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As far as I'm aware, the two most common ways to choose a setting for your campaign are one of these:

  • The GM makes it up pre-game, or
  • the GM has some source book containing the desired setting.

Also, when the players make characters, one of these two ways are most often used:

  • The players bring filled out character sheets to the first session, or
  • the players create their characters in the first session of play.

I'm a big fan of creating the PC group as a collaborative effort, each player having final say over his own character, but having the advantage of getting inspiration from others. It also serves well for avoiding the awkward "trust building phase", since it is easy to establish how PC's know each other pre-game.

What I want is a way of letting the players have the same kind of influence on the setting, meaning that also the setting will be created as a collaborative effort.

The more successful campaigns I have run always let the players choose the purview of the campaign, before we actually started playing, meaning the players (not necessarily the characters) have some sort of incentive to actually play along. "We want to take the throne from Bob the Cruel. He needs some killin'!"

Oftentimes people seems to believe that the GM has a mandate over the type of campaign. If he invites to a specific kind of campaign, then I guess it's true, but if he just invites people to play, without specifics, then I believe that everyone should have an equal say.

This should go for settings as well. If I host a D&D campaign, some people might dislike Eberron as a setting, for example, but wouldn't mind Forgotten Realms. Forcing a setting on the players seems to be a good way to disconnect the players from their characters, making gaming sessions pretty dull.

So suppose I want to host a new campaign, but I want the players to connect to the setting as well as their characters, by letting them have some kind of say over it. How would you go along doing this?

So far, I have thought about the following:

  • Giving players the opportunity to establish helpful/hostile NPC's that his character knows,
  • Giving the players the opportunity to establish locations that in some way matters to the character.

Is there more I could do? I have a hard time coming up with more than this. For that sake, I could use a solid method for doing the above, without pushing players to discomfort. It is important for me that the world doesn't feel flat.

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Another game (besides Dresden Files) worth looking at where the majority of the setting is created by the players is Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker. –  aslum Oct 31 '12 at 17:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

In the past, I've developed histories, theologies, and factions with a combination of Microscope and Kingdom.

In the living history I've developed, you can see the records of a game of Microscope which developed the history of the world, and a game of Kingdom, which detailed the factions and history of one of the local towns they lived in. By setting givens of the character races of the D&D world and some other generalized "this is how my world is." I made a far richer history than I would otherwise have been capable of.

To do this properly, I would have players engage in this world building before character creation, and then employ my methodology at the end of this paper. While the group character creation process is alien at first, it flows naturally from the group history and group politics and allows for remarkably nuanced and well-rounded characters. Obviously in a game like 4e, the group character creation can only really impose narrative requirements. The mechanics of the characters can be left to the people of the group who enjoy that sort of thing.

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+1 for microscope development; it's a wonderful way to mesh ideas with players and GM and get the background history brought to life in the players minds before the game. After that you fill in the cracks. –  Rob Oct 31 '12 at 10:07
    
I am intrigued by Microscope. I must admit, I've never heard of it before. Sounds awesome though :) –  Undreren Oct 31 '12 at 11:07
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By the way, what is kingdom? Can you supply a link? –  Undreren Nov 1 '12 at 9:16
    

It's a great idea to get your players involved in building the setting. Make sure that everyone wants to be involved in this stage of course. It can do more harm than good to force people to create something if they aren't feeling it.

The Dresden Files RPG lets players cooperate in building the city they will be playing in. There are City Creation Rules in the SRD. However, those ideas aren't an imperative process and work best for the Urban Fantasy genre.

You could use this as a general method (in D&D terms, since that was your example):

  1. In the group pick three themes and threats (up to three)
  2. Each player defines a location in the area of the campaign
  3. Each player then gets to add a theme or threat to another players location
  4. Another player gets to add a face to a location
  5. Repeat 2-4 until the group feels like there is enough
  6. Create characters with links to the created ideas

A theme is an overarching statement about the game. Fame and Fortune Over The Next Hill suggests a game of ragtag adventurers looking for a big job while Comes The Holy Light of Dawn would suggest a new age triumphing over an ancient evil.

A threat is a person, creature or force that threatens the part of the world you're playing in. On a campaign level you could be talking about your Bob the Cruel example, Sauron or the Empire. Locally, you might be worried about the kobolds in the mine, the dragon that demands tribute every 20 years or the spirit of a bridge closing a route because it feels under-appreciated.

When a player creates a location, they can be as loose or defined about it as they feel like. This could be a village, city, landmark or whatever. The location itself should have some kind of hook to it.

Some players may want to keep their location to add themes, threats or faces. That's ok too. Encourage input on ideas.

Faces are the people of a local area who are important to the story. They may be friendly or hostile to the player characters, but unlike a threat they are unlikely to be disturbing the status quo. Examples include a holy order of knights, a thieves guild and the friendly barkeep.

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Wow, this is GREAT :D I never thought about doing it like this, making setting, THEN characters. In my head, the character creation step should REVEAL the setting, but looking back on it, it was kind of dumb :) +1! –  Undreren Oct 31 '12 at 11:06
    
@Undreren Character creation CAN reveal the setting. I hope to post more along these lines shortly, in a margin big enough to contain the ideas, though I highly recommend this and Brian Ballsun-Stanton's answer. –  Joshua Drake Oct 31 '12 at 18:40

My main tool for this is what I call the Pre-game. Basically I sit down with the player one on one. Note it doesn't have to be as formal as this. I explain the basic premise of the setting,

it is a fantasy world with a culture similar to medieval Europe.

The character then explain to me what he wants to play in generic terms.

I want to be a swashbuckling fighter who learned some magic from the elves.

From there you go back and forth with you, the referee, given the players options or information and the player deciding what he want to incorporate into his background.

This process does several thing.

  1. It allows you to teach the player various aspect of the setting.
  2. It invests the player into the setting because he choose what elements to incorporate.
  3. Last and most relevant to your worldbuilding question, you both collaborate in creating the details of the character's background. Details that likely didn't exist before in the referee's setting. Sometimes this results in extensive additions to one's setting. For example a player wants his thief to be a member of a thieves guild and the thieves guild hasn't been detailed before.

Another technique I use is the theme campaign. The referee and players pick a background element of the setting they want to explore and craft their characters around that element. This could be everybody playing a City Guard, member of the Thieves Guild, Temple priests, etc, etc.

The campaign results in extensive detail for that element as the players create backgrounds and later as they adventure. Do enough of these and you will have a setting background that rivals any of the published one. It will have the virtue of being playtested.

In the end it is about effective communication and the referee taking the time to listen to his players.

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You will likely run into problems when a players believe that you as the GM don't portrait aspects of the campaign settings the way they intended it.

GM: You encounter a group of yellow Frogstar soldiers.

Player: Yellow? But I wanted them to be green!

GM: You never said they are supposed to be green.

Player: But it's just common sense for them to be green! sigh Can't you get anything right?

To avoid such situations there are two options:

One is to make sure that every single detail of the setting is agreed upon. When you do that, designing the campaign world will likely take longer than playing the campaign. This can also be an interesting experience, but it is not what you came for.

The other is that you as the GM demand creative control over the world as soon as the game is in progress and make clear that you can decide on every detail which wasn't explicitely agreed on beforehand (better write everything down in that case). The players will not like it when you misportrait "their" city or "their" NPC, but it's the only way to prevent the game from being interrupted by discussions all the time.

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I notice the assumption that the player will be hostile over these small details and that the GM wouldn't ask the original creator of the idea for details. That is an issue for some groups, but not all. A new question that asks how to avoid this kind of conflict might be good to add. –  Simon Gill Oct 31 '12 at 13:21
    
Asking the player for detail clarifications might reveal spoilers. "You see a person hiding their face under a black cloak" - "I use detect evil" - "which alignment did you want sir X of Y to have again?" –  Philipp Oct 31 '12 at 13:32
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If Sir X of Y is a named character that the characters care about, there should already be enough detail to make that call. Any words like callous, massacre, unrepentant are good synonyms for evil. Of course if there are problems with player knowledge bleeding into character knowledge, then this method won't work well. But as I say, that's not the case for all groups and probably not for the questioners group. –  Simon Gill Oct 31 '12 at 13:38
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My usual method of avoiding this is "Ok, there's a bunch of Frogstar soldiers—I'm picturing them having different skin colours for different castes, yeah? And soldier-caste are yellow? (pause for confirmation or discussion) Okay, cool, so there are these yellow Frogstar soldiers…" Contrary to assumptions, my experience is that players find those diversions into Just-In-Time world building fun, so they're a good use of play time, not a "waste" of time to be avoided. So there's option #3. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 31 '12 at 17:10
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I must admit that I have never, ever, EVER experienced players complain when I make something up, just because it didn't fit their preconceptions of the setting, just as I would never object to players having an interesting background, just because it didn't fit my preconceptions about what the players wanted in the campaign. Roleplaying is a collaborative effort, not a simple boardgame. –  Undreren Nov 1 '12 at 9:06

You can but don't have to let the PCs make up the entire setting. Many people like the richness of a published setting as it has a lot of material and a common set of assumptions for everyone to draw on. Here's how I customize to get player investment without a complete roll-your-own approach.

Three Things You Want

In my current campaign, I threw out a couple major campaign ideas and we agreed on "pirates on Golarion." So then I asked each player to email me privately “Three things you want to see in the campaign.” What kind of things? Anything. Specific plots, locales, items, powers, whatever. I got loads of great input, much of which I was already planning to include or was easy to include. Responses ranged from “Flying mounts!” to “My character gets to take bloody revenge on people from his past” to “Nothing taken from those damn Pirates of the Caribbean movies.” I like this better than forcing everyone to contribute in a particular way - some players couldn't give two damns about the setting as opposed to the NPCs as opposed to the plots as opposed to the phat lewt.

Then, additional items were taken from the players' backstories. For example, one PC had a treasure map his father had left him; I used that to lead them to an extensive leg of the campaign in Azlant.

So even though it's "a published setting," we started off with plenty of specific items designed/desired by the players.

And More

Then, as the campaign progressed, I simply kept an ear open to what the PCs were interested in. Both in game, the people and places and stuff they liked, and then also out of game talk - "Man we need to find someone who is like X" or "Maybe once we get a ship we can go prey on those damn Chelaxians!" Considering setting design/buyin as something that only happens at campaign start is a classic error fueled by all those super-short indie game campaigns. I revisit my questions every time we finish a "Chapter" (I'm not using a published AP, but I still break things up into legs of the campaign naturally).

This also spawns major plots that often require writing of setting information. We had a PC fall in love with a serpent person, for example. Eventually they wanted to have a baby. I was using a melded idea of serpent people from Golarion and the Freeport setting/adventures, so the viability of this question let to significant fleshing out of that part - to make it possible, but of course worthy of an epic quest from an adventurer...

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