May 10 2012

Worlds of “OUR” Imagination

I’m firmly in the house of world building with your players. I hear tell of the “this is the GM’s story and the players are just following” mentality. Is that still a mentality? Do people still play games like that? This whole idea of the GM deciding what game we play and then building their home brew world in a vacuum so the players can experience their creativity seems a little counter intuitive to the idea of the Role Playing Game, especially the sensibilities of the modern Role Playing Game. I would even argue the games people have enjoyed the most over the years, at any table, are those games with cooperative world building even if the group didn’t realize they were doing it.

Lets take all those people who’ve played the Temple of Elemental Evil, *SPOILER ALERT* the classic adventure written by Gygax and Mentzer. When you read it, there’s nothing there. It’s a town with some people who might have a motivation or two but most of them are blank slates. The moat house is also just a dungeon with a bunch of monsters, mostly intelligent, and Lareth the Beautiful, the shining hope of chaotic evil. It doesn’t say what his plans are or what he’s doing in the moat house with this small army of intelligent monstrous humanoids. There’s no story. It’s left up to the GM to decide and it feels like a mad lib. Some GM’s make decisions right away and lock into those without deviating from the story. Nothing wrong with that and I’m sure those players probably had a good time, but there are other GM’s who waited to see what the players did. By waiting the GM was inspired by his players choices and fed into them making the game about the players characters. These choices not only further the story but make the players feel like the story is about them, giving them authority to bring more ideas to the table and helping to flesh out the setting or build the world.

Think about the interactions the players characters had or could have in your Homlett. They probably created relationships and inspired personalities the GM hadn’t thought of. Maybe the black smith fighter PC decided to befriend the local black smith brother Smyth. They had conversations which brought up topics the GM latched onto and made part of Brother Smyths character. Maybe one of the PC’s got in Kobort the Fighters good graces and befriended him. Maybe this made the GM think Kobort might end up being more loyal to the PC than to Turuko, the Monk who Kobort worked with to ambush weakened adventurers coming back from their expeditions. This makes for a dramatic point where Kobort decides to not ambush the party with Turuko and part ways with him. Now Kobort is a loyal friend. This isn’t in the module and is a player helping to build the world or flesh out a character through their actions. These are examples of player inspired world building and they’re just two of the many examples of incidental world building I’ve seen at my table. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think GM’s have been doing this since Arneson started delving under Castle Blackmoor. From everything I’ve ever read and listened to about his style of play it seems about right. This incidental world building isn’t the only kind that has existed from the early days. In GURPS, you can take the Enemy disadvantage. You just created a foe in the world for yourself. It’s something you wanted and now it exists. That’s a little less incidental than the GM just cuing off players actions. The Traveler character creation system also has some potential world building involved with it. Your character can be older with a life path filled with character building experiences. Those experiences probably had interactions with people, organizations, and events. Even if the events and organizations are established by the setting the people may not be. These are things created because of the player.

Today a lot of RPG’s take this world building idea and give more control of it to the players and I think it’s on purpose. I believe RPG’s have more focus. With more games and media we have more choice. If you want a challenging dungeon crawl where you fear death around every corner and you want a less arbitrary feeling to the situation you can play Descent from Fantasy Flight or several other board games in the dungeon crawl category. This is because RPG’s aren’t inherently balanced to make for a fair play experience. RPG’s are built to allow you to tell stories. If you want mass battles you play table top war games like Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy Battles. If you want the story of being a heroic warrior wading through hordes of enemies then you play an RPG. If you want a game about managing a kingdom and dealing with the month to month of sending out armies, spies, and managing your kingdoms resources you can play board games or viedo games like Civilization or Nobunaga’s Ambition. If you want to focus on being the king and his court dealing with the intrigue, political manipulations, and interactions with the people around you and the story that unfolds then you play an RPG. It’s about story these days and part of the story is creating the setting your playing in. Games like the Dresden Files understand and do this well with the city creation system. The players get to help create the cities important locations, themes, and NPC’s from scratch. Dread asks the players a bunch of questions before the game starts so the fearful things in the game can surround the players. Smallville has a great system for creating relationship maps which build up the story of the setting. In a Wicked Age keeps things vague so the players can build upon the pieces. Fiasco is the same way. Roll up a bunch of elements, but let the players decide as a group what the world is really like and the people present in it. It seems the trend it to give players more authority over how the world is shaped.

One of the best tricks I’ve seen to get players invested in a world is to have each of them tell the GM about the lands they come from. Society, life, commerce, culture, whatever they want, but every bit the players give is a boon to the GM: It’s little less work, more creative material to pull from, and when the stuff a player created shows up at the table they’ll be more invested in those moments. That energy can and will infect your other players creating a win-win situation. I heard this trick from Chad on Fear the Boot. I also have been using this trick without realizing it for a while. Once and a while I ask my players for things they’d like to see in the game which gives me bit of inspiration to work with and lets them assist in building the world.

A lot of these ideas come from things I’ve heard, read, and internalized. Maybe they’re not for every one. I’m not above thinking I’m off here. Inventing relationships between players and NPC’s might not be considered traditional world building. Maybe its plot or conflict construction but I still think anytime a player engages in an activity which creates something, be it a relationship, NPC, plot, race, country, or world, I consider it world building. They’re creating history with every action. They’re creating something everytime they speak in character or act. I just think GM’s shouldn’t just listen to players when they’re acting but actively encourage them to build up the world right along with them.

As always feel free to comment. I love a good discussion and am always trying to learn more.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak


  1. Shawn Merwin

    When I think back to AD&D and early 2nd edition, it strikes me how little “building” a player could do of their characters. There were not of choices a player could make–especially to levels that we say with 3e and 4e. I feel this both allowed and encouraged players to take a more active role in building their characters through building the world. I’ve noticed with some players who have only played 3e and 4e that they are either not proficient or not interested in assisting in the roleplaying and worldbuilding and storybuilding.

    It used to be that if characters wanted to be political leaders or guild leaders or high-ranking members of other organizations in a world, there was a lot of give and take between the DM and the player in not just telling the story, but deciding what those nations/guilds/organizations were and what it meant for the player. Now it seems there is a ready-made theme or background or prestige class or paragon path or epic destiny which removes the necessity to do that work. These things don’t disallow such work, of course, they just don’t encourage it.

  2. Robert Ferrick

    I would agree with this by and large, I don’t know of any instances of the first kind of GM that I have ever experienced. Mostly what I do is provide a world where events occur and people live. The players then can go off in whatever direction they like, though things get wierd fast if I start improving.
    I made the mistake of putting a gladiatorial arena into an adventure once and the players ended up spending the rest of the session drinking beer and betting on the fights…which I then had to make up largely at random. There was one player who had no interest in this and went off on his own and nearly died. So a certain amount of guidance from time to time is not the worst thing to ensure that everyone gets to actually play.
    The best way to get players involved in my experience is if you can have them write up a detailed back story for thier character and maybe even run them through a breif solo adventure in which they experience some of the key moments in their character’s life. This helps to give them both the control over who they are pretending to be and an opportunity to create a personality outside of the particular group they are in.

  3. Shawn Merwin

    Great commentary, Chris. I think back to my AD&D and then early 2e games, and one thing I remember as a player and DM is that the rules for players did not allow for a great deal of character customization. In other words, the players did not have to make a great deal of choice about their characters abilities like there is in 3e and 4e. This meant that players who wanted to make choices and develop their characters had to do so more through the story and the roleplaying. This change of focus to “character-building” gave players a lot more control of their own characters, but I think it also allowed players to focus less on the team storytelling that was a feature of early D&D (and other games). When I’ve tried to run more story-based games with players who have only known 3e and 4e, I’ve seen a lot of pushback. Sometimes it is a lack of understanding that they can affect the story, and sometimes it is a lack of desire to do so. Why take the time to become a political leader through roleplaying when you can just take the theme or background or paragon path or epic destiny that makes you a king or queen?

    The methods you talk about are great ways to get the players invested and thinking in a storytelling mode though.

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