"Forest Grove" by Bob Greyvenstein
The thing that drew me to the GM’s seat was worldbuilding. The first time I read the part of a book about creating worlds, I was hooked and a long and storied history flowed out from that point. That said, sometimes, worldbuilding is hard! We all make mistakes, sometimes without noticing and so it can be helpful to get your players involved in your worldbuilding from the very start…
Before I go any further, a quick caveat – trust! I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who isn’t sure that their players won’t buy into the worldbuilding appropriately – we don’t want the royal flagship to be named ‘Boaty McBoatface’ after all! Once your players have a feel for the world and are as committed to it as you are, you can start asking questions and building them into your reality.
1: Ask Questions
The opposite of many instincts, let your players have control over elements of the world by asking them to describe what they find instead of telling them what you want them to find. When they visit a new town and want to pick a tavern to stay in, ask them to describe what is available instead of having to make up half a dozen taverns yourself. Sure, you might have ideas for a scene in a tavern, but do you have to know all of them? Players can be given free rein with some details and it helps them feel part of the world.
2: Care About Backstories
This is where everyone comes for me with torches and pitchforks… Some players will happily give you a novel, while others might simply tell you “This is Bob, he’s an orphan.” I’m not telling you to demand the next War and Peace for a level 1 dungeon bash, but a few details will help people feel more ‘in-character’ and give you tie-ins for NPCs you can use in the future. If you’re playing a campaign, five or six questions about family, places, dark secrets, and political opinions can make a huge difference in how your campaign story evolves.
3: That Guy*
That Guy will always throw a curveball. That Guy wants to know the backstory of Guard Number 3 (GN3). That Guy wants to buy a bag of bees for an insane plan he just thought of and you can’t figure out. We’ve all met That Guy. Well, now, That Guy can do some of the legwork for his ideas too. If GN3 isn’t important to your plot, let That Guy tell you about their backstory – don’t let them run away and create a mighty hero, but ask them about GN3’s name and family. Let them describe how they get the bag of bees (with a roll for difficulty) while you get on with the actual plot you crafted.
4: Going Home
From time to time, you may want to use a player’s hometown, training temple, sacred grove, or similar background place for your adventures. Get them to build it! This is a bigger worldbuilding task than a lot of other ideas in this article, so give them plenty of notice if you do – and respect their work. If you ask a player to describe their hometown to you, don’t make it the one that gets ravaged by an invading army, that’s disrespectful, but a plea for help due to disappearances in the area is much more compelling. Tweak, don’t smash.
5: Terra Incognita
Quite literally, places that aren’t on the map. Unless you’ve spent months in advance preparing a full world map, there will likely come a time when players venture out of the area you have prepared and into the unknown. If you’ve planned for it, great! They’re heading in the right direction for your plot, everyone wins. If they’ve snagged a red herring or That Guy* has led them astray, don’t panic. Ask them what’s out there. What are they looking for? What would they expect to find in the mountains/swamp/steppe? Take that idea, throw in a few quirks and you’re ready to go.
It can be hard to let go of the control you have over your world, and that’s OK. Start small and work up. Your players will enjoy being a part of the creative process. Just keep an eye on That Guy*…
*That Guy might be That Girl or That Enby too, but let’s face it, it’s usually a guy!
Do you have a trick for getting players to collaborate in worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments below!