World tendency, put simply, is the usual outcome for a situation most often in reference to video games, board games, and books (e.g. Fire-breathing dragons exist in your fantasy world. Most likely, nearby citizens will build their homes out of something non-flammable, like stone). World tendency has a lot to do with cause and effect, and it can play a huge part in either making or breaking a game, despite not being addressed often. This goes doubly so for world builders. As a world builder and DM, you are responsible for crafting not only a convincing world for your players to romp around in but also for making your world mechanically harmonic with the paradigms of that world.
Sorry, let me give you an example. Your human ranger is caught in the smoldering maw of a tower’s highest chamber as, below, a drake continues to spit lashes of flame in an unequipped town. You vault from the tower into a swan dive, and your DM asks you to make a DC 20 acrobatics check (since most world tendencies would state that leaping gracefully from a flaming tower would be quite difficult). Now you say that you intend to brandish your scimitar mid-fall and plunge it into the beast’s neck. You are asked to make an attack roll with some significant penalties because, again, doing this in most instances would be quite a challenge. You make the rolls, slicing through the drake’s scales and deep into its vertebra.
Congratulations: you are a badass. But what if that acrobatics check was a DC 5? Or you didn't take any penalties for attacking the monster mid-air? The easy payoff would not be nearly as sweet as the hard fought one, and frankly, it would seem a little contrary to how the world usually functions.
All this is to say two things. First, mechanical harmonics in world tendency is just a fancy way of saying, “Make how you work with the world compliment how the world works.” Second, I have 4 tips help you get closer to mechanical harmony.
1) “... Because Magic.”
Magic is an important pillar of any fantasy world, if not the most important. It’s what sets the general foundation for what can and cannot be done. A lot of roleplay engines handle the mechanics behind magic very generally, because there is so much possibility to unpack. As a world builder myself, I would determine the properties and rules of magic very early on. You can borrow Skyrim’s approach and think of magic as a latent power that most people can conjure up given the practice whether by study or natural ability. You can treat magic as something a bit more draconian, something mysteriously hidden from most of the population. Anything in between is a valid choice too, but the point is MAKE A CHOICE!
Recently, I was sent some info for The Dragon's Horde concerning a campaign about a kingdom plagued by dark wizards. According to the author, magic was a “pretty sparse thing” that was seldom seen and condemned when noticed, yet in the starting village the PCs had met a fortune teller, helped a pyromancer, sold an enchanted crystal, and had an alchemist infuse a potion with frost powers because the players thought it would be cool. The world tendency is laid out pretty clearly as being low fantasy, but mechanically, we see something completely dissonant from that idea. While you shouldn't deny your players things they like to engage with, there is nothing wrong with making them work for it. If you tell them, “Hey, not much magic in this world, buckos,” and they ask you for a frost potion, you are completely within your rights to remind them that they are playing in a world where you can't just pick up that kind of thing from Walmart… but you may have heard an old rumor of a witch who stashed a trove of potions in a chest deep within the forest. Harmonic, engaging; Gygax would be proud.
2) Death And Taxes
Death is something that has to be handled carefully in role playing games. Players get attached to characters, and it can be tough seeing them cross over to the other side. Some engines handle this very well; while others really fall short. Personally, I have a strong distaste for D&D’s “three strikes, you're out!” method of death saving throws. It feels so gamey, and it is completely inharmonious with world tendency. When your hero gets gored with a broadsword, in no universe would they lie there in a pile of their own intestinal tract and manage to survive by, what? Willing themselves to just not be dead three times? I hate to sound harsh, but it’s honestly a let down given how seasoned D&D is. Now of the flip side of that, let's look at Pathfinder’s death mechanics. Again, your hero has been gored on the battlefield. In Pathfinder, instead of concentrating your large intestine back, you war and roll against a slowly dwindling constitution score. Your constitution represents your hardiness, your physical ability to withstand blows, and your capacity for vitality. It has this beautifully evocative mood to it, and it is harmonic with world tendency! Hardier people (people with higher constitution scores) are going to be able to stave off the reaper for longer.
As odd as it sounds, it is for a similar reason that I feel the board game Monopoly is trite. Monopoly’s world tendency is congruent with its objective, that is: ride around and buy properties to make lots of cabbage. Why then are you punished with jail time, randomly, for following world tendency? You weren't breaking any in-game law. There is zero mechanical resonance. It's a tax, and it always feels contrived and undeserved. Now oppose that with Catan’s robber mechanic! A group of settlers struggle to raise a kingdom from the ground up, and they hoard their resources. In comes a robber, and they lose up to half of their goods, all on the roll of the dice. Both the robber and going to jail are a random tax that definitely aren’t enjoyable when they pertain to you, but one of them feels so much more intuitive. In Catan, the robber is a negative stimuli that encourages you to play the game intelligently by using your resources in a timely, efficient manner. Going to jail just feels like a slap in the face by Hasbro for buying their game. Death can feel very similar, if it isn’t handled with grace. Make it mean something narratively and mechanically; don't be a Hasbro.
3) Deus Ex
Another thing world builders have to contend with is determining the spiritual side of their universe. Deities play such a vital role in many fantasy worlds, and really nailing a pantheon down can be a huge boon to a DM. Determining world tendency concerning your god or gods will be your biggest aid in finding fitting mechanics. Are your gods meddlesome? Do they frequently make contact with mortals? Rolling percentile dice, to pray, fits that's world tendency very snuggly, and you, as the DM, can adjust the percent of success based on how likely you feel their deity is to say hello! Percentiles are also easy to understand mechanically by players as well. Sometimes D20s can feel arbitrary to newer players, and they may not really understand why they need to roll a 14 and to add 2 to their roll to contact Pan. However, if you say, “You're a religious guy, and Pan is definitely cool with how you have been rolling. You have a 40 percent chance that he will reply.”
Less involved deities may need a ritual to contact or summon them. Maybe your paladin needs to perform a certain act to garner attention from the spiritual force of her choice. It feels more fleshed out to have a player make supplication to a deity than to have them just dial their fantasy phone. Deities are not genies in a bottle, they are powerful spiritual forces and entities that are usually quite engaged with doing… god things.
4) Pearls (and a Kukri) Before Swine
Loot is great. Loot is fun. What’s more enticing than finding a glistening, golden sword stacked haphazardly on a mound of coins in a dangerous cave? Well, a lot actually, because people don’t really do that. Too often do DMs throw loot around like candy from a mentally incontinent geriatric on halloween without providing any context for it. Obviously, it would be safe to assume that it was placed there, but why? If someone was perhaps defending himself against cave dwelling baddies, why would he leave his sword behind? And if he died there, why is there no body? While questions like these may seem nit picky, little details (even explained in an implicit way) help to flesh out the world tendency. ANY TIME there is loot lying around waiting to be pinched by a player, you as the DM should know how and why it got there. I once knew a DM who had us running through a mountainous region as a sort of gauntlet, and along the way, we stopped in cave. While we rested, a few people decided to explore the small cavern, and what did they find? PEARLS AND A +2 POISON KUKRI! They promptly ran back to wake the party, and thus begins 4 real-time hours of searching for whomever discarded the opalescent orbs. Long story short, there was no person. There was no quest. There was no story. Afterwards the DM tells us how frustrated he gets when we go off on tangents every time he tries to give us the goods. What followed was a heated discussion on world tendency (someone had to have placed that perfectly good knife there) and the ecology of oysters…
Mechanically, the pearls make sense in that they are a valuable item that can be sold for in-game currency. That checks out. That’s definitely a great incentive for money driven characters, but it’s shallow. If a spade was just supposed to be a spade, why not have us find something more harmonic with world tendency like a clutch of crystals or even some small semi-precious stone? On the flip side, why not build a short quest from the pearls and the small knife, even if it is just a quick “find the body” kind of mission? Since rewarding your players with loadouts is an essential part of roleplaying games, you could use them as another tool in your belt to help bolster the game mechanically and narratively by diving into your world’s tendencies. Loot should always mean something in that way. If you keep throwing piles of gold coins on your players, eventually money just becomes a gilded burden. So to answer my previous question of, “what is better than a gleaming sword on a stack of treasure?”: forethought.
World tendency is probably a DM’s most valuable tool at their disposal. It allows one to create logical, universal consistencies that are easy for players to interpret. It also aids you in being able to predict their next move, which can be immensely difficult even for the most seasoned DM’s. When world tendency and game mechanics begin to harmonize, players and DM’s alike are more free to create and adventure since the understand how the world works and how to work with the world. In my (almost) ten years of experience, players stop asking for rule clarification as well, and gods know how quickly rule checking can halt the flow of the game. While this list is by no means exhaustive in ways you can synchronize game mechanics with world tendency, I hope you have found a couple ways to make your sessions a bit more harmonious!
Andrew Pendragon is the co-host and editor of The Dragon’s Horde where he puts over a decade's worth of role playing experience to work in his pseudo-narrative D&D advice podcast.
Image is courtesy of JESHIELDS: https://www.patreon.com/jeshields/posts
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.