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