The consequences of our world designs

There is a new post on Psychochild’s Blog that got me thinking.

What about you? Have you done deep research for your games besides reading fantasy books or playing similar games?

You might think that – at least in theory and at least for roleplay worlds – that the designer might think through the ramifications of what they put in the cannon of the world’s lore. After all, the lore puts the rules into context. The best loved settings (and IPs) such as Jordan’s Wheel of Time and McCaffery’s Pern are deep and self consistent. Sadly, most fantasy worlds are modern society in medieval clothing with flashy fireballs thrown in for good effect. It really does seem to be the case that the only real consequences for design decisions, ruleset or lore, is on player behavior and not on the setting that they are in. This creates cognitive dissonance of course and is immersion breaking.

I have a book on my bookshelf that has had a profound effect on my approach to world design. It is called “The Black Death” and it was an assigned book in humanities course I took eons ago as an undergraduate. I’m not sure which of these (if any) it is as the book is on my bookshelf in Germany and I’m in India; but just looking at the subtitles gives an indication of the importance of the subject.

Anyone designing a world and a society would be well served to study the Black Death. Simply put, it broke the back of the feudal system that had been in place for the better part of a thousand years and transformed western society into the modern one that we know. The changes were not overnight, but removing a third of the population almost overnight freed Europe from its centuries-long flirtations with Malthusian catastrophe and dramatically increased the cost of labor, which made the feudal manor system – and its dependency on cheap labor – untenable in the long run.

Now consider how your ruleset might upset the apple cart with “minor” elements.

Do you not have permadeath? Does everyone respawn? If so, how has this affected society’s view of death? Is it a minor inconvenience, to be corrected by a quick trip to your neighborhood priest? Does only some of the population respawn? After all, players often protest when the respawn rules extend to NPCs because it makes killing orcs feel pointless. If so, how exactly does your society handle some of the population being effectively immortal? It only takes a few influential sociopaths among the immortals to turn the society into an Orwellian caste system of immortals and slaves.

Do you have flight? If so, are your fortifications ready for airborne attacks? Does the presumed military doctrine (i.e. the one used by NPCs) handle this?

Do you have a high magic world? Does it break the presumed socioeconomic paradigm?

Does your world have necromancy? How often are graveyards associated with the undead in fantasy settings? Wouldn’t it be unbelievably idiotic to bury granny in a graveyard so that someone could come along and turn her into a zombie? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to cremate her and do so as quickly as possible; such as before sundown on the day of death? This would likely hold so even if necromancy was rare. Terrorism is rare in the real world, yes the precautions against it are many. Necromancy would likely loom larger in the imagination than reality. This gives new meaning to the intensity of corpse runs and even opens up quest possibilities.

What examples of well thought out worlds have people seen?


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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13 Responses to The consequences of our world designs

  1. A great response to my post. I agree completely with a lot of your examples, particularly the permadeath one. NPCs act like death is such a horrible thing when everything just respawns according to the rules of the world. But, death is a powerful motivator in a lot of literature, so game designers rely on it to add emotional depth to their quests.

    When we had a big event to kill one of the NPCs in Meridian 59, we tried to think of a justification for why the Duke could be murdered, but not players/NPCs, etc. We resorted to the “special magic” BS explanation, but it’s something that the original designers never really considered, either.

    The main problem is that most developers copy from each other heavily. If you start considering a world where death means almost nothing, this would change the fundamental nature of the world and make it hard to just steal the best elements of other games. That’s a fairly scary proposition for most people.

    My thoughts.

  2. Michael says:

    The idea of doing something new may be scary for some developers, but without taking chances there would be no evolution in design. Some evolution steps are logical (going to 3D), but design steps and toying with world fundamentals can have huge risks and huge rewards. I love two ideas when it comes to death in worlds. One is finite respawns, with each respawn causing aging. Finally the charater would grow old and die. Another idea would be a hierarchy of immortals where the world population is finite with no birth or death. Everything would then be over ownership. If you think about it that’s what most worlds are like now. They just don’t admit it.

  3. Dave says:

    Back in my NWN days, I experimented with the death system on a world that I was the de-facto admin of. It occurred to me that the NPCs don’t respawn, but PCs do was somehow inconsistent with the society that seemed to be in place. So I extended respawn to all NPCs. I’m not sure what the silent majority felt about it, but the vocal players were very loud and clear that they did not like the idea of mob respawn AT ALL.

  4. Thrym says:

    The lore of a world is dictated by the admins/DMs etc. but is also counter controlled by the system within which you play. For example, the NWN stock system was fairly revisionist. “You died. Then you roll back the clock and start over at Point X (usually the last save game point).” But in a multiplayer system where you have no saved games and players need to be given a reason to fear death you find a balance between lore and system.

    Admins frequently say they built the system they did because it’s fair. A fair system means no fear of death. I died; it’s fair to assume I will be alive again in a moment so that I don’t sit out while the others continue, but that, in and of itself, is a reason to fear death in a game environment… sitting idly by while the group continues to punish the monsters.

    And no matter how much fear of death you build into the system there will always be the gamer that just doesn’t care and abuses the respawn concept. And so, admins consider permadeath and once again fairness asserts itself. “It’s not fair!! I put in hours to build my PC and some DM TPK’d us or a lag spike caught me.” And now your staff spends most of its time being detectives and researching incidents in an attempt to appease a world’s precious commodity … the Player. Suddenly you are an expert in people pleasing and glad handing.

    You could spend hours agonizing over the “perfect” system of balance for death and respawning or you could build a system and stand by it by adjusting your lore to fit with the mechanics of the game. My point is that there’s no one true way. There’s only compromise between immersion and the reality of the mechanics.

  5. Pingback: Postmortem: The Etilica Soulflash - Part I « Dancing Elephants

  6. Opinvu says:

    To start, the research is very important. It helps any designer remember forgotten angles and missed details. As a novice engineer myself, my best design work has been in game world design, which I have no training or study in. I just happen to have allot of firsthand experience and allot more research in it. In my pursuit to make the best game world I could in NWN I took a look at everyone’s failures and set out to not make them myself. Not to do better, or out do them, just not make the same mistakes. My finished product was, for me, perfection. I was happy with it. (That’s all that matters in creation I believe) I have noticed I am better at tasks I have researched and self taught. My degree, I went to class and was fed information to remember. With research you are living it, discovering it, and absorbing it, and in my case, using it sooner with more repetition of the applied knowledge.
    I would have to agree that death is one of the major factors one must use as a focal point for any design. The handling of death and economy is what makes or breaks the game. I would assume all designers wishing to please themselves are ultimately trying to please the masses more. No matter how much research one does on death, the answer is never found. One must create their own system to suit their world, or suit their world to handle the system available. Economy plays an important role with the death system. Tweak the death system and your robbing people’s banks. And the lore is the symbiotic partner that holds them seamlessly together. You die, you pay the piper, you run and earn more so you can pay him again. You spend extra time so when you pay him, you still have some left over for the next attempt.
    I believe the lore should be death’s Atlas. In a game like NWN, or any other RP/D&D based game world, it depends on it as a foundation for strategy. Least any builder or DM would hope so. If one is trying to design realism in their world, with magic and fantasy or none, they must have a solid economy and death system that is strictly adhered to. Lore is the template a player takes with him and never looks back. If you look at yourself as a player rather than the designer your habits mimic many others. If you seek gamers you hate and try to appeal to them you start to see what the core principles of gaming really is. Doing the research is step one, then failing is step two and three. They say third time is the charm for a reason. Experience always has a bigger broader outlook on the situation.
    My experience now, working with Thrym in his world, has proven allot of my own thoughts and theories. He has built a world that is running with allot of the same infrastructure I too had used and contemplated. But what still holds absolute is: If you build it, they will come. Some will love it, some will hate it. And some will just stay around hoping for free food and give their opinion nicely on the way out.
    Lastly, the designing worlds, lore to run them and lore to keep them spinning, I have lived adventure vicariously. I have found it far easier to write stories and lore on well structured worlds than say a world like Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft. Where all death is, is more waiting? Try to write a ghost story for children that don’t fear death and only see the ghosts as coin purses worth 5xp.

  7. Dave says:

    >Try to write a ghost story for children that don’t fear death and only see the ghosts as coin purses worth 5xp.

    This is so true.

    Unfortunately, from a purely immersive perspective, it brings us back to permadeath.

  8. Thrym says:

    So immersive that you drown.


    Permadeath … a goofy word. To suggest that death is permanent. There’s only one permadeath and it’s called “death.” It only exists in reality.

    Permadeath is just another form of respawn. Instead of a temporary time out from the game and any other penalty applied the Player loses all progress and starts over from the beginning. However, in this case, they simply remake the character. A randomly generated name and a couple of points changed here and there and voila … Character 2.0.

    Honestly, how many versions of Lorgin can a server handle? Lorgin Deathstalker, Lorgin the Bold, Lorgin the Mask, Lorgin the Hood, Gary … the never ending reboot. Permadeath is just a way to kick a player out of the story.


    Lorgin the Bold dies a horrible death after he wanders away from the party. The timers kick in and time quickly dwindles as the Player waits impatiently for his party to realize he’s dead in another area and 3 … 2 … 1 … Permadeath.

    Result: Pissed off player who can’t catch up with the party for the night. Yes, it was their fault for being stupid but pissed off players (even stupid ones) breed discontent.


    Lorgin the Hood bravely sets forth into the world after spending an hour being created. He finds a town and does some non-combative quests and develops himself a bit. Lorgin the Hood then takes a road to another town and is jumped by bandits. Within moments, Lorgin the Hood is lying on the ground dead. The system dumps his nekkid body into a holding area, aptly named Limbo, from which there is no escape, in the hope that another PC will happen across their “remains” and raise the poor bastard. John de’Tsitpab wanders through, defeats the bandits and stares at the corpse of the PC he’s never met … picks it clean and wanders off.

    Result: Pissed off player who never got a chance to integrate themselves into the social system of the world and can’t recover the character they just made. Yes, they might have wandered into an area they shouldn’t have but hey shit happens, right?


    Gary finds the body of Lorgin the Hood after stealthily bypassing the bandits and proceeds to gather up the belongings of Lorgin the Hood. Then after finding the magic coin of life Lorgin the Hood had, Gary proceeds to raise him. Suddenly, Gary feels a bit sleepy and heads back to town. Connection time later, Lorgin the Hood appears where his clothing once sat and wanders nekkid back into town wondering … “will anyone have noticed that I died?” Assuming they make it past the bandits if they weren’t cleaned at some point.

    Result: Just another day in the life of players who will find any means to cheat the system.

    The point isn’t the system. So long as there is a system and the players deem it relevant and “fair” then the players will likely abide by the system and the world thrives. There will always be a Lorgin. The question is … “will there always be a group of players who enjoy what you have built?”

  9. Opinvu says:

    Thrym and I think allot alike, just Mac and PC speak.

    You can’t prevent every dumb accident, but you can support the system you’re using by making the environment more suitable. Permadeath works in certain situations and scenarios. The worst part of permadeath you stated is the reliving the already experienced low levels over and over. Same routine, again and again, the repetition of getting to that point of new experiences. Worst place for permadeath is fast pace lands. Faster the action, faster the chance for death, the more deaths will occur. So I would assume a slow paced world that is long in nature, diverse in experiences, has the lesser chance of repetition and chance for death. As one is thinking removing danger is the key to slowing things down it is not. Segregation and slowing the progress and transition is the key. Bring about the subtle but bold declarations of life and death decisions being made.
    I say slowing progress and but really your slowing and stretching out the processes of progress to allow for decisions to be made and spoken. The other key to sparking fear of death and danger is change. The more your environment changes, the more alert and slow the player reacts. You put the DM fear in them and they slow down, talk more and think more. If encounters and certain placeables changed randomly every time, so every where there was subtle and slight change, it would heighten alertness to ones surroundings.
    I think any system can be perfect if the environment supports it correctly and is realistic enough to give many avenues to do any one goal. A server I still to this day DM on has a great system that works perfectly for the environment. This land might not, probably wouldn’t, be as fun if it went permadeath. But then put this death system in the world I described in short it might make the game way to easy and deflate risk altogether. I believe its all risk management. In the scenarios above, how often do these low levels even have a means of raising the dead or sufficient skills and materials to revive an unconscious stranger? Learning how the developer dealt with risk is what gets em mad, and then the thought of releveling is what infuriates them.
    Death also makes one do the things they didn’t want to do again. The quests they hated or the crafting they don’t really care for. Having diverse and plentiful options eases this pain. Taking away the chance for repetition in reliving low levels sounds like it would lessen the fear of death, but that is where the supporting environment takes back over and how risk management is handled. One may think limiting levels to access this point and that point is hazardous and in some circles a downright blastfamy.

  10. Pingback: Let’s talk about permadeath « Dancing Elephants

  11. mule says:

    What can I say that isn’t already said? I too disagree with permadeath for players. As far at the etilicia thing goes I believe the ire from the respawn was the whole system caused a lot of lag on the server. Another thing that should be kept in mind during design is how it affects gameplay. Lag is big in a death system because quite often it causes the death of players. Which is a main reason I am against perma-death. Also, because as T put it, shit happens.

    Immersion is important though, agreed and death should not be totally discounted. However, lore can help make up for a lot of this. The solution though is dependent on the world, its creators and its users. Really it all depends on what they think is appropriate because first and foremost they must respect the system or it just doesn’t work. Either you lose your player base or DM base or they abuse the system. How this is best done is usually a case by case basis and mostly depends on the base lore that the creators decide to have.

  12. Opinvu says:

    But I would argue death has nothing to do with immersion. What is possible and the depth of what is possible in the world during life is what determines immersion. The more low risk lore exploration there is the player is more apt to see and decide on weather the exploration of the higher risk eplorations is worth it at the time. Having options and long routes to nearby places increases immersion. They have to find details, like easter egg hunting. People love this, even thoughs that don’t care love to find easter eggs.

    If you walk down the street and meet 2 guys and see 3 shops and that is it. You will immediatly speed things up and become less interested in the details of that street, it doesn’t matter if you died easily or not when you die. If life is boring you seek higher risk and increase chances of death.

    Lag, well that should be part of your design. ETI shoulda chopped some fat to compensate for the system. Can’t always have your cake and eat it, so best get a side dish you like too and make up for it.

  13. Corgano says:

    Well, as Mule stated, “What can I say that isn’t already said?”

    Permadeath = bad. I think it takes time to get some good RP going on a character. IE: At least several sessions to get into your PCs state of mind and help him/her develop. And if you make one false move and get killed, that would end all of that /if/ it was a permadeath server.

    I also think instadeath spells would be more cheesy than they are on a “normal” server that doesn’t use permadeath. Can you tell I’m not a fan of, “Finger of Death” spells and the like?

    I /do/ think there should be some penalty for you after you die. I wouldn’t want people not to worry about their character if they died. Death shouldn’t be free in other words. I wouldn’t want people to abuse the death system either.

    What I /do/ like? I love to explore places that I’ve never been to or seen before. I like the unknown and finding (as Opinvu put it) Easter Eggs. They can be items, lore, quests, etc. Just fun things to find. But sometimes that bites me in the arse too and I have to run away! Hehe.

    I think there should be a variety of quests where DMs aren’t needed. Simply because a DM can’t be on all the time and it’s nice to have several different types of quests to go through. Don’t get me wrong, NOTHING will ever replace a good DM, period. Things just get better when DMs are on. 🙂

    Those little quests and things like that help to add to the immersion factor. Same with lore. If there is lore on a topic, then that really helps add to the immersion factor. There are many places that have background info on them and it’s nice to read over it just to get a feel for what may lie ahead. So, lore IMHO is a good thing.

    LAG… what can you say about lag except, yuck! And the lag monster has gotten us all at one point or another. As others stated, “Shit happens”.

    As far as designing a PW goes, I think a lot of it is trial and error. Taking parts that you’ve liked from other places and leaving out things from other PWs/places that you didn’t like. And then making sure that they fit in with your world and lore. Once again, an important immersion factor.

    Well, I think I’ve probably restated half of what everyone else has already said, so I’m signing off now.


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