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The Book of Hanz

What Collaborative Setting Creation Means To Me

Okay, so, collaborative setting creation seems to be one of those weird things for people new to more narrative games, and it was a bit of a hurdle for me. What exactly does the GM have power over? Does that mean that the players can just determine whatever they want? Does the GM do no worldbuilding? If the players can just declare anything they want, then doesn't the game just devolve into sitting around and telling a story?

I think the best way I can explain my thoughts on this is to give you a few examples of what I think it means. As always, this is my opinion, and others will almost certainly disagree :) My examples will be three versions of a single pitch -government agents investigating supernatural threats -and how this changes according to the three groups it's run with. Any similarity to anything "real" is as utterly unintended as any similarity Nanoc the IP-Friendly Barbarian has to any other character.

Some of this will be slightly not-strictly-according-to-the-rules for the sake of the examples.

Group one

GM: "Okay, so government agents investigating the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?"

P1: "Aliens. I like aliens."

P2: "Cool! But, how about a conspiracy? Like, the aliens are working with the government?"

GM: "I dig it. So you guys are what, then, FBI?"

P1: "Yeah, that sounds cool. Some interesting possibilities for the government investigating itself and politics in there."

GM: "Okay, any ideas on characters? I'd like to keep the players pretty normal -I don't want this to be a superhero game."

P1: "Okay, I can do normal. Since we're doing aliens, how about if I'm an investigator obsessed with the supernatural, since my sister was abducted when I was a kid?"

GM: "I like it."

P2: "Good stuff as a counter, why don't I play a character that's more skeptical? That'll make some good tension between the two?"

GM: "Awesome. I'll work on some details, and we'll get to playing."

Group Two

GM: "Okay, so government agents investigating the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?"

P1: "Hrm. How about something like an alternate dimension?"

P2: "Yeah, there could be something like a war looming, only we're unaware of it."

P3: "That's pretty cool. Though maybe there should be something else, some kind of group that's kind of I don't know, dimensional cops or something."

GM: "Good stuff. Okay, any character ideas?"

P1: "Can I be a government agent? Maybe psychic?"

GM: "I'd like to keep this pretty much with normal people. I guess psychic is okay, but is it okay if it's more 'plot-psychic', as in it's not a generally useful skill?"

P1: "Sure, that works. It's not relevant until it is."

P2: "I want to be a mad scientist, how's that?"

P1: "Hey, you can have experimented on me when I was a kid, and that's why I'm sorta psychic!"

P2: "Awesome. I love it."

GM: "Cool. P3?"

P3: "We're doing this dimension thing, right? How about if I'm someone from this other dimension?"

GM: "Mmm, I kinda want to keep the other dimension thing unknown to the characters at the start."

P3: "That's fine, maybe I just don't know it. Maybe I was dragged over here when I was a kid."

P2: " maybe by your friendly neighborhood mad scientist?"

P3: "I love it. But why?"

P2: "Maybe you're the alternate version of my dead son?"

GM: "Oh, wow. I can't see that blowing up in anyone's faces. But does that mean that everyone has an alternate version?"

P1: "Yeah, I think it would."

GM: "That could get very cool if people start crossing dimensions. Love it. Okay, I'll set it up, see you guys next week."

Group Three

GM: "Okay, so government agents investigating the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?"

P1: "I really like the idea that myths are based on some kind of reality, even if it's heavily distorted. Can we do something like that."

GM: "Sure. What kind of myths?"

P2: "I dunno, most of the old myths are overdone."

P3: "How about fairy tales? Except we've drastically misinterpreted them."

GM: "That could be cool. So, what are you guys thinking? FBI for you guys?"

P1: "Mmmmm how about something more low-scale at first, to kind of make the larger conflict seem bigger. Maybe local cops?"

P2: "Yeah, I like it. And maybe the fairy-tale creatures are trying to rise to prominence like they used to be."

P3: "Oh, that's awesome. But if we're going with misinterpreted fairy tales, I get to be the big bad wolf."

GM: "Cute."

P3: "No, really! Except I"m like, reformed, and a vegetarian."

P1: "That's kind of awesome."

GM: "I really want to keep this more about regular people, not superheroes"

P3: "That's fine. Maybe I'm a bit tougher than most people, but that'd really be about it I figure most of these supernatural folks are just kinda hanging out living regular lives anyway, so I don't really need anything super-awesome."

GM: "Yeah, I can see that working."

P1: "Okay, so these are fairy tales, right? How about if the fairy tales were written down originally as kind of a warning about the supernatural? And then I'm one of the descendants of this group that fought against them?"

GM: "I like it. P2?"

P2: "Well, you want to keep this grounded, and we've already got the big bad wolf and a monster hunter, so why don't I just be a regular cop? That'll provide at least some grounding back in reality. Plus, I think getting exposed to this stuff will lead to some cool character development."

GM: "That's awesome. I'll get some stuff planned, and see you guys next week."

So, in each case, the players have modified the setting, and the story of the games will end up revolving around them -it wouldn't really work with other characters. But, the GM still has a huge amount of responsibility over the game -the players have helped set the overall world, as well as the general themes of the game, but the individual events and scenarios still are well within the realm of what the GM does, even if they're often based on character aspects.

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