The Ground Itself Is My Favorite Worldbuilding Game

I’ve been playing Everest Pipkin’s The Ground Itself with one of my D&D groups lately, as we work on building out the world I created while writing about worldbuilding for Tabletop Roleplaying Games. It has been a lot of fun to create this location with my friends, all of us co-authoring the world’s elements as we build off each other’s ideas, take ideas in directions the others wouldn’t have considered, and generally have a more fun time than we expected we would. The open-ended prompts based on the deck, the somewhat chaotic nature of drawing things from a deck (our first time period burned through half the deck before we got to jump in time), and the always energizing exchange as we flowed between casual, light roleplaying in a handful of scenes to discussing what one of us meant when someone established symbotic relationships with plant creatures. All of this has been a delight to share with my friends as we work on fleshing out a world to experience with characters we already care so much about.

I’ll admit that I expected things to go pretty well from the beginning. I’ve been playing with this group for about two years now, and I’ve seen the potential of The Ground Itself thanks to Friends at the Table (who played it at the start of the 7th season, Sangfielle), so I was certain that my friends would not only enjoy the game, but that we’d come up with something fun and interesting together. Most of my friends in this group, many of whom had never had to run a tabletop roleplaying game before and weren’t confident in their ability to improvise and create on the spot, were worried it would be slow-paced and plodding. Instead, it has taken multiple sessions and several hours at this point because we get so excited about ideas we’re having, ask so many questions of each other, and talk through the implications of cards for a good deal beyond what the prompts suggest. We’ve wound up not only establishing the world but fleshing it out in ways we didn’t expect as we’ve gone.

Thanks to this expansive style of play we’ve adopted, detailed notes have become a must, but that also means I have so much information that’ve recorded to draw on when it comes time to swap back to Dungeons and Dragons. So much worldbuilding is already done and there are so many implications in what we’ve created. I’ve only had to insist on two pre-established (and probably forgottem) details once since they involved a major aspect of the way the world works. I’ve also done a fair bit of tossing ideas out there for people to adopt since I understand the bits of the world they’ve already encountered a bit more deeply than the players. Plus, I’ve already done a lot of thinking about how to develop the world in a way that will allow their characters to explore and grow in interesting ways. My mind is already in this zone, thanks to my previous work on the D&D campaign that predates this game of The Ground Itself by about half a dozen sessions, so I’ve been focusing a lot on filling in gaps and making sure the others are all excited about the things we’re creating. Plus, I’ve gotten to divulge a bunch of secrets about the world, so people can make informed decisions, and there’s nothing more I love about having worldbuilding secrets than getting to share them with people who are invested in that world.

While I’ve had to do some work to make sure things aren’t so perfect and idyllic that the player characters won’t ever want to leave, I haven’t had to do it all by myself. Sure, there’s a bit of a utopia building here, but it’s a utopia that can only survive if outside influences are kept at bay and it excludes most of the world’s people. Plus, there’s a lot of questions about why this place exists, this land of bounty surrounded by rot, and what it cost to create it. And what it costs to maintain it. There’s a lot of potential information that hasn’t been addressed, some of which has been hinted at but most of which has not, so there’s plenty of room for me to complicate things once the D&D campaign starts up again. It will just be a bit difficult to disrupt this beautiful utopia that I helped create. Emotionally, I mean. Mechanically, it will be incredibly easy. I’ve already introduced capitalists into the world and sure, they’re the big bad evil guys at present, but they could totally swoop in to start disrupting things. I just… don’t really want to do that since I see plenty of that in my every-day life.

Aside from all that, while we might be struggling a bit due to the incredibly rarity of the cards that progress time in our specific shuffle of the deck (the twenty-first out of forty cards was the first time advancement and the next one was the thirtieth of fourty, so our time periods are getting shorter), we’re still having fun. The game is an incredible prompt for creativity and I can’t tell you how wonderful the format is for worldbuilding. The game’s focus on the place specifically, rather than the people who live there, means you can make some wild swings without disrupting the game. After all, the land will still be there in some way or another, no matter what. The people might not survive, but the land probably will. And just because the people are thriving and doing well doesn’t mean the land is. It’s an incredible game that promotes the kind of deep, expressive thoughtfulness I love to bring to my own worldbuilding, but with the added benefit of getting to bring along all my friends to share in the joy of creation. I would definitely recommend giving the game a try if you want to do some worldbuilding with your friends or if you’ve got a TTRPG campaign you’re trying to set up for. It’s more fun with friends, but you could probably use the prompts to work on your own worldbuiling. Just make sure you actually follow the intructions on how to play as it can be easy, in the heat of the moment, to forget about answering the questions or what you can do instead of answering questions.

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