Gamemastering: Collaborative Scene Building

One of the practices my current Star Wars GM implemented in our first game was to occasionally stop when describing a scene and having we the players add details to the scene. Unfortunately there were only a few opportunities during the last session to put this technique into practice, but when we did it proved an excellent tool for getting everyone involved into the scene.

As the gamemaster, I typically can envision every scene in the games I run, from surroundings to mood to weather to supporting cast. However in my experience can be easy to fail to fully communicate this to my players. Maybe I skip over something that for me is a given based on my other descriptions but isn’t for my players, or maybe I just get so wrapped up into detailing one aspect of the scene that I forget to describe another. It’s never intentional, but sometimes it happens. Regardless, I can already see how I will be able to leverage this collaborative scene building technique in the future to help improve my own game.

First and foremost collaborative scene building will allow the players to fill in holes I left in my descriptions. Everyone’s brain works differently, and everyone picks up on different senses or observations. I myself am a visual person – I get the most out of those types of elements in a scene. Thus when describing an alley in a modern or futuristic setting I might mention the long shadows between the buildings, the rusted dumpster surrounded by flies, or maybe the broken flower box on a windowsill. To a visual person such as myself, this is all that’s needed to really get into the scene and normally I would turn the game over to the players and ask for actions.

However using collaborative scene building, I would instead pose the question of “what else is there?” to them. To which the aural person may make note of the noises of the busy street filtering down from the end of the alley. This is a great descriptive element, as it really says two things at once: not only that the main streets are busy but also just how quiet and still the alley is by contrast. It’s certainly not something I would have thought of at the table, but now everyone’s getting an even bigger a sense of foreboding than based on my description alone.

In addition to supplementing his own descriptions, an observant gamemaster can ensure his players are seeing the same setting as he has. What if a player doesn’t fully get the foreboding I’m trying to build, and mentions a puppy walking up the alley, leading to some awwww’s from various players. As the gamemaster, I know I don’t want a cute cheerful puppy in my alley – this is supposed to be a dark and dreary alley where bad things will happen.

Removing the puppy would be contradictory and would be sending a message to the contributing player that he failed or somehow did a bad job. Instead, build on the description. Maybe the puppy is mangled and smelly and is looking around with a wild desperation in its eyes, growling at shadows. Now the players that thought this was just another alley should now be thinking, “well damn, this alley’s not a happy place,” which is exactly what I wanted them to be thinking. And it was done by guiding them back by addition, not contradiction.

Another benefit of collaborative scene building is that it keeps players involved. Even if a character isn’t present at a scene, his player can contribute to setting the stage. It also builds an interest in not just the events taking place, but the environment itself.

The gamemaster can’t just let the stage be set then not use it, however. If you don’t tie in the aspects your players provide you, they’re going to start feeling like they’re not really contributing anything. That’s not to say that you need to have every single descriptive element used, but be aware of the opportunities to do so. When the players in the alley are jumped, have the gunshot echo down the alley, ringing out above the din of the traffic. Maybe when the thugs rush forth from behind the buildings they step on the puppy. The aural player who described the quiet will hear the gunshot loud and clear, and the player who wanted the cute puppy is now shocked at how it was cruelly treated. Even if this is a random encounter with no other ties to your characters, you’ve just hooked a couple players simply on the scene and their ties to it.

Take care not to fall into the trap of having the opposition use the players’ elements against them all the time. If all a player sees collaborate scene building as a way to give the gamemaster elements to use against them, they’re going feel much less inclined to contribute. Let the players benefit from their provided elements as well even if it’s as simple a having the puppy distract or trip a thug and an opportune moment.

Conversely don’t be afraid to use your players’ elements against them. If you have a player constantly providing cover for his gunman to hide behind, sometimes make it a hazard. The opposition doesn’t have to be directly the cause of the hazard – maybe the cover is unstable and topples toward the player when he tries to hide behind it. Don’t be malicious, but let the players know that it everything works both ways.

Players also need to be aware of their role in collaborative scene building. Adding fluff to add fluff is fine in that it will add to the setting, but you really need to be aware you’re adding elements to be incorporated into the scene as a whole. If you want to add a purely decorative element, you need to be aware that the gamemaster may not be able to fully integrate it into the events of the scene. That’s not to say decorative elements aren’t as good – they can still add to the feel of the scene, they just might not get use once the scene picks up. Most of the time I’d suggest that players should try and give the gamemaster something he can work with and add to the encounter he has planned.

In addition, players should be on the look out to use the contributed elements themselves if the gamemaster hasn’t immediately done so. If someone adds a pile of crates, dive behind it for cover! Don’t forget your character’s actions can draw an element’s creator in just as well as an npc’s, sometimes even more so. If my crates saved your character’s bacon, I can take pride in that even though my character wasn’t directly involved.

Collaborative scene building definitely isn’t something you’ll necessarily be able to institute flawlessly right away. My own group started with mixed results, but I’m sure this is going to lead to a much more descriptive, immersive game and I can’t wait to continue its use in the future.


  1. I think I would personally avoid the editing of the player’s contribution.

    When you do this collaborative scene building, you are basically asking the players to put stock into the scene. No longer are they being spoonfed; they are joining the GM in the scene.

    If a player says “puppy,” they did it for one of two reasons. Either they did not understand the full mood of the scene and were trying to put stock into the scene. Or they were merely describing something without any stock of the scene (a better example might be a Boba Fett statute in a medieval castle). If it is the latter, make them the snack bitch and torch their character sheet. ๐Ÿ˜€

    If it is the former and you take their contribution and edit it to something they were not envisioning, you run the great risk of taking whatever stock they had in the scene from them.

    Going back to the puppy, you could do something like ask them what a puppy is doing in the dark, dity alley all alone? Then you not only push your mood, but you force them to add more stock into the scene. Further, you might get the bonus of having something added, like an emotional attachment of the player to the puppy (like you mentioned with the crates). So when something happens to the puppy, the player is more willing to act upon it with his character.

    It is a hard line to walk. Corroboration takes away GM control, but the effects of player participation, like you say might be well worth the effort.

    Oh, and don’t edit your comments. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just add another comment, plzkthxbai.

  2. That’s true – there certainly is risk in changing a player’s contribution. I think that’s going to boil down to knowing your players and how you approach the necessary edit. Encouraging the player to alter their own contribution could be a little smoother as long as the GM can guide them correctly. But a GM has to be ready to take Boba Fett out of Camelot if the player just doesn’t get it.

    Though I wonder though if talking out contributions when necessary could give too much focus to the contributions. I could see a scene where focusing the players too much on their contributions might take away from the GM’s initial description and some specific but subtle hints he provided.

    For example, maybe the dumpster has a clue in it for the players. As a GM I usually don’t want to point a neon sign at my clues; I feel it takes away from the players’ sense of accomplishment at their discovery. I can see the potential for player to get into detailing their puppies and crates and other contributions that they simply don’t think about the dumpster and basically forget it’s there. I can correct this mistake by making sure it’s mentioned again during the scene but it’s something I need to be aware of as play progresses. But this is delving more into good GM practice as opposed to this technique specifically.

    I think it’s just something that a GM has to be aware of and be able to provide subtle hints. Practice with the collaborative scene building will give a GM the sense of how to balance what he wants the players to notice in the scene with what they add.

  3. As an avid reader, I do like the idea of “CSB”. So why haven’t you or SaultyD tried this when I was playing? Huh?

    If you feel like the cute little puppy is distracting the folks from the clue in the dumpster, then perhaps have it run and leap into it, or hide underneath. I realize that this is the hypothetical and that not all contributions will be able to move and interact like a lovable little puppy, but you get the drift.

  4. I had the same idea as BBH. The cute widdle puppy wuppy could be in the dumpster and then the PCs go “aw, look at the widdle puppy wuppy!” and then they go to the dumpster to pet and cuddle him and then they see the mcguffin in the dumpster and then eat cake.


  5. I think you two are concentrating more on the example I gave than what I was trying to say. Either that or I chose a bad example.

    Having the puppy infer draw attention to the dumpster is a fine idea. And that really goes along with what I wrote about the GM trying to incorporate the contributed elements. The whole idea of the puppy being bad is if it contradicts the setting you’re trying to set.

    Maybe the whole thing was a bad example, you two should know what I mean, not what I say! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I get what you are saying. What I am saying is that when a player adds an element contradictory to the mood, etc. that you are trying to set they do it for two reasons:
    (1) To actually put stock in the scene.
    (2) To not put stock in the scene.

    The latter is just a bad player not using the tool you gave him/her to any useful effect. The former, though, is trying, but might not explicitly get what the GM is pushing.

    So, my whole point was: Don’t just edit that person’s contribution to make it fit your (the GM’s) vision of the scene. Draw the two together by asking the player more about his/her contribution.

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