Campaign Settings – An Octopus Talks Settings

So today I’m going to talk a little about the settings of D&D that I’m familiar with and why, despite my familiarity and the depth of material, I’ve discovered I’m not much interested in playing in the settings that other people write anymore.

Settings I’m familiar with include the Forgotten Realms – my introduction to 2nd edition was the Forgotten Realms boxed set – Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Mystara, Eberron, Planescape, Dark Sun, Birthright, Council of Wyrms, Ptolus, and Ghostwalk, plus the noodly bits stuffed away here and there in various 3rd edition sourcebooks. You would think, with this wealth of pre-made material, that I’d be set for ages of playing.

And yet I’m not. Even Golarion, as wonderful as it is, gently rubs me the wrong way – much less so than most of the D&D settings, I will certainly grant, but it still does. The reason why essentially boils down to the necessary cruft tacked on top of the setting’s foundation. Some of it there’s no escaping – you can’t do the Forgotten Realms without knowing about the Dalelands and the Sword Coast and Waterdeep, you can’t have Greyhawk without the city of Greyhawk, and it isn’t Planescape without Sigil. It isn’t Golarion without lost Thassilon and the city of Absalom.

And, for many GMs, the added material produced by countless authors is a vital resource. Knowing the fine details produced by other hands allows them to immerse their players in the world with a minimum of preparation time – they can read and take notes on breaks and in the time they have at home that isn’t occupied otherwise and be ready to go. It’s not really that much different from a pre-planned Adventure Path in a way – you have the material at hand and it’s easy to use.

The problem, for me, stems entirely from the way the added material stacks up on top of the core of the setting and ends up being built out until the core is almost invisible. The Forgotten Realms is about a world of grey and black morality, where the most powerful people are often so old that they’ve lost track of the world around them – but it’s buried under the adventures of so many authors’ darlings that you can hardly swing a stick without hitting someone Elminster’s had sex with or someone who either mistrusted or accompanied Drizzt or the like.

For some, that lied-in feeling may feel comfortable, and provide plenty of material to work with. For me, well, it’s a hampering obstacle. Can I tell a story that I want to tell, woven around my players, without it tripping over the Been There Done That vibe? It gets harder with each iteration, particularly since WotC has kept up TSR’s habit of advancing the metaplot of the worlds through the fiction produced.

Golarion avoids this problem, letting the game world sit largely static even with all the fiction and in-world function of the Pathfinder Society and the Adventure Paths. What it doesn’t avoid – by design, understandably – is the kitchen sink. Literally everything the world’s designers thought they might want to have is jammed into the Inner Sea region, with a little extra salted around outside to make it clear that there’s a larger world. Don’t get me wrong – I will happily take Golarion over most D&D settings, because it doesn’t have the detritus of decades of development piled on top. There’s still room for my players to do things without feeling like they’re a side note. It just feels a little crowded, having a Dark Science nation next to a demon-infested hellhole next to a pile of fey-infested squabbling bandit kingdoms and so on.

I don’t want worlds full of NPCs who are Super Cool pieces of a writer’s story or a developer’s campaign. I don’t need two decades of carefully developed ntrigue that has nowhere to insert my players, or a dozen archmages who’ve forgotten more than my players can ever hope to accomplish, or a noble outcast who has become a legend all over the continent by adventuring in each area personally. I don’t want to have my players awed by the Iron Mage of Ptolus – I want them to have the chance to be the Iron Mage. I don’t want to have to artificially limit where my players are allowed to go and what they’re allowed to do to keep them from fetching high-tech gear from a fallen starship and using it on an army of goblins armed with crude knives and cruder Molotov cocktails.

I could do all this in a published setting, and simply never have the players run into Elminster (if they go looking for him, there’s a note that reads “Seduced by a goddess, back in a decade”) or need to deal with the templars of Kalak Who Would Be A Dragon or confront Vecna’s agents. Or, given that my brain works the way it does, I can pick up a notebook or crack open a word processor and take the underlying themes of a given setting and build my own around it, with all the cool niches open for my players to grow into.

If they enjoy it enough to come back, I can have their old PCs in NPC roles, so that the Iron Mage is the group’s old wizard, and the head of an order of holy knights is the paladin from the previous party. The inn they frequented as the old party is still there, but the innkeeper’s daughter runs the place now and her father has retired to play with her children and help raise them while she runs the place. The threats they vanquished are gone, but new ones arise to be handled by the next generation of heroes. Maybe some of them even ascend to godhood, and the next party’s cleric worships the ascended former PC.

The only difference between an established official setting and this one is that it’ll have been built by the people who play in it with me, the legends of it built up around them. In a way, entirely too many published settings have a flavor of “Let me tell you about my character” about them, and building it myself will avoid that for me.

It won’t stop me from playing in established settings when that’s what my players want, and it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t think others should avoid established settings. There’s no such thing as Wrong Bad Fun, after all, and if those settings spark peoples’ imaginations and stir the desire to play, I’m 100% in favor of it.

I’d just prefer to do my own.

Until next time, go roll some dice!

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Campaign Settings – An Octopus Talks Settings

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