As a followup to the entry on building gardens instead of museums, let’s look at a few techniques that allow for flexibility in worldbuilding, player empowerment, and plot construction.
Let the Players Hold a Few Cards
As you present information to your players, let them take a proprietary stake in the world. This is the tabletop setting version of the golden rule of MMO design, “let the players do it,” and in more open-ended video game environments, this solution works as well. (Tangentially, I’ve long wanted a video game in which my reward for exploration is being able to name the region.)
For example, a player might want to have a character origin from a city or location you mention in passing. (This was why you made the mention but left it undetailed, right?) As part of that origin, he mentions a certain lord, manor, or hermit. Even if you’ve got a backstory already worked out for the region the player adopts as a homeland, it’s an easy enough task to work the character’s creation into the mix.
As another example, over the course of play, a player takes a shine to an organization you presented as a tertiary antagonist. He decides that his Ventrue really likes the way . Sure, you may “lose” an antagonist, but you can always make another, and your reward is an empowered player, and an empowered player is a happy player.
Some of Those Cards Are Liabilities
It’s okay in this situation for a player to overstep himself. Does a player want to be the king’s daughter? Or the prince’s favored childe? No problem. She may certainly gain some benefit from that, but as the game master or designer, that gives you new hooks on which to hang story introductions. As well, the trade-off is that, for a bit of benefit, the player has effectively volunteered to be part of a subplot connected to the prominent figures to which they’ve attached themselves. They may have to solve a problem that affects their patron… or they may be the hostage taken in an effort to leverage that patron.
Plant a Seed of Doubt
The seed of doubt is a revelation that establishes choice in a plotline. Itcan be a red herring, or it can be a clue that a clever player discovers that leads him to the truth. Instead of having a black hat who’s undoubtedly to blame for the priestess’s disappearance, what if you set up your plotline to cast equal suspicion on the jilted princess and the heretic witch? Either one could be the true culprit. Most importantly, whichever one the players suspect, they’ll have doubts that they’ve chosen the wrong one, so they’ll investigate further, which is more fodder for exploration and meaningful roleplay.
You, as the gamemaster or the designer, should be sprinkling seeds of doubt throughout the game. Why? Two reasons.
One: They add depth. Without possible outcomes other than the obvious, your story is linear. It’s not a question of if your players’ characters resolve the mystery, it’s when. They can never go awry, and the only surprise inherent to them is the moment of the reveal. If the players have choices, they get to enjoy the opportunity to solve rather than wait out a plot progression. They can choose the wrong one, which makes for consequences, which makes for drama.
Two: They give you options as a gamemaster. When used in tandem with the “Don’t Know” method below, they allow you to feel out the outcomes and decide if you want to pursue the one the players seem to prefer. Or, if your players prefer lots of drama and surprises, it lets you set them up to be wrong, and thus give them a debacle to solve their way out of.
Additionally, however you use them, they let the players feel smart for being right, or sets their resolve against being wrong again.
Seriously, don’t answer a question you pose in play or in background material. Let the answer arise over the course of play. Keep your options open – you may write a storyline thinking that the disfigured monk is the culprit in your mystery, but the players have shown much more interest in interacting with the winter witch who lives near the standing stones on the hill outside town. Watch what your players are telling you they want to do and give them more of that. They’ll feel clever for “figuring it out,” and their reward is doing some of your work for you.
This isn’t to say that your plans are invalid. But games are a shared experience, after all, and you’re participating with the players when you let them (indirectly) determine the outcomes of events in the world. For example, you may change plans mid-chronicle to have the winter witch be an agent of the disfigured monk, or vice versa. But the upshot is that the players get to resolve the events to which they are central in the way they’d like to see the outcome, and you still get to flex your worldbuilding muscles in response to the criteria they’ve established. It’s a challenge that you’ll learn from, working within parameters that come from external sources.
Of course, don’t let them know that you don’t know. Part of the fiero of solving in-game challenges is them feeling that they’ve puzzled out your clues (and thus worked within the external parameters posed by your gamemaster’s role. So you both win).
Also, using the “seeds of doubt” technique is a great way to stoke player imaginations and sort of stock the pond for the “don’t know” technique. It’s fine to have possible answers and allow the players to make the decision (behind the curtain) from among them.
This is much harder to accomplish in video games than in tabletop games, because video games have to be coded and the content arranged to answer the questions when the player resolves them, but with creative uses of content creation and story advancement models, it’s possible. But it’ll be expensive.
Know When You’re Right
In many cases, you will have made a decisions, and it’s for the best. Know when not to change. In particular, elements that relate to the theme and mood of your game enjoy some sacrosanct status, as changing them can result in a shift from the direction that you’ve established for your campaign.
Some of these are obvious. If you’re running a pretty straight-faced game, you won’t want to make your vampire prince a talking bear, or have the lone unexplored planet in the solar system have an atmosphere high in nitrous oxide. But others of these you’ll have to learn as you hone your craft. Will it change the flow of things for the negative to have the sentient garden instead be an underground grotto, or to have the faerie manhunter instead be a woman? Only you can guess at the answer to these questions.