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Up vs Out

When it comes to your campaign world do you build out or do you build up? Building out is the design choice to expand your world to new locales, new ideas, incorporate novel mechanics, introduce unrelated characters, and otherwise expand the narrative of the world. Building up is the idea of increasing the internal connections between already known locations, characters, ideas, game mechanics, and increase the complexity of the known world.

Of course any game generally has elements of both, because a purely “out” design would mean having an unchanging character explore constantly new content with no connection to previous content. On the opposite side, a world built only in the up direction would be entirely focused on the internal emotions and changes of the main “cast” without any novel situations. However, I like to think that I tend to favor building out more heavily. All else equal, I often introduce new places and ideas into my game then I have to work out how to connect it interestingly to the existing world.

It can be helpful to think, from time to time, what your default style leans towards. Maybe you might want to shake things up by leaning more heavily the other way. Or alternatively, you keep trying one or the other but keep failing and should really stick to your guns more.

What style do you default towards? But when has it utterly failed you? Is there a third type?

Benefits of Building Up

When building up, you get to increase the complexity of the places that the players already show investment in by way of having spent more time their. The natural feedback loop this creates is utterly responsive to player engagement. Remember that one goblin rolling crits who survived miraculously? Well it turns out she’s back after starting a cult in your name.

Themes, places, and people can become familiar so you can spend less time building all the skeletons of everything while putting more effort, and more focus, on the small details. You can really bring out the polish. It wasn’t just coincidence that the headmaster had a lisp, but was using it as social camouflage. You all hear him speaking normally in front of the other black robed cultists.


The Downs of Up

Weaving complicated plotpoints requires tying everything together when they are all happening amongst a small but detailed group. Naturally, this risks creating plot holes or needing DM handwaving. But how does this town not collapse with the mafia, corrupt politicians, and vampire conspiracy all taking cuts.

You need a strong foundation, because building up depends on everything below it, and renovating the first floor to add a sixth makes things exponentially more complicated. Yes, but you see, she is also my long lost evil twin’s half-sister, and that’s why she is also now in the running for this inheritance too.

The Ins of Expanding Out

There is always room for even the most radically different idea, if you build out far enough. Building out leaves plenty of space to expand to new adjacent or even opposing game styles, adventures, and thoughts to play out how the characters or players respond in new environments. Variety is the spice of life. Maybe a high-tech society has a more rustic frontier.

Outward expansion lends itself very well to exploring all of the variety a game world has to offer, rather than getting mired down in the first plotline to attract the player or GM attention. You come upon the great dragon-folk city built on the underside of the rocky overhang, and winged rickshaw owners clamor for your attention.

The Downsides of Out

You can have the recursive problem of “what’s beyond that?”. Each new area, person, or theme added is also going to have its own border regions or edges, which can spawn an infinite expansion to detail what lies beyond those edges, and so on. Otherwise, you have to leave the border conditions vague enough that they can be connected to future expansion with minimal disjointedness.  The great empire of the east is facing pressures from the orc hordes coming further from the east, and beyond that the orcs are having trouble invading the kingdom to their east…

Done poorly, a constantly expanding campaign can leave each place feeling like just one more meaningless stop on a journey without consequences, like an annoying sitcom where nothing really changes. After the long rest and a few hours journey, you find yourselves at a new village that needs rescuing but is unsure whether to trust the outsiders that just showed up.

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