I love role-playing games which allow you to play with a character and with a place. For example Mutant Year Zero provides tools for building and planning out your enclave. Many of the random events revolve more on internal issues and problems than incidents in the wastelands beyond. Blades in the Dark offers a similar resource in the form of crews, with each having their own playbook. I dig running games where I can present places and the players can meaningfully interact with them. This can be collaborative creation, building up during play, or a mix of both. Any game with these kinds of tools for building is going to excite me and grab my attention.
Collaborative play revolving around locales is especially important. Sometimes conveying the atmosphere and details of an established setting can be challenging. For example I love the idea of Strixhaven and the D&D 5e sourcebook provides a ton of interesting materials. (For more on that see Strixhaven for Storygamers). You get the different magical colleges, a host of campus locations, briefings on instructors, and a menagerie of fellow students. There’s a ton of exhaustive detail–well maybe not exhaustive compared to other D&D products— but at least thick description.
The problem is because I run so many games I can’t remember all that stuff. And I hate leafing through references, especially online. Plus there’s the challenge of bring those details to the table so that they’re memorable and players can interact with them. It needs to be memorable both in the sense that I will bring it to the table and that the players remember these characters, sites, or details.
So in the Strixhaven game I'm running for The Gauntlet I've tried to use established setting features as a framework, but also give the players the opportunity to describe things. I want them to collaborate on the details of locations, procedures, teachers and many of their fellow NPCs. That gives them a sense of ownership. It's easier for them and frankly for me to remember them.
That’s gotten me looking again at other location-play ideas from other games. I’ve played around with this in the past. For example several times I’ve used Microscope as a city-building tool and played sessions set there. For a while I worked on playbooks for different city neighborhoods. You can see posts on that here and here. My holy grail remains a system which supports collaborative creation at the start– with a focus and prompts– but also contains mechanics to let the players interact with and meaningfully develop that location in play.
I'm a big fan of the Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. I’ve written about that before. I love the session zero world and map building. Both Legacy and Free from the Yoke offer an open, undefined map. Questions on the Family, House, or Organization playbooks prompt players to add details to that. Later when there is a "Turning of the Age," players get to add details to the map. New factions may appear or locations may change depending on events..
Shattered City is the most recent iteration of Legacy. You take the role of different families and groups within a specific setting. This is based on Tabula Games Mysthea universe. The campaign city is Montara and the core book provides a map with general features, though unnamed. Like other Legacy maps, nothing on the map is labeled or named. During that initial creation phase through playbook you’ll add details to that map. Where groups are, disaster sites, locations of strange powers. It’s more concrete than Legacy in that you tie those things you've added to “Factors,” with more mechanical heft. That gives a little more depth and makes it easier for players to figure out how they can interact with a map location.
I just finished my read-through of the Root rpg. I backed the Kickstarter at the level with all the swag: map, dice, bag. The game’s look and vibe excited me. I was hopeful, but it's a little dense, with a mechanics that deepen play in areas I'm less interested in. Root has a really interesting reputation system which facilitates PCs interactions with things like settlements. You track a character’s relationship to different factions and depending on that reputation you can access different moves.
That's really clever but it is a lot. The mechanic for tracking it on the sheet confused me and took a couple of readings to understand how that works. It feels like it leans towards detail over playability. There’s a sense there that the mechanic and track was built to allow room for lots of complicated choices.
One of the things which drew me to Root was the idea that you would build up this fantasy Woodland. Those woods have a variety of settlements, called Clearings. There’s a whole dedicated map supplement and the Travelers & Outsiders book offers more options beyond the core book’s rules. But while the core book has some tools for Woodland generation and faction control, they're not particularly rich. The examples and pretty pictures flesh it out and make it look deeper than it is.
I had hoped that The Travelers & Outsiders sourcebook would add significantly to this. It offers more paths for the clearing building system, mostly based on the new faction. It also offers faction clocks and tracker for the overall War, if that’s what you’re into.
But Root doesn't offer a way for the players to invest in or really develop one of the clearings. That is definitely in-genre. You’re supposed to be playing travelers and vagabonds who wander from place to place. I suspect some of my disappointment comes from my misunderstanding exactly what you do in the game setting. It's less an issue of the game not doing something. It is an issue with me having incorrect assumptions and expectations.
Rae Nedjadi has done some really interesting things with how place works in play. Cozy Town is a brilliant game focused on building a town together. It has a brilliant art and text design echoing light-hearted online or computer pastoral games. You build the town together and then play out seasons with an oracle deck determining incidents. Characters appear as details in play, and an optional rule offers a way to deepen that. In some ways, Cozy Town feels like the cheery flip-side of The Quiet Year.
On the other hand in Our Haunt, in the second step of set-up you create the Rooms your ghost PCs live in. Each kind of Room has a set of choices: aesthetics, unsolvable problems, and moves. You can choose these individually or collaboratively. The parallel to the characters is strong– in any particular phase you can choose if you want to play out the story or one or the other. I dig the micro-focus here. Rather than focus on a whole settlement, the game zooms in on particular fragments of the setting.
Stonetop is perhaps the recent game with the deepest set of mechanics for building up your settlement. It’s a PbtA rpg of the life of a small village and its inhabitants over many years. Your collective steading gets a detailed and rich playbook with maps, stats, moves, and more. As you grow your characters, you can grow your steading over time. It’s brilliantly laid out and really invites players to invest energy and attention into it.
I love that the idea of journeying out of the village on an expedition is an important one. You don’t just wander the countryside. It’s about preparation and planning, requiring that characters engage with the village itself. You have concrete options for how you get ready and what plans or orders you set going during your time away. While Stonetop is its own, stand-alone game, I can imagine adapting these tools to other games with a similar vibe, like Forbidden Lands.
Spectaculars is a superhero RPG with a board game box. The publisher, Scratchpad, also made Dusk City Outlaws. I liked DCO okay, and I’d hoped it could be a resource for running Blades in the Dark. But beyond the NPC cards it didn't quite work for me. But Spectaculars is different.
It presents a full-bodied RPG campaign with the tools and add-ons the board game box makes you expect. Each player gets a cool plastic play tray into which you can slot your character sheets, powers, and more. Spectaculars has four different campaign pads, each with a different theme (street-level, cosmic, etc). The conceit of the whole thing is that all these campaigns take place in one shared comics line. It's not unlike Gauntlet Comics, a shared setting run across multiple RPGs on the Gauntlet, with a resource wiki helping to link the different GMs and games.
Spectaculars joins these four campaigns together with a large setting book. Various places, people, and incidents are briefly presented in the setting book. Each entry has a little information, a checklist of choices, and space to write in details of how this setting element appears in your campaign. So when you hit a reference on one of the campaign pads, you stop and go there to make collaborative choices, add to the details, or just reference what you’ve already decided. It's a "legacy" (like the board game) approach. Now most campaigns have a legacy element; building up stories over time tracked on character sheets, handouts, maps, etc. But this approach provides a walk-in structure for play. You get the sense of a history which you get to build on in a meaningful way. It’s supportive, not intrusive. It prompts you but leaves plenty of imaginative space.
It’s why I’m super-excited about Yazeba's Bed & Breakfast. It dives into the legacy aspect with a deep and rich artifact which players create over time. It’s going to be amazing and you should back it.
I'd love to see this kind of approach for house Dungeons & Dragons settings or game worlds like Coriolis or Tales from the Loop. It would even be cool to do this for a World of Darkness city. Offer a starting point connecting to established lore but then let players build on that in a physical or online product. While you can do that work yourself as GM, it’s always great to have new resources and tools to support that, a ttrpg setting framework.
When I get a new ttrpg with a strong sense of place, one of the first things I look at is how it supports you as the GM to convey that. Then I look at what kinds of tools it has, if any, for constructive, place-development. Even if it isn’t there, I remain hopeful that we might see those down the road. Both the Fallout and Dune RPG, for example, are games where more resources on building & growing an enclave or family would be awesome.
What new systems or mechanics have you seen in recent games which have collaborative setting creation, tools for in-play development, or both?