Building Meaningful Places Together
The thing to remember when you are asking questions is that you only need to build ‘just enough’ and to focus on the things that matter when the story is in focus.
In a recent game of Quest I and my players built a fantasy world using the wonderful Azgaar fantasy world generator https://azgaar.github.io/ we cycled through options for the world until we had a really clear idea of what the world was like.
Interestingly, for the first time in a long time I built some internal history for the game, and shared out in a whole three pages of the world. It set out the sandbox in a more traditional sense and I am now applying the techniques I outlined elsewhere in this article. This approach allows me to set the ‘internal rules’ of the world but then pass the details out to the characters.
This hybrid technique gives the GM a good degree of control and sets up the consistent and structural parts of a game but invites the players into defining the world with you as they make their way across the fantasy setting. This way, you only need to create the ‘world bible’ for the game as the game encounters it.
This leads back to my observation above that lore builds game by game, it matters that it is internally consistent for gaming groups - once it is established it is true. This way we take more of the ‘here be dragons’ aspects of the sandbox and give them detail when it is relevant to do so.
You can use this approach in a more localised way as well - I ask questions in world building when I want some signature locations for the characters - it's a technique I have used in Masks, Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts 2.
This is an example of questions I asked at the start of a 20 session Masks game set in a Friendly Neighbourhood Spiderman sort of setting - the five or so blocks the teen heroes defended needed to feel real so I asked them to give me somewhere that really mattered to them.
Welcome to Union City and the lower West Side of Union City. Our story takes place in the increasingly gentrified village and the ethnic melting pot of the ‘Triangle’ - or as locals call it ‘Tri-Town’ - are you Village or Tri Town? What's your favourite place and thing to do
- The Arcade - on the riverfront, close to the docks. Dynamic hangs out here
- Books and Stuff, a local and hidden bookshop full to the rafters of new and second hand books
- The Boiler - a rough skate park, where small scale drug pushing goes down, not to far from the Village
- Illegal rave in the docks - Novak Shipping - run by 'Madam Percy'
And the full play of our Masks: Neighbourhood game here - every session has use of Stars and Wishes as a cool town tool. https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKaVqoVBo79gFK1PUnDZfCC94_M5xFRsr
I can not tell you how many scenes were set in that skate park and without a doubt Books and Stuff was the MVP location of the game.
‘Books and Stuff’ had awkward teen kisses, a mob hit and eventually it was torched by the mastermind villain. It had become so real it was almost a character in its own right. As a GM it was something I could put in peril, or bring people back to in the same way that a Buffy episode used the Library.
Another tip here - you do not have to use everything, incorporate what works and what will be fun for you to explore. I didn't really want to run illegal rave stuff in my Masks game - so instead had a major super fight there instead and trashed it.
Making NPC’s Real
You must have run a game where the minor background NPC becomes a huge center stage character whilst the big bad you put a huge amount of effort thinking about is a bit of a damp squib.
Let’s explore why that might be happening:
Recently I went a bit old school and ran the OG Star Wars RPG. In one scene it turns out the rebel operative they are dealing with is Cassian Andor. Awesome name-drop, the crowd goes wild!
Or do they?
Why does Cassian Andor matter to these characters? So I asked one of the players “Do you think Cassian has forgiven you for what you did to him?”
All of a sudden the fiction turned from an excited player getting to play in some Star Wars lore to their player becoming excited that their character and the messy breakup they had with Andor.
That’s the responsibility you have with NPCs as a GM. If you are not making them relevant to your players stories then why are they there? To dump plot exposition on them? That can work but it will rarely make them care as much. Build back to those earlier questions and create characters with motivations that allow the PCs to shine.
I have developed my own technique for building major NPCs that allows players to co-create using the template below. You do not need to use all the questions at once - fill them in as you go along.
Let me introduction you to The Blue Rose - an NPC in a Spelljammer inspired Quest game I am running. I started with a picture (pro tip: Pinterest boards as game mood boards are a great help), a brief description and questions which brought the NPC to life.
The Blue Rose is a smuggler that runs a crew in the Shambles - Passionate and Foolhardy Rose has given you work, heartache and gotten you into more trouble than you care to remember. She has a plan to steal a ship and escape this place.
Questions for Characters
- How did they get their name, and how were you part of it?
- How are you in their debt?
- Once you got too close to them? How raw are those wounds?
- What makes you always believe them, even though your instincts tell you better?
[img source: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/maiden-magic-wand/ out of copyright]
(You can watch the Actual Play of this game here:https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKaVqoVBo79jCcNVuKF6OJinhRbnqZTP6)
Each of these answers defined a strong aspect of the inter-player relationship on a ‘nexus’ NPC. One big enough to shift the story. As a result of these questions we discover The Blue Rose is on a quest to breach the sunless lands and bring their dead daughter back to life - I wish I was as creative as that player!
You do not need this level of depth for every NPC a single question pre-prepped or asked on the fly will do just as well - “Michael, as you find yourself face to face with the guard, how do you feel when you find it is Tobammory, an old school friend?”
This approach is even more important if you are running games in pre-written modules and adventures. Take the time to think about why the NPC matters. Take that crusty old Antiquarian in your Call of Cthulhu adventure and make him someone’s uncle, or the person who taught them Latin as a child.
Putting it All Together - With Great Power….
If you slam world co-creation at someone without creating this environment of support and permissiveness it may stall. So like Uncle Ben told Spiderman - with great power comes great responsibility. If you are coming from one of those gaming or GMing cultures that does not expect players to create, only to consume, you are going to have to help them understand that their input isn’t only allowed - it is positively encouraged.
Firstly, you should be using safety tools as part for your game setup - know what questions are off limits. For goodness sake do not ask a question that will upset or cause issues to your players. If you ever do, strike it, apologise and go a different way. Seriously - do not use these GM Wizarding techniques for evil!
Signpost it is coming
“So Tova, I think it would be really cool to understand why the Baramanzians might care about this - so I am going to ask you a question”
Let the player or even let the group know a question is coming - this is not a pop quiz at school!
Ask and wait
Unless you are playing with improv gods, once you have asked the question give them up to about 30 seconds to answer. Watch their body language, if they are struggling you might want to…
Reframe or Open to the Group
If the player is struggling, or the answer feels a little barebones then widen the discussion to the group. Bringing in another player or see if anyone wants to co-answer and create. This technique helps the quiet ones contribute without expecting them to fly solo immediately.
Or reframe the question with them - if they want to answer the question in a different way guide them to a better, more collaborative direction.
Move the spotlight
In the situation where you just asked a massive character or game-changing question giving them time to think is a great tip. Moving the spotlight to another character (and making a note for yourself about the question so you remember as well) and coming back is likely to leave you with a much more thought out and epic answer.
This approach is also useful when someone is hogging the spotlight - encourage your creative superstars but do not let this become a one person show, we are playing in an ensemble cast.
Acknowledge answers and let players know you love what they are doing
It is pretty self-explanatory, but if a player gives you something and you do nothing with it, you will knock their confidence. If it's awesome and you want more of it let them know. If they answer and you want to work with it to make it more relevant or nudge it in a direction narrated out of their answer and build with them.
Do not be afraid to ask more questions about their answers - this stuff is like jamming for GMs.
I use a cool down technique called Star and Wishes, where we call out something we are thankful about in the game. A common piece of feedback I get is that they love how I rolled with it whatever they did as players or as a group.
I love that feedback, it means I am getting more right than wrong - and they have not yet figured out that I am asking them to take on more of the GMing duties than they realise.
In gaming or the real world I have a really simple ideology - the more authority and power I have gained, the more I want to distribute it and give it away. There are all sorts of reasons in terms of organisational psychology to do this - ultimately it is about creating more enthusiasm, more buy-in and a more open culture.
If you have any questions for me - find me on Twitter as @BeardLikeAJedi
If you enjoyed this article you can get it and much more in Edinburgh Indie Gamers 2020 Zinequest publication for free at Itch.io https://itch.io/t/1419126/edinburgh-indie-gamers-zine