Lessons in World Building- As one builds a world, it is easy to focus on the cool bits. Sourcebooks meant to showcase such bits include fanged beasts, fun items, and vibrant locales. But what they sometimes lack is character. What do we know about a place if not for the people (or lack of people) that reside within? An abandoned region may be interesting if the reasons for its abandonment are explored. More importantly, an inhabited region is only as interesting as those inhabitants.
I like to point to several Rifts sourcebooks for this (e.g. Rifts Japan; Triax and the NGR), but there are other offenders as well. Ultimately, the character of a location is the way in which it reacts to the players. Are the peasants god-fearing crucifix clutching worry-warts? Is the lord in the keep a stern man with disproportionate machinations and compunctions? Is the nearby forest cluttered with dangers that keep causing disappearances?
Anyone can present an archetypal creepy location, but giving it character is really what makes it shine. One thing that I have always enjoyed of Dream Pod 9 (though which was notably absent in their 3rd edition of Heavy Gear) was twofold; an attention to the overarching sci-fi inspired story, and a very careful curation of interlocking characters and personalities.
The Heavy Gear Character Compendium is among my favorite sourcebooks for that reason. I own it twice (three times if you count the pdf copy). At that time, very special consideration was being given to the living and breathing world of the Heavy Gear setting, and it showed in spades. There was a sense of history, purpose, and the implacable march of destiny bound in the description of the setting’s major players.
But neither did that take away from the sense that you as a player could play a part. These people were not Elminster, they were simply important figures that shape the world into something compelling for players to enjoy. It treated the world as an organic social ecology that begged for interlopers, which made for a lush environment that welcomed players to partake in the intrigue more than even the mech fighting.
In hindsight, that may have been something of a weakness for the game, but the implementation of the setting and its characters was top notch in my book. But that is why I’ll always pick a rich setting over a novel premise. I may need to know how many buildings are in Town A, or what the local militia can bring to bear in case of emergencies, but those are not the details that bring a setting to life.
I want to know the plight of the people, the attitude of the leadership, and the mood of the town. The other information is great, but can only be invested with meaning if the character of a location is properly expressed. Is your town full of people with depth of character, or 1d6x5 townsfolk that fill rote positions?