On Themes and Settings

Following up on yesterday’s entry about why playing in established settings is starting to bother me, today I’ll be picking at the various settings I’m familiar with, both to describe the themes I see in the setting and why I’d rather use those themes in a different and more personal creation.

An important caveat when I’m talking about this is that the themes I find in a setting might not be the themes you find in it, and we both might not see the themes that were in mind when it was created. Nothing I’m going to talk about here should be seen as my idea of holy truth; it’s just my opinion, and if yours is different that’s cool. (No such thing as Wrong Bad Fun, remember?) Also, I have no intention to dig through every setting I know; that’d take far too long.

The Forgotten Realms can safely be said to be one of the largest, most complex, and most in-depth settings presently in publication. Decades of books from prolific writers, a slew of modules, campaign books, and sourcebooks, and it keeps on going. What makes the Realms, for me, is the deep-rooted theme that in a world where high magic is a given and the gods casually meddle in mortal affairs, those who attain power (and with it, often, longevity) can end up with detachment at best and straight-up corruption at worst. Faerun is a world of black and grey morality, where adventurers tend to be seen as meddling pests even by the theoretically good guys, and where the most famed heroes tend to have a closet crammed full of restless skeletons. Most of the powerful want more power, everyone else be damned, and those who don’t spend a lot of their time manipulating events to keep the precarious balance between all the would-be overlords in place.

And, unfortunately, it gets so ridiculously complicated that no GM can reasonably track everything that might be involved in a situation. So instead of the Forgotten Realms, I’d rather make a setting with half a dozen chessmasters, none of them reliably good or evil, most if not all of them older than their usual racial lifespan, and let the players work their way through the webs of lies and deceit to start upsetting the balance – and give them the chance to overthrow those masterminds by being something none of them planned for.

Let’s take Eberron, next. One of the big themes there is that alignment isn’t a rule and there are no gods who tangibly answer mortals; even the outsiders who serve them in theory have no proof that they exist. The other is an inversion of Clarke’s Third Law, with sufficiently advanced magic being indistinguishable from technology. These are magnificent themes, and it’s kind of a shame that the first one gets plastered over by mixing the second one with an Indiana Jones vibe of archaeologist adventurers.

I’d love to have a setting that plays with the first of Eberron’s themes – a world where there are no reliable guides to divine faith, where the church of the god of the sun might have three or four major sects competing with one another to the point of being functionally rival churches, and where the idea of holy and unholy weapons might be better off being replaced with notions borrowed from Nentir Vale and Pathfinder Unchained. Radiant and Shadow or Necrotic weapons? Yes, absolutely. The second theme isn’t all that unusual, in a lot of ways, Eberron just takes it to a natural extreme.

Lastly, there’s one of the best themes in Mystara, in my opinion – their gods aren’t gods, they’re ascended mortals. The Spheres of Power are concepts that present ways for mortals – great and powerful ones – to ascend to an immortal state with godlike powers, but they’re not specifically gods. This is, if you think about it, a fantastic theme. Mortals of all kinds – even a dinosaur – can ascend to become powers in the world, to the point that the entire massive pantheon of Mystara is either Old Ones who existed before the world or ascended mortals. It’s less obvious, though, since to get there you already have to be a high-level character and the GM has to be willing to let you seek out what you need to do to even begin on the path. Much more often you’d adventure for a while to the mid-levels, finish up the campaign, and move on.

This is honestly something I’d really want to include in a setting I craft, particularly if it ties in with the other two themes. Get partway down a path to immortality but not all the way? You get stuck as an unnaturally long-lived chessmaster, your entire connection to the world being slowly eroded by the passage of time. There are no gods because there has been no one who has ascended, or those who ascended in the past have left for other worlds and other realms. They might even be the source of the faiths that exist, and their departure has allowed the churches to schism.

There are other settings and other themes, of course, but this should help explain what I mean about good concepts and themes that get buried beneath other game material. Each of these themes, alone, could build a whole host of possible campaign worlds, and combined can create a vast number more. Rather than worrying about what authors and game devs have built that might need to be worked around or incorporated in a game, I’d rather build a world from scratch that suits my style of storytelling and the players’ styles of play, using themes that I find interesting.

For those who prefer the created campaign worlds, I salute you! And if you ever GM for me, I promise I’ll be a good player and play within the world selected by the group; in turn, I hope you all would be willing to take a chance on my creation.

Next time, I may flesh out that notion above a bit, to show where I’d take those three themes. Until then, I wish you all good games!

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On Themes and Settings

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