Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hyperactive World Builders Beware

A note to the world-builder DM.

Hey DM...nobody cares about your lovingly crafted, delicately balanced, softly nuanced epic fantasy realm and quasi-Tolkienian meta-story. They mostly just want to find treasure, throw fireballs, and behead some orcs. This may be a bitter pill to swallow, I know. But if you want players at your table you need to choke it down.

I remember an incident in the 90s when I gathered about 5 or 6 good old gamers under one roof to play. It had been several years since I played and I was excited. I was so excited I spent the previous weeks prepping an elaborate setting. This culminated with me handing each player a little packet of information about the world. I figured they would read it at the table, then create a PC that fit MY world.

The game never got played. The handouts never got read. The characters never got made. I suppose I realized my mistake when I handed one player the little packet of my mini-epic and she smiled, rolled it up, and began socializing.


It's a common problem. You might call it the Seminar Yawner Syndrome. The players, upon being handed a stapled packet, feel like they just walked into a seminar. Cue the desire to look at a clock and wonder when it will be over.

This problem has other manifestations as well. What about the Storyteller Syndrome? When I was younger I had a DM who loved to weave tales...about his own character. This got so bad that one of the last sessions we ever played involved his own character caught up in a fantastic trial with emotional moments, heroic struggles, and a trapped audience. We rolled no dice and made no important choices that night. And it sucked.

That's not to say you can't weave tales and offer handouts. Quite the contrary. Players appreciate long as the investment of their time and energy is accompanied by a payoff in play. Nobody wants to read about the history of the kings of your version of France unless it is going to have an immediate and visceral impact on their play experience. So do yourself a favor and don't force it upon them!

If you want players to come back they gotta have fun. And "fun", subjective as it is, involves agency. Choice. Involvement in what's happening at the table. That kinda stuff. If the game isn't about the PCs then the game isn't about ANYTHING THAT MATTERS. Your epic setting be damned, these people want to behead some orcs.

So you better damn well let them. The world builder in you needs to cut back on the energy drinks and allow itself to become a partner in the creative act of shared storytelling, dice rolling, and the beheading of evil things. Consider it a give-and-take. You get to create a world as long as you are willing to share some of that creative space with your players. If you don't let them in they will simply walk away.

At that point you might as well just write fiction.


  1. Agree

    If the setting serves the game and not the other way around, then backstory should never obstruct what happens at the table.

  2. Right. It must always be a collaboration.

  3. I think I was a pretty good DM back when I was a kid, then I went through a massive creation period where I created a world and went very heavy into creation mode and things slipped. Eventually I quit playing. I think in many ways I am still lost and looking for the game...

    1. Hey, I still haven't played my ultimate game with my old high school setting. Ran a brief campaign with GURPS using the setting and it was quite awesome. But very brief and unfinished. I think I let my world builder brain go too far with that one too. And yes I'm still chasing that game!

  4. Old post, I know, but very relevant to the game I'm currently playing. My thoughts on world building:

    1) Create an epic story that needs a heroic ending.
    2) Keep it to yourself - at first.
    3) As the players play, let them see that their PCs are intrinsic to the story line (even though they know next to nothing about it).
    4) Let the players, through their characters, unfold the story as they want. (Usually, once they realize their PCs are the heroes, and that ending the story os up to them, they want more than you should even feed them - "always keep 'em wanting more!")

    If the setting's deep, it promotes immersion. If you let them be the stars of the story, it promotes engagement. If you only let them see peeks behind the curtain, it promotes interest. And if you let them guide the story, it makes it so much more entertaining to be a DM!

    I've run several campaigns that in which my players have begged me not to end sessions, and Jonesing for the next one even more than a fanboy who's starving for the next installment of Game of Thrones. So I know this process works. :D

    1. Yeah, I would agree with that. What I always try to remember is that they players only know what you tell or show them. You might have an epic behind the scenes, but you cannot dump that all on them and expect an instant buy-in.