In 1970, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson joined the Castles & Crusades Society, a group of miniature gamers formed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. The group imagined a Great Kingdom and parceled out territories to players to develop for their local games. The Great Kingdom became Greyhawk. In the foreword to the first Basic Set, Gary wrote, “Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of ‘Blackmoor,’ a spot between the ‘Giant Kingdom’ and the fearsome ‘Egg of Coot.’” Dave’s Blackmoor campaign became the foundation to D&D.
In a typical D&D game, the dungeon master describes the game world, the players tell what their characters do, and then the DM describes the results of the PCs’ actions. But in some games, the players’ creativity extends beyond their characters. Players contribute ingredients that conventionally come from the DM.
When dungeon masters and players join imaginations and build on shared ideas, D&D campaigns gain benefits:
The game world can become richer than the work of one imagination.
When players add creative work, the DM’s job becomes easier.
Players can create content that helps develop and reveal their characters.
Players who help create the game world feel a connection and stake in the world that can’t come from visiting someone else’s creation.
Even tiny player contributions might enhance your game. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends a few ways to invite players to embellish the game. Two ways are particularly quick and easy.
When a character kills a monster, ask the player to describe the fatal strike.
The first time a character attacks a monster, ask the player to describe a distinguishing physical characteristic of it.
Each technique reveals some of the benefits and risks of asking players to help describe the game world.
Asking to describe a killing blow helps players reveal their characters and grants players extra attention. However, it can grow tiresome. By the end of a game session, players may strain to find novel ways to say, “I stab it with my sword.” The descriptions might either become silly or extravagantly gruesome. They can push the game to revel in blood and gore more than players like. The question only spotlights characters with combat prowess.
Instead, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, invite the player to describe it. Tell them to make it awesome.
Not every player feels comfortable taking the spotlight this way. If they hesitate, their character still deserves the moment. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.
When players invent distinguishing characteristics for monsters, the creatures become unique, which makes the world richer. Some players enjoy this technique, but many feel uncomfortable with it. When a player describes a heroic moment, they reveal their character. Describing a monster feels like a bigger step into the DM’s territory.
“For what it’s worth, I find players can be on the fence or even against that style,” Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains in a Twitter conversation. “It confronts them with how the game isn’t real. We all know that, but it can pull them out of the immersion and into ‘just making this up, there is no truth.’”
For many players, the kick of role playing comes from diving into the role of a character. Jarring players out of immersion to embellish the scenery seems counterproductive.
Beyond these tiny embellishments, players can contribute bigger chunks of world building. Mike Shea asks players to help him describe things like the taverns characters visit. Lazy DMs can outsource improvisation this way.
How much players welcome such invitation varies widely. “I was at a table recently where I was asked to name the town we reached and describe what made it interesting. I did so and enjoyed it,” Teos recalls. “The DM asked 2 other players similar questions…uncomfortable silence.”
“Part of some players’ reluctance comes from feeling put on the spot,” Hannah Rose writes. For DMs, inventing a new tavern during a game session is part of the job, but many players shrink from that role.
Harold advises, “I do the world-building mostly as icebreakers at the start of a session, and rarely give such prompts once the players are in character for the game.” This avoids calling players to the blackboard during class. Plus, players can stay immersed in character.
Delegating world building works especially well when DMs ask players to define the places and non-player characters that define their background. If the party visits a family home, or the wizard school that shaped a character, many players embrace an invitation to create that corner of the world.
“I think there is a wide variance in this idea of bringing players’ creativity into the story,” Mike writes. “Killing blows and describing enemy physical characteristics are one thing. Building towns is another.”
“I asked players to help define the campaign world. We hit a point where they basically said, ‘Uh, we want you to do that, or it won’t feel real,’” Teos recalls. Delegating creation can rob the world of mystery. “When I asked them why Yuan-Ti were active in Port Nyanzaru, they flat-out said they didn’t want to know that as players.” Secrets serve as a key ingredient of any D&D world.
Teos has players that care for a believable game world. Based on the number of ridiculous character names players bring to my public play tables, some players treat the game world as a joke. Be prepared to veto some ideas unless you want a party to meet Captain Crunch on the deck of Boaty McBoatface. Some ideas could prove harder to kill. Players might invest loving effort into ideas that either don’t fit the DM’s vision for the campaign or meet the DM’s standards. If you invite player contributions, are you prepared to dismiss gifts that don’t suit you?
Besides heroic moments, my favorite times to invite player contributions come when characters pass time between the main action of the game. For example, when the characters spend downtime at the inn, ask the rogue’s player what their character does on the streets at night. Mike asks players to tell the story of their journey across the map.
In these passages, the question of whether the characters succeed is already answered with yes. DMs can skip their usual role of confronting characters with obstacles. Players invent challenges as they like to develop and reveal their characters while the group prevails. Time passes in summary rather than scenes, but everyone still gains a sense of time passing.
The end of an adventure or campaign presents the best time for such character developments. Instead of trying to tie up the campaign in scenes, wrap the characters’ stories in summary—and let the players tell their tales. “Tell us how your dwarf spends some of that gold. Tell us how your halfling lives out the rest of their days. Tie a bow on a happy ending. Make it awesome.”