Friday, March 2, 2012

Worldbuilding with Themes and Principles

Mike McArtor's most recent post on telling stories in games over at the Story Papers blog have brought back to mind a worldbuilding technique that I used for a game a few years ago. Before I go into it, I'll suggest that you hop over there and take a look around; both his and Ann's articles are well worth following.

Back? Okay.

I'd decided to try out the Burning Wheel, a game that I would still recommend highly to anyone who wants a blend of traditional fantasy and tightly-focused, character-driven stories. Part of the character creation process in Burning Wheel is choosing three Beliefs for your character: short, direct statements about the character's motives, worldview, and goals. There's a mechanical side to the Beliefs (i.e., an in-game reward to roleplaying them), but that's less important to me than how they can be used by both players and GMs. For the players, they're ways of saying, "I want a game where these are important." For GMs, they're invitations to create plots that test those Beliefs and force the character to decide how far she's willing to go to follow them.

Going along with the three Beliefs are three Instincts, which are things that the character should be assumed always or never to do if the player doesn't say otherwise. Anyone who's done a lot of GMing will have run into situations where a player argues that his character wouldn't have left home without a knife, or would never sit with his back to a door, or wouldn't have opened that chest without checking for traps first. Instincts help solve that problem by listing those habitual actions, and also add a little nuance to the character: it tells you something about a character when one of her Instincts is "Never turn your back on a wizard" or "Always bandage my brother's wounds first after battle."

It was when I was planning my own Burning Wheel game that I realized Beliefs and Instincts could be used for settings and stories as well as for characters. From a worldbuilding perspective, Beliefs translate into themes. By writing them down, you lay out the fundamental ideas that you want to drive your plots, create conflict, and shape the questions that your story will address. By limiting yourself to three, you make yourself focus on what the most important qualities of your story are going to be, and give yourself permission to set aside things that don't fit.

Instincts, meanwhile, become the principles that give you some guidance when you're not sure where to go next. Chandler's Law would be an Instinct in this sense, as would Mike's Ninja Ambush principle—in fact, a number of common tropes would fit. If you're working out your plot and hit a wall, look back at your list of principles for inspiration and see how you can make them work to keep the story moving. By not setting more than three principles, you can help yourself avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by all the possible directions a story could go.

So think of this as an exercise for your current writing project, whether it's a setting for a game or a novel. What three Beliefs and Instincts (or themes and principles) can you write for it? Let me know if you find it helpful.

Here, by the way, are the ones that I picked for the Burning Wheel game that I finally ran, along with some elaborations that I wrote for each at the time. They worked well at the time, even if the game didn't last long enough to explore them all:


Kingdoms rise and fall not by armies or magic, but by hearts. The most important events of the world are motivated by passions—love, hatred, envy, greed, sorrow. Its past history is one of great triumphs, great betrayals, noble and infamous deeds. Its future will be determined by whoever has the conviction to change the world at any cost.

The only constant thing is change. Unpredictable magic can alter the landscape in an instant, and forever. The political world is filled with intrigues and counter-intrigues, revolutions and violent repression. Religions splinter, churches form alliances with nobles for power, then denounce them when they no longer serve their needs. The only balance to deep corruption is endless renewal and hope.

To be forgotten is worse than dying. Whether as the most heroic or the most vile, everyone seeks to make a mark on history. In a changing world, the only guarantee of being remembered is to excel at something, to sacrifice what one must to achieve one’s goals, and to do whatever is necessary to keep one’s place.


When times passes, plot a revolution. Whenever the world seems to be at peace, plan for the next upheaval.

Connect anything to anything. Any plot can be linked to any other, however unrelated they may appear to be on the surface.

Make nature the chorus of the human world. When the political world is in upheaval, the natural world is as well; when nobility triumphs, the natural world prospers.


  1. This is a good one, Geoff. I am quite certain at some point I'm going to link directly to this from Story Papers. XD

    Also, this gives me some things to think about not just for the Ingressa but also the stories I want to tell there. Very handy!!

  2. Glad you liked it. Thanks for the post that reminded me of the idea in the first place. :)

  3. Seldom do I read something so short that I feel like I took so much away from.

    1. I'm delighted to hear it. It's a minor epiphany, but sometimes small things can lead to great ideas.