Thursday, May 19, 2011

Collaborative World Building - Part Two

Now that we've addressed what the GM should bring to the world building session, let's take a look at the player’s responsibilities.

Story Before Stats

First off, let’s address one thing that you shouldn’t bring to the world building session: character sheets. 

Now, don’t worry: I’m not going all drippy-hippy, proclaiming that mechanics are evil, and "We should just throw our dice away and just let the story flow from our hearts, man," but I will say that character sheets at this stage of the game will present problems. You want world building to be as flexible as possible. Having your character already statted out turns the process into a negotiation where everyone works to keep their characters as unchanged as possible.

“But the whole concept for my character revolved around using the Merits Backseat Driver with Forlorn Xenophile to get a +5 bonus in situations involving alien mating rituals!” Well then, sorry, this style of play isn’t for you. If your character’s totality is a list of numbers and buzz words on a sheet of paper, you should stick to dungeon crawls or games where the GM is flying solo on story creation.

So, leave the sheets at home.

Okay, so now that we’ve addressed the one thing not to bring, let’s move onto what you should:


Your character’s back story is the most important thing you will bring to the table at this point. It is the catalyst from which the story will grow, to put it in terms we can all understand, the GM simple story is the vinegar, the player’s back story is the baking soda, and the sudsy volcanic mess that wowed all your friends at the science fair is the awesomeness of the game. So let’s look at some elements that will give us the most bang for our buck.

Goals and Ambitions

Characters need a reason to leave the house in the morning. These motivations can be split into two categories: goals and ambitions.

A goal is a motivation that can be achieved. “I want to find and kill the man who killed my father,” or I want to learn the secret of Kung Fu only known by the Ancient Master Wu Fung” would be a examples of goals. Goals are story seeds and every character should have at least one goal.

An ambition is a motivation that has no end. I will defeat any evil that threatens the kingdom,” or “I will serve my deity’s will till I breathe no more” would be examples of ambitions.

When devising your goals and ambition you should ask yourself, What am I looking to get out of this character? What kind of story am I trying to tell?” Goals and ambitions are the seeds that the story will grow from, so make sure you plant the game you want to play.

The Misadventures of Bubble Boy

People do not exist in a vacuum, and neither should your character. Another component of your back story is showing how your character fits into the world. Now, this doesn’t mean how you fit strategically in your party or whether your cyborg assassin could plausibly exist in a land of fairies and dragons. What I am talking about is how your character fills a niche in the ecosystem of the world. All living creatures need food, water, and shelter, and how a person gets these things have repercussions on the world around him.

For example, if your character makes his money robbing from the local merchants, who are some of the merchants he hits regularly? Even if he is a bad ass thief now, there had to be a learning curve. Who were the town guards who would regularly pick him up, how did he get out of jail with his hands intact? Who are some of the other criminals in town that he teams up with, or works against? Where do they meet?

By answering questions like this in your background you create the nouns of your story and guide it in a direction you will enjoy. The best part is, you won’t have to read a three page essay on the criminal structure of the city or memorize a who’s who list of NPCs because you will have created it. Sure, your GM will add a curve-ball or two, but you’ll have laid the groundwork, and I don’t know a GM alive who wouldn’t appreciate that.

Things to avoid in your backstory.

Justification Over Inspiration

This is a problem common with rule/stat oriented players who feel a back story's sole purpose is to justify your character's stats, or GMs who require every point you spend to appear somewhere in your background. This leads to back stories that are light on story and heavy on paramilitary training.  A back story should be used to build a world not a character.

Road Maps!

A goal is a destination, not a map, and just like players don’t like to be railroaded, neither do GMs. A major issue I see in a lot character's goals is that they are step-by-step guides to the character’s future adventuring career. This is a game, not a novel. If you want your character to follow a set path and achieve preset milestones at specific points, then you should go write a book. I’m sure the group would be much happier reading your story than having to suffer through it at the gaming table.

Perfect Heroes Lead to Imperfect Stories

There has never been a good story about an unflawed hero. Stories come from failure; failure comes from flaws. In fact, all stories are about a character’s journey to overcome a flaw; it’s why games have experience and character creation rules. Your back story should address what your character is lacking or what aspect of his sociology, physicality, or psychology is holding him back from his goals.

Wish List

In addition to a back story, you might want to include a wish list of things you want to try, or think may be cool. This doesn’t have to be super complicated. If you are aiming for a prestige class, write it down. If you read about a cool monster you want to test your mettle against, let the GM know. Anything that will guide the GM towards stuff you want to see in the game. Now, not all of it will get used, but you can be sure that if your GM is struggling for ideas, or needs a hook to bring you back into the story, he’ll take a glance at your wish list for inspiration.

Now that the players are armed with their back stories and wish lists, it is time for the World Building Session, which I will cover in my next post.

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