World Building 101: This One’s For the Players

World building is traditionally considered to be the DM’s task. After all, the DM is responsible for setting the stage, portraying the NPCs, controlling the monsters and hazards faced by the player characters, and generally doing all that sort of behind the scenes heavy lifting so that the players can experience the mystery and wonder of the world the DM creates.

Today I’m going to discuss why that’s an inaccurate view. As players you (we!) have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to assist in the process of creating the world in which we play. From locations to NPCs, from magic items to story hooks, players can provide the DM with some much-needed direction and feedback to ensure that the game the DM is running is exactly the one the players want to be playing.

Providing direction to the DM may seem like a strange reversal of expectations, but it happens all the time. When you create a character background, your DM examines it for ways to incorporate it into the story. When you make your feat selections or power choices for a level, your DM is taking notice and trying to include ways for you to use them. Even something as simple as the choices your party makes—if you regularly employ diplomacy rather than leaping straight into combat, for example, an attentive DM will begin incorporating encounters that reward that kind of behavior.

With that in mind, one might consider ways in which they as a player can contribute to the enhancement of the campaign setting and overall play experience. When the DM requests a character background, then, consider whether the background you provide is giving sufficient story hooks for the DM to work with. One of my own players realized this after a few sessions of play—his backstory placed him as the sole survivor of a bandit raid on his village, an orphan with no ties to anyone and very little motivation other than day to day survival. After several sessions in which other player characters were given prominence through their own backgrounds, he requested that he be allowed to rewrite his background to include more for me to work with.

Your character background is a very easy way for you to tell the DM the kinds of things you’re looking for. You can use it to seed NPCs, locations, story arcs, or even specific magic items or abilities that you hope to gain. Much of the same advice given to the DM for writing campaign briefs applies to a player writing character backgrounds:

  • Keep it short. Don’t provide the DM with 40 pages of detailed history—it will most likely never get read, at that length, and certainly the DM will be overwhelmed if every player provides that kind of detail. Around 3 pages at the most should be enough to cover a character background.
  • Keep it to the point. Don’t go on at length about irrelevant details. Stick to the important points, the ones that might come up in play. Your DM can always ask you for elaboration on something later if it’s going to come up in play.
  • Keep it clear. Try to avoid dropping in names without detailing who they are. Your DM will wonder who Susan is if there is only one mention of Susan anywhere in the background and it is not made clear who she is and what importance she played. Make an effort to ensure that names are consistent and that your writing style is clear at all times on who is doing what to whom.
  • Consider formatting. Use formatting to make your background clearer and easier to read. Try to keep the formatting as consistent as possible throughout the document.
  • Keep it open-ended. If you’ve closed the book on a rivalry or a relationship with a family member in the character background, it will be difficult for the DM to incorporate that in the campaign. Always remember that your aim is to provide material for the DM to work with, not tell a story about something that’s over and done with.
  • Keep it organized. If your background meanders from point to point with no particular structure, it will be difficult to follow at best and incomprehensible at worst. Find some way to keep it organized and structured and it will be easier to read and work with.
  • Avoid fiction. Again, you’re not telling a story about something that’s already happened, you’re providing raw material for the DM to explore during play. Fiction is a closed book—if you’ve given your rivals a strong voice that goes counter to how the DM envisions using them, you may be frustrated when the rival is portrayed differently, or the DM may be frustrated by an inability to use the character in a way conducive to his or her style.
  • Remember that you are not the only hero. This point is not part of the advice given for writing campaign briefs—it is unique to players. In most cases, your character is not the sole cast member, but part of an ensemble consisting of all the other players. Try to keep that in mind when describing your background and concept, because nobody enjoys sitting around idle while one player gets the entire spotlight—or being the player who’s excluded because their background marks them as somehow separate from the team.

The character background is not the only way you can provide direction as a player. As a DM, when I finish a session or an adventure, I usually ask my players for feedback. What did they enjoy? What dragged on, or felt out of place? What do they want to see more of in the future? The worst answer to these questions, in my experience, is “I don’t know”, or any variation on that theme. I know for a fact that I’m not running the perfect game—because there’s always room for improvement—and I appreciate being given feedback that helps me get even a little closer.

Comments (1)

Tourq (April 1st, 2010)

I have said the above many times, but not as well as you. Well done.


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