World Building 101: Getting the Most From Your Players

Previous discussions in this column have explored collaborating with your players on world-building efforts, mostly through character backgrounds and attentiveness to cues in their roleplaying. Not every player wants the same experience out of an RPG, though, which can lead to problems if the player character questionnaire is the only venue by which you obviously invite player collaboration in the world building process. Perhaps one of your players doesn’t really feel all that comfortable in the spotlight, preferring to take a supporting role; the questionnaire as a tool for drawing out that player’s collaboration can fall short, then, especially if it contains mostly questions about the character’s specific background. But what if that player has other areas in which they can assist in world-building?

This idea is one that may seem contrary to the instincts of player and DM alike. After all, traditionally the DM is viewed as the one who provides the world for the players to explore. However, while you may meet some initial resistance or reluctance on the part of your players to the idea of taking part in the world design process, once they begin to participate in earnest chances are they will have a better time in game as well. Use their imagination to help feed your own, and the possibilities expand exponentially.

Different players have different interests, skills, and needs, and identifying which of these you can make use of in designing or expanding your campaign world can be key. For example, a cartographically inclined player may be able to make a much better map of your world than you yourself can manage, and may add in some interesting sites or features that beg to be used in adventures. Perhaps he sketches in a city on stilts in the center of a lake where you hadn’t imagined one; deciding what made the citizens go to such effort and thinking up some stories that you might be able to tell there can give you fuel to work with for a plot or a base of operations, and will make the player feel excited to see his idea made real in the game world.

Other, similar ways exist to draw out player creativity to expand your game world for all manner of different skills or interests. A player interested in heraldry might be coaxed into designing and blazoning crests for the noble families represented in your game, or even for the players. There may be interesting stories to work out behind each of the elements of the crests, which you can work with the player to determine and flesh out. A player with a lyrical bent might be able to write songs or poems that flesh out the setting—from a common drinking song to a ballad of one of the heroes of old, or a song about the characters themselves and their adventures.

Even if the player is less creative or less comfortable in creating art or poems, ask them for input on the world. Maybe they have certain kinds of things they’d like to see, or certain themes they would like for the campaign to explore. If possible you should work to accommodate such things—barring ideas that wildly conflict with the game as the rest of the group envisions it, that is. If everyone else is dead set on a high fantasy game focusing heavily on courtly intrigue, having a futuristic space-warrior with a laser gun and a tank and a shoot first ask questions later attitude is probably not going to mesh, though creative or determined groups may well find a way to make it work.

The ultimate purpose of involving the players in worldbuilding is of course to make them feel as invested in the setting as possible. When their characters hear stories around the campfire based on their adventures, it’s great, but not every story can be about them—but if the story is one that the players created, then they get a similar sense of ownership. An involved group is a happy group, and a campaign with everyone working together to build the world can act as glue for otherwise disparate groups. Imagine what it can do for your group!

Comments (1)

JN (August 26th, 2010)

Heres a great system for world building:

I’ve played it once at the first session of a campaign that my friend was running. It allowed everyone to build the world and history together so everyone knew the basic history of the world and geography. It was alot of fun!

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