The DtK Method for Collaborative Worldbuilding

Our map in progress.

Our map in progress.

Last week I talked about how I was doing some collaborative worldbuilding with my new group. I spoke about how involving your players in the worldbuilding process is a rich and rewarding experience and how I had come up with a method to do it that was working great. Well, here it is. I’m calling it the Dragon’s Kingdom. It’s based on the entanglements system for building a game. You need a poster map and a marker. It consists of 3 steps:

Step 1 – Dictates

For the first step your players (and you, if you choose) each write an overarching rule for your setting. They can be anything like ‘magic is dangerous and feared’, ‘dragons are extinct’ or ‘the spirits have abandoned the world, primal power does not exist’. The idea is to not make them to specific. Aim for between 8-12. Make sure your group knows these aren’t set in stone. More on that later.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Step 2 – World

For this step, the players (and you if you choose) will place people, places, and groups on the map. People are represented by circles. Places are squares. Groups are triangles. Each item placed should be named. The first part is everyone puts a circle in front of themselves for their character. You can also place one for the antagonist if you so choose. Then, on the first round of step one, each person will place two items on the map. Every round after, each person will place one item. Aim for 4 or 5 rounds, depending on the size of your group.

Step 3 – Relationships

This is the fun step. Your players (and again, you if you choose) will map how the people, places, and things in your setting relate to each other. To do this, those participating draw lines from the items on the map to other items on the map. Then, the relationship between those items is defined by who drew the line. During the first round, each person draws 2 relationships. The next round is what I call a ‘meta-round’. In a meta-round, the person whose turn it is has the choice of drawing a new relationship or altering something. They can draw a line through a relationship and define how that relationship ended or they can alter a dictate by adding to it. Yes, a person can redraw the altered relationship, representing a further change to it. Also, a dictate cannot be removed and it can only be altered once. For example, with the ‘dragons are extinct’ example I changed it by writing ‘assumed, because they haven’t been seen in a long time.’ After this each person draws a relationship.  Then you do another meta-round. Go on like this until you feel there are enough relationships on your map.

So there you have it, the Dragon’s Kingdom. You have my full permission to use it. Let me know if it works for you too!

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Three Ways to Worldbuild with Your Group

So I’m on the cusp of starting a new campaign with a new group and I’ve decided to try something different. Instead of simply making a new world on my own or running a published setting, I thought it would be fun for my new group (it’s the first campaign for all of them) to make a world with me. I’ll go deeper into the process, which has been working splendidly, after we’ve finished, but first some other ideas for worldbuilding as a group:

The first idea is pretty simple. You start with an essentially blank slate. Then, each player adds one element to the world that ties to their characters backstory. For example, the dwarf is from a mountain stronghold that was once lost to his people (yeah, I recently saw the Hobbit…) or the druid is a member of a powerful secret order. The major idea here is that each player will give you something juicy to work with and then you, as the DM, incorporate that element deeply into your campaign.

The next idea is for a group that wants to return a former campaign world years later. Worlds change and evolve over time, not just in the ways your old characters affected it, but in completely organic, natural, and sometimes surprising ways. Instead of coming up with all this on your own, write a bunch of generic world changes on sheets of paper like “This group has come to power because of…” or “This city is now under a different rule.” Then have the players pick these sheets of paper out of a hat and describe the changes they pick. This will give them an active say in how the world grows while they’re away from it.

The final one here might be cheating. You have the players design their own vessel. It could be an airship, traditional ship, submersible, or even a spelljammer (magic spaceship for those who don’t know) and the campaign centers on their travels in that vessel. While you are still designing the various exotic locales they’ll visit, they’ve decided with their vessel the types of adventures they want to have. The places they’ll visit in a spelljammer are very different from where they’ll go in a sailing ship.  They still have a say in the kinds of places being visited. And you can always have them make up the places too.

Letting your players in on the world building process doesn’t only take some of the work out of your hands, it also makes a world your players are much more invested in. As someone who is currently on both sides of this (playing and running), I would suggest group worldbuilding to every group. At least once.

World Building Month: The Most Important Consideration

You’ve made your world and have been running your game.  You come to the point where the players are now off your initial map.  This is a make or break moment for your game.  What you add to the game at this point can change the pace and atmosphere of your campaign from this point on.  Adding the wrong ruins or an out of place city can completely undermine the narrative of the story you’re trying to tell.

At this point, as you’re expanding your campaign map, you have to ask yourself ‘how is this going to affect the story I’m telling?’

Say you’re adding a ruin that was previously unknown to your world.  Why is this ruin there?  Why does no one know it exists?  And, most importantly, why are your players going?

Look at it this way: You’re running a horror campaign.  The players have spent most of their time in graveyards and haunted castles.  They’ve explored everything you had planned initially and you need to add more for them to keep playing.  You could have your players explore a volcano inhabited by titans and elementals or you could have them explore the tomb of a lich.  One of these two is more in line with the themes your players are used to seeing.

To make things a bit more specific, you’re running a post-apocalyptic WoD game.  You’re players have been struggling to survive.  They have travelled across the irradiated wasteland; carefully managing they’re food, water, and resources.  One day they find a shelter with enough food and weapons to last them for years.  Unless you have a plan for this, it undermines your entire campaign.  It could become an interesting turn in the story, if you work it right.  Maybe people attack them to take their new goods.  Maybe the owners of the shelter come back.  Any number of things can happen, but the point is, you shouldn’t add this sort of thing to your campaign without knowing how you want it to play out.

Always remember, no matter where your game goes or what happens, the story is the most important part.  If your story suffers, your whole campaign will suffer.  Don’t let your narrative suffer, always ask yourself not just how a new addition to your world can affect your story, but how can a new addition improve your narrative.

World Building Month: The Personal Touch

So maybe you don’t want to build your own world.  There are plenty of settings made by various companies to help you play in a world that appeals to you.  Whether you want to play in the arid deserts of Athas, the interstellar adventures of Spelljammer, or the anachronistic world of Eberron, there is a world that will fit your needs.  But what if you don’t like something about the world?  Well, no one ever said you couldn’t change things.  Those personal touches make the game yours and not just another Dark Sun game.

Here are few examples from my own game:

When I first started this blog, I wrote a lot about the intrigues my players were involved in beneath Sharn.  There was this whole society beneath the city and the players needed to untangle this web if they wanted to succeed beneath the city.  It didn’t work out too well for them.  The Eberron Campaign Guide describes this society on page 57 with one paragraph.  This isn’t the most revolutionary stuff here, but I took that one paragraph and used it to build an entire sub-world within the confines of the established game world.  This is more of an addition than a change; you take the game setting and add your own parts.  A customization if you will.  I fleshed out the gangs mentioned in that one paragraph making our game more unique.  Later, when the players found themselves in the Lhazaar Principalities I did the same thing with the descriptions of the Sea Princes on page 138.

An example of a more direct change would be my treatment of Drow in my Eberron.  With the Drow in the skies, this left an opening in the jungles for the tribal inhabitants of Xen’drik.  My favorite race in this game is the Shadar-kai.  I am notorious for using them as villains across several of my games.  They have an awesome look, human, with subtle differences, and lots of body modification.  They have this air of dark mystery that I love to exploit.  They have a slew of shadow based abilities and hail from a realm of darkness, what is not to love?  They are, to me, perfect villains and Eberron has no place for them.  So I made a place.  The Eberron lore states that the Drow are the descendants of eladrin slaves from the Age of Giants corrupted by the fell magics of the Giants.  And my Drow are that, they just moved on.  But who says humans weren’t also captured and enslaved.  And why wouldn’t they be corrupted too?  Thus, the Shadar-kai were born on Eberron.  And while the Drow are off playing pirate, the Shadar-kai are filling their role as the tribal inhabitants of Xen’Drik.

So don’t be afraid to change the settings to fit your needs.  Remember, just because it isn’t ‘canon’ doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

World Building Month: The Question of History

So you’ve made your world.  You’ve populated it with a cast of interesting characters, and given it a rich history.  So now, as you sit down to play for the first time in your setting, the question becomes do you tell your players this history?

History is a necessary evil for any setting.  If the world has no history, it will end up feeling bland and without depth.  It shows the craft and thought put into your world.  It makes the cities and ruins more significant and it can give the events of the game more impact.  A battle in a shrine with a thousand year history is far more interesting than a battle in some nameless shrine.  An exposition session, where you tell the players of the history of your world, can be a great time.  It gives you the chance to flew your storytelling muscles and tantalize your players with hints of artifacts and ruins they’ll encounter.  It can really enhance your game.

But what about the opposite?  What if you tell your players nothing and let them discover the history on their own in the confines of the game?  This can be just as fun.  That nameless shrine in the woods can be just a nameless shrine, or it can be significant in ways the players have to discover.  The lich with the weird name, maybe they discover him in some ancient tome, turns out he’s the rightful king of the country.  This is the kind of writing you can’t do when you give your players the entire history.  And you give the players a reason to take the history skill (and use it).

Personally, I like to take a middle road approach to history.  You know I enjoy feeding my players false information, and the histories of my worlds are no exceptions.  An old adage states that history is written by the victors.  But history can also be forgotten, erased, and altered.  That aforementioned nameless shrine, if my players encounter it, it’s nameless because someone wants it to be nameless.  That lich? Wrong side of a losing war and his enemy tried to destroy him completely.  If my players roll history, they’ll also have to take into account the source of their knowledge.  Real history is full of authors embellishing or altering accounts to favor those in power, why should the history of my world be any different.   Why shouldn’t my players have to deal with the same half remembered oral traditions and metaphorical myths that plague modern historians?

So, when the time comes for you to approach history in your game, keep these things in mind.  You can give your players everything, nothing, or some amalgamation of the two, but the most important thing is what you want to do.

World Building Month: The First Mark on the Map

For the month of July, I’ve decided to try something new.  I’m going to dedicate this entire month to topics around the noble and enjoyable task of world building.  For me, the creation of a fantastic new world is the best part of running a regular campaign.  I know my current game is run in a created setting, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t added my own elements.  I love creating this new, exciting place, where all of the players’ characters live side by side with the things I’ve built.

The most important thing is that first step, the key you use to open that new world.  There are lots of ways to start world building, lots of different first steps to take.  Here are three I’ve used:

  • Place the starting point and spread out.  You start with where the players meet or live before the game starts and work your way out, inventing new locations as you go.  I did this for a campaign I ran where the players started in the farming community of Goldfields.  I sat down and sketched a map, with Goldfield at the center.  The first thing I drew on the map after was the ‘Temple of the Sun Dragon’.  I kept drawing more locations and trails connecting them (or not) to Goldfields.  I like this way of building up things as it gives you a definite mental image of your world.  It gives you places and boundaries.   What I don’t like is this: do you share this map with the players?  If you do, there’s always the possibility they’ll move to a place you didn’t plan for….
  • Let yourself be inspired.  You’re watching Firefly.  Great show right?  You love the idea of a society at the fringe of an empire.  So take it.  You’re looking through your Dark Sun book, thinking how much you love the Sorcerer Kings, use them.  No one ever said it all had to be your creation.  I once created a world called Gotheer.  Basically, I had my players in a fantasy version of Coruscant with the Houses from Eberron.  The players really enjoyed the game (it featured one of my favorite reoccurring villains) and I loved to test the limits of the world.  The upside is putting things together couldn’t be easier.  There is very little work on your part.  The downside is the exact same thing.  You miss out on the joy of creating.
  • Build the world from a single idea.  Sometimes you just get taken by something, a seed is planted in your mind and it grows.  Soon, you become fascinated by the idea and can’t help but use it.  I was taken by the world of Arnor (a setting I’ve yet to use on players) for a very long time.  The world is based off an idea I had of what a fantasy setting might be like were it to take place in something similar to Antarctica. From there I started to think up the threats that would live in this place, the habitats people would create in this world, and how your archetypal races (dwarves, elves, etc.) would live in it.  This is my favorite way to make a world for my games.  It has no downsides, but the upsides are endless.  You create something new and completely your own.   This is the most organic method I’ve mentioned here.