Written by: Cathy, the Overprepared GM
Presented by: Worldbuilding Magazine
It surprises me sometimes just how many situations and problems can be described as a game of telephone, where a chain of people whisper a message from one to the other to see how much the message changes in the transmission. That’s my go-to metaphor for describing how information and ideas mutate as they travel from one person to another, from one node or form to the next. So when I started thinking about how worldbuilding works and, more importantly, how communicating a setting works, I realized it’s all just another scrambled game of telephone.
As we build and share our setting, it propagates through distinct creative modes. In a sense, these modes produce four different worlds, each distinct from the others in purpose, location, and details.
- The imagined world is the world the creator builds in their mind.
- The recorded world is the world the creator documents for their own use.
- The presented world is the world the creator shows the audience.
- The received world lives in the imaginations of the audience.
Dissecting worldbuilding this way lets us identify and fix many common problems that arise when trying to develop and communicate a setting. If we better understand how we build worlds, then we can more effectively build and talk about them. So let’s examine each of the modes in more detail.
The first world, the imagined world, is fluid and alive. Every time we have a new idea, this setting in our imagination can adapt to incorporate it. This fluidity allows the world to grow but also makes it susceptible to a lack of coherence. It’s easy to not realize that a modification on one part of the world conflicts with something that has already been established in another section. It’s also easy to consciously or subconsciously change the imagined world as we are exposed to new influences and experiences.
A gift of how our minds work is that they fill in details without any effort on our part. Indeed, we generally don’t even notice when it happens. When we perceive or remember something, our minds are optimized to note exceptional bits and then fill in the rest with known patterns. We remember by linking the new to the old. We notice change and ignore the rest. This habit of filling in details explains a number of cognitive phenomena, such as blind spots or The Kanizsa Triangle illusion.
We can hold living worlds in our minds by choosing relatively few details as a basis for a setting, and our minds will surround these chosen details with the images and ideas we associate with them. This allows us to experience the imagined world as having a richness and depth that’s not supported by our conscious choices. We can focus on a cultural reference and then perceive smells and sounds and styles that we connect to it in a sort of peripheral vision of the mind. The associations may be fuzzy because we fill them in subconsciously, but that fuzziness doesn’t matter because we’re not focusing on the associations, we’re only focusing on the consciously chosen features. Our minds would have a much harder time picturing a part of the world if we had to choose and remember every aspect crisply and clearly.
In order to impose coherence on our worldbuilding, we need the recorded world. Going from imagining a world to recording it is a process of crystallization. We document decisions, take notes, and flesh out details. This process helps the imagined world stabilize and grow by allowing the creator to work on it piecemeal. It also exposes the difference between what we’ve decided and what we’ve subconsciously assumed, as it’s easier to spot those gaps in the world’s logic once the details surrounding it are written down.
The biggest weakness of the second world is that it’s susceptible to versioning issues, of having newer parts of the world be out of sync with older parts of the world. The imagined world continues to adapt and grow even as we continue to nail down details in the recorded world. As we are exposed to new influences over time, the imagined world retroactively adapts to our changing world view. We don’t always notice these changes because we’ve changed along with the world. Once the recorded world is large enough or if enough time has gone by since we started, we need to regularly contrast later additions to earlier, “finalized” ones to ensure that they still fit into a coherent whole.
Creating the recorded world is a process that requires both the discipline to persevere on a huge and oftentimes tedious task and the pragmatism to say “good enough” and not try to record everything. No universe is so finite that it could be documented in its entirety. There is always more that could be decided and documented, so a relentless perfectionist may never be done recording a setting, even a very small one.
To bridge the gap between the original setting that lives in our own imagination and the final setting that lives in the audience’s imagination, we create a third world—the presented world.
If the process of recording a setting is one of crystallization, then (to continue the chemistry metaphor) the process of presenting a setting is one of infusion and distillation. We start with the recorded world we create for ourselves and then infuse it with the style and essence that is core to the recorded world—the essence that we never needed to document because it was such a fundamental property of the way we imagine the world. We infuse the world with sensory details and allusions, with humor and pathos so that the audience will enjoy experiencing it. The presented world describes the setting as it is meant to be absorbed and used by others, so it should entertain and inspire. It can combine written lore, verbal explanations, in-world narratives, concept art, music, mood boards, and maps. Anything that helps you tell the story of your world, really.
The process of creating that presented world is also a process of distilling the records into the absolute smallest practical portion. Of editing out the parts of the recorded world that the audience doesn’t need and of deleting notes that never quite went anywhere. Of hiding secret knowledge that would spoil surprises and of omitting spreadsheets and calculations that were useful to consider but tedious to read. Presenting the setting is about distilling the records into just its most useful, usable parts. If it’s impossible to comprehensively document everything about a universe, then it’s even more impossible to get an audience to read and remember everything about it.
So the trick to effectively presenting a setting is to help the audience understand the essence of the world so well that they can imagine their own details in a way that is consistent with your imagined world. To take advantage of the cognitive process that fills in blanks with known patterns. Evocation, not completion. That’s the key to the presented world.
Creating the last world, the received world, is entirely in the hands of the audience. It’s something we can influence through our presentation of the setting but not something we can build ourselves.
The process of receiving the world is one of filtration, absorption, and, hopefully, catalyzation. The audience filters the presented world through the metaphorical cheesecloth of interest, applicability, and usability. They choose what to skip, what to skim, and what to carefully remember from the presented world. They absorb that filtered information, and if it’s sufficiently evocative for them, it sparks in their mind. The chosen ingredients of the presented world catalyze the creation of a new fluid, living setting in their minds.
Like the imagined world, the received world resides purely in the imagination, combining the filtered details of the presented world with the audience’s assumptions and knowledge of genre tropes and historical cultures to create something new. This catalyzation fails if either the audience did not absorb enough details to spark their imagination or if the details provided weren’t associated with enough patterns that they could use to fill in the blank areas of the depiction.
This is one reason why familiar worlds (traditional fantasy worlds like the Star Wars universe or Lord of the Rings clones) are more marketable. We can reference the familiar tropes with relatively few details and have the audience fill in the blank spots in our description with a wealth of associated ideas. The reference doesn’t even have to be explicit.
For example, if we introduce a scene of a horned hunter leading the wild hunt, the audience may associate that Fae courts and a European landscape. Even if we don’t explicitly include those ideas in our presented world, the audience will include them in their received world. If we call the hunter Cernunnos, it cements the world as being distinctly Celtic-flavored without explicitly saying it, and the audience will fill in the blanks in our worldbuilding with whatever stereotypes and references they associate with Celtic fantasy.
However, let’s say we want a less stereotypical take. Maybe we want to build a Celtic cyberpunk world instead of the more familiar Celtic fantasy. We can use familiar details to evoke both Celtic-ness and cyberpunk-ness, but we need to take care to clarify which tropes we’re taking from which source. For example, if we introduce futuristic Fae corporations with an AI called Underhill, then we’re introducing bits of both tropes. However, if we then mention the Wild Hunt, the audience can’t know exactly how to interpret that. Is the Wild Hunt composed of human anarchists who convert or eliminate anyone who discovers their identity? Or are they a group of seedy, violent wild Fae who work outside the rich, corporate enclaves? Or do they represent the unspoiled nature that the corporate Fae left behind? Combining inspirations is a great way to explore a new type of world, but the further we stray from or invert an expectation, the more carefully we need to depict that part of the world.
And if we’re trying to create a received world that doesn’t rely on well-known patterns, then our job becomes even harder. The audience can’t fill in the blank spaces in our depiction with the right details because they won’t know them. That doesn’t mean they won’t try, of course.
Humans are unparalleled pattern-recognizers, looking to apply the patterns we know everywhere we possibly can. All audiences come with the baggage of their preconceptions. Don’t get me wrong, that baggage can be useful. The problem is that even when we don’t want them to bring their own baggage, they’ll try to fit pieces in wherever they can. Into any hole in our depiction they will eagerly shove a metaphorical floppy handbag of genre tropes and a laptop case of subconscious bias. They’ll fill in for themselves the details of society or ecology or cosmology that we thought too trivial or tedious to include.
The obvious remedy is to supply all those sensory details, cultural mores, names, institutions, and physical laws—everything that the audience might misunderstand—thereby creating such a complete depiction that nothing could be misunderstood.
However, the presented world can’t be this comprehensive. It can’t. The more you include, the less they’ll be able to completely absorb it. When we build an unfamiliar world, it still has to rely on evocation even when we supply the audience familiar patterns to fill in the details. We have to convince the audience to learn new patterns. To fully receive the world, they need to pick up this new baggage we’re trying to give them and add it to their overtowering pile of remembered associations rather than just connect to old patterns. Although it’s not literally heavy, lifting that baggage does strain something. The audience has more work to do than they would with a familiar world: more to filter, more to absorb, more to catalyze.
In the end, we have to be willing to accept that the received world will always be different than the imagined world and that the more innovative the imagined world, the larger the gulf between them.
The game of telephone we play to communicate our worlds isn’t perfect. We can try to speak slowly, to distill our message to the most concise and memorable version we can. But once it leaves our lips, it’s no longer ours. It becomes someone else’s message to consider and transmit.
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