Game Mastery

Game Wrap – Campaign Setting

by on Sep.09, 2011, under GM, observations, Uncategorized

This was the first campaign where I’ve fully embraced a campaign setting.  Before this I usually bit off a section of a campaign setting and ignored the rest.  We’d stick to a city or town and have an adventure there, but ignore the rest of the world.  It makes the game seem small and severely limits the scope of what you can do, which is why I preferred it for my 8-10 session long adventures.

I should add the caveat that when I say ‘campaign setting’ I mean something explicitly written as a campaign setting.  The game before this was set in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.  I spent a lot of time rereading the books and finding resources for world info.  Going into this game, I expected my experience with Westeros to be similar to using FR as a setting.

The biggest difference between the world from a book and a campaign setting, is that the book world has a built in timeline.  I was willing to diverge from the timeline where necessary, but I still put effort into keeping it intact as possible.  I tried to make sure that divergences happened due to player choice, as opposed to changing things because I feel like it.  But world events could still ripple out to the players.  I didn’t want to change or remove world events on a whim, just because their effects were undesirable.

What’s more is that even though GRRM has written a huge and detailed world, it’s still a world that holds just one story.  Countless books have been written about Forgotten Realms.  While there isn’t any active plot, there’s a whole lot more history.  Martin writes some pretty sizely books, but I have friends who have entire bookcases dedicated to their FR material.

I guess what I’m getting at is that running a game in a book world felt like I was retelling the books, but adapting to the players’ point of view.  Running a game in a campaign setting felt like we were exploring the setting.

The biggest effect of the setting was Elminster.  After some misadventures in the Underdark, the players found themselves trying to get back to the good guys.  I picked a point on the map and set them there.  On the way home, they crossed a city called Shadowdale.  I didn’t know a damn thing about Shadowdale, so I read up on the place.  According to FR lore, that’s where Elminster lives.

I usually frown on using setting characters in games.  I take source material as canon and find it offensive that I could imply that my D&D game is important enough to interact with canon.  But this was the game where I tried new things, so let’s have Elminster, why not.  Besides, why use a campaign setting if you’re going to throw out bits and pieces of it.

Elminster’s plot worked.  It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever done, but I wasn’t really planning on him being there.  The players called him back into the game later on and he played a pretty big role in the finale.  What I appreciated about the campaign setting was that it put Elminster into my game for me.

Creatively I’ve always been more interested in how than in what.  If Shadowdale had been a clean slate, I’d have agonized for days to figure out what belonged there.  But when the setting hands me an Elminster and says to use him, I can work with that.  Figuring out how is fun.  In my opinion, a campaign setting exists to provide the whats.  How you piece these together is the job of the GM.  I enjoyed using the setting because it provided a whole lot more whats than I would have put into the game on my own.

Using Forgotten Realms did have an unfortunate impact on the player narrative I mentioned a few posts ago.  The players were all well versed in medieval fantasy.  Asking them what goes wrong with teleporting into a castle is perfectly fine.  But putting them on the shadow plane and asking where the big bad boss guy’s inner sanctum is located drew a lot of blank stares.  It goes without saying that the player who handled player narrative best was the person who was more familiar with FR than everyone else at the table (myself included).  As long as I stuck to generic fantasy this kind of game play worked.  But setting specific narrative made some players feel like they were locked out from contributing.  I could have explained the planes and locales better, but then the players are still choosing game elements from a list I handed them.  The whole point of player agency is that they can import things into the game that I’d never have thought of.  Oh well.

I think for player narrative to work I’d need a more familiar or accessible setting.  It would have worked better for Game of Thrones.  Or better still for a real world game.  Real world is a perfectly good campaign setting.  Hell, even a twisted real world works pretty well.  WoD and Dresdenverse are 100% backwards compatible with the world we live in.  They just add a layer of the supernatural on top of what we have.  I can outsource any number of plots to the players, and they’ll instantly come back with ideas, without reading any source material.

Alright, I’m clearly on player narrative.  That means I’m out of campaign setting discussion.  Up next, travel.

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