We’re All In This Together

**Warning** The following post is a lot more rambling than a lot of my other posts. Caveat Lector.

Lately, I’ve become enamoured of co-operative world-building for games.

As an idea, anyway.

I’ve been reading Mortal Coil, and listening to the That’s How We Roll podcasts about building the setting for Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints. When my friend Clint started his new D&D campaign, he threw it open for the players to create chunks of the setting. And that was fun.

My long-running D&D campaign is wrapping up next weekend, and another game I run is going to be wrapping up in a few (3-4) months, so I’m starting to think about the next game. And I’m toying with the idea of building the world collaboratively.

I’m torn, though.

Here are the pros, as far as I’m concerned:

  • Real buy-in from the characters. If they make something up, they’re going to care about it.
  • Ideas I could never have come up with. Other people are going to think of things I never would have, and that’s going to create a world with a different flavour than I would have on my own.
  • It shows me, as GM, where the players want the focus of the game far better than just getting them to tell me.
  • The players will have a better knowledge of the world they created than if I create something on my own and expect them to read it. ‘Cause I know that some of them won’t.

Here are the cons:

  • I’ve got to live with the results, even if I don’t like them.
  • Fewer surprises for the players.
  • Players need to make a bigger up-front investment of participation than they may be used to. They have to want to do it.
  • Some may create more than others.
  • I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

In the middle is the question of verisimilitude: Which way makes the most real-feeling setting? The one with the single, unified vision or the one with the wider range of input? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I probably won’t until after I try the collaborative method. Maybe not even then.

Different approaches address the issues in different ways. Mortal Coil uses a co-operative set-up of a Theme Document to set the generalities, and then a chip-buy process in game to add facts during play. With the resource-based way to add facts, it means that each player has the same ability to influence the world, and those who jump in first wind up with less ability to jump in later.

The question method used in the Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints makes sure that each player (including the GM) is forced to contribute a certain amount. This gets everyone’s input, but it can put some players on the spot, and it means that certain players may not want to take part.

In my friend’s game, he threw out a large number of pieces that we could take and flesh out, if we wanted, and provided some rewards to encourage us to do so. This led to pretty much everyone doing at least a little creation centred around our characters, though some did more and some did less.

I think that it’s fairly necessary to come to a collaborative session with a foundation to build from; Mortal Coil builds this with the Theme Document, while in the other two examples, the GM brought the basics and others embellished. Clint had a much more solid world built, leaving a number of niches to the players, while the Evil Hat folks had much less of a filled-in structure to start with.

Of course, depending on the rules set you use, you may find some of the particulars of the setting dictated by the rules. If you’re building for D&D, you either fit in all the D&D stuff, or you have to explain why it’s not there to (or with) the players. A more open rules set, like FATE or Mortal Coil, lets you build the rest of the game on top of the setting, without having to worry so much about that.

I’m greatly enamoured of the Mortal Coil world-building, but I absolutely hate the resolution mechanic. If I were to marry the world design with FATE, possibly using FATE points in place of Magic Tokens, it might work. The one downside to the Mortal Coil world system is that it’s hard, really hard, for the GM to prep anything before the setting building, because there’s nothing to work with yet.

On the other hand, if you design too much of the setting, and the campaign story, before hand, it limits the meaningful input for the players. So, another dichotomy to resolve.

We did some collaborative setting building in our DFRPG playtest, producing Magical Winnipeg. It was quite a success, though we did it mostly by e-mail, with me collating and parsing all the input.

We’ve also really embraced collaborative character creation, in pretty much all our games, to make sure the character types work well together, and decide why we’re together, and to help each other with our ideas and concepts.

I realize that the right way to create a campaign is whatever way produces a fun game. I know I can build the standard kind of campaign and have it work. Now, I’m toying with the idea of building a collaborative setting to see how that works out.

I dunno, though.

Any input from you folks would be welcome. What do you find good/bad about collaborative setting design? What methods do you use? How much of a foundation do you start with? What rules sets do you game with? How does it work, or not? Talk to me.

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to We’re All In This Together

  1. Rechan says:

    One thing you can do about the “If the player decides it, I’m stuck with it” is a “Yes, AND…” prospect.

    For instance, a player points at a part of the map and says, “This here is a haunted forest.”

    Then you (or another player) can say “Yes, it’s a haunted forest, AND… it’s haunted by undead treants and corrupted/undead dryads.”

    Then another player can say “AND there’s a fire cult that wants to burn it down, who are at odds with a druid sect who want to cleanse and heal the forest.”

    Granted, any of the “Yes, AND” you, the GM, can decide independently (as you know, a surprise). But it gives you some leeway.

  2. Lon Sarver says:

    I’ve been pondering similar questions.

    It strikes me that the “cons” you listed need not be drawbacks at all. Aside from what Rechan said above, you have as much right as any other player to say, “No, that doesn’t work for me. What if we _____ instead?”

    Will there really be fewer surprises for the players? So someone declared that the Forest of Trood is haunted. That doesn’t mean that the players know who it is haunted by, or what exactly is going on in there. It’s not so much that there are fewer surprises, just bigger hints.

    Yes, this kind of world building will require a bit more up-front work from the players. I wouldn’t get fussed about making sure that everyone does exactly the same amount of creative work, though. Some folks simply won’t want to do as much as others, and will be perfectly happy to let someone else do it. I listened to the FFF world creation podcasts, and I noted that some folks talked more than others, but at the end, everyone seemed happy with the result.

    Consider your role as GM in this kind of thing as an editorial position, as much or more than an authorial position.

  3. lunch4worms says:

    I did a little setting creation session for the game I’m running now. I had started with a rough brush-stroke description of four settings and let the players vote on one to use (or “none of the above”). They picked one unanimously.

    We then set out to do Fred’s Question and Answer technique to flesh out parts of the world (Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints). Problem was, my players like to brainstorm, riffing off each other’s ideas. They more-or-less collaborated on each answer. I took notes on the questions and answers and made sure everyone asked at least one question.

    I did veto a couple of aspects of a couple of answers, and let one or two things through that I wasn’t 100% comfortable allowing into *my* view of the setting. In the end, though, I wish I hadn’t vetoed the answers. It’s a fun exercise to pull the different ideas together.

    I wouldn’t worry about the “shared secrets” angle here. The players aren’t making the adventure, they’re making the setting. The players did indicate the existance of a couple of secret societies in the world, but I’m taking that to mean that they want those kinds of bad guys in the fray. But I’m not someone who is going to drop a fully-realized occult order on the players because they go through the wrong door.

    I’d say it’s worth it. Just be willing to let the crystalized setting in your head melt a little.

  4. One of the things I did in my latest campaign is allow players to contribute to the secrets of the world in character creation. Here is how it works:

    First off, in our group we have the concept of ‘The Bribe’. I think this was Rick’s idea first [at least in our gaming circle], but I was doing something similar previous and quickly stole his version for my own games. BTW, if you don’t rip off ideas from other sources, you are missing out – use movies, books, other games, other GMS and players ideas. Whatever improves your game.

    Anyway, in character creation, the GM offers The Bribe, whereby players get bonuses [in our d20, it’s things like an extra feat, a stat bonus, cool equipment, etc] in exchange for the player coming up with something that helps define their character – 3 pages of back-story, a few NPC write-ups, a story about how you got that cool equipement from The Bribe, that sort of thing. I added the option to add ‘secrets’ to the world. These are ideas that the players know about the world and the characters might know or will find out in play. Trouble is, as a player you don’t know how they will be used. That’s up to me. But rest assured, I will use it sooner or later. They might be legends, rumours, adventure seeds, or actual events. maybe more than one of the above.

    So, a player submits a cool story about a giant king of ancient times, seduced and betrayed by a mysterious woman. In anguish, as he is cut down by the enemies she arrayed at his door, he tears his heart from hisd chest and hurls it into the sea. Supposedly, at that spot there now exists an ill-fated isle that fills locals with dread. Cool.

    Initially, I had some trouble with this story – because it conflicted with what another player had previously posted about the locale and people, and with some history that I had previously posted as canon. Then I remembered the way I had intended to use these secrets and reassessed the story. First, it tells me a bunch about the kind of stories that player wants to see. More germane to how I can reconcile the inaccuracies with the established parts of the game – is it a legend of that part of the world, that contains some elements of truth garbled by intervening centuries and cultures. Maybe it wasn’t a giant, but some other powerful figure of old, maybe the enemies who brought him down were not ancestors of the current inhabitants of the locale. The locals just ripped off the legend and applied their own frame of reference to it. Maybe there is no truth to the story other than that the island mentioned is nasty and awaiting intrepid explorers.

    The thing that I liked most about it is that I couldn’t have come up with a better legend if I had tried. If the players research it, the layers of truth and myth can peel away like layers of an onion, to reveal whatever I want. And the players gets both the fun of adding to the world and the mystery of not knowing how it is going to come into the game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.