The perils and promises of shared worldbuilding

I recently finished GM-ing the 56-page scenario in the Blade Runner RPG starter set. This got me thinking about playing in established IPs, and how it differs from open-ended settings. 

Having tried both Middle-Earth, Alien and now Blade Runner as a setting, I honestly think I prefer surprising, anti-canon, shared worldbuilding in my games going forward. The reason for playing in those established settings has, of course, been nostalgia. Trying to recreate magical moments from my youth. But for the time being, I’ve had my fill.

The alluring prospects of shared worldbuilding

I have mentioned earlier that my futuristic Different Suns game is a “setting-light” game. This is partly inspired by Luka Rejec’s anti-canon approach. It’s about allowing players to establish truths in the setting – “teambrewing” rather than “homebrewing”.

This is adjacent to, but not exactly the same as taking narrative control of the scene being played out at the table right now. For an interesting approach to the latter, read Cezar Capacle’s fascinating account about how he goes all the way in his new game, by developing metaroles for players. In a structured way, players take responsibility for aspects of the game that traditionally has been the sole domain of the gamemaster.

What’s the allure in all this? Well, for someone lazy like me, it’s about saving time and labour. Detailing a world or a setting takes work. I don’t have that kind of time, energy or, frankly speaking, talent. If you do have that, by all means, go ahead and create to your heart’s content!

It is also about enjoyment. I like being surprised by others’ ideas. In this way, even the gamemaster may partake in the “joy of discovery”, and the players get involved in “the joy of creation”. And it can be more effective, as well: Putting our heads together and bouncing ideas back and forth can often result in something that is more novel, potent and fitting than any of us could have thought up on our own.

How dangerous is it?

When starting a playtest in 2021 with my regular group, I floated the idea about leaving out details about the setting, and letting the players decide on equipment and “how the world works”. The immediate response from one of them was: “Oh, but that can be dangerous!”. He was concerned that players always would decide on “truths” that would be to their overpowered advantage. Like: “No, the journey takes us two minutes, not two weeks, because we just installed a new, er, hyper-quantum drive. Gotcha!”

And well, yes, that happened, of sorts. One of the players chose to play a spy character with a background in intelligence and black ops. He suggested that the character had tech that could completely disguise her, and perfectly mimic other humans, just by observing them from a distance. And yes, even their size, voice and clothes. I know. Ridiculously overpowered, right?

I said: “Well, you need to have some kind of disadvantage that can even that out.” The player suggested that the PC was seriously damaged by her past experiences, and had very little resilience in combat situations. She would easily panic. 

That could work! I had rules for that. He would also have to roll a skill check to see if he had observed enough to make the disguise believable. I also think we had some rules for how long the disguise worked.

So, I could think: “This guy is testing the limits for what he’s getting away with”, or I could go: “All right, this is their vision, and what they would like to happen in this shared story we call a roleplaying game”. In the end, this PC’s use of that tech allowed the group to approach a challenge in a way that avoided combat. And we were all happy with that.

Of course, this was a one-off-scenario situation. If we had played a longer campaign, I guess more drawbacks and challenges would need to occur, to avoid this tech being a “universal key” in many situations.

The foundations of shared worldbuilding

I have no experience with impro theatre, but I assume the above story is a variant of the “Yes, but…”-approach (having learnt that “Yes, and…” is primarily an impro technique for comedy). Build upon others’ ideas, and add your own ideas to theirs – creating something unexpected together that somehow works.

“But this is a game!” I hear you cry. “This is no rehearsal space or writers’ room!” Yes, that’s right. And I’m still calling Different Suns a “roleplaying game”. So here are some considerations:

  • Decide if you want broad or limited input. Consider what kind of questions you’d like or need to get input on. As in many areas of life, this is not an either/or-issue, but rather a range of options. Do you want the players to give input on broad, foundational questions, like “Are there alien species in this setting?” Or do you keep their input to the very specific and limited, like “What does it taste like, that drink you ordered in the cantina?”
  • Build trust and make decisions. Be open with the players that you plan on using this technique. You are transferring some of your power, but the players should not abuse their newfound authority. Building trust is key. Keep listening to each other, and avoid energy-sapping conflicts. There will of course be some playful jousting back-and-forth, negotiating what’s “true” or not. To keep the game exciting, powers and advantages should come at a cost or disadvantage in some other area. As a GM you still have the final word. You don’t have to create a consensus. And if you’re not sure about something, simply state that. “I’ll think about it, and let you know next week.”
  • You are allowed to reconsider. Listen to the voice of the majority. As Luka Rejec writes, if an idea draws a lot of spontaneous groans and protests, reconsider. And similarly, you as GM have a “soft veto” option by treating the PCs as unreliable narrators. So, they thought sea cows couldn’t eat blue herbs? Actually, it was just a myth being passed down through the generations.
  • Don’t force anyone. Be aware that not all players – at all times – find it exciting to contribute ideas about the setting. They might be enjoying the immersion, and your questions break that. In these cases, respect their decision not to be creators. Or take a gentle approach, and ask if it is OK if they describe something their character would know. If they play a futuristic cleric, what’s the colour of their moon temple, or the demeanour of their computerised priestess? It can be argued that asking these kinds of questions are not very different from asking players the usual stuff: “Describe how your character looks”, or “How does your character react to this situation”? That  involves coming up with novel ideas, too!
  • Ask clarifying questions. In any case, ask clarifying questions. This can add vivid detail to the situations and brings the setting to life.

The point for me sitting down to play a tabletop roleplaying game is to have fun, relax, enjoy the creativity of others, and exercise my own creative muscles by contributing ideas to the game. Of course, as a game master, you generally have more responsibility for both creating and maintaining the flow of the fiction. But do consider sharing some of that responsibility, if you have players that are up for it.

Aside: For a passionate rebuke against the whole idea of letting players “randomly” take narrative control in a roleplaying game, see the Alexandrian’s 2020 blog post about Description-on-demand, a practice that even makes it onto his GM don’t-list!


2 responses to “The perils and promises of shared worldbuilding”

  1. Tommi Brander avatar

    Mye av frykt for å la spillerne fortelle ting om verdenen kommer fra å se spillet som et hinderløype, der rollene må bruke reglene (eller spillerne sine klokhet) for å passe hindringene for å erfare mer av fortellinga. Med narrativ makt kan de jo lett unngå eller løyse hindringene uten å streve for det og erfare for mye fortellinga for fort!

    Men viss spillet ikke er strukturert sånt, og heller ikke har utfordringer i hjertet, er dette ikke et problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indre Auge Studio avatar
      Indre Auge Studio

      I agree, Tommi, but I would add one caveat.
      For non-Norwegian speakers, the comment is: “Much of the fear of letting players tell things about the world comes from viewing the game as an obstacle course, where the characters must use the rules (or the ingenuity of the players) to bypass obstacles in order to experience more of the story. With narrative power they can easily avoid or resolve the obstacles without spending any effort, and will experience too much of the story, too fast.
      But if the game is not structured in that way, and does not have obstacles at its heart, this is not a problem.”

      My caveat is that the worldbuilding I have in mind would not come into play in every scene. This is something that for instance Blades in the Dark handles in a structured way, where — with the help of an in-game metacurrency — players can adjust the course of the narrative by “resisting” the GMs suggested outcome.
      My concern is the moments where I as a GM am genuinely puzzled or curious about an aspect of the world, and would like the players’ input. So I guess I’m describing a way of facilitating that still leaves most of the power in the GM’s hands. The GM can “open” and “close” the input, and also tune whether it should be broad or limited in scope. Of course, players may suggest input by themselves — and each group would probably develop their own “culture” around this. I think the old adage about project teams is relevant here: the team usually pass through these four stages: forming, storming (conflicts/negotiations), norming (“this is how it works here”), and finally: performing.


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