It started with Dragonlance. Well, not really. It started with Pendragon. No, Glorantha. Tekumel. Worlds.
Crack open Empire of the Petal Throne you’ll notice that the game wants to be about the world, but is a bit hesitant to go there. The game assumes you’re not a Tsolyani citizen. You’re an outsider, getting to know the culture. You could be anybody. And what do you do? Tekumel’s got dungeons. The dungeons exist for specific reasons — Ditlana, the ritual of destroying and rebuilding, the tunnels of the ancients, the hives of the Ssu — but they’re dungeons, and you explore them for loot and weird rooms. Clan affiliations and culture clashes exist, but the game assumes you’re cracking open dungeons for profit. For the time, this was an entirely sensible thing. D&D didn’t talk about designing worlds, and of course Tekumel isn’t the easiest world to learn.
(Purists, please forgive the lack of accents in all the Tsolyanu language.)
But there was an instinct to design them, and a culture making them from the start, even if Greyhawk just used an upside down map of North America. Krynn was the first published D&D setting to take charge of fundamental facts about your character, so you had to treat it as more than a way to string dungeon crawls together. Goldmoon is the first cleric in an age, and signals the return of the gods and the war to come. Raistlin must wear red robes, and carry the marks of his wizard’s trial.
The first rule of a deep story world is that it gives your character a distinctive place. You’re not this world’s implementation of a generic type — a fighter who could exist anywhere, for instance. So Ars Magica’s wizards belong to the Order of Hermes, live in covenants and govern themselves according to specific traditions. Shadowrun’s magic is hermetic or shamanic, and represents a natural power battling with technology for ownership of the characters’ bodies. Masquerade vampires inherit the curse of Caine.
The second gives story worlds to a history that matters. Ars is about the apex of the Order of Hermes, after it’s suppressed rival wizards and integrated some of them as houses, but tensions still exist. Shadowrun takes place in the Sixth World, after events that could be catastrophe or eucatastrophe, depending on who you are. Wraith measures ages in Maelstroms.
Third rule: Deep story worlds are unstable. Something’s about to upend assumptions. Covenants totter toward Winter. Gehenna looms. Dragons run for President, for God’s sakes. Sometimes it’s metaplot, but it might be nothing more than an emergent effect of character actions.
Games included these elements before the 1990s, but AD&D 2nd put world design into its rules for specialty priests and its DMing advice, putting it into the heart of play. The games I noted hit prominence at the same time. Even Cyberpunk, a game written as a love letter to a genre, turned Night City from a Gibson reference to a place that could be mapped. It invented cyberpsychosis and a setting apparatus to deal with it, and extended other parts of itself into a place with a story.
It’s not easy to create a deep story world. Anybody can make a campaign that works for them, but tying the whole experience of the game to a setting raises the stakes. You need to make it interesting for everybody. Furthermore, you need to put the kind of work in a typical GM can’t do themselves. You need to convey what it’s like to live in the world and answer questions before they’re asked, or you lose. It’s so hard, in fact, that modern games don’t bother with it much. They’re “toolkits” or like Pathfinder’s Golarion, a throwback to when worlds were just where you kept generic characters and stories.
We can do better, and sometimes do. Supplying the supplies to build your own house is fine, but things like Stolze’s Progenitor are mansions. Let’s see more mansions.