he doesn’t necessarily have the middle bit mapped out he allows the players the agency to just explore. This is extremely effective for his purposes.

That would be a lightly built strata. There may be elements of your world that are far deeper far more developed because your narrative requires them to bear a little more weight. That’s fine too. There are going to be some non-negotiables as you develop the world that will require exposition. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with exposition but there is something wrong with too much exposition. What’s ‘too much’ will depend on genre, and more importantly audience. If that town’s history is critical, write it down but if it’s not just let the facade show and let your audience build the depth in their minds.

We talk about fairy cake a lot in this podcast. We like to keep the main thing the main thing, use your world to showcase your narrative and that’s what this really comes down to. As writers we’re not telling people exactly how to experience our content, we’re just laying out a roadmap, we set a scene with key details that are important but it’s the audience that builds the setting around it in their heads.

The question is, what elements require what depth of detail? Ultimately that’s for you to decide but I think Jon’s given you a great place to start.


Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.

James wrote this! James is a host on the Worldcraft Club Podcast. He loves tabletop rpgs, running and drinking too much coffee. He lives with his wife and young son somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.

We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.

2 comments on Worldbuilding Strata

  1. Well, this is a BEAR of a topic. On one hand, you could really limit your game by having too BLACK and white a world, on the other leaving it all up to players could lead to complete PANDAmonium. At least those are the POLAR extremes. I will say this blog is much less GRIZZLY than your last entry.

    …hey, you asked for it!

    1. WorldCraft Club says:

      I most definitely did! Bear puns are my love language. 😀

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