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Last night my wife and I finished watching the first season of Netflix’s Disenchantment. Whatever you may think of the series’ humor, when I look at the way the show is structured, I find it does a great job building a fantasy world and story. Here are five lessons I took from the series that can apply to building worlds in and running roleplaying games.
By the season finale, the depth of the world of Disenchantment is obvious. There are multiple kingdoms with even more surrounding wildnerness areas, rich NPCs, complicated governments, unique monsters, history-laden magic items, and an interesting mix of medieval technology. Yet when the series begins most of the action is focused on a single kingdom with a cliché story (a rebellious princess doesn’t want to enter the marriage her parents arranged). The series slowly reveals new aspects of the story one point at a time as they become relevant to the story.
The same worldbuilding advice applies to our games. No need to start out with over a hundred pages of lore your players need to read just to understand what’s happening in your game. Start small, with maybe a single village or city with a few surrounding features, and build out from there. With this method you grow your world more organically and can tailor it to the story your players want to tell, rather than forcing them to cross a desert to get to an adventure location just because you put a desert there six months ago when you made the world all at once. You can even put some of the worldbuilding onus on your players and ask them, “What’s over the hills to the north that terrorizes the people of the village?”
Share Knowledge Freely
In Disenchantment most people seem to have general knowledge about the things happening in the world, but they don’t share that knowledge until it makes sense for the story. Do the same with the knowledge of your world. You can inform your players, “Hey you would know that three years ago the orc king tried to takeover the village and his plans were foiled by a plucky group of adventurers called the Savior Six.”
If the players already having the knowledge only makes it easier for them to grok your story, don’t make them roll any checks to get the knowledge (though you could have them make a check to see if they know anything else about the topic that could be more helpful). These are facts that the characters have always known, just by living in the world (for instance, most Americans know the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree). Hand out this knowledge to your players when it is relevant and feel free to remind them, since the characters live in the world and are steeped in the culture and history, but the players are not.
Drop Hints… Even If You Don’t Know Where They Lead
Disenchantment gives the viewers a lot of hints of what’s to come in the series without overtly explaining something the moment it comes up. The same can be true for RPGs. Drop hints, hooks, and cryptic messages, even if you aren’t sure where they will go. You can encourage players to do the same.
Keep a notebook, mobile phone, laptop, or some other way to record notes handy as you play. Jot down these hints and when you prepare for your next game look them over. Think about how they might tie into your current story and challenge yourself to include one or two in your next session. You can also refer to the list whenever you give the characters an on-the-fly revelation that you want to carry weight and see what inspiration strikes. “You pull back the hood of the bandit leader to reveal his forehead has a tattoo of the same mysterious snake symbol you saw in the queen’s chamber!” You do not need to use every hint you jot down, but it helps to have them.
Jot Down Lose Threads
Without getting into spoiler territory, Disenchantment has a lot of moments that seem like one-off jokes and characters that seem unimportant that come back episodes later, revealing they are a major part of the series’ plot. GMs can make the same thing happen, even and especially if we’re developing our plots organically with the players.
Whenever a villain escapes, a piece of culture, history, location, item, monster, or mystery is casually mentioned, or an NPC with a name makes an appearance, write it down. Like the hints, you do not need to use every single open thread you write down (sometimes a kobold just gets away and is never seen again), but look at these notes when you prepare for your next game and think about ways you might work in one or two of the open threads into your current story.
Silly Jokes Can Make A World Unique
It’s no surprise that the world of Disenchantment is full of some very silly jokes. What’s surprising is that many of these jokes actually help define and make unique the series’ world. What starts as a seemingly generic fantasy world becomes very unique and well-defined after the first few episodes. For example in the show elf culture begins as a big joke. But that big joke makes Disenchantment‘s elves different from other fantasy elves and then becomes a large part of the plot. Whenever you or your players make a joke that helps differentiate your world from others, feel free to take the ball and run with it. You don’t have to do this with every joke, just the ones that are the most interesting to you.
For instance imagine a joke being made at your table that orcs can’t help but take care of any stray cat they see. You decide to take this joke and run with it, and now whenever the characters meet an orc, the orc has a gaggle of cats with them that they feed. Whenever the characters go into an orc lair the place is crawling with cats… of all sizes. Suddenly the characters are battling savage cat swarms, tiger-riding orcs, and magically enhanced lions the size of the tarrasque! That’s badass… and it all came from a dumb joke.
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