The Pitfalls of Collaborative Worldbuilding

plus, building a new world for the New Year

Hello to everyone, but especially to my new subscribers! I assume you’re here because you saw my Wordplay talk. If you missed it, you can watch it here (my talk starts at 13:30)!

I’m sorry this post is a little late - I’ve been dealing with some health issues (minor and mostly resolved) and also with end-of-semester crunch. I still plan to release next month’s letter in the middle of January, so keep an eye out for that!

Worldbuilding Exercise: A New World for a New Year

Normally (well, in my one other entry) I put the exercise at the bottom, but as this one is rather timely, I’ve put it at the top instead.

My partner and I have a tradition of doing a structured reflection on New Year’s Eve. Instead of resolutions, we come up with a few questions each year (like “what do you want to leave behind in 2020?” or “what lessons have you learned?”) and then give three answers for each. We write our answers down and come back to them next year. It sounds intense (and it kind of is) but I’ve found this approach really helpful.

This year, since I’ve been so interested in worldbuilding, I want to make a little exercise for you that builds on this kind of reflection. Since we’ve all had a rough go of it this year, I’ve made it a little lighter too, in case deep self-reflection on the state of your life isn’t something you feel like doing right now.

You’ll need access to a digital colour picker. You can find one by searching “colour picker” on Google, or through photo-editing applications like Photoshop, Clip Studio Paint, or GIMP.

Choose (or roll to choose) five of the following:

  1. Something that gives you hope for 2021

  2. A memory from 2020 that makes you feel a little better about things

  3. Something you started this year that you’d like to keep doing

  4. Something you stopped this year that you’re looking forward to doing again

  5. Something you wish you had been able to do this year

  6. Your favourite picture or mental image from this year

  7. A screenshot or mental image from your favourite piece of media that you read/watched/played/enjoyed this year

  8. A lesson you learned this year

  9. Something you did this year that you’re proud of

  10. Someone new (real or not) you met this year

  11. Something you learned this year about someone you care about

For each one you choose, find a colour that you think represents it. You could take this literally - for example, by finding an image that represents it and taking one colour from that image - or abstractly. Either way, note the colour down (as a hex code or in your photo app of choice).

You will end up with a colour palette. If you don’t have an app for this, you can use this website and input your hex codes to see the palette you’ve created. Take a few minutes to look at the palette and think about it. How do these colours make you feel? What are they doing together - do they clash, or blend together? Are they similar or contrasting?

Using this palette as inspiration, imagine a place. For now, don’t think about large-scale histories or landscapes - think only about what this place looks like within your immediate field of view. You can think abstractly - by thinking about what mood each colour creates in you, how the colours relate to each other, and what sort of a place would feature these colours/mood/relationships prominently. You can also think more concretely - you might relate each colour to a specific object, for example, or use your palette to inspire a type of location based on association (eg. lots of blue = lots of water).

Inhabit this place for a little while. Are there other people or creatures here? What brings them here, and what are they doing? What would you do here, if you had the time? Would you want to stay here, or would you rather leave? Would you be welcome to stay? Why?

Bonus: if you did last month’s exercise, this place exists within the world you built last month. How did it come to be this way? What was it like before? Who comes here, and who avoids it?

Collaborative Worldbuilding: it’s harder than you think (part 1)

I’ve played One Hour Worldbuilders about a dozen times by now, with a different group almost every time. My players and playtesters have run the gamut from first-time creators to experienced worldbuilders, from people who barely play games to those who play them every day. Over the course of these sessions, I’ve learned a lesson that many tabletop RPG aficionados already know well: getting people into a creative mood can be hard. Worldbuilding offers an additional challenge: worldbuilding often focuses on broad-strokes concepts and histories rather than specific people, so players are denied the comfort of expressing themselves through creating their own character with a unique backstory, quirks and personality.

But we can also design ways to help people get into the groove, and sometimes the most reluctant people have the most interesting worldbuilding insights. I designed my upcoming game Worldbot with the goal of addressing some of these issues specifically. Worldbot combines open-ended worldbuilding with mechanics from bluffing games, encouraging players to collaborate while also keeping secrets from each other. By imagining Worldbot first and foremost as a social game, I’ve tried to address some of the most common social and interpersonal issues that can hinder the collaborative worldbuilding process.

In this month’s newsletter, I’ll discuss how to accommodate players who (in different ways) are reluctant to contribute to a collaborative worldbuilding session. Next month, I’ll talk about how to handle players who (intentionally or not) contribute too much.

Problem 1: Shyness

The problem: If you’re an experienced GM or tabletop gamer, chances are you’ve met at least one player who keeps their head down and their mouth shut unless they’re directly spoken to - and sometimes even then they are reluctant to speak up.

Under the surface: Often, these players are inexperienced - but there are so many reasons they might not want to speak up, from group dynamics to socialization. So simply addressing them directly and forcing them into the spotlight, while well-intentioned, can sometimes do more harm than good.

Design solutions: Games like Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year, and One Hour Worldbuilders as well, use a regimented turn system so that all players contribute equally from the beginning; this helps to prevent a dynamic from forming in which one player is ignored or assumed to contribute less.

Some players find the improvisational or performative aspects of worldbuilding to be the scariest. Letting players contribute privately or secretly might alleviate this fear. In Worldbot, players do some broad conceptual work together, then respond to secret prompts privately. This gives more shy players the chance to create without the pressure of thinking on their feet.

Finally, designing mechanics to minimize contributions by alpha gamers can give shy players more room to contribute. I’ll talk more about this in part 2. But first:

Problem 2: Reluctance to Step on Toes

The problem: Imagine four people playing a collaborative worldbuilding game together. Each player imagines one continent on a planet and develops that continent’s history, culture and society. By the end of the game, the continents have interacted with each other only barely. Essentially, the players have built four loosely-connected worlds.

Under the surface: Even players who are comfortable contributing creatively might worry about taking control of the game or making other players upset. This understandable and gracious concern can lead players to only contribute developments of their own ideas. While the scenario I described above can be fun in some situations, I’m more excited about a truly collaborative approach, in which players challenge, reimagine and synthesize each other’s ideas into something none of them could have come up with on their own. For that to happen, players need to feel a sense of agency over each other’s ideas.

Design solutions: Some games specifically encourage players to take control through language in their rules. Others require players to do so - Microscope, for example, forces players to make decisions unilaterally, without even asking for input. This can be effective, but it can still make conscientious players uncomfortable or nervous. Plus, having players take turns being “in control” can feel unnatural and stilted if players are more inclined to ask questions, work together and build a consensus.

Another approach is to encourage consensus-building rather than control-taking. One Hour Worldbuilders, for example, lets players contribute to each other’s ideas by asking questions. You might also allow players to independently expand on each other’s ideas, or encourage them to draw connections or hooks between different elements or concepts. The goal here is to get your players to stop thinking about an idea as “theirs,” and imagine it as fitting into a broader picture.

Finally, secrecy, bluffing and hidden information can all encourage players to take on each other’s styles and interests. In Worldbot, players independently answer worldbuilding prompts, then read one at random and guess who wrote it. In order to avoid getting caught, players must mask their style, which might mean using and developing concepts created by other people.

A couple of years ago, I also designed a game called City Planning Department, in which players become urban planners with hidden roles and motivations. When they focus on their roles and how to express them, players tend not to worry as much about taking control of each other’s ideas.

Problem 3: Lack of Ideas

The problem: Sometimes people just can’t think of something.

Under the surface: When someone says they don’t have an idea, sometimes they actually do - but they don’t feel confident or comfortable enough to express it. That being said, sometimes they really don’t! They might be tired, distracted, or nervous about being put on the spot.

Design solutions: As designers, there’s only so much we can do to solve this. One strategy is to give players lots of opportunities to take breaks. Short, clear turns can help ensure that players step away from the game when they need to.

Again, you might also give players multiple ways to contribute. The Quiet Year does this really well. On their turn players can choose between several actions, from tackling existing problems to discovering new places - each of which requires different creative skills. You might also let players write or draw instead of forcing them to contribute only through speaking and improvising.

Finally, giving players specific roles or tasks could help them decide early how much they are able to contribute to the game. For example, you could make a specific role for a player who is only interested in drawing, or designate one player to interpret ideas from others rather than improvising them. Bonus: asymmetrical games are more fun to replay, since you have to play multiple times to get the full experience of all the roles!

I hope you find these design ideas useful! Most tabletop designers are also more experienced tabletop players, so it can be really necessary for us to try and empathize with players who are less experienced or confident in their creative and improvisational skills. Next month, I’ll focus on the opposite issue: when players are so excited and confident that they contribute too much, making games harder and less comfortable for the others at the table.

And happy new year, everyone! Here’s to 2021 being at least a little better. Stay safe.