Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This

Setting and defining rules and limitations is a crucial part of creating good, solid worldbuilding, whether it's science fiction, fantasy, or even just something set in the world as we know it - so we're going to go over just why this is so important, and what you need to do in order to do it properly.

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Why you need to set and define rules and limitations.

Setting down rules helps you keep everything consistent. Inconsistencies make it hard for people to suspend their disbelief and hard for them to maintain immersion. Plus, inconsistencies tend to lead to some awkward questions down the road. ("Why didn't they just do that thing they did earlier in the story? If they can do this other thing, why didn't they do it earlier when it would have been REALLY helpful? And what happened to that one rule they had to follow? Hey, wait, that's not how that thing works!") Overall, these issues make it hard for people to believe in and enjoy your story.

Rules are also important for keeping your story suspenseful. If people know that a dragon spells trouble because it's an extremely territorial beast with fiery breath, they'll be in suspense wondering how the heroes bottlenecked at the bottom of the dungeon are going to avoid getting toasted and eaten. But if they know that you're the kind of author who will change the rules on a whim and that the dragon might just offer them tea instead, they'll know that the heroes might not be in the slightest bit of danger. You can't build suspense if people come to expect shenanigans like this!

Limitations add challenge, complication, and balance to your stories and/or games that keep them suspenseful and dramatic. Without suspense and drama, there's no interest. With no interest, boredom sets in and people start leaving. Limitations also prevent your setting from falling into an out-of-control phlebotinum arms race, which is one of the last things you want on your hands. You shouldn't have to constantly be powering up or buffing your characters or factions to keep them competitive and competent; otherwise you risk running into a couple of problems that make it nigh-impossible to make interesting and fresh plots.

The first problem is that the scope and scale of the conflicts become so large that what's at stake can only be conceived of in the abstract - and abstract ideas are very poor at evoking emotional responses. People will feel more emotion over fifteen characters they've come to know and care about being put in jeopardy than they will feel over an entire galaxy inhabited by faceless zillions being put in danger. It's not that your audience is necessarily okay with the idea of an entire galaxy being destroyed - it's just too abstract for them to really feel any emotion over. For this same reason, a story about a conflict fought by only a small handful of people can be much, much more powerful than a story about a war fought by armies hundreds of thousands strong.

(This is not to say that a good story can't involve huge-scale stakes, but you don't want to end up trapping yourself in a spiral of power escalation that forces conflicts to become so huge that your story starts losing its connection to the individual people and places that got people caring about what was going on in the first place. Plus, if this is the only plot you can do anymore, it starts getting predictable and repetitive.)

Some creators try to stem off phlebotinum arms races by nerfing elements in the setting. But optimally, this is a situation you should rarely, if ever have to get into in the first place, as doing so means that you probably didn't think things through well enough during the development process. Figuring out limitations can help you avoid having to nerf your stuff in the first place. Phlebotinum-Development Questions can also help you along this line.

The other main problem is audience desensitization. Powering up or buffing a character/faction now and then can impress your audience and throw a new complication into the plot, but if you're constantly doing it people will grow numb to it. Furthermore, if they feel like you're doing this instead of giving them a genuinely interesting story and characters, they'll probably get annoyed and leave. For more information on preventing audience desensitization, see On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast. For information on keeping your settings interesting after giving someone a power boost, check out Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers.

And if you're running a roleplay, it's also important that players have a clear understanding of how things are supposed to work. It lowers the odds of ending up with players creating OP characters, characters with nonsensical backstories, and all that. It also lowers the odds of players trying to have or use things that don't exist in the setting, or trying to do or use things in a manner different from how they're supposed to work in it. It's much, much better to make sure your players understand how things work before they get into the game than to have to correct them on it (and possibly get into a big, nasty argument over it!) during the game!

Basically, it all comes down to this: rules and limitations don't make your story or world "boring." They keep it interesting and fun!

First, define what your stuff does and how it works, especially the core rules.

The core rules of your universe are any rules or laws (whether natural or legal) that concern and govern the major/important fictional elements of your universe - IE, the fictional elements that your main characters will be dealing with on a regular basis. A few examples of what these elements might be include:

Magic: Who can use it? How does it work? What risks are there in using it? What are its limitations?

Agencies and organizations: What are their goals, both short-term and long-term? What are their codes of conduct and ethics? Where do they have jurisdiction to act?

Creatures and species: What notable features do they have? How do they behave? What kind of variations are there between individuals? What are they vulnerable or susceptible to?

As an example of how you can create a well-defined rule, let's say that you've created a rule that "magic comes with a price." This is not a well-defined rule at all - it's so vague that it could mean a lot of things you may or may not have intended. If you've got co-creators or people writing under you, they'll likely all end up interpreting it a myriad of different ways, which will lead to inconsistencies and plotholes in the finished product. And even if you're just writing by yourself, you still run the risk of forgetting how something worked exactly and contradicting yourself somewhere along the way.

So for this example, what you'd want to do is define precisely what "magic comes with a price" means. What kind of price? How and when is this price paid? Are there any loopholes or exceptions, and if so, what are they?

Do this for anything particular to your universe, particularly the stuff that's going to play a major role in it. Be as thorough and unambiguous as you can.

Now, define what your stuff does not do and how it does not work.

Far, far too many people overlook this one, but it's vitally important! Besides the reasons mentioned earlier, setting limitations is also incredibly helpful because it gives you a better-rounded (and likely more logical) overall picture of your world, and encourages you to think up more creative solutions to the challenges you give your characters.

As one example of limitation-setting, let's say you're creating an agency that's supposed to neutralize super-dangerous paranormal threats. Ask yourself what kind of cases your agency does not handle. For example, they might not take on hauntings where the ghosts aren't actually hurting anyone, because that would be time and resources spent not going after the stuff that is hurting people - which is what they're supposed to be doing.

Is the agency government-run? Then you'd want to add "international cases" to the list of things they don't cover, either - at least, not without a very good reason, and not without clearing it with the other country's government first (unless they're willing to risk starting an international incident if they get caught!).

For another example for how you might go about setting limitations, let's say you've designed an alien race. You've decided that they're immune to regular bullets fired from the average handgun or rifle, what with their tough skin and bones. Now, write out what they aren't immune to. Sure, they might be able to shrug off a bullet from a police officer's pistol, but that doesn't mean that armor-piercing rounds would just bounce off, let alone a rocket. And they might be otherwise susceptible to some pretty ordinary things - EG, temperature extremes, poisons, oxygen deprivation, etc. Work out what you want the upper limits of your stuff to be, and write it down.

It's also important to give limitations to weaknesses, too. For example, just because you can kill a vampire by stabbing it with a silver knife doesn't mean that it should die or be horribly injured from being jabbed in the arm with a silver fork, even if it does graze the skin a little. So figure out where you want the lower limits of your stuff to be and write them down, too.

You should make sure that you spell out the limitations as thoroughly and unambiguously as possible, especially if you're not the only one writing for this universe. It's happened before that people have taken advantages of areas where limitations weren't explicitly described to beef up their personal favorite characters, races, or phlebotinums to OP levels. It's also happened that people have taken advantages of poorly-described weaknesses to turn enemies that were actually challenging when first introduced into little more than mooks and cannon fodder.

Find a place to write down and organize everything!

It's important that you write all of this stuff down somewhere because it's easy to forget things. So here are some options...

If none of these seem right for you, try searching the Internet for "free word processor" or "online word processor."

In any case, once you've got everything written down, you'll have it to refer to when you're writing about a particular thing in your story - so you won't end up making a mistake somewhere or find yourself having to fudge it!

In summary!

Also, check out:

Keeping Magic From Taking Over Your Story
Keeping Shapeshifters From Getting Overpowered
Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers
How To Write Powerful & Extraordinary Characters Without Being Obnoxious Or Boring
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)

Where & How Writers Need To Do The Math
Phlebotinum-Development Questions
Fantasy & Science Fiction Creature Development Questions

On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!

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