Being a Dungeon Master is hard work, especially if you want to create a deep and engaging setting for your players. There’s no need to do it all yourself, though, you can get your players to help you with the worldbuilding. Not only does this help you with your workload for the game, but it builds buy-in from the players. Win-win!
Here’s the trick: you need to bribe players. They don’t do things for nothing… or, if they do, then you have a great group of players already and you don’t need my advice. You don’t want to give too much, though, or things start to get a little skewed.
By my calculations, an extra gift of 10% XP over what they’d already get is a good prize. It’s easy to calculate (just drop the last decimal) and it won’t break the system. By the numbers they should only level up 10% faster than the other PCs which means if your players are gaining levels every ten encounters those contributing regularly will only be a level higher than those who don’t level up for one encounter. That’s enough time to revel in the feeling but the others will catch up. Personally, I give out enough roleplaying XP that PCs level faster than that but that just means I don’t have to worry about this every level. If your considerably slower than this, maybe lower the percentage too.
The balance to shoot for is enough XP that players feel well-compensated but not so big that those who can’t or won’t participate don’t feel completely ditched (so they can start contributing later).
I’ve found that the best way to elicit setting ideas is to ask everyone the same question. This makes it easier for you to keep things organized and it also lets you plan out how you’re going to integrate their contributions into your setting. Left to their own devices, players might give you a cool folk festival, a phrase in Goblin that mercenaries use, the lyrics from a song about a lost love, and three constellations visible around the summer solstice. These are all cool things to be sure and certainly add depth and interest to your campaign setting! However, it will be hard to show the players that their contributions actually impact the setting. If, on the other hand, you ask them all for a constellation or two because you know they’ll be encountering a group of astronomer-mages then they can instantly see their ideas in action and the buy-in is that much stronger.
It’s also worth noting that this sort of collaboration works even “established” settings like Eberron or Golarion. There might be tons of sourcebooks to answer some of your questions but it’s unlikely that there is zero room for change. Taking what’s already written and adding rich details will make the setting come alive and it will make it your own world instead of someone else’s that you’re just leasing.
The list below offers a number of different ideas for questions to ask your players to contribute.
- What is your character’s favorite food? What is it like?
- What is a common saying in households of this land? What does it mean?
- What festivals are celebrated at this time of year? What are the decorations and traditions like?
- What is a work of art that your character has heard about in this area? It might be a well-known building, a painting, a statue (large or small), or anything else impressive.
- What is the title of a popular fable in this part of the world? What is the moral of the story?
- What’s a phrase in a foreign language that people in this area use?
- What’s the name of a popular song in this land? Who is likely to be singing it?
- What is a stock character in plays around this area? You can be specific (the greed Karrnathi, the drunken Brelander) or general (the nosy grandfater, the superstitious farmer).
- Name a historical figure that is well-known in this region, either famous or infamous.