Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was facilitating the group creation of a fantasy metropolis for a gritty, weird game that I ran, and I think the underlying lessons from that are applicable elsewhere.

My first step in that game was to poll my players and find out what themes, topics, and general features of the game they were most interested in. I asked for broad brush strokes, with occasional nuggets of deeper detail allowed when people were very excited about them (in that game, the idea that there was an Undercity, part-of but below the regular metropolis). I also asked for things people didn’t want to see in the game, to narrow our creative field and avoid un-fun content.

From those broad brush strokes, I zeroed in, asking all the players for further details about each of those broad topics; while one person might pull in a given theme, everyone was able to add their mark to it in some way if they so desired. Sometimes this resulted in conflicting visions, when I had to pick apart which elements of each detail players were most excited about and find ways to twist them to garner excitement from the other players… but for the most part I was lucky, gifted with excellently collaborative players, and able to build people’s excitement rather than create conflict.

The final steps—adjudicating the details and massaging things into place—were in my hands, but because of the collaborative nature of the creation process it was always easy to go back to the players with more questions, to find more ways to spice up the setting and unveil more shared points of interest.

This process is replicable, and can be scaled up and down as you see fit. It is trickier to do with a truly large number of players, but I’ve made similar approaches work (with several other storyteller friends) when taking theme suggestions from up to fifty people.

The first step is always, as best as I can tell, to ask your players what they’re excited to do (or see, or have) in your next game together. Aim for big themes, but leave yourself open to very specific answers if they come up. Chances are, if someone really wants a particular thing, they’ll be really excited to see it. Dive in from there, and chase your players’ excitement.

In my latest approach to this, the answers were “I want to play 5th edition D&D,” and with a little further elicitation “I want intrigue, exploration, treasure, and swashbuckling.” It boiled down to “kind of like Ass Creed Black Flag, but D&D.”

Which, of course, was all I needed despite never having played Black Flag.

Honestly, it may be for the best that I haven’t played it yet. I feel free to draw on inspiration from any number of other swashbuckling stories and pirate fiction that I’m already familiar with. And, given that this is an area I’m enthusiastically nerdy about, I went whole hog.

But this brings me to another point about doing Mad Libs with your players for setting creation: it’s wonderful to have them give you ready made tropes and cultural references. Those are easy to research (thank you and usually easy enough to watch or read. And while I rarely like making something that is obviously a clear copy-paste of some other thematic content, I’m happy to mash many bits together until players can delight in finding recognizable tidbits in the collage of the game.


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