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.