Way With Worlds: The Odds

bridge forest trees

(Way With Worlds Runs at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

I’m not quite Han Solo. You don’t have to tell me the odds, but I’d like a good sense of them when it comes to your world.  But I do look good in leather.

When we play a game or ready a story, intuitively, we need to know the odds. If it’s unlikely someone can survive a fight with ten well armed Knights of The Singularity, when they win it makes us wonder how. If someone is ethnically and racially different than we expect in a game world, the impact of that difference is felt if we understand just what it means. Likelihood – and lack of likelihood – is something that we need to understand to get what something means.

I think this is instinctive to humans, and even more so in people with a vague sense of math and probability. We’re always evaluating, re-evaluating, projecting, and understanding. When math is part of our lives, even moreso. Either way, it’s human.

So the odds need to be part of your world. If they’re not, then you may be in for some problems.  If you can’t express the chances of things happening, then your world isn’t going to make sense.  People won’t be able to grasp what’s going on as their natural ability to evaluate can’t find anything to hold on to in order to make sense of the world.

(Even if you do know the odds, you might not use them right)

Lets talk what the odds are in your world, how to use them – and how not to overuse them.

Odds And Ends And Beginnings

In your world, there are percentages of people in a profession, chances for success and failures, things that change over time, and so on. Your world really is a collection of odds and potentials, of likely-won’t-bes and will-bes.  You might not think of it that way, but a world is potentials and realizations

You need to know these potentials and likelihoods and un-likelihoods in order to build your word, tell your story, make your game, or whatever. Chances are you’re doing this already, but let’s talk making it conscious – by being blunt.

THE BLUNT PART: You need to know the odds of important things in your world so your world and storytelling mechanisms are believable and your world is understandable.

You don’t need to know the annual economic output of every kingdom (unless you’re into that). But it’d help to know the chance hyperdrives malfunction. Or what percentage of the population is Wood Elf versus Dark Elf and what that means. In short, the basic odds of what’s going on that are important to everyone.  Specifics and obscure stuff you can always figure out as needed or extrapolate on.

But you need to know the important odds.

Why? This is why:

  1. Major elements of your setting and story do revolve around the odds. If someone is a cyborg ina world where cyborgs make a small percentage of a population, then them rising to prominence will be noteworthy. Your readers/players will feel that impact if they have an idea of the odds, and you as a writer will remember to write it properly.
  2. These are reminders to you, as noted in the last element. Knowing the basic odds is a reminder of how to write people, settings,characters,combat, etc. If you remember a Fusion Disruptor Halberd is a weapon that most people hurt themselves with, you’ll remember to include that in the story, have a character learn how not to hurt themselves, or have someone accidentally decapitate themselves with technology. Whatever, at leas you’ll remember. Odds are reminders of what can and should happen – or how it might not.
  3. Knowing the odds makes you think. Having process the odds, contemplate them, and review them helps you know your world.  If you realize your world has a low literacy rate, you realize how literacy affects characters. If your setting has a plethora of alien races, you realize any cast of characters will be very diverse.
  4. They act as firewalls to stop bad ideas. Knowing the odds of things in your world keeps you from being tempted by inappropriate ideas, tropes, and so on that may take you outside of the bounds of your setting.  Knowing something is unlikely and unbelievable can keep you from doing worldbreaking things no matter how temping they are.

Remember you don’t have to know all the odds, just enough to make the world work . . .

Some Examples Of The Odds

So lets talk the odds of things you may want to know. I can’t cover everything, so here’s some places to start.

* Economics. This may be as simple as knowing which Kingdom is richer than the other, or how many tons of metal is shipped offworld each day. Economics is often part of many tales, even if we don’t see it, so knowing at least the basic odds helps.
* Demographics. Distribution of age, races, education, genders, and so on has vast effects on any setting. If your worldsetting has an aging population and few births, or a war has changed the gender distrubution, then it is going to have a radical effect on your story. In many cases demographics is the story – and Demographics and Economics are often intertwined . . .
* Experiences. On a personal level, a person has a chance to be this ethnicity, this education, and so on. Knowing how the demographics translate to personal experiences helps you write characters better. Frankly it’s hard to separate the two, but I call them out due to scale.
* Setting. What percentage of land is farmable, how far away is the dungeon, how many warships can fit through a wormhole.?The basics of your setting, from the weather to the known limit on a Hyperspace gate, are all important as they affect what can be done, or what must be done.  The Setting in many ways is where all odds come from.

Again it all comes down to asking questions – but with some math involved.

Of course you know the math, but other people . . .

Characters And The Odds

Ever do something and think you couldn’t? Or discover you were wrong about the odds something would work. Of course you have.

Now your characters in your setting are in the same boat. They are viewpoints on your world, and those viewpoints may be really radically misinformed about things – like, say, the odds.

In short you have to know how your characters see the odds. They may know them. They may not know them. They may have very wrong ideas about them. They may even be well informed and still be rock-stupid in some cases.  This affects how they act, what the results of their actions are, and how your tale is told in your chosen medium.

So when you figure out the odds, one things you have to know is how your characters perceive them – and realistically thats almost certainly less-than-perfectly (by the odds, as it were).  You have to code them or write them that way or they will be less believable, your story less engrossing, and your world less engaging.

After all if they knew everything, there might not be much of a tale – unless of course that is your tale . . .

Speaking of knowing, let’s get to . . .

Your Audience And The Odds

Your audience on the other hand should never see the odds directly unless it’s appropriate.

Sure if you’re making an RPG it may be appropriate to show raw numbers (though I’d love to see RPGs with a bit more ambiguity around the math). If character is a statistician or an economist, or if certain odds are part of their life, it makes sense to talk about them. But if you go too far telling your audience the odds, it really feels inappropriate.

Talking odds sort of pulls away the curtain.  It may be informative but it’s sort of distraction rom what’s going on. Seeing the math in the wrong perspective sort of takes you out of the world and makes you realize it’s a construct.  You don’t want to do that.  You want people to discover, not get lectured.

You as a worldbuilder and as a person telling a world’s tale have to figure how to communicate this. That’s up to you – so keep it in mind.

Onward And Oddsward

So, know the odds. Get an idea of what’s going on. How much is kind of up to you, but it’s important to start anyway.

I do recommend writing these things down in a worldbuilding record. It lets you refer to them, review them, and in a few cases, decide when not to talk about them or which character has them radically wrong.  Know them – then decide what to do with them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.