Friday, June 14, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Published Settings

When I was 14 years old I learned the word “triumvirate” (probably from a Star Wars book. I was a cool kid.) and immediately added the nation of Velashaan to my homebrew world, ruled over by a triumvirate comprised of a lich, a red dragon, and an agonizingly stereotypical Darth Vader black platemail skulls everywhere fighter dude.

This nation attacked an empire built by one of my friends in a previous campaign, and so the players rallied to the defense. They fought back the bad guys, killed Blackplate McSkullfighter, and got even more invested in the history of my homebrew D&D world.

In this world, PCs shaped empires, made laws, inadvertently created vast wastelands of mutation and antimagic, and generally enjoyed being powerful history-shaping figures. The world had lore, and my friends and I remembered how each and every piece of it had come to be.

Of course, gaming groups change. People move, new friends are recruited, intra-group drama splits the party, and ten thousand other things happen, until (almost two decades later) no one but me remembers how it all started.

Up until last year, I was still running new groups through campaigns set in that homebrew world, but it was a world I was imposing on them- there was a history here, but for the most part, only I knew it. The only way for my players to learn the history of the world they were playing in was to give me a few drinks and several hours of their time.

This made player backgrounds difficult, and ensured that players who had been in my campaigns before had an in-group status of “we know what's going on in this world” and often had war stories and knowledge that excluded the newer players.

I thought about playing in Forgotten Realms, or some other world whose shared history was public. But I've never liked published campaign settings. 

As a kid, I owned 2nd edition Birthright, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Council of Wyrms (all picked up at yard sales) but never ran a game in any of them because they simply felt too intimidating. There was too much to get wrong. Every road and dungeon was mapped, every hex predetermined. Campaign settings felt like a straightjacket. Worse, they seemed to require both players and GMs to invest many hours in learning the setting before anyone could enjoy playing there.

Last year (co-author) Anthony persuaded me to try out Golarion, the Pathfinder setting. Without turning this post into an ad for the Inner Sea World Guide, let me just say they got it right. Regions have enough flavor to suggest compelling stories, the world is caught up in a crisis that justifies adventurers being everywhere, and that vast wasteland of mutation and antimagic is right where I left it. But I like what they didn't write at least as much as what they did write.

The vast majority of regions, at least those not yet covered in Adventure Paths, are conceptual wilderness. I have been running a game set in Numeria and have yet to feel restricted by the fact that I'm running inside a published setting. I have invented towns, factions, items, and creatures without feeling like I'm deviating from canonical Golarion, because Golarion is painted with such broad strokes.

I appreciate that my players can go online and find a list of backgrounds, nations, factions, and causes that they can build from. I appreciate that I can get an idea of what the central conflict of an area is, enough to color NPCs from that area, without having to dedicate evenings to learning the details.

I suspect that as Golarion gets more content, more adventure paths, and develops its own history, it will become just as terrifying as Faerun to me. But having this experience of campaign setting frontiersmanship has taught me how to coexist peacefully with a published setting: by setting my games in "broadly painted" regions, my players and I are both comfortable where we're adventuring, and get to share in the feeling of world exploration. And that is neat.

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