"You can just make a world with your friends and play games in it."
Reports on playing Ben Robbins' new game 'In This World'
I don’t know where that quote comes from, the one in the title. Someone else quoted in on Reddit or a podcast or something, and they said it broke their brain, and then it broke mine:
You can just make a world with your friends. And then play games in it.
There’s this problem I have, every time I try to teach myself to draw. I put pressure on myself that everything I put my pencil on has to be a finished product, and so I never sketch anything at all, nothing feels disposable, the stakes are too high, and so I don’t practice. Maybe that’s why I always preferred making music — it discards itself in time before you have the opportunity to scrutinize its imperfections. I think lots of us make our campaigns this way: We put pressure on ourselves to build a world we can keep and be proud of.
Once upon a time, I thought I was building a big setting for various D&D campaigns, something sprawling and all-encompassing. What a project it was! Nowadays, building in that setting is like wearing a too-heavy coat with uncountable belts and buckles and pockets, I can barely stand up wearing this thing.
So: I’m working on my next campaign, or probably a few mini-campaigns, across different play groups. And I want to make sketches, to make things and then toss them off, to do low-stakes projects, to not have to make everything fully-fleshed out, actionable, run-able.
So, a session cancelled recently, and I had an early preview edition of Ben Robbins’ new worldbuilder In This World — this is the guy responsible for Microscope and Union and Kingdom and a bunch of other popular ones. The full version just dropped quietly, and so I scheduled some time between me and three of my players to sit down with it. None of them knew what they were getting into ahead of time.
Let’s make one thing clear up front: Ben Robbins did it again, folks.
The game works as intended and as advertised. We sat down with 4 players and 3 hours of free time, and finished with 20 minutes to spare. We ended up with four enchanting worlds, and nobody had a single word of feedback on what rules or hacks might have improved their experience. I’ve got notes and suggestions in another post about how you might improve your game of Kingdom — Robbins’ faction-builder. No notes for this game.
But it did inspire some feelings, so those are below.
How it went
The game’s premise is simple: You take a statement about the actually-existing world we live in, a general premise we all agree on, and then you give it a twist. Then, that little twist becomes a premise for a world, or a setting, or a setting concept.
An example from the book goes something like this: “In our world, dates are arranged by friends and mutual acquaintances, but in this world, all dates are arranged by public lottery.” The rules take you around the table fleshing this concept out with yes-and or yes-but opportunities. Then, after two turns around the table, you slap a name on your world, and you cast it aside.
Our focus topic was Prophesy with elements like prophets, The Chosen One, mind-altering drugs, and The Future. We ended up with four worlds across four different genres:
World of Forsaken Plains, Doomed Smokin’ Weathermen — Nomadic people flee across a broken landscape of ravaging storms, led by soothsayers who use psychadelics to tap into the eldritch noosphere of weird weather.
Yesterday’s World of Tomorrow Today! — A sorta pre-industrial European setting where a rare truffle allows citizens of a decadent society to glimpse moments of their own future.
World of Lorecraft — A dark fantasy setting where prophesies are fulfilled via the interpretations most effectively prophesized through bards.
World of PCH Residual Solutions Incorporated — A cyberpunk world administered by an Artificial Intelligence crumbling in its ability to adapt to threats from within and without.
I’ve put up the full notes from the game, taken live on a laptop as we played. There’s no editing, just a little formatting and spell-checking.
How it felt
To be totally vulnerable around this, I have to say it was a bit frightening! As a GM who develops and governs the “canon” for big traditional games like D&D or Call of Cthulhu, I’m used to my players comporting their imaginations to the mysteries of my domain (if you’ll allow me to ponder my orb, so to speak). But the truth is, that this is a position of power and security. It’s a defended place. Even in Kingdom, we were developing a faction for play in a universe I govern throughout our campaigns, so there is a sense that my authorship, once play ended, would re-assert itself in some way.
I love you for reading this.
In This World put me on absolutely even playing field with my table, and honestly, I felt pretty bare and insecure once stripped of my garments! Suddenly, I’m thinking “Oh gosh, what if my ideas aren’t as good, or are cliche, or no fun? Or lead to dead ends!?” Ultimately, it all worked out. And I appreciate any experience which puts me on new ground, and gives me a safe way to explore these nagging questions.
I also had to remind myself to allow half-an-idea to be good enough. This is part of the magic of collaborative world-building — that you can start a sentence with no pressure to finish it on your own.
Jump. Your friends will catch you.
Here are the other, assorted thoughts from my players and I:
We went with a serious, broad topic: Prophesy. While we had some laughs along the way, we might have ended up with more whimsy and novelty had we gone with a topic that is more mundane (Robbins’ own actual play uses vacations as a topic). It’s the re-imagination of the everyday and the mundane that can have the most dizzying consequences.
This is the first time I’ve had my players be surprised as their own imaginative limitations — or, at least, recognize our reliance on tropes. I had one player go “it’s surprisingly difficult how hard it is to make something free from tropes and original from stories you already know and love — to be able to say that my world isn’t ‘just Minority Report’ or ‘just Stormlight Archives’ or something,” Tell me about it.
Unlike a worldbuilding game like Kingdom or The Quiet Year, it’s a game without turns, and a game without conflict between players. This means that players who are shyer about worldbuilding, or conflict averse, have more room to build without pressure or interpersonal tension.
With big, world-sweeping paradigms, it’s easy for lots of world concepts default to big central authority. In other words, if our hypothetical world features a society where children aren’t raised by their parents, players of In This World will often go “there’s a big world government that forces this to be so,” as opposed to explaining it through a social, or cultural, or environmental, or spiritual influence. For some, it’s worth examining why we take this shortcut. For me, I suppose I’d just say: Avoid it if you can, for creativity’s sake.
The idea that this could generate actual, playable campaign worlds worked out! At least the players thoughts so — two of them said “We could really see heist campaigns in the second or fourth worlds we made!” I wonder, if I took that on, would the features of the world developed during the exercise actually play a central role in the campaign? I wonder if it would matter if they didn’t, so long as these seeds got us started.
I have new opportunities now! Maybe I’ll run a game of CBR+PNK or The Sprawl in that fourth world — I’ve never run a cyberpunk game of any kind! But also, perhaps it’s good to just sketch, to set them aside, to never revisit.
If I never touch these worlds again, it felt good to make them. And knowing that I might never bargain with the Witch Kings of the bardic world I seeded, or summit an icy crag in search of the elusive petals of prophesy from the World of Forsaken Plains, is a sweetness actually, like seeing these worlds through a keyhole, knowing I have these expanses in the frontier of my mind now, alongside unlimited others that I could pile up around my feet. What a fun thing, to conjure a world with loved ones, peek our heads in, and never go back.
From “A Color of the Sky” by Tony Hoagland:
Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
and throwing it away,
and making more.