The Balance Between Story-telling and World-building

I’m coming to realize that I have a difficult time with combining world-building and story-telling. Whether it’s in my game or in my personal writing, I find myself failing to successfully fuse the two.

In the case of Cirsova, I’ve done a lot of world building, but never figured out a Narrative to put there to the point where there is no story other than the implication of a decaying empire obsessing over a dead empire.

In the case of the game I’m running, I feel like I have a story to tell of a wicked king who intends to reclaim his kingdom from beyond the grave, but, in part because of borrowed setting, my world-building feels sparse and lacking.

It helps, though, to know that I’m not entirely alone, and even some of my favorite authors have had the same problem. I just finished reading the first novel in LeGuin’s Hainish cycle, Rocannon’s World. The worldbuilding (a 4 mooned backwoods planet in the intergalactic federation is inhabited by warrior humans riding flying cats, telepathic cave-dwelling troglodites, their above-ground cousins, and giant insect-men) is great. The story (an ethnologist’s expedition is destroyed by bad-guys wanting to use the planet as a badguy base, so he and his native friends must find the badguy base so they can get the federation to drop a bomb on it) is kind of meh. Still, it’s an enjoyable book.

Seeing that even my favorite authors sometimes struggle with fusing story and world-building, if anything, makes me feel less alone.

23 responses to “The Balance Between Story-telling and World-building

  1. A bit of GM advice I found years back said that for every 3 things you make for your players, make 1 thing for yourself. Often, the story is what the PCs (protagonists, whatever) are doing while the world-building is what the GM is doing.

    I wonder if the 80-20 rule applies. 80% of the story comes from 20% of the actual content. It’s a problem I return to periodically but I don’t feel I have the tools yet to really tackle it. Days, weeks, months, … who knows? 😉


  2. If it makes you feel any better, I have the same problem when it comes to writing stories in my world the Arcane Realm. I get so caught up in putting a new element into the world, I end up neglecting to writing a story with it. Even when I come with a premise for a narrative, I often work more how the story plays in my head that writing down. One way I recently found to remedy the situation is by starting with a character and buildijg them up. After that, a narrative usually flows from that, then I satisfy the world building urge.

    • Really, one of the best ways to introduce an element IS to write a story about it. I’m trying the character approach right now in a side project I’ve been working on, but I’ve found that the lack of direction has bloated what I’d hoped would be a novella into a brick (80,000+ words and maybe half finished).

      • I remember two stories in particular, which illustrated how the Laws worked:

        – In the first, Those Two Guys need some selenium for something and the robot they’re working with is… not the best for the job. I think they wind up re-purposing it from its original job. The “solution” if I remember correctly, was they had to somehow “trick” its programming into “fetching” the selenium.

        I don’t remember most of the details but it had a big personal impact for me, because it helped underscore how literal computer programming is a lot of the time.

        – In the second, some really expensive robots had the Second Law (don’t allow a human to come to harm?) “un-prioritized” because they silly things kept jumping into some Gamma radiation — at low levels that devastated robots but didn’t harm humans — to “save” their human coworkers.

        One of the robots “went rogue” and Those Two Guys had to create a logic puzzle to catch the rogue doing something in self-preservation. As I recall, the logic puzzle had to do with creating “fake” gamma radiation…


      • Y’know, I think that might be one of the characteristics of Asimov’s writing that, while I didn’t particularly enjoy him, sets him apart and you’ve helped me put my finger on it. He wrote his science-fiction stories as a programmer and AI researcher: they existed to explore and prove concepts and solve logic problems. Often, for this purpose, the human characters needed to be nothing other than troubleshooters for talking out the solution to the problems by logically eliminating false solutions until a correct solution could be found. I found his writings (at least those that I did read) high concept but dull, and devoid of humanity, One thing I noted about the film of I, Robot was that it felt more like a Philip K. Dick story than an Asimov story.

        He came up with a lot of really great ideas that I found were more interesting in other media. Sort of like how even though I couldn’t force myself to learn C+ or Java, I really enjoy a lot of things built with them.

      • Curiously, your reaction is the same as what I usually hear when I mention the short stories about “Those Two Guys” Asimov wrote.

        I’ve always enjoyed puns so they don’t really ‘stand out’ in my memory as being particularly offensive. I’m left wondering if I actually read the same stories as everyone else (and just ignored the puns), or if perhaps I only read and remember “the good ones.”

        Then again, the logic puzzles all play out like mysteries and I enjoy both mysteries AND logic puzzles. They were all programming-related and… there may be something else in there that appealed to me that no one else liked.

        It’s one of those odd recurring things that seems peculiar to me. 😛


      • I think now that I enjoy mystery stories more than when I was a kid, I might have to re-read them someday to give them another chance. It’s just that his stock character felt more like stock characters than the other stock characters in the crappy pulp I was reading. Y’know, if one went in and made all of his scientist A and scientist B the same characters, they could be rewritten as adventure of the week style super-heroes and given a Saturday Morning cartoon show.

      • I think I just remember another one of his that I enjoyed.

        The scientists built a FTL drive and ran it through a computer for practical testing, but the computer rejected the method and so it was abandoned because the method proved fatal to humans so the scientists tried to work out an alternative solution.

        Maybe it was Those Two Guys again, or maybe it was someone else, but the protagonist(s) of that story worked out that the method proved TEMPORARILY fatal to humans — but in the same way that a sneeze only temporarily causes a number of bodily functions to shut down.

        Once they eliminated the ‘temporal’ factor, the computer was able to provide practical information about the method — and then later revisions to the FTL method proved to minimize or eliminate the “temporary death” factor.


      • LOL Software QA fan-fiction. I don’t know if I’m thinking “awesome” or “I don’t want to take my work home with me.”

      • The better episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion were all Nerv trying to discern the weakness of the Monster of the Week before dispatching it.

        In retrospect, the characters were just messed up and not particularly interesting. :/


      • Ugh, NGE… In retrospect it was more interesting as an example of cultural appropriation than it was entertaining.

        It really holds a mirror up and shows how weird it looks when you take a bunch of another culture’s religious and philosophical texts completely out of context to serve the purpose of your narrative.

      • If you ignore the bizarre religious references, I think it’s mostly a mystery show. Each Angel is a nigh-invulnerable Eldritch Abomination.

        “What is it’s weakness and how will they exploit it?”



      • The annoying part about it (and many similar animes) is that while there’s a mystery element, so often the characters “get it” and loudly proclaim that they do so, while never elucidating what IT is.

        It would be like if at the end of The League of Red-Haired Gentlemen, Holmes declares that he’s solved the mystery, but instead of explaining it to Watson, Jesus comes back riding a flaming pegasus and knocks the building down.

        If they played up the mystery of the weaknesses of the angels and made that the focus of the show rather than Kabalistic end of the world gobbledy-gook, you’d end up with an interesting series, I think. The focus would be a quest for a unifying theme (besides heretical judeaism) behind the monsters and a way to stop them (that doesn’t involve references to the Tree of Sephiroth).

      • I actually think that this style of “mystery” in sci-fi anime exists to help market supplemental books that “explain” what’s actually going on so you can make sense of it. I remember there was a pretty hefty companion tome that went along with the original Xenogears that cost a pretty penny and was really one of the only ways to understand all of what was going on.

        When the first Evangelion movies were released in Japanese theatres, for about $10 a pop, they sold little books at a table in the lobby to explain all of the symbolism and what was going on.

      • One of my friends got me to watch a few episodes of one anime — Ghost Hunt, I think? — which I found really tedious. I think it followed pretty much the same format, but it had the pacing of DBZ… the characters would take two, or three, or sometimes four episodes to resolve a particular haunting.

        Come to think of it, the better episodes of Inuyasha that I saw revolved around figuring out a particular demon’s weakness and exploiting it…

        And then a few episodes of Mononoke…
        And the episodes of Melody of Oblivion that I enjoyed…
        And episodes of the Ninja Scroll series…

        You know, I think a big reason why I got into (and then out of) anime was probably because it provided a “Mystery of the Week” that I couldn’t find reliably in American/western television. “Supernatural mystery.”

        Of course now that I’ve burned out on anime, I have no interest in the recent crop of western supernatural mystery series. I watched Supernatural for a while — and got out of that when the mysteries got boring and samey.



      • Of the supernatural mystery series I’ve seen, I actually really enjoy Medium. It’s got a lot of out of left-field stuff, though, so by later seasons you find yourself almost wishing that they were doing a rote “lady talks to a ghost to solve the murder” story every once in awhile. The overarching mystery of the series becomes why her husband is still with her and stays so supportive after all of the crazy awful stuff centered around her.

      • I watched Medium for a while and enjoyed it. I stopped watching after the first or second season… and recently saw a random episode from a later season that struck me as really bitter. It made me glad that I didn’t keep watching but I WAS glad for the episodes I saw.


      • Probably the weirdest part of the show was how they finally had to start treating the youngest daughter as a character rather than a prop; she had grown up over the show, and even though they pretend that she’s 4 by the time she starts talking, the girl is clearly 8.

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