Monday, February 15, 2010

Collaborative World Building

A term that gets bandied around a lot while discussing RPGs is "collaborative world building".  D&D has a reputation as a game where the DM has created a world and the players get to run around in this world - in this model, the players may change the world through their actions, but they do not create the world; creation is the sole province of the DM.

One simple way to upend this model is to change how you as a DM react when the players ask questions about the world.  If a player is asking if there is a clockmaker in the town, instead of referring to your notes and saying, "no", take this as an opportunity to allow the player to share in the creation of your world.  Unless there is a damn good reason not to have a clockmaker in the town, why not say, "Why yes there is.  The old man you are asking points you in the direction of Treston the Tinkerer, who makes clocks among other strange devices."  The world just got that much richer, a new plot hook was born (maybe Treston makes clockwork automatons as well as grandfather clocks) and the player is that much more involved in the world because the things that he wants to find in the world are there.

Remember that no matter how creative and detailed your vision of the campaign world is, there is always room to open it up to include what the players want as well.

 A small example from the 4e game I DMed last Friday:  After catching a giant halibut and cleaning it on the beach, a player asked, "Is there anything in the belly of the Halibut that I just gutted?  Like a ruby?".  Rather than simply saying no outright, I gave a small (5%) chance that there would be something of value in the huge bottomfeeder.  I threw the percentile dice out where everyone could see and got a two!  Just like that, the player was rewarded for his creativity and a new plot element was born - I told him he found an uncut emerald, so now it has been established that there are emeralds in the area.  The halibut was caught in a bay that a huge river washes out into, so in all likelihood the emerald probably was washed down from the mountains in the river.  Several plot elements could be born from this moment of collaborative world building, from a prospector discovering more emeralds in the mountains, triggering a mad scramble to collect the valuable gems and possibly drawing the ire of the reclusive inhabitants of the mountain valley being dug up, to a thief attempting to steal the d30 sized uncut gem from the players.

This example also shows another trick that I like to use that makes the players feel less like the DM is minutely controlling every part of the world - the use of the dice in situations that could easily be simply decided by DM fiat.  I normally try to resolve random things in my game world by quickly stating the possible outcomes and throwing dice where the players can see.  Did someone get knocked unconscious while standing in shallow water?  Grab the d6, 1-3 she lands on her face, 4-6 she lands on her back.  Little things like this really help to shift the game away from a "the DM controls everything that happens and the players are little more than passive spectators while the DM's plot unfolds" to a "lets play this game together and have fun" model.

And that's my two copper for the day!


  1. "Remember that no matter how creative and detailed your vision of the campaign world is, there is always room to open it up to include what the players want as well."

    "...shift the game away from a "the DM controls everything that happens and the players are little more than passive spectators while the DM's plot unfolds" to a "lets play this game together and have fun" model."

    As they say in Latin, Carl, "Rem acu tetigisti" - you have touched it with the point of a needle. Your first point exemplifies what I've been saying for a while; that there is ample room within this philosophy for both top-downers and those who prefer to work from a single hex and fill in the blanks as they go. My world, although pretty detailed, is only done in broad brushstrokes - the players can fill in the details. As long as there is no good reason not to do something, why say No?

    And regarding your second point, it must come as a blessed relief to DMs to realise that they don't have to do everything and that in fact they can have the burden lifted from their shoulders in the most fun way.

    There is still a bit of a mental panic when the DM realises that he has to somehow bring to order all the scattergun suggestions and ideas that arose out of gameplay before the next session.

    On a personal note, I'm sorry if I came across as something of a grouch over the weekend on the other post; perhaps I'm a bit confused about the purpose and direction of the OSR. On the one hand, I've got folks trumpeting the virtues of the retroclones and trying to push sales and recruit newbies to their particular imprints, dissing 4e as they go, and the other hand, good folks like yourself showing that in fact it's more about playing STYLE rather than edition. I just get the impression that 4e is rules-heavy and handcuffs the DM and players just at the very point that OS luminaries like Jamie Mal and Chgowiz say they should be free to fly.

    Anyway, apologies again for leaving muddy footprints on the carpet, figuratively speaking.

  2. A most enlightening post. I must admit to having been a bit of a control freak when it came to my game worlds in the past. Not in an overbearing ogre my way or the highway sort of way, but in the protective mother sort of sense where I guarded my "baby" of a campaign world with a bit too much zeal.

    I tend to write my game worlds with a lot of theme and depth and sometimes forget that I need to allow players room to actually play in them.


  3. This is so fundamental a truth, I suppose I thought everyone always runs games this way.
    --Finding that this isn't the case is more of a mind-blower than vice-versa.

    I'm glad that it is getting its spotlight, and I am happy that your group gets the benefit from it.


  4. @ Timeshadows - yeah, that is kind of how I used to think as well. Then I played as a player in some groups where this was not the case...

    @ Daddy Grognard - no need to apologize. You did not come across as a grouch. I do think that attempting to define the old school movement is tricky at best, and no less a figure as James over at Grognardia has publicly stated that any attempt to do so is doomed to failure. As far as getting people to try old-school games, bashing 4e is the worst way to go about it (IMO). No one likes to see a game they play denigrated. It is far more useful to talk about styles of gameplay and what game mechanics encourage those styles - for instance, while it is certainly POSSIBLE to have a roleplay heavy, exploration focused 4e game (and I hope to run just that), the 4e rules are more focused on balance between characters and providing a tightly engineered combat system, so they may not be seen as ENCOURAGING this style of play. If a group wants both 4e's char gen and combat engine AND an "old-school style" gameplay, OD&D or a retro-clone is not going to be for them. But if they are really after that style of gameplay and don't really care if they have hundreds of power and feat choices, nor do they worry if each member of the party can contribute equally in combat, then this discussion of play style might get them to try an older edition.

  5. @Carl: Oh, I understand the corrupting influence of those with less access to their own creativity. They will literally suck the life out of one, if not guarded against.

    +3 Shield of Creativity Protection. ;)

  6. I think part of the problem that I am reacting against with this post is that there is plenty of advice in DM's Guides and elsewhere along the lines of "Say yes to your players". Unfortunately, that advice is normally couched in the context of saying yes to the players when they are asking about doing specific ACTIONS. Saying yes when they are asking if things exist in the world is another thing entirely, and in many ways it is more rewarding to discover that the world is as you envisioned it than to discover that your character can act as you envision.

  7. Thanks for that, Carl. You're beginning to open my eyes to what 4e is all about, and how it appeals to the gaming constituency that it is intended to serve. MMORPG players may well come to it and find that it ticks all their boxes. However, talk of powers and feats is a bit of a foreign language to me, and it has been noted on other blogs that 4e seems to codify and formalise what in earlier editions was left more up to the individual DMs and players to thrash out between them.

    It was certainly not my intention, nor has it ever been, to bash 4e. I'm not aware enough of its mechanics and ways to do that with any degree of credibility. However, what I think I was saying on the other thread was that people who are encountering D&D for the first time when they walk into the FLGS or wherever should at least be presented with a choice of iterations of the game. With the increased market penetration of the retro-clones, we might just see that.

  8. Yeah, I'm with Timeshadows. Sometimes an idea is just too obvious--then someone comes along and writes a great blog post on it!

    Thanks for laying out what some of us take gor granted and others could greatly benefit from being exposed to. :)

    I don't usually do this, but:

    Word Verification: "Psidar"--sounds like a Gamma World/Mutant Future mutation power to me!

  9. When I was but a lad, I studied theatre rather extensively. All good thespians undergo initiation into the world of Improv at some point, and this post crystallizes the first lesson. It's known as the "yes, and..." principle. The 4E DMG touches on it, but as you said, tends to imply players' actions, rather than the players' effect on reality. But if you allow someone else's idea to enter your reality, then build on it - good improv ensues.

    Cutting off your compatriot's suggestion with a negative tends to ensure that you will have less compatriots shortly. (Although it can be funny. A famous improv anecdote has Joan Rivers pulling a "no" to great comedic effect. In a scene involving a couple deciding whether to get a divorce, her partner said "What about the children?", to which she replied "We don't have any children!" The audience loved it. Her partner hated it.)


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