By Aaron Voigt
If you’re a Game Master who has just sat down to sketch out the details of a new campaign, there’s a lot going through your head. What genre will you use? What factions will your players encounter? What fantastic landscapes and cosmic horrors will they discover? For the experienced GM, this is all part of the fun, but for newer game runners, it’s a daunting task. However, whether you’ve been playing for two months or 20 years, I highly recommend building your next campaign collaboratively.
Collaborative worldbuilding is, in a nutshell, actively soliciting ideas and feedback about how a game should be played from the other people in your campaign. A popular example is Matt Mercer’s “How do you want to do this?” With one question, Mercer shares storytelling power to give his players agency and investment in their in-game experience. What I’m recommending you do is take that a step further. By inviting players to take ownership of the narrative, GM’s can increase buy-in, reduce their own workload, and tap into a creative well that’s guaranteed to improve your whole table’s experience.
Now, I get it. One of the best parts about being the GM is being the creator and architect of a world made entirely by you. It can be scary to hand the reins over to someone who might not have the same interests or vision. What if they put Sonic the Hedgehog in your dramatic fantasy retelling of the Book of Revelation?
Firstly: Most collaborative games have tools that guide players toward a shared narrative, establishing both genres and touchstones that belong in your collective universe, alongside safety tools to ensure players don’t have to endure upsetting or harmful material.
But secondly: Collaborative storytelling can vary from the exact vision you as a GM have for your world, but allowing players to build that space alongside you gives them a reason to care about it. How many times have you written deep, complex histories or political intrigue for a game, only to have your players bounce off your homebrew Game of Thrones to adopt a goblin shopkeeper that talks like Kermit the Frog? By letting your players craft their own special lore, you’re giving them stakes in the world’s history. It’s much harder for players to ignore the intricate machinations of Duke of Westphalia if said Duke is about to invade the little hamlet they helped design a few weeks back.
Designing that hamlet is actually another huge benefit of collaborative worldbuilding. I’m an advocate for prepping as little as possible for each game, but let’s face it, even on good days prep is still time-consuming. By involving your players in aspects of worldbuilding, whether that’s having them each create a backstory for a knight at the grand tourney, or sketching out the culture of a new alien civilization, that’s mental energy you don’t have to spend. Even something as simple as asking a player in-game what you think the beholder’s lair should look like can reduce the amount of detail you have to write out earlier, all while giving your friends agency to express exactly how scared they think they should be.
In my experience, asking players their thoughts and expectations for parts of the world is rewarding every single time. The plain and simple truth is that no matter how well-read, creative, and talented you are, you still only have one perspective, one set of life experiences. When you ask your players to build the world alongside you, you are inviting a whole new host of ideologies, beliefs, and influences into your game. Bringing those other life experiences into your world can open up opportunities for conflicts, characters, and creations that you genuinely could not conceive of, because you are limited by your own perspective. That’s what’s great about TTRPGs! You get to see life through not only the eyes of your characters, but through the eyes of your players as well. If you put your trust in your players, earnestly and in good faith, they’ll reward you with fantastic new concepts and a level of friendship that comes from building something together.
Interested in supplementing your regular campaign with some collaborative games? Here’s a list of games to help your table weave a shared story:
Apotheosis: Players tell the mythologies and stories that shape a culture, as well as influence how historical events change a people’s legends.
Build Your Own Apocalypse: Describe how your world ends with a set of dice, including who and why its downfall occurred. Perfect for setting up post-apocalyptic campaigns.
Ex-Novo: Generate a single city’s landmarks, resources, and political struggles. Useful for smaller-scale worldbuilding to be expanded over time.
The Ground Itself: Describe the history of a particular region over the course of days, weeks, or millennia. Recently deployed to build the newest setting of “Friends at the Table.”
Microscope: A classic among collaborative storytellers, this history-building game asks players to establish a beginning and end to their world, and describe a series of themes and scenes to flesh out what happened in between.
The Quiet Year: Recently used in The Adventure Zone, this map-making game uses a deck of cards to plot out how a post-apocalyptic settlement evolves and survives after their world is broken.
Our Pantheon: A Dawn of Worlds hack that allows players to embody the deities of their world, allocating points to create geographic features, sapient animals, and whole civilizations.
Aaron Voigt is a writer, podcaster, and TTRPG fan. His work can be found at aavoigt.com, including published stories and personal blogs. If you’re interested in collaborative worldbuilding, you can download his free NPC-building game “Craft a King” at https://aaronsxl.itch.io/craft-a-king-collaborative-npc-making . You can find him on Twitter @aaronsxl.