Monday, February 17, 2014

On the advantages and disadvantages of history for life

Creating a detailed setting for your game is an urge that bites every GM. It's one of the theoretical pleasures of the job: you get to create and inhabit the mental vistas of an imaginary world. The draw of that sort of escape from the quotidian concerns of the world we have is not to be scorned; both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, to name just two writers with deep connections to our hobby, created vast and intricate imaginary worlds for their own amusement.

Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls that befalls DMs is the assumption that they can and should treat their games as some sort of open-ended novel. For this game, the creation of a large and detailed setting has several disadvantages:
  •  It encourages the DM to hand out setting packets. At best these are enjoyed, then forgotten. More usually, they are ignored, or are a pain to read, and are still mostly forgotten.
  • The base world assumption of D&D is, now, something with which players are already familiar or can rapidly become so. It is familiar. Creating your own setting reduces that near-immediate familiarity, and therefore requires more work in communication from you and the players.
  • Much of the time, the way a setting is written is not really gameable. It's a toy for the GM about which the players know and care very little.
  • Setting often restricts player agency. Whether it's directly (you have a 12th-level fighter in every little hamlet in the countryside to keep a damp on their hijinks) or indirectly (they can't go form their own duchies because the Benevolent Empire already claims all the available land).
Despite all this, we still do it regularly. If we're honest, it's because tinkering with the game world and finding or creating new things in it is one of the things that keeps us coming back to the table.

With that in mind, I've been bitten by the setting bug. I want to write up a world to play around in, bang about D&D's core assumptions and monster sets a bit, and generally enjoy crafting a world that's a bit...different. I blame Goblin Punch. In order to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, I've set out these design goals:
  • All setting information must be gameable, either directly or indirectly. This means creating random encounter tables rather than waxing poetic on the local fauna and detailing cultures that the players might interact with, rather than those on the other side of the continent.
  • Setting assumptions should be clear and consistent. They should also be of a nature that they can be quickly explained to players at the breech, that is, at the necessary moment.
  • The setting should not force any actions on the player whatsoever. None of this, "You're all from Westphalia, and you've been at war for generations with the Bournians, so you all hate them." Let players make their own characters.
  • The setting must be interesting. Nobody gives a damn that the Duke of the Northlands likes wearing purple all the time and is in a long-standing dynastic cold war with the other branch of the family, unless the Duke is also the realm's only bugbear with a title he earned at the Battle of Five Armies and the duchy's main export is magically preserved human skin for use in the creation of powerful scrolls. Aka Greyhawk is a perfectly good setting already, so no need to recapitulate it.
  • The setting must be flexible enough to accommodate things learned in play. For example, maybe (because a player brings in a slew of dwarves with German names) that dwarven culture is proto-Prussian. While some things should be set as 'this is the way it is', efforts should be made to allow the players to influence the setting through their choices at the gaming table.
  • Further, the setting must be close enough to the default setting assumptions that I can plop old modules into the game with a minimum of tweaking. One of the things I really want to do is e.g., play thorugh the Lost Cverns of Tsojcanth, or see how the PCs deal with Ravenloft. This means that if my setting doesn't have, say, orcs, there should be a clear orc-equivalent for module purposes (even if it's just bandits).
With all this in mind, I'm hoping to do some long-term setting development on this blog. Said setting would mostly be for a theoretical future game, because the current one is a sort of just-in-time development case. Still, bits might make it in if they don't contradict what has already been established.


  1. Keep in mind, on the Westphalian/Bournian point, that you might still tell the players that they are all from Westphalia, but rather than dictating their attitudes toward Bournians, just let them know that Bournians are all murderous thugs (or, better, demonstrate this by descriptions of meeting Bournians, rumors about things going on in Bournia, and so forth). Meanwhile, there might be a more nuanced approach to Bournians in your campaign notes, but in your encounters subtly emphasize the things that reinforce what the Westphalians believe about Bournians.

    1. That is exactly the way I would intend to handle it. Thank you. The difference was between dictating their actions and providing structure to their world.