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World Building 101 – Choices and Player Agency

posted Thursday, June 10th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Dungeons and Dragons, as with most any tabletop RPG, is at its strongest when the players and the Dungeon Master work together to create a world and a story that everyone involved enjoys and feels a sense of ownership towards. This sense of ownership comes readily to the DM, who creates the world and most of the population, behaving as the players’ senses and giving life to the NPCs they encounter. For the players, though, it can be less obvious where their role in world building comes in, and thus how their ownership of the world can begin.

Early fourteenth century knight

As I have previously discussed in this column, getting player input on the world before the game begins can be a valuable tool to involve them in world generation—using the background hooks they provide with their characters invariably makes the player feel like his character is more than a simple stand-in or outsider, in the world but not of it. Collecting out of character feedback from your players is another way of finding out what they like, or dislike, about your setting and your campaign so that you can tailor it to suit their tastes.

Other ways exist to gain insight into what elements of your setting your players enjoy and what they do not, of course. One of the most important for any Dungeon Master to learn is what your players’ choices in-character suggest about their interests, and how to adapt quickly to incorporate their choices meaningfully into whatever plans you may have had for your campaign. I believe this can be illustrated with an example from my own campaign in which one of my players did something I wasn’t expecting.

A seemingly minor NPC—one who has been largely absent from the direct storyline the player characters have experienced, but who has and will continue to have a significant impact on the unfolding plot—was publically spurned by a major patron and ally of the PCs. I had included this as exposition and was expecting the party to be eager to move on to what I considered the meat of the session, but one of the players was interested in pursuing the spurned young woman and ensuring that she was taken care of.

In the short term, this forced me to improvise, as I had not given much thought to how the girl would react other than extricating herself from the humiliating situation she had been in, but the PC in question offered her comfort and actually arranged for new employment for her, since she had been summarily dismissed from the employ of the noblewoman who was hosting the party during which she raised a scene. In the long term, this PC’s interest in and interaction with the character has allowed me to place her in a position where I can more easily move the subplot involving that character, and furthermore has told me that this is a situation the players will likely find agreeable, since they themselves pursued it.

I could just as easily have had her flee too quickly for the PC to catch, or refuse to speak to him, but that would have been detrimental to the campaign in a variety of ways. First of all, and most importantly, it would have removed the player’s agency in affecting the world of the campaign and potentially his connection to it. It is essential that players be able to take actions that have an effect on the world around them, otherwise they are merely spectators to the story, and not participants—and may as well be reading a novel or watching a movie. Secondly, I would have then had to work harder later on to ensure that the NPC in question was visible and recognizable to the PCs when the story turns to her again, a task which I am now spared thanks to one of the players actively taking an interest in her well being and ensuring that he and the other PCs will be keeping an eye on her.

The idea that I am trying to illustrate here is that if a player shows interest in something in character, it probably means that player is interested in that element of the game out of character as well. Therefore, if a player character pursues an angle you weren’t expecting, your game can only improve by rolling with it rather than trying to shut it down. Improvisation is a key skill for handling this smoothly, but if all else fails, you can always admit to the players that you haven’t detailed whatever it is they’re pursuing all that heavily, and that you’ll need a bit to plan for it—you might even ask them for ideas on what they’d expect to find, giving them another chance to contribute to the world building.

This may not always be the case, however—sometimes players will seize on something that you mention in passing simply because they are trying to read you the same way, and mistakenly believe that it is important to the outcome of the encounter or the game. It can be something completely innocuous that you included for flavor—I have heard one DM mention that her players seemed obsessed with a squirrel she included as fluff, because “she wouldn’t have mentioned the squirrel if it wasn’t important”. Of course, the squirrel was in no way important, but the players weren’t sure…

Player agency, and meaningful choices, are what set tabletop roleplaying games apart from any other form of entertainment. It allows the DM to respond dynamically to unexpected actions and gives the players freedom to explore the world the way they see fit. Keeping that in mind, and working towards enabling it as much as possible, is one of the key steps towards creating a campaign your players will feel proud to be able to contribute to.


  1. Andy

    June 10th, 2010


  2. David Devine

    June 10th, 2010

    The one that always gets pointed out to me is the ‘memorable armor/weapon/vehicle’ etc. … the DM wants an NPC to stand out, so they give them a toy or trick that makes them stand out, and in turn, any time the characters see something novel, they think that this is what the DM is trying to do. In some of my campaigns, many minor villains have been killed faster than I had anticipated because ‘they stood out’ and thus everyone played ‘whack a mole’.

  3. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Sunday Seven: 2010-06-13

    June 14th, 2010

    [...] World Building 101 – Choices and Player Agency I love it when players contribute to my world-building efforts. Yes, my world is very detailed and well fleshed out already, but there’s no way I can think of everything on my own. While I did add a couple of minotaur-ruled nations to the world, one of my players came up with the concept that all of the rulers suffer from albinism and he wanted to be part of that ruling class. The idea was so cool, I let him do it. When possible, don’t just limit your players to helping you out when it comes to the crunch (like tracking initiative) but also with the fluff (like adding details to your world.) // [...]

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    December 3rd, 2010

    [...] World Building 101 talks about player agency, having your audience help shape the world, and touching on what I discussed with adapting to what they do, where they want to go. [...]

  5. Papers and Pencils » Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

    January 23rd, 2012

    [...] the method I’ve been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It’s an arrangement I’ve never been happy with, but not one I never thought of a good [...]

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