Can a world spontaneously erupt from the minds at the table and follow a ley line of verisimilitude at the same time?
Let’s start with a source, a baseline, so we’re all on the same page. So, if you haven’t already checked it out, go read Anti Canon Worlds and the UVG by Luka Rejec. Luka lays out his love for creating the world at the table, with his friends making sure to rub it in that he’s got friends and plays RPGs for fun. He also describes his difficulties dealing with canon heavy worlds—the Forgotten Realms, the Discworlds, and the… other ones.
Luka’s essay wasn’t my first exposure to the de-canonification of worlds. When I first read Apocalypse World, my mind melted a bit. The concept of creating everything, essentially on the fly, was such a foreign concept to younger me that I then proceeded to immediately run AW and completely screw it up by not following the sensible principles set forth from the Bakers. Turns out that excessive worldbuilding can be a hard habit to break! Who knew!
Over the years, my love for a world that doesn’t exist beyond the table has grown. When I play games now, I mostly just show up with some half-baked silhouette of an idea and make it up as I go. Having a character that molds like jello in the first few sessions of a campaign is a lot of fun, and watching everyone “settle in” to their characters generates a lot of hype and energy. One game that I particularly love—The Between—has a hard mechanical rule that says you specifically can’t talk about a character’s backstory, except in defined moments in the game. That’s good stuff.
And now, a sin. A confession. A problem that must be spoken of, so that you understand where I’m coming from. I’m not a huge fan of the gonzo settings that populate the landscape. When things get wild—truly wild—and every piece of the setting is strange and weird and wink wink, I lose interest. I like things that are grounded and then twisted, the familiar made strange, recognizable but alien. Arguably, you could say that I’m just not well versed enough to be able to grok the gonzo settings, and there’s no argument about that from me.
So, I’ve thought a lot about the anti-canon. One of the heavy hitters that always trips me up is how quickly things can gonzify when you leave everything up to the players at the table. For one, your first idea is rarely your best idea, but when we’re all pretending to be little weirdos in a weird world we’re not sitting around the table trying to think-tank perfection into existence. And the lack of that think-tanking means first-ideaing, which means we’re getting the lowest hanging fruit. What I’ve noticed happens here in play is that everyone is super-charged on creativity, and they’re throwing out ideas as fast as they can think them, and it’s brewing up a strange stew that… starts to taste weird.
On first ideas: of course, anyone who’s learned improv knows that your lowest hanging fruit isn’t someone else’s, and that your own worldview cultivates unique fruits that hang at various heights… but still.
So we’ve sat down and identified a problem: we want to take canon, and anti the hell out of it. But letting everyone at the table direct the canon, as they see fit during a game, creates breakpoints where things might get weird. They might lose verisimilitude. And here’s the thing: that’s how the real world works. It’s just this huge hodgepodge of a million different things, and you can look inwards at something (an organization, a person, an event) and it unfolds outward infinitely, a million things make up that one thing, all of them completely gonzo.
On verisimilitude: for a lot of people, the pure randomness is what makes settings interesting, fun, and spontaneous. But certainly at least one other person out there must groan inwardly when a friend makes something so out there, so unconnected, so strange, you wonder if they’ve even been paying attention to the game for the last 4 sessions.
But I’m not trying to simulate the real world. I’m just having some fun with friends.
So how do we add congruence back into the process? Can we? Should we?
My solution is incredibly simple and likely not novel or original.
Create World Anchors.
Okay, great advice Ty, thank you, all done here, heading out! Wait! Let me explain. Create world anchors; and do it in a way that we all know and love: random tables.
Forge from the heart of your world a table of things: let’s say 10 or so, that make up the foundation of the world. Then, whenever you need to create something new in the world, roll on the table, and connect it in some way to that anchor. Ah, you’ve understood the simplicity of it, I’m sure. Don’t brush it aside just yet, hold on. Let me sell you:
World anchors can be anything:
- A person.
- A place.
- A thing.
- A faction.
- An ideal.
- A resource.
- A type of magic.
- A historical event.
- A recent event.
- The omen of a forthcoming event.
- A mantra.
- A theme.
- A keyword.
Now, when you make your table, you want to chuck all these things into a blender and mix them up. Don’t just make 10 people and call them the anchors of the world (actually, that sounds cool, I’m a genius, I just invented 13th Age.) No, put in a person, establish an event, indite an ideal, throw in a theme, form a faction. When you do double up, make sure the two things are foils to one another—one cannot win unless the other loses.
Oh—this is important—definitely don’t do this alone. This is something you do together with all your friends. Session 0 style. This is where everyone gets to be weird, and bring the weird. The world anchors serve as the theme of the world, but also as promises of the things we want to see in the world, the toys we want to play with. First ideas don’t have to rule here! Make them special and fun and pour in love. Think-tank now, so you don’t have to later.
You’ve got your random table of anchors. Great. This is where things are going to get wild.
Every time you need to aim the anti-canon and fire at something, roll on the table. Create the thing you need, link it to the thing you rolled. You don’t have to make the link positive. You don’t have to make the link obvious. You don’t even have to make the link very strong. Just make sure it’s there.
For examples, we’ll need a table of anchors, so let’s create something:
|1||Rotten Divine Magic. Corrupting of flesh and soul. The color red. Power that does not wash easily away.|
|2||Broken Claws. Freedom fighters, against the imperials. The symbol of a grasping claw. Impossible to corner.|
|3||“A wise bastard acts the a bloody fool.” A common saying. Watch for those hiding in plain sight.|
|4||Great Lytellia, the Fallen City. Artifacts of uncontrollable power. Hubris. The color blue.|
|5||The Ambrosian River. A place and a resource. Golden liquid. Highly addictive. Healing properties.|
|6||Altruism. Unselfishly caring for others.|
|7||Riata the Unbeaten. The best warrior across the world. Undefeated. Mythic. The symbol of a toad.|
|8||Spectators of the Night. Imperial spies. Innocent, just one of the neighbors. Breaks revolutions.|
|9||“Only a fool can become a king.” A common saying. Power is riddled with incompetencies.|
|10||Fleeting Arcane Magic. Hard to grasp and hold. The color purple. Slips like oil from the memories of the uninitiated.|
Let’s have some examples, shall we?
Example 1: The Village (not the movie)
Let’s say the players come upon a village. You roll on the table: 7. Riata the Unbeaten.
If we want to lean hard, we could say that she’s here right now, signing autographs. Maybe this is her hometown? Maybe this is where she won her first fight? There’s shrines for her everywhere, everyone’s a fan, everyone wears the team colors.
If we want to have that light touch, maybe it’s not her hometown. Instead, maybe this is a place that frowns at violence. Pacifists. They think Riata is the embodiment of the worst of it: violence, glorified.
Lighter? This place has a toad infestation. It’s kind of a problem.
Example 2: Nurse Betty (not the movie)
Let’s say the players are in a hospital and need to get treated by a nurse. She comes out, you fire the anti-canon. Number 2! Broken Claws!
Leaning hard: She’s part of the Broken Claws, leading the revolution cell right from the hospital.
Lighter touch: She’s sympathetic to the cause, and stitches the Claws up every now and again, but she simply can’t take the risk of joining.
Lightest touch: A failed magical mutation has rendered one of her arms into a monstrous claw. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.
Example 3: Road to Perdition (not the movie)
Let’s say the players are about to travel across the long imperial highway from one city to another. You don’t know anything about the road, but it’s time to spice things up. Before asking about the road with the table, you roll: 9. Only a fool can become a king.
Leaning hard: An imperial agent has been assigned this section of road, and to root out the Broken Claw nest operating somewhere along the highway. He is, however, utterly incompetent, mismanaging supply lines and upsetting the troops on the daily. Angry soldiers will be eager and ruthless with travellers.
Light touch: This way is called the Fool’s Path, marked every mile by an iron pole housing the skull of one of the kings of old. Back when there were a lot of them, and they were dying often, creating the skulls to spare.
Lightest touch: They say that the people that live along this highway, in the waystations and the small towns, are hard and ruthless and clever and quick to outthink you. They cannot be governed, never have been. No unified leader speaks for them.
Example 4: The Little Rascals (not the movie)
Let’s say the players have recently entered the city, and immediately make trouble with the local gang there. You know what’s coming. 1. Rotten divine magic.
Leaning hard: The gang have caught themselves a weakened god, and it’s being forced to do their bidding. They’ve got power, but it’s not much. They’re all sickly to look at, the whites in their eyes shifted entirely to an unmistakable red, Dune style.
Light touch: They are led by an old man, formerly of the faith. He has no power anymore, though he desires the return of it. He guides the orphans on his holy quest, wearing vestments of bright red.
Lightest touch: The gang is utterly and completely terrified of divine power; they’ll flee it on sight. They abhor the color red and will attack anyone wearing it.
So What Makes a Good Anchor Then?
Hopefully the examples can shine some light on what I consider good anchors. It’s good to drill down a bit, and think about the anchor. Okay, this is a faction, cool. What are they doing? What is their symbol? What do they represent? It’s handy to go out into the weeds for some of these, dropping down things like theme or even symbolism. Introduce enough toads connected to Riata the Unbeaten, and that gets locked in.
The other, and much more important part of a good anchor is that everyone at the table is into it. If there’s friction over an anchor, I’d consider pulling it out entirely and let the thing that was previously an anchor instead show up in the world, and attach it to an anchor instead. anchors are big. They are the wheel that is going to grind out your world. Everyone should work together to fall in love with all of them.
Wait, I’m Pro-canon, and Still Made It This Far. What’s in It for Me?
Clever readers will see that you can use this process with regular old vanilla worldbuilding just the same. Instead of rolling at the table, create your anchors and liberally apply them during your game prep. I’d recommend still creating the anchors as a group—get everyone on board—but even then, there might be some joy in the players beginning to Sherlock Holmes out the anchors as they play.
In that case, you still need to roll randomly to connect world elements to the anchors. The randomness of it helps keep things fresh, and from you grabbing the familiar instead of stretching creatively for the strange. One neat thing to try is to grab a published adventure, and churn it through the anchors. What’s special about this place? What about the NPCs in it? Connect them to your world.
Bonus Edit: Misha, on Twitter talks about how he uses a very similar method for dense, prepped settings that focus on the players exploring.
Even though I come at world building from an almost opposite direction (I really like small dense settings where the core gameplay is discovery), I use something really similar in prep. This is really nicely put and thought through and explained, though!
One thing I’ve found that works for me is that I always roll twice (or more). It’s never just Riata–it’s always the intersection of Riata & Altruism. It makes it harder for me to fall into ruts, and makes sure that all these elements are constantly saying things about each other
I think that rolling twice on the table might be a bit much for off-the-cuff generation at the table, but it’s a useful tool to have in the back pocket if a player (or GM) freezes up at the wide expanse of potential ideas for a single anchor. Adding a second vector with another roll can narrow things down, and the intersection between the two of them can spur even more creativity.
Misha has written an awesome blog post on his method, and I recommend checking it out. I particularly like how, through atomizing the anchors into d66 tables, it provides a nice way to actually generate new content, and not just offer ideas to tie in existing stuff that you’ve already come up with.
For me, I could see a lot of use in having a table of world anchors, and then each world anchor having it’s own table connected to it, filled with the things Misha points out in his post (sub-factions, personalities, desires, methods to enact their will, themes, colors, etc.) That way, you can roll a world anchor, and potentially drill down to unlock more specificity if desired.
You got it. When you roll 1d10 to connect an anchor, roll 1d12 as well and assign it to this table:
|1d12||Strength OR Relation|
|1||Fleeting. You’ll have to squint to see it.|
|2||Lightest Touch. A simple, esoteric connection.|
|3||Light Touch. The anchor is present, but not the main draw.|
|4||Regular. The anchor is present.|
|5||Strong Touch. The anchor is governing the element.|
|6||Overwhelming Connection. The anchor is directly connected.|
|7||Antagonistic Connection. The element is directly opposed to the anchor.|
|8||Dependent Connection. The element depends on the anchor.|
|9||Supportive Connection. The element supports the anchor in an auxiliary way.|
|10||Unaware Connection. The element is unaware of its connection to the anchor.|
|11||Allied. The element works for or directly with the anchor.|
|12||Betrayed. The element worked with the anchor at one point, but no longer does.|
There’s probably more vectors you could layer in—in fact, there’s probably a random table for each type of anchor that I listed above. But that kind of creation is for another time, and perhaps for an entirely fleshed out “World Anchor” creation book.
Remember that you’re applying the anchors as a group, or calling out a single person to expand on the world. This isn’t you doing worldbuilding at the table while your players watch. One way to do it would be to let the player who created the anchor work with that piece of the world when the anchor is rolled, but that’s a little too rigid for me. Instead, I’d recommend asking some leading questions for the anchors, letting you tease out the world from the players (and you!) when required.
If you’ve got thoughts, leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider signing up to the mindstorm, my semi-regular newsletter!