I’ve seen a lot of talk about this lately, and its relevance to rpgs. For those of you afraid of following links, sf writer Mike Harrison has declared worldbuilding to be dull, unnecessary, and futile.
First, what he has to say is about writing – and reading – not about roleplaying. He claims (note that I did not say “He argues.” as there is no argument) that worldbuilding cheapens the act of reading, stifling the imagination of the reader. While this might be relevant to certain styles of roleplaying, roleplaying is – for most people – a social experience that requires a shared world.
Second, he’s wrong. I don’t mean that he’s completely wrong. Worldbuilding may not be necessary. It often isn’t, particularly if you depend upon common tropes. It is neither dull nor futile, however. The claim to futility is clearly a straw man. Yes, a complete worldbuilding exercise would be impossible – but we aren’t looking for completeness of an impossible level. What are we looking for? Well… in fiction J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert are usually set up as great worldbuilders. Was either The Lord of the Rings or Dune dull? I didn’t think so. Yeah, I have trouble with Tolkien sometimes, but that is due to his use of dialog.
Moreover, worldbuilding can be fun. Sometimes, particularly for people interested in rpgs, worldbuilding is an end in itself. At its best it is a separate art form – and is occasionally recognized as such.