Collaborative Worldbuilding Games

Collaborative Worldbuilding Games

Collaborative Worldbuilding Games

Since the inception of D&D, veteran Dungeon Masters have set about the arduous task of creating their own reality.  They have created entire cities, countries, continents, and even planets.  This has led to many an epic campaign for their initial party members as they fight the forces of evil and leave their own mark on the world.  Years may be spent with one group of players interacting with this world, building the foundation of a reality that they collectively call their own.   But what happens when you invite a whole new group of adventurers to experience this amazing existence you built?  In my experience, it has led to a lot of questions from players new to the setting. Questions such as, “Why does this faction protect that faction?” or “Why do these two nations hate each other so much?” and my personal favorite, “Why does this deity hate us so much?”  Although these are all valid questions, the answers to them require an awful amount of exposition on my part. 

“The Black Knife protects the Silver Leaf because the Grand Bard, Ardun, brokered a peace accord to prevent a war from breaking out.  The nation of Locktaw hates the nation Aranok because the Great Deceiver, Sera, ignited conflict between them centuries ago; those transgressions have not been forgotten. Lastly, Jorthun is disgusted by his creations and wishes to see them destroyed because Jerath the Paladin tried to kill him.”

Did your eyes glaze over a little while reading that last paragraph? Players new to the setting might have the same reaction when they start playing in a world with histories established by previous players or entirely invented by the Dungeon Master.  It means little to them. Just as some people have little interest in the history of the world we all occupy, your players might not care about the history of your established world.  How can we as Dungeon Masters navigate these issues,  and foster a new player’s interest and engagement with the world in which their characters exist? 

Easy, we play another game first!

Using Indie Games to build a collective world

I first heard of a game called The Quiet Year during the pandemic while watching a review of it from the good folks at “Shut Up and Sit Down” while they were exploring solo player games in April of 2020. It seemed like an interesting game. You play as a group of survivors from a catastrophe as they work to rebuild and survive. Yes, the subject matter was a  little heavy in April of 2020, but it was something to pass the time.  Using a standard deck of playing cards, you go through 52 weeks of a year for this group.  These cards are broken up by their suits and the four decks are shuffled.  Each suit represents a season in the year, Heart for Spring, Diamond for Summer, Club for Autumn, and Spade for Winter; with play beginning the first week of Spring.

At the start of the game, you draw your survivor camp/settlement/group and some resources. On a player’s turn they will perform two actions.  They will draw a card and resolve the effects listed. The cards drawn could bring good news to your survivors in the form of resources, a new discovery, or a shortened time frame for a project another player started.  Alternatively, the cards may burden your survivors with a delay or dissolvement of a project, or introduce a new threat to your community.  Spring and Summer are usually kinder to your group than Autumn and Winter. The player may then choose to discover something new, adding a feature to the map and explaining what it is, or they may begin a project.  Projects assist the survivors by having them harvest a new resource, or build new structures to combat a difficult situation. When a player begins a project, they determine the number of weeks that it will take for the task to be completed. They will then have their timers reduced, usually by using dice, at the start of the next week. 

The canonical theme of the game has you preparing for the arrival of the Frost Shepherds.  Some cards in the game shorten the season by a number of weeks, and there is one card in Winter that ends the game immediately. You end the game with a wonderfully cobbled map of the surrounding area filled with creativity and story.  Watch the SU&SD review (linked above) because they do a wonderful job!

This one game can be used to build an entire world!.  You sit down with your players for a single game session, and create everything from scratch. First, as a group, decide what catastrophe or circumstance put your survivors in this position. Was your group planeshifted onto a new continent?  Was there a cataclysmic reckoning created from a nation’s use of dark power? That is for you all to decide before you ever draw anything on the map. 

When my players and I recently played The Quiet Year in preparation for a new campaign in a new world, we decided that the 52 “weeks” were instead going to be “years” so that some of the progress we made on the map made sense in game.  We created a monopoly of Stimulant Shrimp that was run by a criminal empire.  We established a whole religion based on a giant sinkhole in the center of the continent. (Yes, we did call it the Holey Church)  The only limit here is your imagination! 

But there are more options!. For those who already have a map for their setting but want to involve their players in detailing its history and lore, then Microscope by Ben Robbins is a great fit. With Microscope, your players choose the start and end of a civilization.  The players take turns creating milestones that shaped the society from its humble beginnings to its eventual fall. There is no chronological order to this, and a player may choose to describe a moment in history that takes place anywhere in between the culture’s beginning and end. Additional mechanics allow you to dive deeper into a single large event to explain smaller “scenes” that happened within.

That is what Microscope is all about: letting your players flesh out the history with you. They may be interested in a great war that erupted during this civilization’s rise and want to play during that time. Microscope allows players to continue to focus deeper by “zooming in” on these larger happenings. Every time the players utilize this tool, they add additional historical context.  They may zoom so far into an event in one session that they actually role play the two star-crossed lovers who ignited the war. Microscope is beautiful, haunting, and everything you would hope it to be if you have interested players.

Look for other Indie titles in the space

Both The Quiet Year and Microscope are my go-to games when creating a new world with my players. I know of other games that exist for worldbuilding, but have not experienced them for myself. These include Kingdom, another Ben Robbins game, involving the players taking on specific roles in a community and how they overcome what the game refers to as “Crossroads” to determine for what the community stands. An additional game that drew inspiration from The Quiet Year would be Beak, Feather, & Bone.  BFB is a collaborative map-labeling RPG where players take turns drawing from a deck of playing cards that each have a different building type.  The player who drew the card then charts the building on the city map and describes its Beak (reputation), Feather (appearance), and Bone (interior).  That is the joy of Indie games about creating worlds or histories, there constantly seems to be new games for this purpose. All of these options allow players to do a macro or micro level of worldbuilding that will get them interested in playing in “Our World” instead of “My World”.


Do you know of any games that should be included in this discussion? Hit me up on Twitter or leave a comment on this article and we can all share our experiences worldbuilding with our players. If you want to talk about TTRPGs or these Indie games, feel free to @ me and Misty Mountain Gaming on Twitter so everyone can enjoy!

Cam Anderson (@CamSonOfAnder)  is a long-time player and DM of multiple TTRPGs and their various editions.  He has always had a passion for sharing this wonderful hobby with friends and loved ones, but decided it was past time to take this enthusiasm to the wider world.