Home > Mastering the Game > Let’s Make a World Together

Let’s Make a World Together

Last week Ben talked about giving the players a larger role in deciding the story arc of their character. This week I’d like to also talk about involving the players more in the creative process while creating the setting.

It’s Your World, They’re Just Living In It

The default mode for GMing is that the players supply the PCs, and the GM does everything else. This means that the GM creates the setting and crafts the story, and then tells the players about the world that surrounds them. This is the default mode for a reason – it works. It does, however, have some limitations. It’s a common occurrence for a player to lack the context that his character should possess. For instance, let’s say that the campaign is set in a small town, and one of the player characters has lived their whole life in that town. They are supposed to know everything about the town – every person, every shortcut, every secret. This is a fundamental part of the character, and a crucial advantage that they are intended to have over the other characters.

The problem is that the person who is playing the character doesn’t actually possess the knowledge that their character is supposed to possess. Since the authoritative source of what is true in this world exists only in the GM’s mind, it is in fact impossible for them to be aware of everything that they should. As a GM, there are three ways to handle this situation. Firstly, you can give that player a cheat sheet of all of the relevant things that their character should know. That way, whenever it seems like some sort of local knowledge might be relevant, the player can look at their sheet and say “Old Man Leary might have a chainsaw we could use.” The biggest problem with this approach is the time required for the player to look up the info. Either they spend a lot of time with their head buried in the paper looking for answers or they just stop looking. This approach also necessitates that the GM has to list all of the possible people and/or things that might be relevant up front. If a situation comes up that they did not anticipate, the player lacks the information to improvise.

Another approach that I have seen work is one where the player is encouraged to improvise and make up the details that they are lacking. I played a character in one of Dann’s campaigns that had an advantage that we just called “I Know a Guy.” Whenever a situation came up where something was required that needed a contact, I would just pipe up with something like “Oh, Jessie on the other side of the road has a pickup truck, maybe we could borrow it.” Of course, I still had to convince Jessie to help me out. I really like this solution, but it requires a good understanding between the player and the GM about the kinds of people or things that they are allowed to make up. It also requires a player that is comfortable making up places, people, and things on the fly.

The third way to handle this is just to have the GM tell the player what their character would know. The players need a place to hide from the cops? “There is an old abandoned coal mine in Red Valley.” I’m not a big fan of this approach, as it’s very hard to do it without railroading the players. When you tell them that they can go hide in the mine, it robs them of the sense of having come up with a solution to the problem on their own. Also, if one player is supposed to have an information edge over the others, just telling him what he should know means that he or she paid extra points for an advantage that benefits the whole party equally. You can slip them a note or pull them aside to give them the info and let them share at their discretion, but it still won’t feel like they earned the victory, and what’s more, the other players will usually be able to tell that they are holding out. There are times, of course, when there’s really no choice but to go this route, to say something like “your character would know that the Duke has an illegitimate son” when the players have forgotten or were never informed.

We Can Work It Out

So if the problem is that the player can’t know the setting as well as the GM because they didn’t create it, what happens if we have the player create the parts that they’re supposed to know? Using our example of the small town local above, the GM and the player playing the local PC could sit down and create the city together. They come up with a history, the landmarks, the important NPCs. They draw a map and talk about what makes it an interesting place. Then when the players need a place to hide, they get to be the one that says “well, we could always hide in the old coal mine in Red Valley.” That moment is full of win, especially if they were the one to come up with the idea of the coal mine in the first place. It gives the player a sense of accomplishment because they thought of the solution, and it makes their character seem valuable because the other PCs didn’t have the knowledge available to them. Even better, there’s a chance that the GM hadn’t considered the old coal mine as a hiding place, providing the player with the ability to feel like they outsmarted the problem.

I’ve used this approach with mixed degrees of success. In the Amunaven campaign, the PCs were members of a family of immortal demigods. Each of the family members had their hobbies and pet city, tribe, nation, or cult. So each player, as part of their character concept, also had to create their pet group of people, and to flesh out the details, including the NPCs. Then I wove the groups that they crafted into the larger story. My hope was to make the players feel as strongly about their creations as the characters would feel about their adopted peoples. Some of the things that they came up with were dynamic and easy to craft a story around, and some were very difficult.

The challenge with this approach is that you are essentially delegating a portion of your GMing responsibilities to the players. Part of delegating is accepting that the product of another’s work might not be the same as if you had done it yourself. If any of the players had come up with an order that simply wouldn’t work (“I want to be the patron god of a grove of sentient trees”), I would have had no problem telling them that they needed to come up with something else. But when their idea is a reasonable one, you are somewhat obliged to accept it. It’s one thing to tell a player that their character concept is okay, but they can come up with something better. It is a known responsibility for players to make their characters, and it’s okay for you, as a GM, to make sure that they make a good one. It’s a very different thing to go them and ask them to take on an additional part of the creative load, a task that would traditionally fall on you, and then shoot down their idea because it’s not great.

I found that this worked best when the player was inherently excited about the idea of creating their part of the setting. Some people, such as myself, have a gene that makes them enjoy world-building, and while they may not want the responsibility of GMing a whole campaign, they would welcome a little bit more creative influence. The other approach that has borne fruit is for the player to focus on something that they know a lot about or are particularly passionate about. For instance, if they are really in to horses, they might be excited about creating an equestrian culture. Even if they fail to make it feel different and new and the final product ends up just scanning as “Fantasy Mongols,” the fact that they are excited about it and immersed in the subject matter will make it feel more real for them, and consequently for the other players as well.


Hey readers! I’m thinking about writing up another character in the Kalastria setting, like I did a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed writing that post, but I’m not sure if people enjoyed reading it. Does anybody have an opinion on the subject?

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Categories: Mastering the Game
  1. May 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Well, the soon to be released in print (and already available in PDF) Dresden Files RPG (http://www.dresdenfilesrpg.com/) has creating the city the game is going to use as a background (It’s a modern urban fantasy game, based on the Dresden Files novels from Jim Butcher) as the first step in a campaign, before even creating the characters. I’m a gearhead, and I’m absolutely in love with GURPS, but this FATE game pleases me, despite being a mostly narrativist game.

  2. Ben
    June 1, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Unlike Stewart, I have less of a problem setting equally high expectations for “extra” creative work that I’ve asked players to do as for their PC concepts. I may be biased (When Stewart told me I’d have to make up a culture, my reaction was, “AWESOME!” and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea), but I feel like you can say the same things you would about a character concept that needed work: “This is a cool idea, but because blah is true in this setting, it loses some of that. Let’s work on it.”

    I keep coming back to the idea that players and GMs are all working on this together and so asking players to make up something besides their PC idea is not something they should do and then show you, but something the two of you should do together. In my next campaign, I’m asking some of the players to build an important NPC who will be around most of the time and I’ll probably get a chance to test out my theory first hand at that point. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

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