Let it never be said I'm not willing to do my homework.
Lowell Francis at Age of Ravens posted video from a panel discussion at the inaugural ConTessa online gaming conventions. Titled Collaborative World Building and Gaming, the eighty-five minute video features three games designers - the Microscope dude, the Diaspora guy, the Psi*Run woman - along with Francis and his wife, Sherri Stewart, who moderates the panel. In his blogpost, Francis expands on a few of the comments made in the video. I admit, I skipped the last five minutes, but as they were winding down with questions from the con forum, I think I got the gist of what the panelists had to say.
To no great surprise, the panelists make an argument for collaborative world building - CWB hereafter - including their personal experiences, presumably gained from actual play, their different approaches to it in their games, and why they feel more traditional roleplaying games would benefit from CWB; Francis in particular seems to be most interested in this application, particularly in his blogpost. Among the arguments offered in the video and accompanying post - and this is by no means the complete list - are that CWB encourages player buy-in and investment in the campaign, reduces referee workload, fosters an environment of trust between the players and the referee, and may draw out reserved players and curb domineering players. More efficiently trapping mice and curing the common cold may have been in there is well, probably in those last five minutes that I skipped.
Now to be completely fair, their passion for CWB is no less than my own for sandbox, status quo game-worlds and the associated playstyle, a topic on which I bang away pretty relentlessly. I don't presume that what I like is, or should be, universal to all gamers; I absolutely understand why gamers enjoy linear adventures, frex, and, as a rule, I attempt to offer at least some explanation or examples of other playstyles and preferences.
The panelists actually get close to this just short of the one hour mark. There's mention that CWB may not be for all gamers: in discussing scene-framing, it's noted that some gamers find it challenging to switch back and forth between character and player perspectives, with Meguey Baker - Psi^Run woman - suggesting that some havent' cultivated the skill "or don't care." Right at one hour, Ben Robbins - Microscope dude - finally gets around to mentioning that, for gamers who want a "world of mystery," collaborative world building can spoil the game. He immediately moves on to suggest that it's simply a matter of players being "in on the joke," and that they can learn to, in his words, "participate in an informed and joyous fashion."
That's as close to the panelists get to addressing what is the biggest sticking point of collaborative world building for me, and perhaps for other gamers as well: as a player, I want to explore the game-world, not build it. The "world of mystery" isn't something I want to get past; it's one of the most important features of roleplaying games for me.
The panelists generally display little appreciation for, or interest in, why the "player/GM dyad" works for so many gamers and has for so long, and that's fine as far as it goes, of course. In Lowell Francis' blogpost, it goes rather beyond simply ignoring other positions to exaggerating a fringe argument, that referees who don't embrace collaborative world building may do so because they 'fear the players,' instead. Francis goes on to note that, yes, the players may end up making significant changes to what the referee is interested in running, but that's okay, because the referee can still add surprises, even when the swords-and-sorcery campaign he planned to run is morphed into a high fantasy romp through the players' input. After offering a number of benefits from CWB to the traditional referee, Francis concludes with a few "drawbacks": it nay require going outside the referee's "comfort zone," the game system may not actually support the suggestions made by the players, and that - presumably from their new-found investment - the players may want to play longer than the referee planned to run the campaign at the beginning. Some drawback, that last, huh?
The sad and somewhat frustrating thing about this whole exercise is that neither the panelists nor Francis' blogpost take note of the trumpeting African bull elephant in the room: the difference isn't between the players collaborating in world building or not - it's between collaborating in world building in-character or out-of-character. The characters in my Flashing Blades campaign may, per the rules of the game, rise to the highest ranks among the ministers and courtiers of France and the princes of the Church; they can control armies and ministries and bishoprics, accumulate vast wealth, own chateaus and estates. They can rival or literally supplant Richelieu or Mazarin or Colbert or Turenne.
Or they can become pirates. Or knights. Or explorers. Or diplomats. They can change the game-world in any number of ways, large and small. But they do it in-character, in actual play, not out-of-game in accordance with a set of game designer's guidelines.
I understand that these particular panelists are preaching, and it's not incumbent on the minister to offer the devil's side of the argument, but honestly, I really wish that the panelists had recognized this and addressed it, because I think it would be a much more interesting discussion than the one I listened to.