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.