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Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt

So as I’ve been raving about on Twitter for a few days now, I’ve been working with the StoryNexus game engine to create a browser game. It’s set in the stuffed animal world of Pludwump and Quippet and Rough Seams, which is sort of Ice Age Europe rendered in plush. (I firmly maintain that this idea is so stupid that it’s almost high concept.)

(And a big shout out to my dear Kevin and my buddy Tango for playtesting!)

And now, a few thoughts…

First of all, I’ve had to do a lot of tearing out and re-treading because I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t feel this was wasted time, because it’s not like there’s any other way to learn, but if I were doing a second game, there’s some planning I’d do in advance. (All of which is technical and related specifically to the engine in question–if you’re also fiddling with it and want to talk about it, leave a comment, I’ll happily expand.)

Second, and more important for our purposes…goddamn, world-building.

Up until sometime early last week, I had a great deal of confidence in my world-building skills. There’s a trick to it, more or less, and that trick is that you can paint an exotic city on a curtain in about five lines and readers will fill in all the rest themselves.

The best example I can come up with here is from China Mieville’s book The Scar, where they encounter a race of sentient mosquito-people, and he includes a few throwaway lines about an empire in the distant past called the Malarial Queendom.

He doesn’t tell you how it worked. In fact, one of the characters actively wonders “How the hell did that work, anyway?” He doesn’t go into detail. I think the words Malarial Queendom are mentioned maybe three times. You don’t learn anything about them, except one line saying that once upon a time, they ruled this particular coast with an iron fist, and wow, that was bad.

And that’s it. A whole empire with a history built out of three lines. Does he know the entire history of the Queendom? Does he know the rank of every mosquito functionary?

Eh, it’s Mieville, so he might, but if it was me, I wouldn’t. I’d write the three lines, grin, go “Damn, that’s cool,” and go on. If I needed to come up with more detail—if I was on a panel at a con and somebody demanded I recount the entire history of the Malarial Queendom RIGHT NOW—I’d be confident that I could come up with something, but honestly, it’s not germane to the plot. The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.


If you wish to then write a game where people are wandering around in—to use a completely and totally random example—an Ice Age plush world, suddenly you need the whole okapi. Butt-on-a-stick won’t cut it. The reader is actively picking cards (StoryNexus is a card-based RPG sort of thing, kind of like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure crossed with Zork) and reading them and exploring the world and you have to keep them entertained and you want them to feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff there.

There’s a hunting function in this game I’m making. Your little Ice Age hunter goes out to hunt the mighty woolen mammoth and other creatures of the Patchwork Steppes. This is a grindable skill. And I don’t know about you, but I get very bored with grinding something if all I’m reading is “You go kill a thing. Woo! Stuffing steaks for everybody!” eighty million times. So I sat down to write a whole bunch of different things you could hunt with your trusty Pointy Stick, which would be different difficulties and give you different rewards, and interesting things that could happen while hunting in this area and so on and so forth. (The game designers recommend at least twelve cards or “storylets” per area so that people don’t get too bored with the repetitions on random draws.)

Oh. My. God.

Twenty cards, including various quest chains. Each card needs failures and successes, sometimes multiple ones depending on what skills you use and whether you get the rare lucky success or the rare unlucky failure. It took days. And insomuch as any person on earth was ever designed to write short little blurbs with punchlines for various little scenarios involving killing and eating stuffed animals, I am that person. (It’s like writing short descriptions under art, really…) But I had to build the entire goddamn okapi, from the hooves up, instead of just a quickly sketched illusion.

So now you can hunt burlap boars and terrycloth giant hamsters and corduroy aurochs. You can follow silken condors. You can harvest mushrooms off mammoth dung. You can choose not to hunt some of the animals and try to befriend them instead. You can do a whole bunch of stuff that you’d presumably be able to do if you were a little Ice Age hunting plush. And this is only one damn area.

I’m pleased. I’m hopeful that when, in a few months, I’m ready to have people play it, they will have fun and it will feel much more immersive than just saying “Yeah, they’re off hunting mammoth over there. Neat, huh? Now do this thing to move the plot along!” I hope it will feel like a world, and that people will be able to construct their own mental narratives, which is what makes a game a game instead of a book.

And I hope all this knowing that people will read the card descriptions once, possibly twice, then skip immediately to the clicking bits. *grin*

But goddamn, that was hard. I never have to build okapis. My mental studio has a whole closet full of striped butts-on-sticks. I won’t say it’s a different skill set, exactly, but it’s as if you come up with a great throwaway world-building line and then somebody says “You’re right! That was a great line! Now put your money where your mouth is and given me the entire backstory behind it, smart guy!”

…and now I have to do that whole thing again, only with Quippet and Pludwump and Pludwump’s bodyguard, the Burly Blue Ram. And a lot of other characters I’ve had to pull out of thin air so that the world has individuals in it, not just vague masses.

And it’s cool.

But lord, it’s much harder than expected.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


Since I'm also fucking around with StoryNexus on and off I'd be curious as to your thoughts about the technical planning aspects. (I have thoughts about that too but they are at the moment buried under a lot of other crap I'm dealing with and a fine layer of SQUIRREL!, so.)

The big one that's been causing me grief is that I decided after a point that I really wanted the player to discard cards out of their hands when they move between areas, so that areas are relatively distinct. So what I wound up doing was including a "traveling" sequence, whereby to move between areas, you use a pinned card and go to a different setting ("traveling the valley") then select a destination card and go back to the main setting, but a different area.

Doing this flushes your hand, and does what I want, and you unlock various destination cards as you learn about other areas...but I'd already created a fair number of traveling cards to get you to one point or another before I decided on this particular mechanic, and I had to backtrack and cut those cards, cannibalize some of the text, etc. If I'd known what I was doing, I would have planned this from the get go, but...y'know.

I thought you built a very believable world with Digger. How is this different?

Heh. Digger was FULL of okapi butts!

You never see the Tchang empire, dwarves, bunyips, most of the random places people mention, more druids, the hedgehog and the ghost of a bird, etc, etc. Many of those I could expound on, if I had to, but a lot more is mentioned in passing than not.

Oh, I'm sorry for the hard slog on your part, but so excited you're doing a StoryNexus game! I can't wait to see it!

Okay, so, it's not just me bouncing in my chair at the thought of an UrsulaWorld game? =)

I want to play... and/or see & hear a video of your D&D group playing it.
Also, if you need some help blowing hot air into your butts-on-sticks, I kinda do that sometimes myself. So... feel free to invite me in if it's something you'd care for.

When writing, you know where the camera is pointed - you're putting it there.

When GMing, the players choose what to look at - but you're sitting there in the same room, able to adapt and respond to (and perhaps subtly steer) where that camera goes.

When building IF, you have to carve out every possibility of the world ahead of time - anything anyone could ever want to look at or do.

Perhaps there's a layer harder than that, but if so, I don't know what it is.

It's a little easier because in this case, they can't type actions, only choose from those on cards, so even if they wanted, say, a "Scream and kill everything in sight!" option, it's not available unless I put it in.

So I only have to control for various decision trees...thankfully...

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ooh! ooh! I spy a Terry Pratchett fan! ooh!

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We simply need to refer you to an expert:

.... For a moment there, I did not realize that was a front-mounted 'fanny pack', and was about to be alarmed. Somewhat. I've seen worse at cons, but still.

Also, yay! It's Kage!

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I sounds like great fun! And I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Patricia C. Wrede recently posted a couple of blog entries about world-building. She writes a lot about writing - it's very interesting, and would be useful if I ever attempted to actually do some writing of my own...


World building is tough but fun and ultimately rewarding. Try designing your own language some time.

I knew it would be hard, but lawzy - once I got beyond the subject-verb-object simplicity of grammatical constructions and had to deal with things like full sentences acting as modifying clauses and predicate adjectives and tenses, aspects, and moods of verbs and making a vocabulary where every word doesn't sound the same but has to sound like it's from the same language and dealing with orthography and morphology and syntax and phonology and semantics....

It quickly becomes tempting to throw all your notes in the air and merely *hint* in the novel at the fact that these aliens do not speak English by tossing in an odd interjection now and then, such as Rää or Fuh or Olää; which is the verbal equivalent of Okapi butt on a stick.

And that may work best after all.

(I just know that "okapi butt on a stick" is a phrase that will be with me till my dying days. In fact, if I can manage it, I'll make that my last words and let historians try to figure out what deep and mystical meaning it suggests, much like Thoreau's utterance of "Moose... Indian...", which I think I can now say I comprehend fully.)

And the sick thing? Most conlangers do it for fun. I'm working on one right now. It might eventually get used for background flavor for something, but mostly I'm doing it because.

Man, I wish I had studied linguistics.

You know.. it occurs to me that if you made this a web-based game, with a little chat window to one side, we might very well have the next 'Kingdom of Loathing' on our hands...

Also, if you *happen* to make a RPG game world out of this, and you *happen* to run a game of it at a convention, I will have ALL THE SQUEE.

Edited at 2013-03-25 06:57 pm (UTC)

there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth

Like this?


It sounds so neat! I hope you'll let all of us try it out.

Well, some of us who play Story Nexus games and are looking forward eagerly to yours, really really appreciate the work your putting into it. There are several games that I've started playing that have cool concepts but just don't have enough stories, and I get much too bored clicking through the same ones over and over and over. The Place of Mists and Scherazade (or whatever that build-a-story one is called), for example.

*laugh* I honestly don't know how many storylines is enough! I may be massively low-balling it.

When I put out a call for playtesters in a month or so, if you're interested, let me know--that's the kind of question I'll need answered at that point, beyond merely "Dude. You broke it. Again."

This sounds like it's going to be a great game. Especially if it has okapis in it. I admit it, I have a plush okapi (from the San Diego Zoo).