Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Collaborative World-Building and Gaming

ON THE PANEL
ConTessa, the online gaming convention by women for everyone, wrapped up successfully yesterday. We had a weird schedule between games and other obligations so I didn't get to play in anything, but watched several cool panels and bits. You can find numbe rof the videos on the site there and on YouTube. For me the highpoint was the Collaborative World-Building and Gaming panel arranged and moderated by my wife Sherri Stewart. I had the amazing chance to participate on this panel with some amazing designers. Meguey Baker’s done unique work with A Thousand and One Nights: A Game of Enticing Stories and Psi*Run. She’s also done a nanogame I didn’t know before the panel- Valiant Girls, a striking game about heroism and Ethiopian girls. Brad Murray wrote Hollowpoint, one of my favorite pick-up games and an amazingly constructed rpg. His Diaspora game may be the first product which forced me to seriously think about systems for group construction of a setting and campaign. Finally Ben Robbins wrote Microscope, the game that’s perhaps more than any other changed how I play in the last couple of years. He’s just wrapped a successful Kickstarter for his new game, Kingdom. I look forward to seeing more cool and amazing games next year with ConTessa. Stacy put together an outstanding online convention- professional and sharp. It is hard to believe this was only the first year given how well assembled everything was. 

Note: The excellent OSR blogger Black Vulmea had some problems with the panel, which he details here. He raises some interesting points which I address in this post. As I say there, he has some legitimate points but some arise from misreadings. 

Side Note: Someone in the comments during the panel asked about other collaborative and shared games. I put together the start of a list for those a while back

Here are a few additional thoughts I had about the topic...

FEARING THE PLAYERS
One of the worries I’ve seen other GMs express in person and on forums comes from the perceived lack of control present by this approach. They have stories they want to tell- why would they give that up? I don’t dispute that- you may have an awesome premise and concept that will play out amazingly. But in the back of my mind, when I hear that I worry the GM may be too tied to that- may really have a story, an arc that they want to run. If so, how much will my character matter? I’m making assumptions- thinking that the GM will be “That Guy” which probably isn’t true. Some Gms may not get to run as often as they want, so a tool like this may not be for them because they’ve been desperately planning and brainstorming for the opportunity.

But let me answer the question of power or loss of autonomy first and then consider the benefits. Yes, you will lose some control; you will lose some grand scale choice. Given free rein, the players may come up with ideas about what you consider core elements for the world: high magic when you’re more comfortable with low; positive tech when you wanted a dystopian universe; hordes of elves when you prefer a human-centered campaign. That might happen, yup.

But in actual play, you’re still going to have the power. Just because the group’s done the world-building together, you still get to run it. You take what they put forward and fill in the gaps, twist the ideas, and offer them surprises. You don’t violate or contradict, but you make use of them in new and exciting ways- because you’re a GM. In the panel, I give the example of the player who off-handedly put Unicorns into the setting. When we actually ran the campaign, they turned out to be the bad guys, the Illuminati behind the scenes. I could do that because they’d been put out there generally, with few details beyond that. The players can only sketch so much in the course of world building, they’ll always leave you loopholes.

ROOM TO BUILD
Let me give two other examples drawn from games where the players really built the world. In our current Mutants & Masterminds campaign, I built the world based on the players choices. They would run re-envisionings of existing heroes, playing out their “Year One” experiences. One player chose to be Iron Man, Tony Stark very much as presented in the movies instead of the comics. Last session, the penultimate one for this second arc of the campaign, the players fought Kang- the apparent last survivor of a group of supervillains who had secretly ruled the world for 50+ years. In the course of the battle, Kang tore off his mask and revealed his secret. Kang was, in fact, Tony Stark, and the PC Tony had been a clone. When the Cabal of villains had been destroyed and Kang vanished to escape, PC Tony had been woken up as a decoy, programmed to run Stark Enterprises until Kang returned. But then the events of the original film had occurred leading to clone Tony becoming Iron Man. It was a great moment- and one the player enjoyed. It didn’t violate his character’s conception, but instead deepened and added to it. I had plenty of room to do that.

The other example comes from the session I ran the evening of the panel, a two-year campaign built from a Microscope session. The game offers a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica, with a shattered world and skyships. In the campaign, a portion of that shattered world has been destroyed leading to the PC fleet’s escape to another segment of the sky. About a year ago, one of the characters, Marreg, discovered an apparently lost god of his Orcish people in a ruined city. Marreg agreed to serve as the god’s vessel for a time. I turned to Marreg’s player and ask: what is it the god of? He hesitated for a moment and then answered, “the god of new worlds.” Cut to a year of play later. That god thread has come up a couple of times in the interim, but mostly in revolving around the gods in general. During play I finally bring back the thread the player created- the fact that there is another world, one the players and their community can escape to- evading the threats of the Elemental Lord and the Elvish Empire hunting them. It offers hope and a chance for survival for everyone they love.

And that’s completely off a throw-away line from a player. Honestly that’s one of the most satisfying elements for me as a GM. Taking the material and concepts players throw out into the ring and reforging them. Before he came up with that concept of a new world, I had a different spin on where the campaign would likely go. I put that away because this was better and the players’ owned the idea. Here player input didn’t limit me, but instead offered a new take.

WHAT DO YOU WIN?
So what are the advantages of collaborative setting creation, shared campaign building, and/or group character design?
  • Buy In: Player buy-in. Players have a vested interest in things they create. They care more about them. That’s not a defensive or protective response. They want to see how these ideas play out. They’re pleased when concepts they created pop up in new and interesting ways. With character creation, the effect’s just as strong. Players feel connected to one another and come in with a solid sense of who the other PCs are.
  • Work Reduction: For some GMs this may not be an issue. I often hear them talk about the pleasures of world-building. In my experience, a collaborative process doesn’t steal away from that. You still have plenty of room to build and create, but you have other rich material to create from. Collaborative creation shares the burden while still allowing the GM to put in as much effort as they wish.
  • Demonstrating Trust: You get a chance to concretely show your group that you enjoy and respect their ideas. 
  • Challenge: There’s a real pleasure to taking the various strands and ideas out there and shaping them into something even more solid and coherent. That’s a magic trick which will leave your players with their jaws dropping. It can be a tough and risky one- the players will often be thinking about these things just as much as you. But if you want to stretch your skills as a GM, you owe it to yourself to try it once.
  • Reasonable Background: We stress this point from the players’ perspective in the panel. Collaborative creation means players with as much expertise as one another and the GM. But it also helps to keep your own work in line. I’ve seen GMs go overboard writing up world background and details which don’t matter. They often don’t matter for two reasons. Either the players will never make contact with it- extensive histories, details of wars, nations far away; or the players won’t read it. Too much information- even nicely presented as a gazetteer will more often than not be lost on players.

DRAWBACKS?
This approach does offer a few hurdles for GMs, beyond not being able to tell exactly the story you had in your head.
  • Comfort Zone: As I mentioned above, what the players come up with may not jibe entirely with what you like. But players express their interests through this process- so you need to take those seriously. At the very least you may learn more about what your group likes. If it isn’t exactly to your taste, consider running it short-term as an experiment.
  • System: Players may add things to the game world which don’t exactly fit with existing systems- especially those with lots of world assumptions (Pathfinder, D&D, etc). You’ll likely find yourself having to do some homebrew or house rulings on things. Even with a more open or generic system like FATE or GURPS, you’ll need to figure out how to model what the PCs come up with (tattoo magic which can be stolen, all magic works in cycles to give two examples from my sessions).
  • Investment: Players may want to play longer. The Last Fleet campaign I’d planned to go exactly one year. The players wanted more, so we’re just not hitting 26 months of play.