When I’m running a game, one of the highlights for me is inviting players to collaboratively build the world with me. In the past, this has resulted in a few hiccups. Enter this post, where I will attempt to solve them all. Rather than the players having carte blanche on worldbuilding, I want to add some structure to keep the ideas on topic and the game moving. I’ve written about this before and I still believe world anchors are foundational to my games, but I want to try and tackle this from a different angle.

I’m about to start a new game set within a science-fantasy megastructure, filled with twisting routes through a ruined city, thriving villages, technology-as-magic, and a religion that worships the few sentient machines that remain operational. It’s as close to a megadungeon as I’ll probably ever get to running. Unlike most traditional megadungeons, I’m going to avoid detailing the majority of the rooms, instead creating large spaces as nodes for the players to explore. Occasionally, we’ll drill down into a more specific locale and use dungeon-oriented procedures at that level.

This means that I’m going to need expansive spaces for the characters to explore. Mapping an entire megadungeon and making it interesting is a massive undertaking. Boiling it down to a little bit every day is one option, but I don’t have a year’s worth of time or a time machine to go back to January 1st. So that means focusing on the important locations and painting the rest with broad strokes and the humble pointcrawl.

Exploration and discovery are going to be a major part of the game. Even if I only make 15 hub locations, making each of those interesting, interconnected, and exciting is a challenge. And doing it all by myself is like an engine running on one cylinder when I could be firing on all six. With five other players around the table, it’s time to tap into their creativity for my own nefarious purposes. As an added bonus, players taking over a bit of the worldbuilding means that they can surprise and delight each other and me.

Let’s lay out the design goals so I can address each one:

  • Light collaborative worldbuilding between the GM and players.
  • The players get to add to scenes and make them come alive.
  • The other players and the GM have a chance to be “wowed” by the added elements.
  • There is structure, provided by the GM, to the way elements are added.
  • A element can be added, incorporated, and then gameplay can quickly resume.

The Option Right There In Front of Me

Rather than try and work up a new framework, which is hard and unpleasant for a little guy like me, let’s see what we’ve got available to work with. There’s actually already a method that’s pretty close to solving all of listed design goals. You can see it in the Carved from Brindlewood1 games. The mechanic is called Paint the Scene. You can read about it in this (slightly dated) 2018 blogpost written by Jason Cordova himself.

Here’s how it works: if there is an idea, theme, or visual motif that is particularly important for an encounter or scene, ask the players what their characters observe in the scene that reinforces that idea, theme, or motif.

And here’s a couple examples of paint the scene questions from Brindlewood Bay:

As you step inside the lighthouse, what evidence do you see that suggests all the lighthouse keepers through the years have had… strange beliefs?

It’s a busy time of year in Brindlewood Bay. In what ways are the tourists making it difficult for you to conduct your investigation?

What do you see in Timothy’s trailer that suggests he is a deeply lonely person?

As we can see, these are well-written leading questions that the players can answer to flesh out a scene, possibly even adding elements for the GM to integrate into the game. It works great in the Carved games, which are highly collaborative and typically run with only 2-4 players.

Trying to port over paint the scene questions to something a bit more traditional and POSR-like creates a few issues. First off, the player count. There are typically five players in my game. We’ve done lots of these open-ended questions and they’ve worked well! The big problem is that my friends are unstoppably oozing creativity and they love to riff off of ideas that the others throw out. What ends up happening is basically something I call hyper-creativity, where each idea is added to and expanded by each player. The ideas absolutely rule. But it can take a long time to get through them.

When we do these creative questions, we’re also missing out on the GM “revealing” the scene. Where you fall on this stance depends on your playstyle, but everyone constantly pitching in ideas and building the game world as we play creates an entirely different vibe than essentially piloting a single character through the world. Before anyone freaks out: I’ve done both—both are fun. But right now I want a more traditional structure, where interesting things about the world are revealed to players with powerful imagery that sticks in the mind.

This does happen with paint the scene questions, but the nature of going up a level into the meta-discussion means that there’s less oomph for us. Players are listening to other answers and trying to come up with their own cool answer.

Let’s break this down. The obstacles that are preventing a strict paint the scene from working:

  • Usually more than one player answers a paint the scene question, making them a bit slower to resolve.
  • Attention is split as players both listen and try to come up with their own answer.
  • The slower meta discussion can sometimes remove the bite of the scene.

Breakthrough: Glimpses

Control freak GMs—stop reading at this point. We need a name for this new piece of tech. I’m calling it a glimpse. A glimpse is a temporary takeover of the GM duties by a single player for a short time. Now, before you freak out, hear me out. It’s not quite as loose as that. It’s not free reign to do anything. Let’s dig in.

The GM prepares a list of glimpses, tailoring them to the region or area the characters are currently exploring. The glimpses should be generic guides instead of specific elements. You’re looking to write towards vibes, themes, and mood over everything else. Let’s create an example:

Glimpse: the signs of a hopeless battle with no victors.

At the start of session, the GM hands out a few glimpses to each player. The players should look over their glimpses and start thinking about them, but avoid sharing or exchanging them. Keeping the glimpses secret isn’t necessary, but it does help with the ‘wow’ factor.

At any time during exploration, a player can declare that they are revealing a glimpse. The player takes over, describing in specificity one of their glimpses as it relates to the current area the characters are exploring. As a player, you can be thinking of what specifics you want your glimpses to be, but you should try to integrate them with the environment itself when the time is right.

The GM is describing the area the players are in: a dense old forest, full of undergrowth and brambles. They’ve come to a swift flowing river with a log serving as a bridge.

One of the players speaks up: “I’d like to reveal a glimpse. As we look out over the clearing, we see bodies piled up on both sides of the riverbank. Some, on our side of the river, are from the mercenaries we met in town. The other side has fallen satyrs.”

The GM thinks for a moment, nods, and play continues. Previously, they’ve introduced both the mercenaries and the satyrs as opposing forces in the adventure. They hadn’t planned for the river to be the site of a battle, but it won’t break the adventure so it makes a great addition.

Obviously, if something doesn’t work the GM will have to help the player adjust their glimpse or let them take it back entirely. I’d advise leeway here, trying to take player suggestions quickly and smoothly. If you have players that would abuse this system to try and give themselves magic weapons, endless boons, and ways to solve every single problem… I can’t help you. I don’t play with people like that.

I like this system for exploration based gameplay for a number of reasons. First, it gives the players a chance to surprise everyone at the table with a particularly clever reading of a generic glimpse. Second, players have a longer time to sit on their glimpse and develop it into an idea, instead of the on-the-spot answering of a paint the scene question2. They won’t just reach for the first idea that comes in their head in a panic. Finally, because the GM creates the generic glimpses, they can tailor them much like a paint the scene question, creating a mood for the adventure without having to do all of the heavy lifting of cultivating that mood.

What makes a good glimpse?

This is where instinct and practice come in. I haven’t used this enough to give a firm answer here and I really want to put in some time using glimpses in my game before I get dogmatic about them. But I think you can actually stretch how they’re used in ways that might not be obvious at first blush. Glimpses can:

  • Convey the adventure’s theme, mood, or vibes.
  • Be an opportunity for a player to add something special to the area.
  • Be specific to a certain character—a thing only they could ever notice or discover.

Here are some examples:

Theme, Mood, and Vibes

These are the ones you wanna ham up and let the players get a bit poetic with. An added bonus of handing these out means that the players are going to pick up on the theme of the adventure very quickly.

  • In a dungeon covered in an infectious, nefarious mold: Something once beautiful, now destroyed by the rot.
  • A wilderness area with undead spilling out of it: A sign of the restless dead, plunging ever onward, the tide of death unstoppable.
  • In the red light district of a city: Palpable signs of sin, the cost of a partying lifestyle, and the desperate grasp to hold onto it all.

Player Additions

These are a little more specific, essentially letting the players create something in the world that they can take with them. You should be prepared for these to be a little beneficial to the players.

  • In a dungeon covered in an infectious magical mold: A small item or trinket that the mold refuses to grow around.
  • A wilderness area with undead spilling out of it: an old holy symbol to a forgotten god.
  • In the red light district of a city: Someone’s priceless good luck charm, forgotten or lost.

Character Specific

Not every adventure needs these, and sometimes an adventure might only have character specific glimpses for a single player or two. You’d match these up to specific players rather than handing them out randomly.

  • In a dungeon covered in an infectious magical mold: Bree, signs that your missing brother has been here.
  • A wilderness area with undead spilling out of it: Xavier, something that indicates these are the same undead that attacked your village.
  • In the red light district of a city: Riley, your vice of choice—easily attainable and in its purest form.

Conclusions and Optional Thoughts

Obviously, introducing glimpses is going to throw a bit of a wrench into the workings of an adventure. But it’s a wrench I want the players to be throwing, and that’s why it works for me. If you have players that really want to dig into glimpses, you might even encourage a bit of scenery-chewing description from them as they’re revealing their glimpse. For example, in one of the above examples:

Bree’s player: Bree leans down, picking up a small grass doll. What was once green is now brown and dry, breaking apart in her hands. She looks at the others, gritting her teeth. “My brother makes these when he’s nervous. He’s here. He’s still alive.”

In this example, I could easily see the other characters starting a conversation with Bree, digging into her past and learning about her brother. As the GM, I could write down those revelations and weave them back into the adventure later. At the same time, I’m also surprised and delighted.

Once I start running this game and deploying glimpses, I’m sure that I’ll have additional thoughts and tweaks. But right now, I’m just happy to be able to share in the creative construction of this fantasy location with my friends. Now I just need to sit down and write some glimpse tables. Wish me luck.

  1. One of my few claims to fame is being the one to coin this term.↩︎

  2. Though it should be pointed out that the razor sharp writing of a good paint the scene question can alleviate a lot of the pressure.↩︎

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