Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Shared World

Some years ago, I read an article in Pyramid that had a profound effect on the way that I world-build. Time has erased both the article’s title and the author, so if anyone knows the one about which I write I’d appreciate a memory refresh so I can give credit where credit is due. The article was one in a regular series of columns by a Pyramid author and in it he revealed one of his storyteller tricks that he uses in his WoD games.

The premise is simple enough. Since the game world is one shared by both the Storyteller and the players, allowances should be made for input by the players to help mold and flesh out the overall world. To this effect, in his games he allowed players to construct world canon on the fly during gaming sessions. If a player had a person, place or thing in mind, one that wasn’t already stated by the GM notes, the player could introduce that element into the game narrative. If the GM thought it added color or didn’t affect the overall game balance, he’d make a note of this contribution on a 3x5 card and it would officially become part of the game world.

After reading the article, I immediately took to this idea and started implementing it into the way that I build the campaign world. I’ve mentioned here that I used to suffer from the misconception that a referee needs to be the sole author of his game world and should have a deep and rich campaign, even if that meant going so far as to flesh out all the little minutia of his imaginary world. That attitude has changed over time and this article had a lot to do with the start of that changing mindset.

Obviously this method of opening the game world up to the players requires both a clear set of limitations as to what would be an acceptable player contribution and to be able to trust your players not to abuse this creative license. They should know that there’s a big difference between their characters saying, “I’ve heard there’s an old man who lives down by the river that can decipher old maps. His name starts with an ‘S.’ Sharad or something like that,” and “I heard that Crazy Marduk’s is having a sale on magical items. Staves of the Magi are 100 gold each this week.” Once the players are aware of what you’d find acceptable, however, it opens the playing field up to some truly unique creations. I still have NPCs, shops, taverns, adventure locales, and saints floating about in my campaign that spawned from the brows of my players. As a referee, you’ll also need to be comfortable gaming by the seat of your pants, since many of these player contributions are created on the fly and need to be implemented into the game world almost immediately.

This opening of the game world is something that tends to happen anyway, especially if you’re one of those referees who require your players to come up with detailed back stories for their characters. By officially recognizing player contributions, you’re making the fact that you allow players to do some of the heavy lifting of world building much more visible to them and it encourages the players to help with the process. This leads to them having a greater investment in the world you all share, which has its own rewards. It keeps them coming back to the game each week and it allows the referee to continue to be surprised by his own creation, and that keeps his interest high and benefits everyone.

I personally used the 3x5 card method, although I usually transcribe my hastily jotted notes about a player’s contributions onto the cards after the game has ended. Some folks would prefer another method to record these bits of world-building (message board, blog, campaign wiki, etc.) but as long as a permanent record is kept, the rewards of this method are much greater than the effort expended to create them.

I realize that not every referee would be comfortable with opening up his or her campaign to player input. Some actually prefer the challenge of keeping all of the world’s secrets and trivia hidden behind the screen and to maintain a rough illusion that they have all the answers. At one point, I might have fallen into this camp. But as part of my goal to break my bad habits that were formed in the past, I’m much more laissez-faire than I used to be with my world. I now readily invite visitors to it to leave their own marks behind. If you’re not completely comfortable allowing your players to share the reins on such a large scale, you can always start small. Ask one of them to describe the room they’re staying in at the local caravanserai or to explain what the chest they just discovered looks like and go from there. If the players seem to respond to the idea and you like the results, consider allowing them a little more leeway in what they’re allowed to contribute. Chances are you’ll start to warm to the idea. Just never make this idea of player contributions mandatory. We are playing games here and nobody likes assigned homework interfering with their recreation time.

16 comments:

jamused said...

Some players (and I am sometimes, though not always one of them) would rather not have too much input into the game-world, not just because of the "homework" aspect, but because the reason I want to play is to find out more about the world and imagine myself in it. I can do world-authoring on my own at home, when I'm playing I want to see the GM's imagination.

occultsearcher said...

It might be "Play Dirty" column by John Wick. Not sure about that though.

Andreas Davour said...

I'm fairly sure it's not the "Play dirty" columns, since I just read the book John put out with all the columns, and that doesn't ring a bell.

BTW, this kind of shared narrative is one of the core things that I think have been spawned in the indie scene from e.g. The Forge. It can totally liberate the mind, if you have never tried it before. Naturally, it's a technique that's fully usable in a traditional game like D&D or T&T.

Just like jamused noted, though, it can be something different from some people want. I'm going to post about my experiences with these techniques and their usage from my experiences of Primetime Adventures Real Soon Now.

thanuir said...

"If the GM thought it added color or didn’t affect the overall game balance, he’d make a note of this contribution on a 3x5 card and it would officially become part of the game world."

Contribute things as long as they don't matter!

I'm fairly certain that the player-added elements will start mattering, but the attitude above I find slightly distasteful. Maybe it is just me.

jamused said...

@thanuir that seems like an uncharitable reading. My feeling is that "color" certainly does matter, and it matters immediately. But I'd be hesitant too about simply accepting changes that tilt the game balance without thinking about it a bunch.

First of all, it's a temptation for even non-munchkin players to keep tilting things in their favor, and if they try not to then it creates an unfortunate (IMO) split in how they think about the scene: trying as hard as they can in-character to come up with a way to accomplish their goals, while being neutral about things they insert as an author. It's not a way I enjoy playing, and one of the reasons I don't like having "Fate" or "Hero" points to worry about when I'm not GM.

More than that, though, is the way mechanical stuff in particular that gets decided on the fly has a way of coming back and biting you by invalidating large chunks of the setting when you sit down and really think about it. I'm very open to sitting down with the players and discussing changes to the rules or new aspects of the setting when we're offline, and I usually solicit their input. But I try not to decide more than absolutely necessary in the heat of play because of the way what seems like a neat fillip at the time ("Running water should stop magic!") can bring parts of the setting crashing down ("Oops, so much for that whole culture of river witch gypsies"). Such things can usually be patched, but it can create ugly seams. The worst is when a player suddenly realizes that something we've said in passing means that an adventure that they already had shouldn't have played out the way it did.

Amityville Mike said...

Some players...would rather not have too much input into the game-world...

Very true. This is why I present such shared world-building as an option and not a requirement. If it's something a player wants to participate in, great. If not, there's no harm. You'll notice I make no mention or rewarding such contributions with bonus xps so as to not "force" players to participate if they want to keep up level-wise with the other characters.

Amityville Mike said...

It might be "Play Dirty" column by John Wick. Not sure about that though.

I though that this might be from Play Dirty but Andreas seems to think otherwise. The only detail I can remember for certain was that the name of the author's WoD city was New Jerusalem. If that was Wick's setting then it was from Play Dirty. If not, it was someone else's.

Amityville Mike said...

I'm fairly certain that the player-added elements will start mattering, but the attitude above I find slightly distasteful.

You may be reading something into the post that wasn't intended. It might be because of my own assumptions or because of your own attitudes. I can't be sure.

In my games, there is very little that "doesn't matter." An NPC created by a player tends to become a regular addition to the game world and I'll often use such individuals to drop new avenues of adventure, get them embroiled in behind-the-scenes manipulations, or have them provide additional support as the characters level. The same goes for buildings, bits of history, religions, etc.

My main criteria that it couldn't affect game balance was the example mentioned in the post: no cheapy magical items for sale, no armies of mercenaries who work for ale, no wish-granting mages who work because they're philanthropists. I'm still out to challenge the players but I'm not going to shut down an avenue of pursuit I haven't considered. I'll work with the player to incorproate his or her idea and creation but it might not be as easy as they hoped. The NPC might need something in return for their assistance, for example.

I also stand by my belief that the referee has full veto power of anything introduced to the game. While it is a shared world, someone needs to be in charge so the game doesn't devolve into creative anarchy.

Badmike said...

Great post. Ray Winniger in one of his Dragon magazine "Dungeoncraft" articles (great series, btw, he has some great advice) states "Never force yourself to create more than you must". I too found myself trying to fill in every little spot. Enlisting players in helping you fill in the spaces is a very cool idea, but one I'm not sure a lot of players are up to. I would be willing to try it, however, if any of my players showed that much interest! (Besides killing things and taking their stuff, that is)

Chgowiz said...

Excellent article, Mike. I have done this for the demihumans in my Dark Ages game - allowing the players to determine the hows and whys within a broad boundary that I have. Well, at least the boundary of how the demihumans fit into the world today - the past/history is something they can come up with, and they've enjoyed it greatly! I also do it for the pantheon - any of the Ancient Gods are open for player development, again within broad guidelines so as to not tilt the table in favor of one side too much. It helps me because then I don't have to concentrate on it as much and it makes it more personal for the players as they now have a contributing stake in the myth and flavor of the campaign.

Andreas Davour said...

...or you can let it go into overdrive and when They power up, you do as well! Welcome to the Hargrave school of DM-ing! :)

Andreas Davour said...

That was in reference to the "creative anarchy" mentioned above, in case anyone was wondering.

Andreas Davour said...

Now I started to doubt, so I brought out my copy of Play Dirty and thumbed through it. I might have missed something (so that's why John sells his books in pdf as well. Hmm.), but I couldn't find New Jerusalem anywhere.

I will maybe find it next week, re-reading the whole book...

anyway.

I did find a reference to New Jerusalem and WoD here, though.

occultsearcher said...

It's from the Play Dirty, allright. It's in the book too. Episode Three: The Living City.
I read everything Wick wrote like twice. I checked the book again. And there it is. New Jerusalem, the index cards and all that stuff.
The Play Dirty book is a must for every GM... Buy it, read it.

Andreas Davour said...

Lucky us we did have a searcher for the occult, since this one was indeed hidden (in plain sight). My bad.

Thanks!

Now when I knew where to look it stood out from the page at once. Page 36 in Play Dirty, New Jerusalem. I was wrong. It did feel kind of familiar, and I knew I had read about it somewhere...

I probably should take this as an excuse to re-read Play Dirty. It contains a lot of good stuff, and apparently I have already forgotten some of it!

occultsearcher said...

I read it regularly. Again and again. Recommended to all.