Thoughts on Other Worlds RPG and Collaborative World Building

Picked up Other Worlds the other day. Basically, it’s a rules lite universal RPG with a collaborative world-building mechanic driving it.

It gets a LOT of things right. First and foremost it puts world creation as a collaborative process, though a bit abashedly;

Try to make sure that everyone takes part and gets to have their say; your games will be much more enjoyable if everyone at the table is equally invest in the stories you are creating.

Which is not surprising given how little precedence there is for collaborative world-building in RPG design. As I discussed in my look at Microscope, it needs to be enforced to some degree.

It uses a four step worldbuilding ‘sequence’.

Worldbuilding
Step one:
What’s the Setting?
•• Decide on a broad concept and genre.
•• Set the tone of the game.
•• Fill in the details of the setting, including:
•• History
•• Geography
•• Technology
•• Magic
•• Factions
•• Conflicts
Step two:
Who Are the Characters?
•• Discuss broad character concepts.
•• Decide on an overall power level.
•• Decide on number of trademarks.
Step Three:
What Kind of Ga me Will It Be?
•• Decide on the overall length of the game.
•• Brainstorm potential supporting characters.
•• Brainstorm potential future adventures.
Step Four:
Flesh Out the Characters
and Situation
•• Create the player characters.
•• Create the supporting cast.
•• Create the opening scene.

Again it is abashed in the initial step of deciding on a broad concept. No mechanics or detailed guidelines for determining the broad concept are provided. A hard rule for players to be able to object to a particular game concept, a horror game for instance, is mentioned. The text implies a brainstorming session with a suggestion to take a vote or come to sort of compromise after you narrow it down. On the positive side, it does encourage players to consider ‘off-the-wall’ options for play.

A brief mention is made of deciding the tone of the game, again with no hard rules for deciding on one, other than an implied consensus. It should be noted that Other Worlds still posits a Player/GM divide in its rules, the collaborative world creation is meant to get players more invested in the game.

Next is a brain-storming session where the players decide on setting details, (History, geography, technology, magic, factions, conflicts). The game is again abashed in its execution, putting the GM as acting as the chair of this brainstorming session, and more importantly the ultimate arbiter of what gets used. There is no hard mechanic for sharing authorial power over the emerging gameworld. From the rules…

…Think of it in the same vein as those ‘iron chef’ competitions on TV: each player’s job is to shout out a load of interesting ingredients, and the GM’s job is to try turn those ingredients into a dish that everyone can enjoy.

The History and Geography
The History and Geography blurbs recommend player’s focus on ‘Just-enough’ design to get the game going. Again, there is no hard process provided, just an implication of a conversational result facilitated by a set GM.

Technology and Magic
Technology and Magic are discussed primarily as bullet points, though the mention of ‘Trademarks’ character ability allows exceptions to the proposed technology. No tech levels or anything are provided. Magic has a set of questions regarding it’s integration into the game world, how it works, who uses it, how are they treated. Magic in this case represents any sort of meta-ability, powers essentially.

Factions and Conflicts:
The rules are rather unabashed on the importance of Factions, considering their goals an, influence and attitude towards potential PC’s. Conflicts are considered as story hooks for player character’s.

Regardless, factions are important part of the worldbuilding process because they help ground the story in the realities of your world, providing a direct and recognizable source of potential support, opposition and compromise for the player characters and their goals.

Who are the characters?
The second step in world building is describing the types of characters that would be present in the world. There is a blurb on choosing character concepts that the players are interested in, including ones they want to veto. It is implied that players will focus on character’s they want to play, and how the player characters will be related in the campaign.

Players also have to decide on a power level. In OW, the power level sets the default rating of all character templates and abilities. (a very simple percentage system is used.) The scale runs from children/apprentices (10) to Legends and Demi-Gods (50).

Trademark Scope is discussed next, trademarks represent powers/advantages and special abilities characters can possess, that are generally beyond normal abilities. Campaigns have a trademark scope, determining the number from 0 for Realistic settings to 2 for Fantastical settings.

The last sections on World-building discuss how the game will be structured in terms of length, and the generation of supporting character and adventure hooks for future sessions.

The last step in World-building is fleshing out the characters and situation, the author notes that the actual character generation and the mechanical details can wait for another session, or be facilitated through email or other means. In addition to the player characters, players are urged to create supporting characters, who are made with a limited set of abilities compared to player characters. The players also plan the opening scene, and generate any additional supporting elements that require detailed stats. One interesting bit is that each PC character is given a supporting character. Players can spend Spotlight points (the games meta-currency) to introduce new supporting characters as well.

All in all, the world-building chapter presents an excellent checklist of setting elements to develop and consider, however, it lacks a clear process and means for resolving disputes, instead putting the GM as final arbitrator, and by extension, doing most of the additional work required to conduct the game. a number of world sketches are sprinkled throughout the text that help inform the process which you are expected to just grok. (Which most players will.)

One element Other Worlds uses to tie the characters to the setting and as an extension of world-building is the creation of Archetypes. Characters are given a cultural template, and a professional template. These templates provide a character with 8 general abilities (skills/advantages), 4 personality traits, and 4 relationships. This is one of the methods used by Aria, characters are given Heritage templates and Vocational Templates, which provide packages of ability, as well as detailed information no how they fit into the game-world.

I feel packages, particularly evocatively named ones, i.e. Brother Knight of Temelke, can provide a great hook for players to immerse themselves in the shared world and imagine its peoples. I will be bashing such ideas against a lifepath system as well for O:COTEC. Which provides a way to engage the players understanding of a persona’s place in the world. It is world exploration of its own sort, interacting with the templates and elements generated by the players during world-building. Major influences here are Aria, Traveller, WHFRP 2nd, and Burning Wheel. It provides an immerssive simulationist mini-game.

Trademarks are Other World’s way of handling powers and special equipment, KEWL POWERS, in essence. They provide a template of abilities as well.

Other Worlds uses a streamlined ‘narrativist’ conflict resolution system, similar to FATE. So abilities, relationships, trademarks, all have a simple rating that can be called upon to resolve conflict. The system features almost 0 crunch. Player chooses a base ability, describes supporting abilities, gm applies any negative traits, and context or circumstance modifiers. The player and GM frame the conflict, character/player goal and stakes, both sides roll d100 and add their total ratings, side with highest total wins the conflict, with the GM arbitrating the results. The game applies either a flaw to the loser or a temporary ability to the winner (i.e. another trait positive or negative), with the rating based on the margin of victory. The system also includes ‘spotlight’ points which lets the player improve their chances in a conflict, improve a roll, etc.

One of the most innovative/best ideas in Other Worlds is that certain traits provide a player with narrative authority, allowing them to add color details to the world based on their cultural and professional templates. This color can be upgraded to Traits or abilities as well.

The rulebook finished up with a chapter on game-mastering, with useful gm’ing advice. The game has a bit of schizophrenia going on, from the introduction.

Other Worlds is a roleplaying game of heroic action
and adventure. It provides a framework for telling
stories populated with interesting, exciting characters
set in any worlds, universes, or timelines you
can imagine. The game is driven by description:
descriptions of characters, details of actions, and
dramatic visualizations. Numbers and dice rolls are
secondary to the action; in fact, you will find that
in Other Worlds the rules serve to emphasize the
story and increase the drama rather than getting
in their way.

Then in the How to play other worlds section its states…

The purpose of playing Other Worlds is to tell a
story. You and your friends will make up an interesting
group of characters and use them to explore
a particular story, theme, or world of your own
invention. It is rather like writing a book, or acting
in a play, except that it’s more immediate, more visceral,
and – dare we say it – more fun, too!

Note that when we talk about ‘story’ here, we’re not
necessarily talking about something with a distinct
beginning, middle, and end. A lot of this game is
really about exploration – exploration of setting,
exploration of situation, and exploration of character.

It then points out that ‘creating the story isn’t the province of a single player either, the game is specifically designed to give everyone the power to drive events forward and introduce new elements to the plot.’

So I think a pitfall of the use of shared world-building with a narrativist rules-lite system and conflict driven mechanics still centered on a GM is that you have less minutiae to noodle about with. In O:CotEC, the various design frameworks and detailed entity creation provides more substance and ‘reality’ to ponder than ‘awesome gun: 20’. There are more places for pit stops and doodling than with a conflict/story driven system. So I guess it’s a question of how best to facilitate exploration and immersion in the game world. My feeling is it’s with crunchy bits and detailed system, generating lots of game ‘artifacts’

He has a short Inspiration and Reference section in the index. The author mention Heroquest: Roleplaying in Glorantha by Laws and Greg Stafford, Burning Empires by Luke Crane (Which is on my buy it list:) ), Sorcerer & Sword by Ron Edwards. The Article Flag Framing from Chris Chinn’s now defunct blog (it can still be found in the wayback machine.)

That said, Other Worlds is a very well done, well written game. It’s collaborative world building and setting creation elements are great and are worth the price of the book. It is also to be commended for its investing authorial power in all of the players.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Other Worlds RPG and Collaborative World Building”

  1. Pingback: Interesting article about the worldbuilding process « OtherWorldsRPG

  2. Hey, I’m Mark, I wrote Other Worlds. Thank you for writing such an interesting (and complimentary!) article about my game. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve linked to it on my wordpress and facebook pages so that more people are aware of what youre doing here. Group worldbuilding is still pretty new technology in the RPG world so the more discussion there is about it, the better!

    Thanks,

    Mark

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