Player-Involved World Development

What do you mean by world input, Joann? Well, this article is about involving players in world development along side the GM’s thoughts and any of the work they do. Most of the time, this portion of world development is done on the fly rather than with forward planning (except perhaps with any done in Session Zero). It is both a rewarding task because players that are involved and invested in the world are less likely to do things to ‘change’ the world. It’s frustrating as well, because you’re building with a committee and often people don’t agree. However, as a long time GM and now content developer (and that feels weird to say), I feel that the benefits of having a think tank far outweigh any negatives.

So, entering world development from the beginning… We’ve recently reviewed Arium: Create which is a really handy book to involve your group with. Both Josh and I found it fun and to be a good mental exercise. We have even used it or parts of it a number of times to help work out ideas or to get our creative juices flowing. Even if you don’t use the entire step-by-step process, the chapters on the small details can really help with bringing a city or town to life. You can also use the Essential World Building book from Scribe Forge and the worksheets it contains for helping with the creative process.

However, that article has been covered. This time, I’m going to focus on including the players after world creation; developing it further. Not just overview but the nitty details. Once upon a time, long ago and in a galaxy not so far away, we used rollable tables for everything. From character history to character location to in the case of Travel, actual character creation. One of the most useful ones Josh had was a set of three books by Paul Jaquays known as the Central Casting Series: Heroes of Legend, Heroes Now!, and Heroes of Tomorrow. The Traveller Roleplaying Game is another excellent example of this, and in the process of character creation, there is plenty of opportunity to collaborate with the GM on subtle detail that affects how the character will interact with the setting. Times have changed, though. Now, we don’t have to use the rollable tables anymore. We can instead do the thing called discussion and talking. Along with fire and the wheel, the ability to talk has brought us a long way.

For this discussion, I’m going to pull some inspiration from Invisible Sun, Cypher System, and Blades in the Dark. During Session Zero of Invisible Sun, you create neighborhoods and neighbors for your characters. You can incorporate this during the game as well, when the characters move from one location to another. This helps flavor the world with who is around your character and what the world is like closest to them.  Cypher System includes things like Character Bonds, who are they closest to in the party or outside of it. However, Blades in the Dark handles this in some of the  best ways I’ve seen.  This game is almost entirely player story driven. I say almost entirely because the DM sets up who they contact, but not necessarily the description or sometimes not even a name. 

Josh and I have now played in a number of games for Blades in the Dark, the biggest thing we’ve noticed is that the GMs all tend to follow a pattern when it comes to world creation. Duskvol is an entire city, with residents, distracts and people within it. Instead of focusing on the big picture, you focus on the little stuff. While a GM needs to be familiar with the factions in the game, the only ones they need to particularly focus on are the ones that directly impact the characters and the factions the characters are working with. The core rulebook emphasizes that the goal here is to make it feel like an episodic show or a movie. Thinking in terms of camera pan or zooming in or out of a scene is actually a really good thing. Movies and shows draw us in with vivid scenery, sounds, and such that evoke emotional responses. That is where the goal lies.

So, when you’re in-game, and you have a new scene, bring your players into the descriptive process. For example:

GM: “You have managed to infiltrate the ball of the Count Jasper, an influential financier of the Bluecoats. Hank, from your right you hear a rather boisterous gale of laughter from what looks like a group of partygoers. What do they look like and what are they talking about?”
Hank: “Well… um… I think there are three of them, two men and a woman. They are both trying to impress her. The men are both wearing tailored suits, though of different color: one black and the other a cream. She is wearing a light green dress and has a flute of champagne in her hand, though its untouched. I think they’re probably talking about the latest gossip about the Dimmer Sisters and the vast hordes of demonic servants they must have at their beck and call to do the things they do.”
GM: “Are the two men drinking as well, or did they get the drink just for her?”
Hank: “No, they’ve got drinks as well. It’s a party, right? Liquid courage and all…”
GM: “Works for me.”

This is obviously just a snippet, but it serves to illustrate the point. Hank’s description may or may not have actually given the GM an idea for a complication or a plot twist later on, and if not, the detail may not find a concrete purpose, but the fact that it is there now adds flavor to the party and immerses at the very least Hank more into the session and the fiction.

When you’re running the game, ask your players, “Who do you see? What does it look like? How does this section of the city/wilderness/building feel?” It can be as simple as them describing a street, a building or even an NPC to as complex as them describing the town their character grew up in. In a home game of Numenera by Monte Cook Games once, our son decided that his entire town was turned blue by a mysterious Numenera effect. A bright, neon blue, including the people (yes, like Smurfs). So his task was to discover what turned the place blue and how to fix it. Some other specific examples of such questions that we have personally seen in games we’ve played are:

  • “What do the vials and their contents look like?”
  • “<insert substance here> is commonly used for <insert purpose here>, but what strange recreational use does it have?”
  • “What does a <insert member of a faction here> wear to signify that they are a member of that faction?”
  • “What defining feature on <insert NPC here> makes you uncomfortable right now?”
  • “Your meeting is interrupted by the arrival of <insert NPC here>. What do they look like? Why are they always late?”

I am going to state it’s normal to be nervous about including people in world development. Particularly strangers, after all we’ve seen how some people can use their power to create unwisely, particularly in naming things. “Boaty McBoatface” comes to mind rather rapidly, though Josh would suggest that the random naming mechanisms on Dwarf Fortress lead to some rather hilariously ridiculous fortress and caravan names. I was nervous the first time I decided to include the players in world development, but now, I can’t imagine not having them involved. My players often tend to come up with more interesting world concepts and NPC quirks than I do and I love making use of them to enhance the immersion at my table. Give it a try and see if it can work for you too. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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