So, I noticed something during the great Invasion Debate. Lot of people talking about how large factions were pointless because planets under their influence were never used again and nobody ever developed them again. Much of the discussion on smaller major factions was about how it might motivate people to do more stories on their planets and lead to more in-depth worldbuilding, as if this was something of the highest importance and greater value than everything else going. I've seen the trend in a ton of major factions lately. Just take a lot at the fancy pages where it has everything about a faction, from their economic system, philosophy of government, all like a Stellaris faction.

None of it matters and, honestly, isn't useful for a freeform collaborative role-playing game.

I get it though. Worldbuilding is a ton of fun. The impulse to encyclopedic worldbuilding is very strong with me. Just check out my World Anvil. Please, don't. That could be embarrassing. Okay, so first, let's define what I mean by encyclopedic worldbuilding: the urge and desire to "fully" develop a certain setting in all aspects of the world, ranging from economics, religion, logistics, history, and all that. There are large movements in the sci-fi/fantasy community that have elevated this to a key component of the genres. Which, is fair. New and exciting worlds is part of the appeal. It draws me in all the time. But here's an article why that is less than helpful in the broader genre writing scheme. And an expansion of it. Both of these are deeply valuable criticisms of the current literary world about why it can do more harm to writers than good to over-build their setting (There's a reason the term infodump exists, for example, and is often applied to fantasy writers early in their career).

Worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding is fun. I get it. I do it a ton. Like I said, I've got World Anvil, and I have a grandmaster-level account, which is way too much money for the ability to have way too many worlds. (I have four worlds existing on World Anvil, if any of you were curious- low fantasy alternate post-Roman Arthurian Britain with Fae, a 20s & 30s pulp hero world that grows into a superhero world, a traditional high fantasy world adapted to the 17th century and inspired by the Jacobite rebellions, and a science-fantasy space opera... now see? I've already gone off on a tangent about my worldbuilding)

Here's the problem. It's the same problem that affects new TTRPG designers. They want to create a fully fleshed-out world for their game or to offer their setting as fully developed as possible. Too much worldbuilding takes the agency away from the players and potential GMs. It doesn't leave them any room to make their own stories. The worldbuilder has already told them all. Player/writer agency is foundational to strong engagement and personal investment. They need to both actually have and feel like they have a fair amount of control and choice about how they interact with the world. Otherwise, it's just them playing in somebody else's playground. Railroading, at least partially, comes from here.

What about Chaos? We don't have any gamemasters running things (for which I am deeply thankful). How is any of this relevant to major factions, invasions, and how I started this article? Factions, more or less, function as TTRPG campaigns. Think about it. Writers join them for the community of other writers/characters and the promise of an overarching storyline, albeit not one ruled by the narrative structure of traditional long-form fiction in most cases. Instead, there are a series of episodic adventures (dominions and faction threads) usually, but not always, organized and run by faction staff. Take a look at the proliferation of NPC narrator accounts. Those function almost exclusively as accounts to handle NPCs, opening scenario posts, and handle NPC villains. Players sign up for these adventures and go through them, sometimes getting rewards and the development of personal stories. (Invasions are what happens when there's a con in town and your DM's old college buddy and their game group playing come over for a massive crossover between the two parties)

More than that, faction owners/staff create the structure of the faction, which is where all my tangents come together. Leading factions are hard and there's so much to do. Creating a structure for people to operate within is important. People like structure. It's why we have routines and societies with rules of law. (Dig into the psychology of boundaries and ritual if you're curious about this. It's fascinating!) Structure creates points for people connect to with their characters and write their stories around, as well as providing the shape of the overreaching story and suggests the kind of threads.

Where we run into problems is when we create too much structure and organization, especially with details. They fill in all the blank spaces in the faction-world (thinking of a faction as a campaign setting), leaving little room for other writers and writers-yet-to-come to make it their own. Instead, everything is already laid out, and it can potentially become a question of "how can i fit a character into this structure" rather than I can tell an exciting, fun story with these people and these ideas (Disclaimer: it's happened to me more than once). Some people like everything fully detailed and worked out, which is fine, I get that. Different structures for different folks.

Here's the second reason. Stories and factions on Chaos are too fluid for that level of detail. Factions change and grow with every thread as the story changes and circumstances mold the narrative strands. It's possible to try and do one thing, but that doesn't mean it's actually reflected in the threads. Which is the real version? The codex entry? The faction page description? Or what happens IC in the threads? Highly organized and structured faction organizations are attempts to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. There's no power in it outside of what actually happens in threads and even those aren't binding on other writers. Let's take OPA for example, since that's what I'm most involved in and have been part of longer than any other faction besides the original GA. Technically (theoretically?) there is a sort of unifying government, but I can't remember the last time anything like it has ever appeared in a thread. Would it if it was more developed? I doubt it. None of the stories in OPA are involved with or include a centralized government. It could be a chicken or the egg thing, but I don't think so. The way threads and characters tend to envision things makes it unnecessary. So, again, which is more important? The threads or the idea?

This is already longer than I wanted, so time to wrap up. Leave factions flexible and capable of organic development. Don't hold to a strict interpretation of a vision and leave faction development in the hands of faction staff. Give writers agency to make the faction their own. Give guidelines and structure, but let people play with the structure and make bits and pieces their own. There aren't any gamemasters here and there shouldn't be. Also, this isn't a text-based Stellaris/Hearts of Iron strategic nation-running game.

TL;DR: give faction members more room to make factions their own by letting them shape the faction and its various pieces rather than the faction shape being completely determined by staff.

TL;DR 2: we're not writing novels and short stories here. worldbuilding does not equal storytelling nor is it equal to better, more developed stories (Star Wars film worldbuilding is terrible and the EU only makes it more impossible).

TL;DR 3: Factions are fluid entities that exist in a continuous state of flux. Embrace it. Let faction descriptions and structures reflect that by being descriptive, since any prescriptive descriptions will be outdated and obsolete after a handful of threads. Want a more vibrant and evolving map/faction game? Embrace the fluidity and change inherent in entities that only exist in cyberspace, sustained by the collective imaginations and ideas of many different individuals

TL;DR 4: Write stories, not encyclopedias.

Stay tuned for more essays by someone procrastinating on their Master's dissertation and too invested in narrative and world-building theory

ADDENDUM: this is mainly focused at major factions, but really the point is to give other writers the agency and freedom to become part of the narrative and part of the world building.