Cooperative World Building

Image source: Hollow World, Basic D&D campaign Setting

Earlier today, my pal Yan was telling me how much he liked the fact that I took players ideas and in-game decisions to shape the campaign world’s past and present. It’s true. From campaign to campaign, the players also occasionally glean events, places or people that were shaped by the adventures of prior characters.

Like many DMs, I’m a bit of a failed writer (well not so much failed as untried… But I don’t have a closet novel!!! Much less one featuring a Quirky Thief, a Dour Dwarf, an Atypically good Dark-skinned Elf and a Noble Barbarian… honest!). What I lack in stories and campaign notes I make up in oral legends that stands for my game world’s continuity. Most of my fantasy campaigns of the last 20 or so years have occurred on the same map whose land masses are roughly the size of Europe. The stories we swap about old games there are part of the world’s legends. When I refer to past events, my oldest players remember being part of this. (I guess Old-school Grognards play a lot like this). And that makes their attachment to the current game so much stronger.

A lot of the things that have shaped my home-brewed world were created by or strongly influenced by players character concepts or actions. A few examples:

  • I have an order of Elven Mages that still lead the Elven Kingdoms. Said order was a creation of Math more that 20 years ago.
  • I have a tribe of Barbarian warriors that rear and train wolves to accompany them (Before D&D 2.0). Also created by Math.
  • When a world-wide alignment-based war broke out in our first D&D 3.5 campaign, each character was given the choice to decide which alignment he would champion and the collective choices of the player shaped the alliance won that war.
  • Yan’s creation of a Pixie belonging to a Fey noble house (a type of creature I have never liked or played with before) is currently sparking new plot hooks and new opposing organizations that will play an active role in the campaign. And I look forward to it!
  • One of Franky’s character had a long evil period in which he purposely spread a Demonic Plague that still threatens the world today.
So you see, for me World Building as always been just a questions of drawing a road, putting up a few trees and pointing the way to the next adventure. I always trust that my players will provide the building blocks to make the world rich and believable.

Let the players build the world. The DM should be the gardener that tends it.


  1. The continuity gives you a nostalgia enhanced campaign… 😉

    It’s a power that even the mighty wizard of the coast tried to harnessed in their last Magic the Gathering bloc…

  2. And managed to create a mess on the flavour level but with a lot of good cards to enhance our older decks.

    Hey! How did Crack the Gathering end up here?

  3. The Evil DM says:

    when the player become invested in the history and mythology of the world, both the player and DM care more about what takes place there. when someone your character has a history with in the game, calls for help it’s so much cooler than having a treasure map fall in to the hands of the PC’s.

  4. The Evensbrook comic at Stupid Ranger is based on a good example of this. Dante and Stupid Ranger both played in a long-running campaign in college under a different DM, and once they got out and started playing with me Dante decided to keep running with that gameworld.

    So right out of the box he had well-developed characters for us to interact with and a setting he knew like the back of his hand. It’s always kinda cool every time we talk about the campaign after the fact and he tells me three things I didn’t know about a situation we were in that make even more sense once I hear the backstory.

    One caveat, though, is I’ve seen several DM’s take their old characters and turn them into super-powerful pet NPC’s that overshadow this campaign’s characters and pepper the whole thing with weird in-jokes that nobody gets.

    But done right, it’s amazing!

  5. Also, I may just be on a Star Wars kick this week, but I swear I could just hear Luke yelling “SHUT DOWN ALL THE GARBAGE COMPACTORS ON THE FLAVOUR LEVEL!!!!”

    I think I need sleep…..

  6. Har Har Har!

    Uber powerful NPCs (Called Marty Stu on TV Tropes) are fodder for a thousand posts and RPG webcomics by themselves.

    In our last session I had my new pet NPC Half-Genius Troll (well quarter genius) sit on the side during the battle to let the players have and keep the spotlight.