Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

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 way, D&D got started because Gary let players like Dave create in his world. Then as now, creativity leads to more creativity.

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.”

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5 Responses to Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

  1. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the screen, and when I am a player, I find that there are situations where I am comfortable contributing to the game world and others where I am not. For example, I played in a game where the DM decided to really push the “players shape the world” idea, and as we traveled through a forest we encountered a fork in the path. The DM asked me what was down the right fork (yeah, I think that’s straight out of the DMG). I wasn’t really comfortable specifying that, as it felt like something the DM should have prepared — if it’s on the right fork of the path we’re standing on, then it’s an imminent part of the adventure, and therefore something he should have prepared. I agree with the sentiment that Teos’s players expressed about why the yuan-ti were active in Port Nyanzaru – that’s a core part of the plot of the game, and it should be a mystery that the *players* discover as well as the characters.

    In other ways, though, I am comfortable contributing details that I hope enrich the world. I will happily make up background elements and name locations while roleplaying with other PCs and introduce/suggest side plots and complications that the DM may or may not use. This rarely has a direct impact on the plot of the current adventure, however, and different DMs have different levels of ability to adapt and use what I throw out there.

    Maybe my feelings about the sanctity of the core plot stems from the fact that I spent so many years as the DM, crafting worlds and stories for the players to experience and mold. In my own games, I have a core story arc or three that form the basis of the campaign. The players always influence that story, and I will enrich it and tweak it based on things they say and do, but I never set out expecting the players to define core elements of the game from the start.

  2. Jon Mattison says:

    I can see both sides of the situation. I don’t want a Captain Crunch or McBoatface in my campaign; but not harnessing player enthusiasm seems like a waste of resources.

    I like Harold’s plan. (didn’t follow the link yet, just going by his quote here) Doing worldbuilding outside of the context of the game table. The idea of handing out some 3×5 cards or something before or after the game proper and have each player concept up a quick 3-line NPC or two for you (a la Johnn Four). “I need a few town market sellers, a blacksmith and a few town guards…” Then gives you some npc seeds to use/modify and drop into your campaign later.

    I think it’s a big break in immersion when at the table, in the moment, the GM is like “oh, the barkeeps name? uh, um, what do you think it should be Dave?” but if some of this “name the barkeep” contest happened outside of the game two sessions ago, then it’s a gold mine.

    Much like actually writing a story, the GM/author shouldn’t describe things in such infinite detail but give enough description that each player can conjure up their own vivid pictures in their minds from a few descriptors like “as you break camp to continue your trek north into the rugged mountains, you wouldn’t be surprised if it were to snow a couple of times before the end of the day.” Without rattling off a weather report as if from a weather app, you set the scene for the conditions and pace of travel in a sentence or two.

    And maybe not all your players are into it. If two are and two aren’t, then I see no downside to keeping in contact with the two that are interested and feed them “creative homework” between sessions, out of context, to feed/seed your pool of people/places/things. At the end of the day these two will enjoy seeing their creations appear at the table in-game and the other two can enjoy remaining in the immersion. Win win for everyone.

    Definitely a challenge finding the sweet spot between too much and too little.

  3. Travis says:

    I like this idea. It has some potential.

    I run a side-campaign for my normal gaming group; when one or more people are unable to show up for the normal game, I run a secondary “one shot” campaign. Mostly one shot adventures headquartering from a guild founded by their characters from a previous, short-lived campaign.

    I’m considering opening up “regions” of our undeveloped campaign setting between game sessions. I’d allow players to design a region of the world where their character comes from, and the political makeup (kingdoms, enemy warcamps, etc.) of the region during downtime between adventures, if the players so choose. Trouble is, most of them are either newbies or goofballs, so I’m not likely to get anything serious, if at all.

    Still, I can post this to our Facebook group and see what kind of responses I can troll.

  4. gorramwolf says:

    I think it all depends on the DM and the player, both and their dynamic. Without the right dynamic, it doesn’t work. But with the right one, you get a Forgotten Realms, or a Drizzt, things which have helped to bring interest and productivity to the D&D universe.

  5. Ilbranteloth says:

    Absolutely yes.

    Over the years I’ve talked to lots of DMs who are very against this idea, but I’ve found that they do it far more than they think they do. Although I don’t necessarily agree with or like the approaches that a lot of other bloggers post.

    The two examples above (killing blows and distinguishing characteristics) grow old quickly (and can break immersion quickly too). It’s like the groups that try to describe each hit with a sword, you can only think of so many options. If they had to come up with a distinguishing characteristic of every monster, it would be horrible.

    Coming up with a distinguishing characteristic the SECOND time they encounter the same monster/NPC on the other hand might be a more useful approach. That distinguishing characteristic becomes the thing that reminds them they’ve met them before and does so going forward as well.

    The same thing applies to taverns, etc. The players don’t often know what’s coming up, and putting them on the spot with no preparation is tough. It’s hard for me as a DM. On the other hand, when the players state they are looking for a tavern, I’ll ask what they are looking for (if they haven’t already told me). Are they looking for a dive, or a respectable establishment? They’ll usually give a pretty solid description when they start looking, because they know that they’ll probably find several, but will pick the one that is what they are looking for.

    But in terms of giving the players more control over the setting, that I agree with.

    In one of our groups, the characters are all from the same town, and they are adventuring in and around that town. They have a lot of input into other characters, who they know, etc. Most of the time this comes up in play, rather than doing it ahead of time.

    I leave it primarily up to the player to determine what the character knows and doesn’t know. I don’t restrict players from reading any of the sourcebooks (I encourage it) because their characters live in the world and know far more of it than we usually give credit. More importantly, though, it increases immersion in the game. Few of us would have difficulty describing the Star Wars, Star Trek, or other shared universes. You don’t have to describe Tattooine or what a Wookie is. When Bilbo wanders around the Shire, there’s no question that he knows a great many people.The further from home they go, the more they find that the source may not be correct.

    If I ask you if you know a mechanic for your car, you can tell me the name of the shop (and often individual people) where it’s located, and will probably even tell me about how great they are(n’t).

    I’d expect the fighter to be able to do the same in his town. I don’t need to make it up for them. If it comes from a sourcebook, or he makes it up on the spot, it doesn’t matter.

    Even if they aren’t from a given location, it’s easy enough to determine what’s appropriate on the fly. The characters are fighting a dozen orcs in the forest. Sure, we could use miniatures and create a battle mat that shows where all of the trees, rocks, undergrowth, whatever is. But it’s a lot easier to just go with it.

    “I’m going to drop low and circle around to the right, and take cover behind a large tree and start shooting them to keep them from flanking us on the right.”

    We’re already familiar with how archery really works in our campaign. He’ll crawl over that way with partial cover, and in a round, maybe two, be set up to attack. He’ll jab a handful of arrows into the ground, and shoot. Once several orcs charge his position:

    “I’ll drop my bow and lean out further, to try to draw them to that side, before turning and running the other way while drawing my sword. I’ll yell to Eregath so he can duck behind a tree and attack them as they chase me.”

    Is there a tree there? Why not? They’re in a forest. Can he get partial cover, or 3/4 cover? Of course, it would be the wise thing to do. Is there a tree for Eregath to duck behind? Again, they are in a forest, I’d expect the answer to be yes.

    Overall I give the players as much control over their destiny as I can. On a critical miss, they decide what happens (and they are usually much worse on their characters than I am). On a critical hit, they decide the hit location. It’s not always head shots, because while there are additional effects that might happen on a critical in my campaign if they fail a save, they have advantage on the saving throw if that part of the body is armored. They often go for unarmored legs or arms, kicks to the groin, etc.

    On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse). One character who triggered a trap that she should have seen a mile away was clearly going to die. I suggested that maybe she is maimed, and lost the hand and part of her arm to the acid trap, but he insisted that he was down on his knee, prying open the sarcophagus with his dagger, with her face inches from it.

    Instead, she was dying, and two characters raced to town to bring back a cleric. The rest tended to the character, and further explored their surroundings. A few hours later the cleric and characters return, dying about a day and a half later.

    It was a blend of my fiction and theirs, after he decided that she was caught in the full blast of the trap.

    Of course, if they are just being stupid and not respecting the risks they are taking, then what happens happens.

    The biggest area they contribute, though, is the narrative itself. I supply them with lots of carrots. Interesting places, rumors, NPCs, plots, events, etc. But they decide what they plan to do and where to go. It changes frequently, especially since I usually operate with everybody having multiple characters, and we go with whatever group is available and active depending on who makes it to the session. And the events of one session has impacts on other sessions (for a while I had two overlapping groups of players on two different nights all adventuring in the same area).

    I prepare NPC goals and schemes, political events, monster events, locations, and such. I do not generally write a plot.

    The amount that I and they contribute is fluid. Some players and groups need more input from me, others less. There are many sessions where the amount of DM input might be as low as 10%. Others it’s 90%. It all depends on what’s going on in the narrative in that session.

    The key to all of this, is that I generally never ask the players to provide input to anything their character wouldn’t know. They describe the basics of the tavern, because they are looking for something specific (and are likely to find it). They describe the action in combat, and the terrain around them, because they can see it, and the players know what a forest looks like, or a dining hall in a dungeon, etc. They know all about people and places in their own part of the world, and I can add the secrets they don’t know. They know whether they’re OK with the idea that this character dies here because they failed to detect the pit trap, and some poor souls just, well, die. Or they know that this character is more than that, and while his ultimate death might be meaningless in the greater scheme of the setting, it will be dramatic and meaningful to the other characters that know him and are with him. Or perhaps he’s one of the lucky ones that lives to retire and grow old.

    A quick response to Jon above – always have a list of names handy, because everybody needs a name. Every single NPC they meet has a name (even if they never learn it). In part that prevents them from thinking certain NPCs are more important than others simply because they have a name.

    Here’s the one I use: http://my-realms.blogspot.com/2015/06/4461-names-by-ed-greenwood.html

    I prefer this to the random name generators because these are names that somebody deliberately picked and feel more like real names than many of the random ones. Since I run in the Realms, and my Realms most closely follows the stuff the Ed has written, it works even better.

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