Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Three

Bringing It All Together

The GM has crafted his simple story and a menagerie of minions; the players have armed themselves with back stories and wish lists; the time is upon us. Break out the Gamin' Jack and pizza, 'cause it's time for the world building session.

Now, this task is not nearly as monumental as it may seem. In fact, most of the work has already been done. All you have to do now is bring it all together. So, let's look at how we to do that.

Building a Social Network

I wouldn't put it past some gamers to have been living under a rock for the last decade, but those of you who haven't probably understand the fundamentals of social networks from sites like Facebook and MySpace. By illustrating the character's social networks, we can begin to tie them into the society of the game world, find connections between the other player characters, and find and fill gaps in the player's back stories.

Let's start by diagramming our character's social network.

First, write down your character's name and draw a circle around it. Now, go through your character's backstory and highlight all the NPCs, events, organizations, and places your character is directly connected to. Now make a circle for each of these,and connect it with a line to your character. One caveat: Don't use proper names. Instead, write down a generic descriptor (e.g. Knight, Epic Battle, Kingdom, Secret Enemy, etc.). The reason for this will become clear shortly.
Example: Bill has written up a character named Percival Dawnsparrow. After going
over his backstory he finds his direct relationships and diagrams them. 

Now, you can go one step further and create spokes for the NPCs showing their relationships with characters that may not have direct contact with your character. 

Bill now finds those people, and organizations connected to his NPCs.

Okay,  we've reached the point where worlds collide. The players take their sheets of bubbly goodness and compare. Note any shared descriptors.

After he finishes his network he compares it to his fellow player's network. They find that they both have connections to the Captain of the Guard and the Merchant's Guild.
Here is where the collaboration really takes off, assume that any shared descriptor is the the same person, place, or thing describe in both back story. This is why we threw out names in step one.

"But all the elements of my background are unique and integral to my character, and any change would ruin him forever!" Get over yourself. Odds are if you really look at it, most of your NPCs only contributed a single action to your back story, an action they could easily perform along side those essential to other characters. Contradictions in characterizations may be easily explained away by a difference in the character's perspective, and those that can't (i.e. gender, name, descriptions) should be settled diplomatically. (In this world of fantasy, it's amazing when supplemented with magic and/or super-science what witness protection programs can do!) 

This process will yield several results. For starters, it will tie the characters together through a shared history and environment. This will allow you to jump past the obligatory meeting in a tavern called by a mysterious stranger.

It creates multi-dimensional NPCs. A knight who raised and trained a young orphan to wield a blade is nice and all, but what happens when that orphan brings home his new girlfriend -- a young rogue who the knight has brought to justice on several occasions? Drama, intrigue, comedy: story.

In the end, probably one of the greatest side effects of this process is that your players are invested and knowledgeable about the world they are playing in. Any GM who has ever tried to get his players to read a brief summary of the setting will quickly realize what a boon this process is. Sure, there will be some elements of that the GM will incorporate to the setting, but these will be tied into the players' creation and hence have greater value to them.

Speaking of the GM, where does he fit into this whole process? Well, in a addition to helping arbitrate discrepancies in back stories, he too will have a little bubble chart of his own, containing all the NPCS, set pieces, and organizations essential to his story line. Unlike the PCs, his diagram should remain secret. After all of the PCs have merged their networks, he will compare them to his own, linking elements in the same fashion that the PCs did earlier, but obviously in secret. This may result in new information for the PCs about their connects which he will share, or it can be squirreled away as secret pasts that the PC may not yet be aware of and will discover as the game progresses. 

Once you have completed this final step, you have reached the end of the world building session. If you like, you can now hand out character sheets for the players to fill in, but while they are doing that the GM has some more work to do. But that is the topic of my next post: Finalizing the World Creation Process.

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