Opening Up the Setting

“…and the third key they ground into uselessness and gave to the dean as a badge of office?” I ask. It’s the second session of my boyfriend’s first serious attempt at running tabletop, a solo Call of Cthulhu campaign, and we’re breaking character a moment to speculate on the fate of one of the keys to the room at Miskatonic U that holds the Necronomicon. It’s something like the third time that night he’s started a description and I’ve taken it a little farther, and we’re both having a field day. Needless to say, once session’s over and I’m back to myself, it gets me thinking.

I wrote a while back about a reason why people—or at least, people like me—will often gravitate towards the characters whose cultures aren’t all detailed out: that it gives them room to create something beyond their individual characters. It creates a sort of involvement in the process that just playing the character doesn’t—like, even when you’re not playing someone who can have an Impact on the world around them (or, for that matter, on the storyline-such-that-it-is), you’re still leaving your own little mark on the world.

With an unformed world, though, there’s an opportunity for something closer—for the player(s) to actually shape the world rather than just existing in it and affecting it that way. Before the game I quoted, for instance, I had a tendency to try to do that anyway, though indirectly; I’d ask leading questions that steered the GM towards a detail that I thought would be interesting or occasionally useful, that I thought they hadn’t asked about yet. So it would be along the lines of “Okay, so I’m hearing magic—what do you think it all sounds like? Do you think this type would sound like this? How about this?” Or “What do you think of the concept of sympathetic magic?” Or “Hey, if these people do this, does that mean that this part of it represents….”

But every now and then you get this rare treat where the GM invites one or more players to just make things up as the world and plot are unfolding (or at least, things that will not directly interfere with his plans for where the game goes). It’s likeliest, and easiest, when dealing with only one person, or a very small group of like-minded people, as that decreases the likelihood of one person proposing something that just doesn’t work for another’s image of the world as a whole. But it can be done with a larger group, particularly when the characters are from a wide variety of backgrounds and thus there are a number of discrete areas that they can affect (in one PBP I was once in, most everyone had a different country or society of origin that they were given free rein in, I somehow ended up in charge of the temple and nearby city that the thing was taking place in…).

The end result is farther from the kind of game people familiar with either the hobby or the stereotypes thereof seem to expect, and closer to the “collaborative fiction with dice” model. And sure, it’s probably not going to work as well for a beer-and-pretzels game or one with an adversarial GM/player dynamic. But when what you’ve got is a bunch of creative people who like this whole collaborative fiction with dice concept, leaving parts of the world (whether it’s a particularly beautiful building/ritual combination for greeting the dawn, the location of the third key to the room where they keep the book the PC’s not interested in anyway, the personal lives of the PC politicians’ support staff, or the contents of that antique store) open for someone else to fill in can create a new source of enjoyment and a closer attachment between the players and the world.

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