May 10, 2021

What Makes A Story World?

I’ve spoken with many tabletop RPG players who are intimidated by the idea of being a GM/DM. Whether it’s conducting a session, doing the voices, or worldbuilding, or anything/everything in between, these players just have a hard time envisioning themselves in the GM/DM chair.

So today’s Worldbuilding Monday post aims to help erase some of those doubts by shining light on a crucial yet simple truth: your story-world deserves to be brought to life!

What Makes a Story-World?

There’s no one right answer to that question – and that’s okay. The real question is “what does your story-world mean to you?” As counter-intuitive as it may seem, a great first step to becoming a GM/DM is discovering how you have been impacted by your own story-world.

Think of it this way: you’ve been changed, perhaps greatly, by your favorite books, movies, plays, role-playing and video games. And even if you’re not yet conscious of it, you’ve probably been positively impacted by your own story-world too.

Every person has their own, unique inner canvas in their mind’s eye. As they experience stories, and life in general, their creativity and subconscious “paint” on that canvas. It organically grows, develops, and evolves as those experiences occur and accumulate. I’d be willing to bet that there are people, places, things, on your inner canvas that, while they might not be part of a coherent story-world yet, are absolutely building blocks of one!

If you’re considering moving to the GM/DM chair, try and take some time to reflect on what your inner canvas looks like. And how you’ve been impacted by what it holds. From there, you can begin the process of stitching together a playable story using those puzzle pieces of inspiration.

What Inspires You?

When you speak with GMs/DMs, you’ll find that these story components naturally float around their head in one form or another. Inspiration, desire, connection etc. is all different from person to person. But the stories and their elements being there are what’s important. 

Equally relevant though for prospective GMs is knowing that many, if not all, of those stories weren’t full-fledged, grand epics when they first started. In fact, many were once the “one-celled organism” of stories! Prospective GMs/DMs need to understand that it is 100% a-okay to start anywhere. A name, an image, a symbol, a song, a sound effect…anything that inspires you can be the launching-off point for your own world. So don’t put pressure on yourself that you don’t have a 100 session campaign 100% ready to go. All you need is something that inspires you.

And that, for me anyway, is where the fun begins. It’s such a wonderful experience to just be able to sit with that source of inspiration and let it wander. And that process is a hundred times easier when you’re not also thinking about what it needs to become. Just let it be. I promise you’ll be much more satisfied with the result.

A Process That Works For You

With your inspiration and perspective in hand, you just need a process to bring your story world to life. Are you the hyper-organized type that keeps reams of hand-written notes on every little detail? Or are you perhaps a bit more scatter-brained, tending to float from one piece of inspiration to another?

Regardless of where you lie on that spectrum, as you begin to develop your story, it’s going to be important to thread these various story elements & plot beats together. Doing so will require you to develop a process of mining your creative forces. And using the result in a way that will empower the players to experience your story in your story world.

Remember: the players don’t have the luxury of just seeing the canvas of your mind’s eye. They’re expecting a thoughtful but accessible world to interact with, and invest time in living a story there. To that end, you need to outline – and ultimately follow – a process that organizes your inspiration, story elements, and thoughts into a coherent, vibrant, and rich story world.

That process can be as simple as just connecting the puzzle pieces of your inspiration and letting the journey unfold that way. But it can also be an incredibly serious, time-consuming affair which has myriad layers and complexities in order to provide the best possible experience for the players. My advice, especially for prospective and new GMs/DMs, is to refine your process to the point where the resulting story makes sense to you. And, from there, feel confident in trying out your story with others.

So start/keep exploring your inner-world. Track down your inspiration. And develop your process for organizing what you’ve discovered on your mental canvas. There are limitless possibilities for amazing tabletop RPG stories out there just waiting to be discovered. Just have the courage to give it a shot!