Worlds ask to be inhabited by beings that fit. I could not imagine Pern without its native tiny dragons (writing aside, as I don’t always care for McCaffrey, but in all cases respect where it is damned well due), or an Overside lacking the complex cultures of strange bodied folk who go about their days in the most ordinary ways. Worlds want consistency. Belonging. Tolkien achieved this through language. The philological base and folkloric roots (the Prose Edda, Beowulf) of Middle-Earth give it its credibility.
Some worlds have failed in creating that credibility, perhaps by focusing on sheer invention, perhaps by changing the rules when convenient. Others are fantastic ideas that are crippled by bad writing. Still others have mixed success, having solid visual believability, while lacking the cultural cohesiveness that makes its inhabitants real for readers or players.
One reason for this kind of difficulty is that when you build a world for a game or a novel or a comic, you are not asking for people to consume it. You are asking for participants. Reading literature and dancing through sequential art require active processes that are not used the same way when viewing film (I will not ever argue that film, whether cinema or television, does not ask cognitive engagement from the viewer, because it does— however, I will argue that the processes engaged are vastly different from those required by filling in subtle panel-based implications and the mental immersion of reading… but this is the topic of another post, and require a whole hell of a lot more depth and thought than I can reasonably devote here). Video games and tabletop RPGs require a kind of participation not seen in many other art forms, except maybe some extremes of performance art (which is likewise denigrated as lesser and masturbatory). That kind of participation is difficult to achieve while creating an in-depth world, especially when you’re telling your participants, “Okay, go explore!” You need to have a lot of groundwork done. Literature and comics have the advantage of a linear narrative; though these worlds may well be just as in-depth as an obsessed DM’s thick stacks of notebooks might suggest, they have an author’s sense of story to guide the participant’s journey through that realm. Games— even games with a major narrative arc— have the added problem of constraint vs. exploration, but on either end of that spectrum, the threads of immersion can unravel.
In a roleplaying game, one way to deal with this vastness is to create certain kinds of shorthand. By relying on the “standard fantasy races,” games establish a fantasy context, set predictable rules, and allow other areas to be the frontiers for exploration. I find this solution to be unsatisfying, as discussed a few weeks ago, and I find it increasingly tedious when I see it elsewhere. It is a solution which, for certain participants and creators, no longer allows for the easy suspension of disbelief, not because “oh this isn’t fresh and new,” but because of the blunders of some world-builders in handling this strategy.
Another way to allow depth in areas of character creation and personal narrative is to change where your shorthand comes in. Set your imaginings in a modern environment where certain things can be taken for granted, and then world-shattering anachronisms evaporate. White Wolf successfully did this with the World of Darkness. Using this kind of solution is setting dependent, and only works if a modern setting also works.
Still another solution is a different kind of plausible restriction. Who says you have to be able to play these other creatures? If your goal as a world-builder is to bring a sense of familiar newness, and to allow players to earth shattering encounters with “the other,” it can make good sense to allow them only to play a single race, and in most cases, that would be the one most like themselves: humans. Again, there are downsides to this approach. It would work best where elements of magic and otherness are rarer, and their appearance truly significant, which is not necessarily the goal of every campaign. But to relate this approach to my particular problem, this one best fits.
So instead of “air-dropping halflings and orcs” on my little archipelago, I have a strong idea that the only people who live there are humans. The other beings who exist there can then be wrapped up in an aura of the otherworldly, of threatening fae mannerisms, and of beastly visage. Their everydayness can be cultivated by the world builder, and kept from the participants, granting the players the experience of a different kind of exploration. So long as there are consistent cultural rules that the participants can uncover, the act of their discovery can be a rewarding aspect of the game.
Acknowledgements: Since my post two weeks ago, I’ve put a lot of thought to the question of believability. A great deal of this thought has come from the comments made over on /r/rpg, after a friend posted my essay there. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more thought provoking discussion. Many thanks also to Aaron, who’s been helping me edit this beast of a series, and untangle my auto-academic speak.