On Muffins as a World-Building Device

Several years ago, I started asking video game playing friends the question, “Can I eat a muffin in [new game]?” usually followed by, “Is there a video game in which I can eat a muffin?”  At the time, I wasn’t very interested in games and was asking just to be annoying, but it turns out that because being able to eat a muffin is several levels above the typical level of realism in games, it almost works as a metric for the breadth and complexity given to mundane activities in the game.  Video games generally don’t focus on mundane things like baked goods — for good reason — so even if consumable items make sense in a game mechanically, they don’t usually warrant differentiation to the point of including recognizably different pastries.  However, theater-of-the-mind games, such as tabletop roleplaying games, have virtually no limits on the breadth and complexity of possible actions.  Furthermore, if the GM (or whoever created the world) so chooses, the process of obtaining and eating a muffin can answer a lot of questions about the world of the game:

  1. Do muffins exist?  Clearly this is vitally important to a game.
  2. What goes into muffins?  If there are blueberry muffins or banana muffins or chocolate chip muffins, then the blueberries and bananas and chocolate chips have to come from somewhere; maybe they’re local, or maybe the economy lets bakers import ingredients.  Maybe unique local fruits and flavors show up in muffins.  Maybe the people of this world have dietary restrictions that forbid particular ingredients, or maybe they can only afford some of what is potentially available to them.
  3. Where are muffins sold?  Muffins might be sold in muffin shops specifically, or restaurants, or grocery stores, or general stores, etc.  This could indicate where people typically eat muffins — in a restaurant or bakery, or at home, or on the go, and alone or with others.  Muffins might be an everyday food sold in grocery stores, or they might be a special occasion food sold in muffin boutiques — and the kind of special occasion that warrants muffin boutiques could show what is valuable to the people of this world.
  4. Who eats muffins?  Maybe muffins are a luxury and only rich people eat them, or muffins are bad and only poor people eat them.  Maybe most people are somewhere in the middle and it doesn’t matter.  A cultural divide between religious or ethnic groups might also be marked by which groups eat muffins, or what kind of muffins they eat.
  5. Who bakes and/or sells muffins?  Baking might be an activity for old women or young boys or newlyweds or any other group, depending on gender roles.  Homemade muffins, compared to professional or mass-produced muffins, could indicate anything from low esteem for muffins to low technological capabilities to baking as an art form.  Mass-produced muffins means that not only is there mass-production technology, but also either lots of local demand for muffins, or food preservation and transportation technology.  It’s possible that environmental factors or the government could put tight restrictions on muffin trade, but because muffins spoil quickly, the mafia is not likely to be involved in the muffin business.

Of course, you could do this same exercise with any number of ordinary objects.  Most of the time, this level of detail isn’t remotely necessary, but it’s an interesting way to think about the complexities of world-building.  Contextual clues like the whereabouts of muffins can take imaginary worlds to whole new levels of realism.

Thanks for reading!

— S. Jack


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