Looking for a new MMO after City of Heroes closed, I’ve ended up playing Guild Wars 2. It’s mechanics are fairly good, having learnt a lot of important lessons of what actually makes MMOs fun for lots of people. But it is also appealing because its world building is very good, and there is much to be learned from that if you’re doing your own world building. Here’s five quick lessons from things GW2 does very well:
#1: Familiar Faces, New Twists
Races and factions need strong hooks, and the truth is the bucket of hooks is very small. It has to be because hooks are big and bold. They need to be because hooks are exactly what they sound like: they exist for people to grab a hold of quickly and easily. So it makes sense to use archetypes and familiar checkpoints, like having a big strong animalistic race that likes fighting. It makes to have a naturey-race that is all pretty and graceful. People have clear things they like in games and they can quickly latch onto things like this and go “this has what I like and feel comfortable with.” This is why it’s usually okay for fantasy games to have elves and dwarfs, or not-elves and pseudo-dwarfs.
But it’s also important to have new things to explore underneath those hooks. For example, in Earthdawn, all the elves went mad as they tortured their own flesh to stave off the madness of the horrors. That gives them a new kick. In Guild Wars, the wood elf types are a) actual plants and b) the youngest of all races, so they lose all of that ancient-and-wise thing elves normally have. But they’re still pretty and nature-attuned, with a strong hook. The ego and magically-better-than-everyone hook is instead given to the adorable little chibi hamster people, the Asura. The Charr, the big tough cat guys are kilrathi-klingons, but unlike most warrior races they don’t shun technology but embrace it. They are in fact the greatest technologists on the planet because that’s what a military industrial complex DOES BEST. The Norns are basically vikings but their gods are more like those of native American tribes, so they’re a bit more than just not-vikings. The humans are the most vanilla, but their twist is their gods have abandoned them and they are almost extinct. No great glorious human empire.
Twists can be poorly done, or not done enough, or destroyed by protesting too much (Talislanta, I’m looking at you, goddammit), but they are vital to put in to keep things interesting.
#2: Culture Matters
The best way to make races feel more than just archetypes or cookie-cutters is to explore culture. That’s where a lot of the twists above come from: for example, by exploring the ideas of a culture built around war, it is easy to see that they might embrace technology. Likewise, the Asura’s tendency for arrogance and technomagical genius has had a profound effect on their societal design and typical worldview. Everything has become a competition, and their government is full of mad cultists pursuing science at any cost, and nobody really cares. The norns have a deep spirituality which, because this is fantasy, is literally true, and colours everything they experience. The Charr were ruled by the magic-using clan among them, but since overthrowing that clan have a distrust of magic and a need to reestablish themselves post-revolution. And all these things effect the stories you get involved in, the characters you make and the choices you face.
Culture isn’t just more realistic, it makes worlds feel more lived in. You know what the man on the street thinks and feels, not just what he wears or what flag he follows. It can give even the most tired cliches depth, and be a great way to reveal the twists you need to keep things fresh. It is also the best and easiest way to inspire and push stories. Culture is what makes humans human, and so we instantly respond to it. It’s why we travel the earth and study other countries and indeed, play other roles. You can never skimp on it, and the more of it you do, the better.
#3: Everyone’s An Egotistical Jerk
As with hooks, it is important that players don’t have to be total bastards. People who want to be the good guy when they play need somewhere to go. But on a cultural and political level, no nation, no organisation, no group and no mindset should be saintly, and all of them should have reasons to disagree with all the others. This is partly because it’s much more realistic (and it makes your cultures more realistic as a result) but also because again, it drives story. Stories are about conflict, and cultures are at their most interesting when they conflict – and in the real world, they always do. This works on a micro-level, when the elf in the party hates the dwarf, but also on a massive macro-level, where alliances are regularly forged and then dispelled as goals run together, then drift apart. Even what appear to be classic tales of white and black have these elements: Bespin tries to be a neutral party in the war against the Empire; the drama of Empire Strikes Back comes from Lando making an alliance with one side to further his own goals. Gondor and Rohan are enemies before Sauron turns up and forces them to unite.
In Guild Wars 2, the Charr’s warlike culture forces them to constantly attack the other races. It’s all they know. The norn likewise have a culture built around pride: only those who build great legends go to heaven, so they are driven to prove their superiority. The Humans are fighting for survival, but also have been told by one of their gods that they have a Manifest Destiny to spread across the whole planet. The Asura’s absolute mastery of magic proves they should be running the world and they may have the resources to do it. And the plant-born Sylvari are so young they judge everyone on first impressions, which is usually that they are jerks trying to kill them.
#4: We All Have To Work Together
Sometimes, you can make your factions too disparate and too distrusting. Even if “adventuring types” are the exception, your game can suffer if there are no good reasons for people from these vastly different backgrounds to be thrown together. Vampire: The Requiem made this mistake and the campaign they released with it required a massive amount of justification to explain having one of each clan in the party. You want your cultures to conflict, so you have to squish them together. If everyone is hiding away in Elfhome or the sewers, then conflict won’t happen.
Guild Wars 2 does this nice and simply with geography. When the great dragons returned (see point five) they rearranged the world a lot. The norn were pushed south from their mountain home until they ended up between the Charr and the Humans. The Humans are right next to the Charr, but everything behind them is worse. The Charr need to expand to ensure they don’t become so weak that the magic users of their number come back and crush them, but don’t have enough resources right now to crush the Norns or the Humans, so might actually need allies. And when the Sylvari appeared, they grew like seeds from a newly sprouted World Tree, which bloomed very close to the Asuran Empire. The Sylvari, new to the world, need guidance from the other races, but they also know the most about the Elder Dragons, so everyone really needs their knowledge too if they are going to survive. The Charr need magic support if they are going to hold off their old oppressors, but can’t risk encouraging it in their own ranks. The norns will need to learn more about surviving in the plains now they are out of the mountains. Everyone is holding pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle and they can’t finish it alone. Wired into the setting are thus ways to drive everyone into co-operation so the conflicts above will occur.
#5: There Are Millions of Things That Need Doing, Right Now
Obviously, the biggest thing driving the races towards cooperation, both indirectly (because of land movement) and directly (because otherwise they’ll die) is the return of the Elder Dragons. These enormous jerks lived below the oceans for milennia, and now are back to end the world, like a whole pack of Midgards. That is a problem that really needs to be fixed, teamwork or no teamwork. So there’s a strong driving goal there. But that’s not the only one.
On a smaller scale, every culture has its own crisis, or crises to deal with, many of which we’ve already covered. Away from their ancestral lands, the Norn spirits are restless and angry. The Charr are recovering from a devastating civil war that the losers would love to restart in a second; the Asura are heading towards a civil war as their culture becomes sicker and sicker. And the Humans are trying to survive, which has also, on a micro-level, forced all humans of different cultures together to unite. There is so much stuff to do it almost makes you despair – but you can’t, because you don’t have time. Which is the other point: these problems are at a crisis point right now, and could easily tip over. If the Charr can’t hold their city from enemies, they’ll fall back into civil war, and if that happens their race could be wiped out by undead, or ghosts or dragons, and without the Charr, the other nations are screwed, because they don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle (see above). So everything matters, and it matters right now. There’s a quote in Warhammer I always remember: “The Empire is always one-dagger thrust away from anarchy”. I keep that in mind whenever writing settings, because it means that every dagger thrust is always the most important thing in the world.
And it absolutely should be, because that way everything the players do feels important, feels charged with meaning and accomplishment and resonance. It also means storytellers never run out of ideas, and there are always things that must be done. You players will never need to look for motivation because it oozes out of every micron of the setting. So there can never be player paralysis either. Don’t get me wrong, if you want you can pursue your own goals, parallel or tangentially: start a business, join a band, run a city, whatever. But if you want or need adventure, plot or conflict, it is low-hanging fruit, fresh on the vine.
You can see what needs doing, you get a sense of how to do it (those missing jigsaw pieces) but also a sense of what prevents that (everyone’s a jerk), which you know about because culture matters, and which is interesting because of the new twists. So you have a goal to reach, a path to walk, obstacles to encounter, character motivation and flavour to describe. Your setting, in short, has written your stories for you. Exactly as it should.