Becoming a Better Game Master: The Collaborative Setting

You got elected game/dungeon master (or you ripped that privilege from the cold, dead fingers of the other members of your group), although most likely no one else wanted the job, and so your stuck with it, which is usually how it happens. But now you’ve got the job. You know the rules of the system. You have an idea of what the game is going to be about. How do you move forward and be the most awesome GM your table has ever seen?

1. Let the Players Help with the Setting

Say it out loud: “this is not my game.” A few more times now, with gusto. Why? Because it’s not. Your players are the ones technically playing in your game, and they should get to decide what the game is going to be about. How many times have you been coerced by a family member to play a board game you didn’t like? Do you remember that experience fondly? What about games  that sounded cool, but turned out to be not-as-advertised? Did that piss you off?

It’s the same when you pitch a game to your group and then tell them to create characters in the little world you created in your mind. Where’s their contribution? Where’s their creative fun? Get them involved! How?

Discuss the Genre

You read that as “discuss”, not “describe”, right? Good, because that’s what you’re doing. You are not dictating what the genre is going to be. You are discussing it as a group. Sometimes this decision will be made for you when the group selected the game (D&D is fantasy, Shadowrun is cyberpunk, get it?), but sometimes it’s not the case, such as when you’re playing with a generic system like GURPS or Fate Core. Once you’ve decided on a genre, move to step 2.

Ask the Players to Create

Ah, this is where we lose a bunch of the write-and-read GMs. Y’know, the ones who write up an entire campaign like a novel and then spend half an hour at the table reading it to the players (and then forcing their decisions to coincide with the plot events). It’s okay. I used to be a write-and-read GM, too. There’s a 5 step program to change it (keep reading).

When getting the players involved in creation, it can get fairly hectic. After all, we’re role-players. We create stuff. We’re creative. But we’re also feisty and stubborn. So you have to maintain order. Here’s how: have each player write down one thing about the setting that is absolutely true.

It’s that easy. For instance, I started a D&D game recently (genre is already decided right there, so that part of the discussion didn’t occur). We decided on a custom setting, because. (It’s cool if you play in an established setting, but try to keep it loose by treating it as inspiration, not law.) I asked the players what was true about the setting, some of the things I got back were: racial tensions have been building into all-out conflict, the old traditions have been ignored and so have caused rifts in the multiverse, and an ancient and corrupt government.

Those are some pretty damn cool things to inspire me. Also, I just got the information that’s absolutely mandatory for every GM to possess: what kinds of adventures do the players want to play? From above, I know that I need adventures that deal with war between the races, ventures through the multiversal planes of existence, and diplomacy between very old governments. What I also learned is setting material.

Write the Setting

Okay, write-and-read GMs, here’s you time to break out the old tools and write the setting. Notice that says “write the setting”, not “write a bunch of plots” (we’ll get there).

When you write the setting, take the answers your players gave you and combine them into a single theme (either one sentence or a short paragraph). That’s your setting. For the one above, I wrote something to the effect of:

The ancient kingdoms of the world once followed the old pacts that kept the world locked away from the multiverse, but fulfillment of those pacts was a heavy burden on governmental resources, and over time ambition took hold and later generations abandoned the pacts, not believing the stories their parents told them about the multiverse to frighten them as children. They abandoned the old traditions, thus causing a rift in the planar continuum. Now, every race blames the others, either for turning on the traditions or starting the trend. Rather than work to restore the old planar seals, they have concerned themselves only with the protection of their individual realms.

The most inspired setting ever? No, but I’ll admit it’s not a terrible start. There was more (I believe I had five players give input), but that’s the gist of it. From there, flesh it out. Open up another document page and start writing into it more. If you’re a write-and-read GM, you’ll have several pages of setting backstory in no time. (Backstory, you’re not deciding future events, that’s for the PCs to do.)

Give the Go Ahead to Create Characters

After writing a setting that everyone at the table had a hand in, now you can ask them to create their characters. They have a setting that is, at least in part, something they helped to create. Now they can create a character that they know will be relevant and engaging with their favorite part (which you then have to bring up in play, but we’ll cover that later).

Inevitably, the players will come up with an idea that you haven’t covered yet. What deities are present for my cleric? Is there a central trade city where the races mingle with each other without fighting for my rogue to have learned his trade in? Can there be a war between <race> and <race> so my fighter can be a grizzled vet? I urge you to not dictate the answers to the players, but instead ask them: “what do you think?”

Seriously (read the part above where this is their game, too). This is part of letting them help create the story. Maybe the player of that cleric just finished watching Wrath of the Titans and would like his cleric to serve a deity based on the Greek pantheon. Why not? You didn’t come up with it yet, so it wasn’t important to the setting, but it is important to that player’s character. Let him play the character he wants by dictating what in the setting is available for him to play with.

There’s something else you get out of letting the players help: plot hooks. When that rogue has decided there was a neutral city, you instantly got a place where you can have the boring (but mandatory) “meet in the tavern” scene, and a surefire way to get all of these racially various PCs in one place to start adventuring together. Why fight that? If you end up not liking the place, have the sworn enemies of the fighter break the neutrality pact at some point during the campaign and decimate the city (or take it over). Now you’ve brought that player into it, as well.

Again, why not? If you don’t trust your players, why are you playing with them? If you want to dictate to them, why are you playing with them? Roleplaying is a shared storytelling experience. Your players are there to have fun collaborating on telling a story. They are not a private audience for your short story readings. (Do you like it when your players read you the novels they created for their backstories? Then why do it to them every session? STOP IT!)

Conclusion (or TL;DR)

Have your players help you create the world they’re going to play in. They’re there to be creative, too. Let them. Discuss the genre you want to play in, then ask them each for one fact about the setting that is absolutely true. Take those facts and write up a backstory for them to use as inspiration for creating their characters. And when they create those characters, don’t force them to adhere to your first impulse. When they have questions, or want to change something, let them answer the question or make the change. You’ll get plot hooks out of it, and they will get to play the characters they wanted.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss running Character-based Adventures (as opposed to your dictating plot and forcing them to come along for the ride).

1 comments On Becoming a Better Game Master: The Collaborative Setting

  • “Tomorrow we’ll discuss running Character-based Adventures (as opposed to your dictating plot and forcing them to come along for the ride).”

    Not sure how long ago this was posted. But did this post ever happen?

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