Worldbuilding and lying to your players

Gamer Life General Discussion

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Ok, buckle in b/c I'm going to rant and if you choose to read it that's up to you. I sit down to a session 0 with a GM. He claims to be "old school," my first red flag. Then he says he does worldbuilding "from the inside out" meaning that we start off in a place that's fairly well defined but that the world outside this starting point is kind of unknown, at least to the PCs.

We start making characters (D&D 3.5 FYI) and I ask the name of the town - he doesn't have that generated yet. I'm rolling up a cleric; what deities are we using? "Just pick one" the GM responds. Later in the evening its revealed we're supposed to be either part of the nobility or serving them. I ask who the nobility are; house names or ranks, is it feudal or theocracy or what. "I don't have that all in front of me."

So the inside, the starting point, is completely under-defined. Got it. And we're supposed to be worldbuilding from "the inside out." Oh yeah, and when I tried to just freestyle some details so that my chosen deity could have a temple in the town, the GM shut me down. He doesn't want the players creating his world; he'll be in charge of that.

Don't lie to your players. Don't lure them to the table telling them you've got a mega-plot, a detailed starting locale, and this SUPER cool twist for the campaign when the reality is you have done NO work on the starting locale, very little plot prep and the SUPER COOL TWIST is guessed by all the players at the table 14 minutes into character creation - we died and are playing evil undead versions of our characters.

On a personal note, I'm so sick and tired of check-your-head-at-the-door campaigns. Like, I don't need Holmes-level mysteries, but at least come up with plots that are more than "religion bad; undead everywhere!" That was the basic thru-line of this guy's last campaign he was telling me about (which self-destructed at level 5 FYI) and it sounds like this is another shade of the same material.

I'm giving it ONE session. ONE. I'm a man of my word and I'm giving this game a try. For the love of God and all that's good and holy, I hope things get better.

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Good grief, Mark. I hate that you had to put with that nonsense. It's not that unusual, sadly. Back in the days when I first began gaming I played under several DMs who did this exact thing. I had hoped they'd become extinct by now, but I guess some still hold on.

I used to spend weeks, even months prepping my game world for our campaigns and over time I came to think that this is a pseudo-medieval sort of world so knowledge of your region would most likely only extend up to maybe a hundred miles. So I pared things down, filled out everything the players needed to know to get started, and THEN had session zero.

When D&D3.0/3.5 rolled around I discovered it took a little more planning than in the days of older editions, but not to worry, Monte Cooke was there speaking words of wisdom. His philosophy on world building for games was "never build more than what the players need to know at the moment" (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it). Since that's pretty much how I'd come to operate I just took his words as validation. And it works for my group.

Mark has seen some of the work I've done on my setting over the last 30+ years and I have to say I'm pretty pleased with how things have turned out for both my players and myself. If the players are going to be heading into parts unknown, I come up with a reasonable distance that they'll be traveling in the first two or three sessions, fill it out with the necessary NPCs and encounters, come up with the names of the villages, towns, rivers, etc before the players ask because they damned well will and I better have something ready instead of cribbing it off the ingredients on a Mountain Dew bottle (I've done that once. They never knew).

And even after thirty something years, my world is not completely mapped out and its really not likely to be. There's no real need to build a temple and following for a theocracy dedicated to the great god Hooziwatzit on the far side of the planet unless I have adventures in mind that will lead them there. I also realize that my way of world-building isn't right for everyone, but I've played with most of these guys since the beginning, starting with a setting called "The City of Unkhoor". I had everything ready to go when we started, even down to naming the types of coins based on their metallic makeup. Things have evolved and changed over the years as games and campaigns changed the political and religious makeup of the setting, of course. And a few years back I set a series of games in a section of the world the players had never heard of based around a city named Dar-Shalul. But before they rolled a single die it was fully fleshed out and ready to go.

I feel that I'm a pretty well-honed improvisational and think on my feet sort of GM when necessary, and it frequently is. We've had a saying for years that you can present players with Options A, B, or C (which I've meticulously put together) but they're going to choose Option Q. Sometimes I have to make something up whole cloth or move something important from A, B, or C to Q, and they never really notice the difference. I haven't said all of this to come across as the perfectly prepared game master. I'm not. Good Lord knows I'm not. They'll still ask me a question out of left field and I'll have to improvise on the spot, but having the background of the campaign already in place it's a lot easier to do that. And I've never had to name an NPC "Dium Benzoat" again.

Good luck, Mark. I hope the game turns out better than the preview!

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8

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Good luck, Mark. Whatever's going on, I have to say it sounds like this GM and your play style are not very compatible. Giving him the benefit of the doubt while acknowledging your situation is extremely frustrating (I'd be pissed off too), I'd reckon his idea of important details and yours are very different--for a hypothetical example, if he's focused on setting you up to be undead predators of the town, who is in power/the nobility is irrelevant if you kill them all during the next session, so he may not have thought it worth the time to flesh that out. He's likely focused on the story rather than background, and sometimes players who like background and to take the wheel are going to be frustrated by whatever rails he wants to keep the story on

I agree that it is really annoying when someone says, "Oh do whatever you want with your character's story"--when you explicitly ASKED for parameters--and then when you do what you want they say, "Oh not that thing." That's more super-poor foresight than deception but it is nonetheless a sign of incompetence and shortsightedness. I'm sorry you're in that situation.

Have you told him how frustrated you are and why?

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Hm. That sounds not fun.

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I haven't talked with him about it yet, trying to give session 1 a good chance before I do. I mean, maybe he was having an off day, maybe his kids were distracting him that morning? I don't know his life so I don't know if this was a fluke or what. I want to see if the game play follows the same pattern or if he's just laser focused on combat encounter design and not so much on worldbuilding.

Silver Crusade

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Personally, I'd very likely have bailed at the super cool plot twist that I was playing an evil undead version of my character. Depending on my character.

I HATE plot twists like that with a fiery passion. It just often feels like bait and switch. I spend time lovingly creating my good Desna worshipping cleric and find myself playing something different. Or, often, NOT playing something different.

Now, if I'm told AHEAD of time that I'm going to be playing an evil undead version of my character that can be fine. Then I can built a character that will be fun AFTER the change, will have appropriate levels of angst, etc. My favourite World of Darkness character started as basically a druid before he became a vampire and that druidic background strongly influenced the character and his actions.

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Anyone here ever play the board game Descent or Descent II? Essentially there are dungeon tiles and pre-written scenarios. Game set up is the "Overlord" or the DM of the game builds the dungeon from interconnected tiles, then a team of players has to hack the dungeon while picking up loot and achieving an objective for the scenario.

Now, Descent II has a campaign mode; several of the scenarios are narratively strung together and the characters have points they can spend to develop their abilities and such. My personal opinion of this GM is they'd rather be running Descent II.

There's nothing wrong with this style of play, its just not me is all. I like sandboxes, I like getting invested in plot and setting as a player. If you're a GM and you know you have a player like me on your hands, don't bait-and-switch with a "village of Homlet" type scenario that turns out to be a board game.

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That would really grind my gears. Ugh.

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*deep knee bends; shoulder mobility exercises; visualization*

Liberty's Edge

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I like to throw unexpected twists at my players and plant the seeds from the very beginning of the campaign, even during character creation sometimes. But I try to always remember that their PCs are the heroes of the story. These characters are the players' full creation. I already have lot of fun creating the story's background and NPCs and locations and playing them. It's only fair the PCs enjoy the limelight.

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Full disclosure, a few spots in Karnoss, my homebrew setting, were created whole cloth from player suggestions. When players make up characters I encourage them to create their own homes or settlements since much of the map is pretty generic and empty still. Some regions like southern Rukhenval or the wooded tangle of The Gnarl outside Dunspar are largely uninhabited by PC races, but for example the open steppe surrounding the city-state of Ravenhurst is just kinda green crayon, with a few tiny forests or water areas dotted in.

In the Ravenhurst campaign I basically said that all through the rugged plains there's tiny settlements here and there but the city is the only centralized civilization after the collapse of the empire far to the north. As players made up their characters, I got a couple villages and a modest castle controlled by a Iomedaen order outside the city. Of course, the theme of the campaign was a megadungeon with evil factions, many of whom had counterparts or spies in the corrupt city of Ravenhurst, so the order of Iomedae had to be both new and weak in the area, but the idea was that the paladin PC would be the blade of change pointing toward a new day.

Point is: my own philosophy in playing or running a game is that players and GM should make the game together. I mean, the major plot beats are generally up to the GM, I acknowledge that, but worldbuilding and plot direction can be equally influenced by anyone at the table. This just feels like a natural extension of that old game GM's have played for years:

You throw out some info or a villain or whatever, and then sit back and listen to the players brainstorm. Gradually you ad lib THEIR answers into YOUR story; the players feel like they figured some stuff out and you know as the GM you've delivered a good session.

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Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber


That's a pretty lame way to start a campaign. "Make up a character with no real place in the setting (because the setting is undefined)... And then the character dies/becomes an undead version." I wouldn't put it past the GM to have some BBEG/evil organization basically pulling the characters' strings (the PCs are lackeys/minions) because plot hooks are difficult to come up with.

If the GM wanted an undead party, why not just create an undead-themed community or nation (i.e., Geb in Golarion)?

A more interesting setup (IMO) would to have the players create characters, possibly also outlining some parts of the world (which the GM may tweak or add secret parts to; stuff that is not "common knowledge"), and then have them be doppelgangers infiltrating the town in their "PC" personas. Run the campaign as a heist movie (Italian Job, Oceans Eleven, etc.) or a spy thriller. They can go on "normal" adventures as part of their "cover identity" while working toward some other goal at the same time.

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To echo something Mark Hoover said above, my campaign setting should really be called "our campaign setting". My players have always been absolutely terrific about suggesting places, people, and scenarios that have been easy to work into the overall fabric of our cooperatively homebrewed world. The great cities of Unkhoor and Dar-Shalul, indeed, the entire planet, would be a poorer place without their input.

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You can be very general and ask for something general
You can be very specific and ask for something specific.
Either have their place and work.
You CANNOT be very general and then ask someone for something very specific.

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lol... sounds like it's a game to die for

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Session 1 last night. 100% beer and pretzels. I let the DM know I wasn't coming back to the game.

Check your head at the door games might not be my jam, but if we're laughing and having a good time in game I can usually work around that. Last night though the DM STILL had no real updates on the worldbuilding or our place in the setting; the city had a name, a general description, but still no temples for Divine casters like me, no noble names, it felt like a blurb from the back of a dimestore paperback from 70's fantasy fiction.

Then the DM stole our agency, several times over. Remember how we suspected we were undead? Well, when we actually MADE our characters in session 0 we had Con scores, picked races and such. At several points last night there were moments where our skill checks should've revealed we actually were, in fact undead:

My PC did a medical exam of everyone to see if we still had the plague; when we encountered other living survivors buried alive like us, they refused Diplomacy - the monk rolled a pretty high Sense Motive at the start of the battle but this revealed nothing.

Folks, several of us in Medium and Heavy armor used Run actions and fought multiple combats. When the DM revealed the twist that we were all undead, he said we NEVER noticed our characters weren't breathing, sweating, felt warm from exertion, or appeared out of the ordinary. Y'know WHY though? "You didn't SAY you were looking for/listening for those signs..."

Like, are you kidding me? So a 29 year old Human Cleric with 4 levels of adventuring under his belt, wearing +1 Breastplate and carrying a +1 Heavy Steel Shield, that just used a Run action to dart down 60' of hallway, had NO IDEA he wasn't winded or sweaty or even had an elevated temp, let alone didn't have a pulse or a heartbeat? That the same Cleric doing a physical exam of people's arms, legs and faces didn't notice that we are all gaunt, sallow-skinned animate corpses with no blood flowing through our veins?

The final nail in the coffin was the "cut scene" at the end where we were told this revelation in the first place.

Our PCs run up some stairs to get up to the main level of the citadel, and at the top is a robed, hooded figure with glowing green eyes. He holds out his hand and says, PER the DM... "Command Undead!" Like, is this an OotS comic?

Well, our PCs stop dead in our tracks, auto-enslaved to the figure. D&D 3x has Command Undead or Control Undead as spells, and both allow saves; we didn't roll any saves. There's a feat that allows a negative energy channeler to make a turn check and take control of undead; the DM never rolled any dice.

No, the DM just wants our PCs mindlessly controlled as servants to his BBEG, so he just SAID we're being controlled. No agency, no decision, we just are.

Why are there STILL DM's like this out there? Its 2022 and I'm 48 years old; if I sit down to play a TTRPG I want to control MY character and have him do what I want, not what some "overlord" tells me is happening. Otherwise, if you're going to use narrative devices like this, TELL me that this kind of stuff will happen in your game and let me, as the player, make the decision to join or not.

Well anyway, I'm done w/the campaign. I told my buddy that brought me in that I was sorry and I think I left things amicable with the DM. Hopefully though from what I mentioned last night, the DM will start understanding why the last several campaigns he's started all unraveled before finishing.

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Geez, I had hoped those sorts of DMs had finally gone extinct by the time 3.x came about. I'm sorry you had to put up with that nonsense. A friend of mine, on the very rare occasions when he creates a campaign, just automatically puts all the players in some organization. A few years back he offered to run DC Heroes (which I dearly missed playing) and one of our guys just quit because he wasn't going to be part of some superhero group without being asked. Can't blame him, really. But as is par for the course, my friend running the game ran three games and decided it was too much trouble and stopped. And people ask why I'm the

I think I might be having a sort of COVID relapse today. I've gone 48 hours with no fever but it's back today. I'm going to eat a handful of Tylenol and lie Talk to you later, my friend!

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8

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Yikes, Mark. Yeah, that's the "You're all the audience to my badly written D&D fanfic" type of GM, not an actual GM. And you should never encounter a GM like that who is over the age of 13 (never, period, but they do exist but generally should be in middle school). The "but you didn't SAY you were [going to do something that should go without saying]" is also a vibrant neon red flag. Walking out with an amicable but clear explanation was definitely the right way to go.

Hope you feel better DungeonmasterCal.

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DeathQuaker wrote:
Hope you feel better DungeonmasterCal.

Thank you! I'm definitely on the mend and with any luck my group can gather again next weekend. The fatigue and brain fog are still hanging on, though, and that's annoying. I have a couple of friends who are doctors and one of them had C19 last fall and she's still fighting the fatigue symptom.

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Dang, not sure how I missed this thread. I have been in that situation, also, Mark, and I completely understand you not wanting to play in that campaign.

You talked about how you tried to be amicable with the GM when you left, but I'm curious what you said to him, more specifically. Was it just "I don't think this is a good fit," or did you go into any points that you've brought up in this thread?

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When I say I left things amicably, I mean I shook the DM's hand as I was leaving. My main critiques to him in person were 2 things, and he argued about both of them. I mentioned how I was frustrated with the worldbuilding, how it seemed so 2 dimensional and that I was bummed that the players had no input on it. I also mentioned how I didn't feel like I had control of my character.

Like, our eyesight sees 60' out of combat, but while in combat I had to get within 30' to target foes at range; when doing the medical exam, I could only notice what the DM WANTED me to notice; there was no check or save at the end, we were just under our master's control.

Of course, the DM was quick to point out its HIS game, a lot of those worldbuilding details aren't important to the plot, he's not going to just GIVE away info to the players and so on. He seemed genuinely upset/angry that I wasn't blown away by the surprise reveal that we were undead.

I reminded the DM we'd guessed as much in session 0. We couldn't be paladins, evil alignments were not only allowed but encouraged, and this DM is obsessed with using Undead in his games. He told us the premise of the game was Poe's Masque of the Red Death with a plague causing the nobles to seal themselves into their castle. One guy wanted to take Exalted feats and was told no specifically b/c they were Exalted. It didn't feel like much of a surprise.

But in the end I shook his hand. I watered down my tone and language while in person after the game from what I've got in this thread above. I mean, I've never been much for angry confrontations and I wasn't trying to ridicule anyone. I don't think I changed any minds or anything.

Look, I'll tell you all what I told my buddy about it a couple days ago: when I play, I want control over my character and consistency in the game world. If I'm attacked by a hostile force, give me a chance to defend or make a save. I've had several DMs/GMs now over the past decade who just randomly use rules when it suits their narrative, but then that robs me of my agency over my character.

If the GM can decide how far I can see, or where I can take a 5' step, or who I can target with a ranged spell or whatever, and that DM's decision is based entirely on THEIR story, then it's THEIR story. My choices don't mean anything, I might as well not be there. And, in the case of this game, I'm not going to anymore.

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Bravo, sir. Bravo!

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So that DM has gotten really into Iratus, Lord of the Dead!?!
He does know that he can make the Necromancer the BBEG, and use all the undead he wants as NPCs, right?

It's funny, I really would not be bothered by beer and pretzel games, poor world building, or situations where the party had to deal with beings capable of godlike control (like old Star Trek episodes). If, and this is a huge IF! IF the GM just had a sense of awareness about it.

And yeah, the "Well, you didn't ask if your character was still breathing!" kind of statements are just a joke in this day and age.

Good on you Mark for giving it a try, then stepping away before things got worked up.

Feel better DMCal!

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there are many issues from your account. Besides the trip on de Nile there are unresolved personal & social issues that don't help in leading a game.

after 4 edits I'll say; so, you reach the denouement of Masque of the Red Death{review plot & analysis} (maybe, & other tales) in the FIRST Game... LOL, such a waste. Says it all.

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I'm trying not to dwell on it, but I find myself feeling guilty for quitting. Like, I know WHY I did it and would likely do it again, but the Catholic guilt is real y'know? Still, I keep coming back to him telling me more than once "well, it's MY game so..." and using that to justify that some rules work differently than the RAW in the books or whatever.

I talked to my buddy again that brought me into the game, he says this guy's always been this way. He decided a long time ago he knew the "right" way to run a game and just never strayed from that. I suggested maybe this guy could read the Angry DM's blog or watch some YouTube help vids from Matt Mercer or whatever, my buddy just laughed those off. Apparently this DM is just "set in his ways."

Whatever. Bottom line, I'm a people pleaser and even after 48 years of life and lots of therapy, it's still hard for me to confront folks and tell them they're doing a bad job or I don't want to hang out with them or whatever. Still, there's gotta be better in-person games out there for me to hop into and I've still got the games I'm running.

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I once was in a game with a DM who told us all that he wanted good character backstories, so he asked us all to write and submit them to him, with a free starting magic item to the "best" among the bunch - not a great idea, but I was younger then, and went along with it. Lo and behold, I won his pick for best backstory... except that he then admitted he hadn't read any of them, and I had won because mine was longest.

Never quite understood why people say they want one thing and then do another.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8

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Speaking as someone whose neurosis wraps tightly around the idea of "But I am a good person, I am, really!!!!": if a jerk doesn't think you are a good person, that is an affirmation of your quality of character, not the opposite. You do not need this dude's approval, nor the approval of his friends (your friends) who enable his poor, immature behavior.

"But that is the way I am/this other person is" is a giant red flag. That is a person saying, "I refuse to hold myself and others accountable for their actions, even when their actions are hurtful." That is a toxic person to be around. And it doesn't matter if it's hurtful on the level of messing with player agency or if its hurtful on the level of really gouging into a person's feelings or hurting them physically: "just the way someone is" is an excuse for letting someone get away with hurting others and it's not ok.

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