Summary: Since I’m playing with people I don’t really know, and the desire to play Dungeons & Dragons—and not some other game or some homebrew bastardization of D&D—is what brought us together, and because I don’t want to say “no” to anyone’s character idea because it doesn’t fit with my selfish vision of what the campaign should be, I’m taking a more improvisational and collaborative approach to worldbuilding in my current campaign.
I’ve created a number of “conceptual” campaign settings over the years, most of which required mechanical alterations to the game. Usually, these changes are restrictive: no gnomes, no single-class spellcasters except for rangers or eldritch knights and the like, no plate armor. Others are cosmetic (“imaginary” rather than “symbolic” to use the psychoanalytic jargon): these elves are aliens, these orcs and dwarves are created by currents of chaos energy and law energy pulsing through the depths of the planet, all spells must be cast as rituals.
When such restrictive alterations amount to small ideas revealed through gameplay, the players might just go, “oh, that’s cool,” because that’s all it is: a twist on something we all already know about D&D, a sigh of new life breathed into a well-worn concept. But when they are big ideas that require major mechanical changes, or when they restrict the choices a player can make about their character, the results are a little more mixed. You start to realize why certain mechanics exist in the first place. It is rare that a player who is not a good friend will say, “sure, I’ll read your 50 page word document before the first session!” And when it’s already hard enough to find players, I don’t want to tell that player who loves gnomes for some reason that there are no gnomes in the world.
So with this most recent campaign I’ve taken a much more improvisational and collaborative approach to worldbuilding. I’ve ditched the preliminary worldbuilding along with the question, “what is this game about?” in favor of allowing a constellation of small ideas to cohere through gameplay. I’m playing with the races, classes, and rules presented in the core rulebooks (D&D as gaming lingua franca). My preference is for human-centric (anthropocentric?) parties and worlds, but my players came to the table with their own ideas: an elf ranger, two halfling bards, and a gnome druid. They all have great backstories, too: an elf supremacist death cult, a halfling sibling rivalry, a community of gnome druids chased from their forest. Since I’m trying to be a good DM, my first thought was not, “ugh, this is messing with my idea for this campaign.” It was, “in what sort of world could these characters and backstories coexist?”
I can’t come to the table with such rigid ideas about what my world is like that I reject player input. I can’t expect the players to play the game the way I want to play it while ignoring the way they want to play. I can’t force them to respect the integrity of my precious creation while stifling their own creativity and asking them to compromise their own creations. So those backstories and all of the assumptions that go along with an elf, two halflings, and a druid becoming friends gets woven into the fabric of the world.
This doesn’t require too much radical change if I don’t bring my preconceived notions of what this campaign setting should be like to the table in the first place. Worldbuilding is fun, creating campaign settings is fun, but it’s fun mostly for the person doing the creating, especially if that world does more than just tweak players’ understanding of what a D&D world is supposed to look like. So for this new campaign I’m running, I’m implementing only those “cosmetic” changes, bringing out what’s weird or interesting in the default assumptions of the game as presented in the three core rulebooks, and integrating the implications of character backstories into the fabric of the game world.