Once upon a time, the Dungeon Master was the one and only creator of the fictional world, as far as the eye of your imagination could see. Then came the realisation that this isn’t, actually, a required part of being a game master, nor should it be exclusive to the game master.
Some systems, most famously those Powered by the Apocalypse as well as Fate and 13th Age, use this realisation as an integral part of the mechanics. They depend upon player contribution. Others, like Savage Worlds, simply have room for it. In this article, I’ll try to give a few guidelines for a specific – and in my GM eyes, very helpful – kind of player contribution: creating cultural backgrounds.
First, a few points to convince you this is a good idea.
Background cultural details add a lot. Details add to the immersion (“Every stall in the market has a bell on the front, which the merchants ring after every sale; the chiming sound of prosperity fills the streets”), hint at deeper layers (“On the side of the bridge you can see various flower bouquets, all in purple and red, hanging on short ropes, close to the water”), and help in portraying your character (“The custom of the Nay-ha is to never answer directly, always embellish your words, especially when refusing a request”). You should add background details to at least some of the cultures in your world, even if only in some minor ways. I’ve given one of the simple methods I usually use, on the post of this week’s comics page.
Players feel more immersed in a world they help create. They don’t need to create all of it, but Jill is going to be a lot more interested in the fall of the Council of Barons she herself invented, then in the fall of the king of Sombrero, whatever land that is.
It saves prep time for the GM. Although the GM must oversee all of the new additions, rewriting is still easier than writing. Delegate!
Several brains are better than one. The GM simply can’t invent by themselves as many and as varied interesting details, compared to a group of people.
A few suggestions for best practices:
Give them a specific culture, one related to their character. In Crystal Heart it’s easy; there are Five Lands, your dude comes from one of them, go ahead. In other settings, it might not be as clear (“My parents were killed by orcs, and I’ve been living with the wolves”), or you might have two characters from the same country. That’s fine, and while they can always collaborate, it’s also possible to have them develop a different culture than the one they’re from, one that is related to their character in some other way.
You have the Sailor background? What country across the sea enchanted you during your brief visit there? What strange customs have you embraced while visiting the big cosmopolitan city? If you’re a druid, what are the customs of the society of druids? If you’re a dwarf, what can you tell me about the other famed dwarven culture, and what do your people think about it? Make sure your character has a reason to know these things; everything you invent, your character probably knows. Let’s avoid the gap.
Give them a basic structure. Saying “You’re free to create everything!” not only leads to potential problems (see below), it also causes paralysis. Creativity is easier when it’s limited in some way; it’s easier to decorate a building than constructing it from the ground up. Decide on some basic cultural concepts – either fish from history or consult the published campaign you’re using – and hand your player a few paragraphs, with some solid facts: Government structure, major terrain types, anything unusual about the people or their history, some important names, something about religion or common values.
If you don’t have one or two of these facts, no problem, ask the player to invent them, but you should be able to hand your player enough for them to be able to understand what’s going on. It should already be a place that you can, theoretically, visit during the game, albeit probably a boring one.
Give them some guiding questions. What are some holidays and remembrance days they have around these parts? Who is especially important in every town, or family? What do they think of their neighbours from the north? How do they confront the hardship of (insert season here), and of (insert important life changing events here, like death or accidents)? If you’ll walk down the street, what would look strange to a foreigner, and why do they do that thing here? What type of object, animal or piece of food is used in a strange way by these people? (Wait until you see the thing with the Bogovian pigeons).
Just open the wiki page for cultural anthropology, click on some of the “show” buttons in the right menu, and take 4-5 concepts that look interesting to you.
Give them some soft boundaries. Some examples: Three paragraphs at most. You can invent the system of government, but I get to say who’s currently in charge of it. Don’t add anything about spirit magic, they don’t know about it in this culture. Yes, it might be cool to have a character from this culture who’s into spirit magic, but that’s the sort of thing we’ll want to see during play, later.
Boundaries are important, for two reasons. First, they force the player to limit themselves. Some players are willing to go on for pages and pages, creating too much material, most of it will never see play – which can be quite frustrating for them. Second, when you give boundaries, you make it clear that you’re the one in charge of the canon. Which leads us to…
Make it absolutely clear you have the final word about everything. Yes, the GM can delegate creation to other players, but there’s one role, one “hat” – perhaps the only one – that the GM must keep to themselves, that defines their place in the gaming party: they are in charge of the canon. They’re the keeper of what’s real in our shared fantasy creation and that authority allows them to not only keep everyone on the same wavelength but also to create satisfying story developments.
Make it clear that some of the cultural details might not make it into the game as written. If possible, sit with the player to discuss the details they invented, and tell them which parts were accepted and which you left out, and why. If, during play, the player notices that a detail they invented is missing, or “wrong”, they’re welcome to comment and say “it’s like this!”, but you can always correct them if it suits you (you should have a good reason for doing that, of course).
Two Players and Up is a weekly podcast in which we talk about the gaming highlights of our lives, with Aviv’s Factoid of the Week, the Patron Song, and also move house.
Every podcast episode we sing praise to our patrons, using their names. In this one: Alon, Idan, Ev, and Tomix.
The intro and outro are taken from “Vivacity” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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