The Pitfalls of Collaborative Worldbuilding, continued

Enter the Alpha Gamer

Hello everyone! I hope you are all doing well and staying warm. This weekend the sky decided to dump about two feet of snow on me over the span of a few hours. For a whole magical afternoon the world was puffy and muted, and my partner and I walked around and let ourselves fall into snowbanks. Whether you live somewhere snowy or not, I hope you experience a bit of magic sometime soon!

Last month, I wrote about a few ways collaborative worldbuilding can go wrong. Specifically, I discussed a few design strategies for getting reluctant players involved in the collaborative worldbuilding process. This month, I want to talk about the other side of the participation spectrum. As designers, how do we deal with players who participate too much?

But Kaelan, is there such a thing as too much participation?

As designers, we want our players to get excited about the worlds they’re building. What’s the harm, you may ask, if they get carried away by their creative work? Isn’t that exactly what we’re aiming for?

Well, yes and no. If all the players at the table are equally excited, great! But

There is only so much we can do as designers to mitigate this problem - social dynamics play a huge role here, of course. But just as with reluctant players, some small design interventions can go a long way.

Problem 1: Excitement

The problem: Imagine four people playing a collaborative worldbuilding game together. The players build four loosely-connected continents, taking turns excitedly describing their cool new ideas for their own areas - but they never so much as comment on each other’s continents.

Under the surface: When players get wrapped up in their own ideas and innovations, they often stop listening to each other. This can result in adjacent (as opposed to collaborative) worldbuilding - so even though everyone is excited and happy here, the situation is not ideal.

Design solutions: Your goal here should be to redirect players’ excitement towards each other’s work. Make them ask questions of each other. Build in questions and mechanics that follow up on previous material, so that players are forced to address and reimagine each other’s ideas. Ask players to write down or share things they don’t know, and have the others fill in these blank spaces.

Overall, you should start from the assumption that no part of the world belongs to any player, and build in systems and mechanics that reinforce this idea.

Problem 2: The Alpha Gamer

The problem: Over the course of a play session, one player starts to take control of the worldbuilding. They interrupt other players, jump in with suggestions when others take a moment to think, and take control of creative work like drawing the map. By the end of the session, the alpha player is the only one really participating in the creation of the world.

Under the surface: This one is a classic in the world of board games. Sometimes, for one reason or another, one person takes control of the project, dominates the discussion, or centers their own concepts and vision. Usually, this results in less input and participation from the other players. Sometimes, it can create frustration or outright conflict. For worldbuilding specifically, it can result in other players “checking out” of the world and doing other things.

Design solutions: I see two major routes to dealing with the alpha gamer: you can restrict their actions or redirect their excitement. (Some mechanics do both at the same time.)

Restricting the alpha gamer’s actions might involve mandating silence at specific times, specifying that players should draw their ideas themselves, or creating other rules that specifically prevent the alpha gamer from intervening. These rules can give other players leverage to slow the alpha gamer down, but since most worldbuilding games don’t involve points or winning/losing, you may not be able to back your rules up with consequences - which might make them less effective. It might also foster a more hostile atmosphere where players feel like they have to restrict and police each other - which of course is not the best atmosphere for collaborative creative work.

Another approach here is to redirect the alpha gamer’s excitement by giving them a specific, limited outlet for their alpha tendencies. For example, you could give each player a specific role, and designate roles for organizing, drawing, or facilitation. Think about which aspects of your game might be most susceptible to alpha gamers, and use roles or tasks to mitigate that issue. For example, in my own games I’ve found that moments when players are asked to freely discuss something have been most susceptible to alpha gamers, who often don’t even notice that they’re talking more than everyone else. To mitigate this, I might replace free discussion with a system in which one player comes up with an idea, a second player “edits” it, and a third player draws it on a map. This allows for alpha gamers to feel a sense of control over the vision of the game without letting them stomp on the others.

(Note: some of these ideas come from research I participated in at the MIT Game Lab in 2017-2018, which you can read more about here.)

Due Diligence and Knowing Your Limits

There are only so many design solutions to social dynamics. Even the best-designed games can turn to chaos in certain social situations. When I design collaborative games, I try to imagine a range of target social experiences. For example, when I designed my collaborative secret-role city-building game City Planning Department, my co-creators and I knew that it would likely lean towards zany, bombastic roleplaying, and that in some situations, this might cross over into edgy humour and offensive jokes. We came up with a couple design solutions for this: we curated secret roles to ensure that every game would include at least one person genuinely interested in the well-being of the city, we made sure not to write edgy jokes or concepts into the game, and we included “shift cards” that force players to rethink (and often regret) their goals halfway through the game. We also wrote a disclaimer in the rulebook suggesting that players take care with the themes they explore, and asked players to complete a Lines and Veils chart before playing. We did our due diligence to discourage players from creating an uncomfortable social dynamic.

Ultimately, though, if players really want to have an edgy and raucous time playing City Planning Department, they can do that. We won’t be there to stop them. And some of the problems I’ve described over the last couple of months might happen. Players are going to take your games in directions you don’t expect - and at a certain point, you have to recognize the limits of your ability to dictate their experiences! Such is life as a designer.

A Note on Future Issues

So as you may have noticed, I haven’t exactly kept up very well with monthly newsletters. I’ve decided to revise this rule for myself. Instead of writing every month, I’m going to write whenever I feel like it, which might mean every month, and might mean a little more or less often. I hope you won’t be upset to get a little more of this stuff in your inbox!

In the next few entries, I’ll be getting into worldbuilding itself (rather than designing for worldbuilding), and I have a couple of exciting topics in mind. Here’s a hint about one of them:

Monthly Exercise

Since we’ve been discussing collaborative worldbuilding, this month’s exercise will help you design your own collaboration exercise!

First, plan to play with a group of three to five people. This exercise assumes you already have a world idea in mind, and you want to expand it a little bit. If you don’t have an idea yet, you can play this game in conjunction with One Hour Worldbuilders, which is playable online here. This exercise is also best completed asynchronously.

Your goal is to sketch out in detail one location within your world. Don’t try to draw your whole world - think smaller-scale, like a town, neighbourhood, or even a single building. Decide together which location to sketch out.

Now, take turns rolling a die to determine your worldbuilding role. If a player rolls a number that has already been rolled, roll again until you get a new number. You can also decide through discussion as long as there are no disagreements. The roles are the following:

  1. Researcher: search online or in books and find three images that inspire your location. One image should inspire you aesthetically, one in terms of mood, and one in terms of topography. Privately send the images to the visionary.

  2. Visionary: Using the three images given to you by the researcher as inspiration, write a blurb about your location. The blurb should include sensory information (what this place smells, sounds and feels like), a clue about something that has happened here recently, and the names of three people who come here often. Be evocative with your writing, but don’t be too detailed - leave space for other players to include detail. Privately send the blurb (but not the images given to you by the researcher) to the ethnographer and the artist.

  3. Artist: Using the blurb given to you by the researcher as inspiration, draw a picture of your location. This picture can be a map, an evocative image or a sketch, and it can be directly representative of your location or abstract. This picture should include a clue about something that is about to happen and one detail about this place not mentioned by the visionary. Privately send your work to the producer.

  4. Ethnographer: Using the names given to you by the visionary as inspiration, write or draw character designs for the three people who come to this place often. Draw or describe three of the following: why they come here; something they like to do elsewhere; someone they really dislike; where they wish they were instead; or a secret they keep. Privately send your work to the producer.

  5. Producer: Using the work given to you by the artist and the ethnographer, write up a short description of some events that might take place here. Specifically, describe two of the following: an altercation that is bound to happen sooner or later; a new building, structure, or person coming in who will upset the dynamic; an interaction that happens every day; or a seemingly-normal interaction that would surprise the people who frequent this place. Post your work so that everyone else can see it.

When the producer posts their work, everyone else should post their work in response so that everyone can see it. Compare what you all came up with - do you have a similar vision? What is different, and why?

If you have fewer than five players, you can skip the roles that aren’t claimed. For example, if you skip the producer, the artist and ethnographer should post their work publicly as soon as they finish it; if you skip the visionary, the researcher should send their images directly to the artist and ethnographer; and so on. If you have three players, it’s probably best to have at least one of the researcher and visionary, at least one of the ethnographer and artist, and the publisher.

That’s it for this one! See you all next month - or whenever I decide to post next. You never know, it could be next week :)