Posted by: allhailthoon | May 9, 2010

A Synthesized Game World: Give the People What they Want

In the years I’ve spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve played in a pretty large number of different settings, many of which were home-brewed. During this time, I’ve noticed two problems that frequently arise with GM designed worlds.

The first of these problems is that very often the GM doesn’t completely know their own world.  They may have a nice map, some place names, and ideas for stories, but they don’t always have all the specifics down. While a good GM can improvise NPCs and adventures, not knowing the world, or at least specific parts of it, can make it difficult to build a fully realized character with a proper history and link to their world.

The second problem is that the PCs are forced to assume that their characters just happen to know much more about the world than they do. While this usually true to some degree or other, it can often make it more difficult for players to take initiative. On too many occasions, I’ve been in situations where the party is between adventures and the GM asks us what we want to do next. More often than not, we all reply with puzzled looks, shrugs, or some generic answer like shopping or visiting the temple of our god. There may very well be a lovely park where the nobility go for their morning rides and to share the latest gossip or a bordello full of geisha succubae  who will make all your dreams come true in exchange for your soul, but how are we supposed to enjoy them if we have no idea they’re around? (Sure, the GM can mention them, but then they just scream PLOT HOOK! and players may feel obliged rather than curious.)

With those two issues in mind, I had an idea: let the PCs create the world. Or at lease sections of it.

Give the PCs fair warning before the game starts and beyond just having them roll up characters, have them write a detailed description of the country their character is from. Have them include some geography, locations, notes on culture, and important NPCs that may or may not have anything to do with their characters directly. Let them make up some taverns, devise some local legends, and just generally go crazy with it. Of course, the PCs shouldn’t necessarily be the ones statting everything and or already knowing all the secrets, but they should have full reign to come up with anything their character might know or have heard of that could be significant to the game.

Once all the players have done their jobs, the GM just has to stitch the world together and fill in the gaps. Of course the GM should be clear in advance about a few things, like what general level of fantasy and time period the game will be set in, but beyond that, the more freedom the better. The entire campaign doesn’t have to be based around what the PCs made, but a healthy dose now and then is a good way to make each player feel like they’re doing something important and the pre-existing hooks and character tie ins are a great way to fill in time between planned adventures or to add layers of complexity to a campaign.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that games in which the PCs are encouraged to put in their two cents on the world and create a history with significant events and people that can be used in game later, people tend to get more into their characters and excited about playing.

Of course it’s all just an idea, so it might just as easily crash and burn.



  1. I’ve actually thought about this problem for a while now, and the usual fix for this is that the characters are fairly new to the world, so that the characters would only know as much as the player would.
    On a side note, I had once planned out a world setting slightly based of the video game Legend of Mana, by square soft (I think that was what it was called). Pretty much, the basis of the game was you start out in one area, and you’re pretty much stuck to it, but you then find little artifacts throughout the land. When you go back home, there is a wold map on a table, all it has on it is your home town. But you can use the artifacts on the map, and each one opens up a new land to explore, the big thing I liked about it was that you could choose where on the map the land was, so in essence, you, the player, build the world as you go, as you see fit.
    Using this idea, I was going to run a VERY high fantasy game where the PCs would find little artifacts and could build their world as they see fit, and each new land would have a base feel or essence to it, but it would be up to the player to map it out, but the thing I liked was that even though the player built the land, they don’t have complete control over it and before then, it had never existed, even if the land was filled with ancient peoples and ruins of lost civilizations.
    Later, when LGScoundrel started getting me into the Myst lore, I thought about making the artifacts into books like in that game’s setting.
    If I have time, I might write up a post about this world setting, you know, if anyone likes it they can cannibalize my ideas for their own games.

    • I always wanted to run a Myst game. Giving players the opportunity to write their own Ages would give you a lot of fun roleplaying leeway. On the other hand, combat is an ill fit for the Myst setting, and puzzle-based roleplaying adventures I’ve run haven’t historically worked well. Still, could be cool.

    • I think your idea addresses the problem, but the outcome isn’t really what I’m going for. I’m looking more for an idea for a world that the PCs will feel deeply connected and familiar with rather than one that’s completely new. It’s tough to have a character’s past really come back to haunt them if the world is entirely unfamiliar.

      Your idea definitely holds water, but it’s kinda like someone asking for a couch and getting a book shelf. Both at furniture, but they don’t solve the same problem.

      • You can still get intersesting player backgrounds even without having the players have to construct a detailed life history. I would personally find AHT’s idea tons of fun, but not everyone necessarily wants to have to construct their character’s history in that much detail. A possible compromise would be to create sections of your world that are all different and interesting and then let the characters choose where they want their characters to be from. I did that for my home-brewed D&D 4E and it’s worked really well, to the point that my characters are very attached to their characters and often get into patriotic squabbles about whose area is the better one.

  2. Well, a fair number of games do actually involve more PC interaction in creating the game world, they just tend not to be the ones that Opinicus and I have run much in the past =P

    For the record, I’m more than open to the PCs creating more detailed backgrounds for their realms in the Birthright game. Opinicus and Kei Mari have both given me a few pages of background on local nobility and their character’s families, which has been useful for planning future adventures. Though I lost the stuff Opinicus gave me =/

    I’d love it if you guys took the initiative and started handing me lists of some major NPCs and organizations in your realms, the best taverns and parks, the places decent people won’t go, etc. You make them, I’ll use them. lgscoundrel’s Arabel could certainly use a lot more fleshing out than “it has undead, wolves, snow, lions, and were-spiders.” Especially since it will be his round next. And then again, since we’ll be playing on twofer tuesdays.

    For other games…I’ll see what I can do. The final countdown is somewhat set in that the campaign is a short one in a well published area (with its own goddamn 3.0 book), not to mention it’s already based on PC actions from previous games 😛

    The darkness & bats game and the crimson throne could both use some player input though. I’ll post something on it later.

    • I suppose that His Grace, Argent de Cour de Glace, Duke of Winterguard, Marquise of White Helm, Voice of Ulutiu in Toril, long may he grace our lands, does deserve a nice elaborate history, I think it just took me a long time to figure out where i was going with him, but I’m sure I could come up with something now.

      As far as darkness and bats goes though, I just don’t know much about Ansalon, so I’ve been hesitant.

    • Well of course you lost all the stuff I gave you for my domain, I gave them to you when we were in Amsterdam Akal. Though that was still like 6 pages of backstory and maps, and notable figures that I wrote up while on the trains, and down time in the hotel… and in a cathedral in Harlem…

      • That explains why Wyvern’s Watch is full of tulips and wooden shoes.

  3. And windmills!

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