log in or register to remove this ad

 

"Cool setting, bro. But what's the hook for the PCs?"

Aldarc

Legend
I sometimes suspect that TTRPG world-builders underestimate the importance of plot hooks and campaign premises when it comes to their settings. There are a fair number of interesting and well-constructed TTRPG settings (from the perspective of pure world-building) that I have encountered, whether published or home-brewed, that seem to suffer from a relative absence of thought about what PCs actually are meant to do in their cool setting. I have been involved in conversations several times that involve iterations of "It's great that you (hypothetical GM/writer) constructed this neat world in great detail, but I'm unclear what PCs are meant to do here. What's the hook? Why adventure at all here? What drives the setting and how do PCs fit in that?" only to get absent looks from creators who had not considered why/how PCs adventure or offended replies back from people who thought the only appropriate response to their creation was meant to be "It's perfect."

IME, this is less of a problem of TTRPGs built with a clear premise in mind. Sitting down to run/play Blades in the Dark, for example, I know immediately that the PCs are a gang in Duskvol trying to expand their territory. So the premise and hook are readily apparent. This is not as clear, for example, when sitting down for a game of D&D as the hooks/premises are often more GM dependent. Some regard this as a feature and not a bug, as it affords a tremendous degree of open-ended flexibility to the GM for making the premises of their game/campaign, though one presumes some degree of killing monsters, delving dungeons, and acquiring treasure. But IME, this sometimes means that the quality of the game can fluctuate between GMs as their "cool settings" may not have much meat for the PCs to sink their own hooks into.

But what makes for a good setting premise as it relates to the PCs? And how/why do setting creators seemingly forget that the setting exists as a place for player roleplay/PC adventure?
 

log in or register to remove this ad


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
1. Blades in the Dark is a terrible example to use for a D&D campaign. If you attempted to sell that idea to most D&D players, you would immediately be met with howls. “But I don’t wanna stay in Duskvol.” “I don’t want more territory.” “Why do I have to do a heist - I have a better idea.” And then, of course, the inevitable cries of railroading and player agency. A game designed for a purpose will always be better at that purpose than D&D, but it also will be best for that purpose, and not for D&D.

2. The reason most campaign worlds don’t work today, IMO, is because they follow the modern FR example. By that, I mean that they are scripted and lore-heavy. They are written, because the person who writes them finds the world interesting. The best campaign worlds IME are the early ones - gray box FR, 83 greyhawk, early Known World, City State ..... that provided an outline with a world full of mysteries and hooks, not lore. They were not meant to be read, they were meant to be played.
 

Aldarc

Legend
1. Blades in the Dark is a terrible example to use for a D&D campaign. If you attempted to sell that idea to most D&D players, you would immediately be met with howls. “But I don’t wanna stay in Duskvol.” “I don’t want more territory.” “Why do I have to do a heist - I have a better idea.” And then, of course, the inevitable cries of railroading and player agency. A game designed for a purpose will always be better at that purpose than D&D, but it also will be best for that purpose, and not for D&D.
To be clear, I am not saying that D&D settings should be constructed like Duskvol is for Blades in the Dark, but, rather, that Blades in the Dark has a clear premise and hook for its game. So the question of "what do PCs do here?" is never left vague or undefined. D&D is intentionally designed to be more open-ended for its campaigns but this does come with trade-offs.

2. The reason most campaign worlds don’t work today, IMO, is because they follow the modern FR example. By that, I mean that they are scripted and lore-heavy. They are written, because the person who writes them finds the world interesting. The best campaign worlds IME are the early ones - gray box FR, 83 greyhawk, early Known World, City State ..... that provided an outline with a world full of mysteries and hooks, not lore. They were not meant to be read, they were meant to be played.
I tend to agree with this, though there may be some "in the olden days" bias at play as there are undoubtedly great campaign settings like this that come far later than "the early ones." Some of my favorite D&D settings are those with plenty of hooks, mysteries, and intentionally empty spaces: e.g., Nentir Vale, Eberron, etc.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I tend to agree with this, though there may be some "in the olden days" bias at play as there are undoubtedly great campaign settings like this that come far later than "the early ones." Some of my favorite D&D settings are those with plenty of hooks, mysteries, and intentionally empty spaces: e.g., Nentir Vale, Eberron, etc.
The bias is not due to nostalgia.

Greyhawk eventually became filled out and lore-heavy (not as much as FR which has added burden of numerous books and supplements, but still). Same, to a lesser extent, with the Known World (Mystara).

There are two primary reasons behind why modern campaign setting are “worse” in this way-

1. Times have changed. Blame the MCU. Blame the mass-spread of word processors and the internet. Blame the whole concept of “world-building” - which was not something people in the 80s were worried about. Settings are designed differently now. Compare 83 GH or grey box FR to a modern setting.

2. Accretion. The longer a setting is used, the more “lore” is published - the worse it becomes in many ways. I agree with you about Nentir Vale, but had more been done with it, then it would have sucked just as hard as any other modern setting. It benefitted from getting killed off.
 


RobJN

Adventurer
The beauty of the Known World/Mystara was that the Gazetteers were written with plot-hooks included, if the overall writing itself did not suggest where the PCs would fit/what they would be doing in any given country.
 

I sometimes suspect that TTRPG world-builders underestimate the importance of plot hooks and campaign premises when it comes to their settings. There are a fair number of interesting and well-constructed TTRPG settings (from the perspective of pure world-building) that I have encountered, whether published or home-brewed, that seem to suffer from a relative absence of thought about what PCs actually are meant to do in their cool setting. I have been involved in conversations several times that involve iterations of "It's great that you (hypothetical GM/writer) constructed this neat world in great detail, but I'm unclear what PCs are meant to do here. What's the hook? Why adventure at all here? What drives the setting and how do PCs fit in that?" only to get absent looks from creators who had not considered why/how PCs adventure or offended replies back from people who thought the only appropriate response to their creation was meant to be "It's perfect."

IME, this is less of a problem of TTRPGs built with a clear premise in mind. Sitting down to run/play Blades in the Dark, for example, I know immediately that the PCs are a gang in Duskvol trying to expand their territory. So the premise and hook are readily apparent. This is not as clear, for example, when sitting down for a game of D&D as the hooks/premises are often more GM dependent. Some regard this as a feature and not a bug, as it affords a tremendous degree of open-ended flexibility to the GM for making the premises of their game/campaign, though one presumes some degree of killing monsters, delving dungeons, and acquiring treasure. But IME, this sometimes means that the quality of the game can fluctuate between GMs as their "cool settings" may not have much meat for the PCs to sink their own hooks into.

But what makes for a good setting premise as it relates to the PCs? And how/why do setting creators seemingly forget that the setting exists as a place for player roleplay/PC adventure?

I am not really seeing what you are seeing here. I do think settings can have issues when they are clearly more about 'tourism' than adventuring. But a game like D&D doesn't really have that problem (don't play it much anymore but D&D is one of the most gameable systems, and its settings are usually filled with places to adventure). Any time I return to D&D I find it incredibly easy to prepare for because so much gameability is baked into the system and the setting expectations (if I make my own setting, it is very easy to make one where the players will immediately be exploring ancient temples, defeating big evil bad guys, investigating dark cities, etc).

What I think you are describing is the difference between a focused setting and a broad setting. Those don't really key to gameability in my opinion. A broad setting can be entirely gameable. And a narrow setting can be difficult to game (great in concept for example, but hard to run or prep for). I also think a game like D&D deals with focus at the campaign level (the GM decides to run a particular kind of campaign and gets buy in from the players). I do like narrow game and setting concepts, but the reason you don't have that with D&D is it has to appeal to a broad audience (blades in the dark doesn't have to retain the number of gamers that D&D does so it go into more focused territory and get its audience, which it clearly has). But D&D is trying to capture the attention of not just players like yourself but also the old school crowd, and the pathfinder crowd, etc.
 

Aldarc

Legend
There are two primary reasons behind why modern campaign setting are “worse” in this way-
Hmmm... I'm not sure. I agree that modern FR-style world-building can result in a greater preponderance lore than campaign hooks, but I'm reluctant to treat all modern campaign settings as being "worse" than early campaign settings for the reasons you cited. I think it's a doomed enterprise rife with counter-examples. For example, a lot of modern settings or home-brewed ones have not necessarily been around long enough for lore accretion to be a problem. Plus the setting box sets are mostly a thing of the past unless you have the money to produce them: e.g., WotC, Paizo, etc. so settings will naturally be written differently. Markets change.

I try to build motivation and whatnot into my pitch and session zero materials. I prefer the game to have some momentum and teleos before anyone even writes a character.
This is a good approach. The issue I sometimes see with some settings/world-building is that they are not functionally designed for players/PCs in mind. It's like that scene from Office Space: "So what would you say you do here?"
 

BookTenTiger

Adventurer
This reminds me of an article I read by Monte Cook years and years ago about the "default story" of a D&D setting. At that time in 3rd Edition, Cook argued (if I recall correctly) that the default story was:
  • Explore a dungeon, fight baddies
  • Get loot
  • Go back to town and sell loot
  • Buy better equipment
  • Return to dungeon / go to new dungeon

Cook said that no matter what other bells and whistles a D&D campaign had, the players could expect the rules to allow them to play out that default story- even if that was not the story the campaign was telling.

The idea of a "default story" is something I try to build into my custom campaign worlds. If the adventurers have no direct hooks in front of them, what's the expectation?

Right now the default story is "fight the nearest vampire lord, help the oppressed, get more powerful to eventually defeat the BBEG."

For my dream campaign though, I would love to create that default story with the players. It would be so much fun to sit down at Session 0 and ask, "What is the life of an adventurer in this campaign?" And then build up a campaign world around that.
 

This is a good approach. The issue I sometimes see with some settings/world-building is that they are not functionally designed for players/PCs in mind. It's like that scene from Office Space: "So what would you say you do here?"

Whenever I add anything to a setting, this is something I consider (what would this NPC mean to players in terms of doing anything). Doesn't mean every NPC and every location needs to have a obviously gamey connection, but I like to have something there I know could be used in play. At the same time, GMs are often going to find hooks where you didn't see any yourself. For me the key with something like an NPC is clear motivations so the GM understands what will drive them when they are dropped into play
 

Aldarc

Legend
This reminds me of an article I read by Monte Cook years and years ago about the "default story" of a D&D setting. At that time in 3rd Edition, Cook argued (if I recall correctly) that the default story was:
  • Explore a dungeon, fight baddies
  • Get loot
  • Go back to town and sell loot
  • Buy better equipment
  • Return to dungeon / go to new dungeon

Cook said that no matter what other bells and whistles a D&D campaign had, the players could expect the rules to allow them to play out that default story- even if that was not the story the campaign was telling.
Neat. Definitely sounds like Monte Cook. Someone posted something on Twitter recently, wherein the person argued that D&D originally had a "win state" - i.e., acquiring strongholds and followers - but that people ignored it or treated it as orthogonal to play, in part, due to the higher lethality of 1e/2e D&D, meaning few characters reached at least that point.

The idea of a "default story" is something I try to build into my custom campaign worlds. If the adventurers have no direct hooks in front of them, what's the expectation?

Right now the default story is "fight the nearest vampire lord, help the oppressed, get more powerful to eventually defeat the BBEG."
Interestingly enough, the D&D adjacent game Shadow of the Demon Lord works with a similar default story. Work to fight back the encroaching darkness of the "Demon Lord." This is done through 10 adventures, each representing a level of play.

For my dream campaign though, I would love to create that default story with the players. It would be so much fun to sit down at Session 0 and ask, "What is the life of an adventurer in this campaign?" And then build up a campaign world around that.
That is definitely the dream.
 

aco175

Legend
Could FR get back to a better setting if they updated some stuff from the last 100 years? They could provide the basis and plot for a lot of campaigns. I do not find coming out with a new campaign book each year is the best approach anymore. I have only played one of the big books and mostly expand off of Phandalin or another smaller adventure. SCAG was mostly crunch for me and not much of a story to expand on.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
IME, this is less of a problem of TTRPGs built with a clear premise in mind. Sitting down to run/play Blades in the Dark, for example, I know immediately that the PCs are a gang in Duskvol trying to expand their territory. So the premise and hook are readily apparent. This is not as clear, for example, when sitting down for a game of D&D as the hooks/premises are often more GM dependent. Some regard this as a feature and not a bug, as it affords a tremendous degree of open-ended flexibility to the GM for making the premises of their game/campaign, though one presumes some degree of killing monsters, delving dungeons, and acquiring treasure. But IME, this sometimes means that the quality of the game can fluctuate between GMs as their "cool settings" may not have much meat for the PCs to sink their own hooks into.

But what makes for a good setting premise as it relates to the PCs? And how/why do setting creators seemingly forget that the setting exists as a place for player roleplay/PC adventure?
Having it be by campaign isn't a feature or bug, it's a requirement for a system designed to be run multiple times for the same group.

Having a set hook for a setting can give you a wonderfully tight mesh of setting, theme and rule support for it's premise. They can be fantastic. But for a system explicitly designed to be run again and again it is inherently, unavoidably, too limiting.
 

Azuresun

Explorer
Do you have any examples? I have to say that the premise isn't one I've noticed.

I've seen a few things that gave me that vibe. Symptoms include:

--The world lacks any obvious reason for PC groups to form in the first place, or any indications of what a typical group would actually do. This is why the Scion 2e books I kickstarted got a look through and then sat undisturbed on the shelf. OK, so they're children of the gods, but.....what do they typically DO?! The book gives examples of fighting monsters, gathering a cult, etc, but there's no context for why any particular Scion would want to or be forced to get involved with that stuff.

--The factions / nations with the "players will probably want to fight these guys" labels feel too competent, too entrenched and and too aware of their own weaknesses. It gives me a strong vibe that the writer is slapping themselves on the back because "My villains read the Evil Overlord list!" and ignored the ways those weaknesses give dramatically satisfying ways for the villains to be deeated by heroes (the ultimate purpose of a villain). The World of Darkness was pretty infamous for zillion-year-old Elders with every dot on their character sheet filled in, but it was also my sticking point with the Midgard campaign setting, where it felt like the writers were waxing just a bit too rhapsodic about how kewl and unstoppable Baba Yaga, the ghoul / vampire kingdom, the Despotate or that demon sorcerer guy who lives on the mountain were. I think a lot of this comes from how writing NPC's is an RPG writer's only real way to have "their characters" in the setting (since they don't know who the heroes of the story actually are), so the bad guys end up getting a bit too much creator love.

--Powerful friendly NPC's who don't have any limiters that would stop them from needing PC's to fix their problems, vs solving those problems themselves. Elminster is probably the most iconic example here.


I think the things that get me interested in running or playing in a setting are:

--Factions, with most of them being open enough that I could have a hero or villain come from any of them. Eberron is brilliant for this, as is Fading Suns.

--Bad guy factions with a fairly easy-to-summarise weakness, or a driving goal other than "become more powerful and crush all opposition". Give them ways in which a small band of abnormally powerful individuals can plausibly oppose them.

--An easily graspable possible premise for stories that provides a ready-made reason why disparate people might choose to hang out together and get into adventures.
 

Voadam

Legend
I usually see setting and adventure hooks/specific adventures as fairly independent.

If you run modules or adventure paths you might say can I run City of the Spider Queen in my Ptolus campaign? How much reflavoring do I need to do on either end to make it work?

I usually see setting as more backdrop than driver of plot.

There are extremes of adventure and setting connection however. It would take a lot of reflavoring to run the dragonlance adventures in say the Scarred Lands or most any other setting.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think the premise--that settings neglect adventure hooks--is going to very much mostly apply to published settings, probably because they don't (can't) know what kinda GM will be running them or what kinda players will be at the table or what kinda characters they'll be playing, so they don't (can't) know what kinda hooks will work; given that, the options are no hooks, or a lot (really, a lot) of hooks--which might end up seeming not all that different from no hooks, if you're looking at it on the wrong (or I guess right) zoom level.

I sincerely doubt that most GMs who make their own settings are going to omit things for PCs to do. Heck, throwing smelly stuff at a nearby fan is how I start campaigns ...
 

Aldarc

Legend
I think the premise--that settings neglect adventure hooks--is going to very much mostly apply to published settings, probably because they don't (can't) know what kinda GM will be running them or what kinda players will be at the table or what kinda characters they'll be playing, so they don't (can't) know what kinda hooks will work; given that, the options are no hooks, or a lot (really, a lot) of hooks--which might end up seeming not all that different from no hooks, if you're looking at it on the wrong (or I guess right) zoom level.

I sincerely doubt that most GMs who make their own settings are going to omit things for PCs to do. Heck, throwing smelly stuff at a nearby fan is how I start campaigns ...
I come at it from a different angle: I suspect some creators think that the PC/campaign hooks for their setting are self-evident. So they don't bother spelling out how PCs would interact with the setting.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I come at it from a different angle: I suspect some creators think that the PC/campaign hooks for their setting are self-evident. So they don't bother spelling out how PCs would interact with the setting.
That's certainly a possibility, and seems most likely to be a problem with published settings, and in the realm of not knowing every table that'll try to play that setting. So, either another problem with the same cause, or another symptom of the same problem (depending on your outlook).
 

One thing I would like to see more of in setting books are things that help you fill out more of your character backstory while also giving the DM some more fuel for the plot machine.

I will give you an example - Explorer's Guide to Wildmount. Not everyone is familiar with the setting or wants to get that deep in what they're doing on the CR livestream. There are other, far more interesting plots to be had out there. But what I thought was interesting is they have background charts where you take the area your character is from in a general sense (for example, the Dwendalian Empire, or the Wastes of Xhoras). ASsuming you have no preferences on things, you 'll roll to find out about your parents, your friends, etc. You can roll things that may give you an item or a bonus to something, but have a draw back - like someone is trying to find this trinket you took.

But something they have in there that I don't often think of is... what is your character's favorite food? Not only is that a world building detail that's often overlooked, but... it's an interesting thing if it tells you kinda... 'My dude really likes sweets.' Like if you're from the Empire, you may enjoy sauerbraten or trost (ale), or if you're from the Menagerie Coast, you may like snakelock noodles (sea anemone tendrils coated in honey batter and fried)
 

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top