D&D General Does a campaign world need to exist beyond what the characters interact with?

pemerton

Legend
No aspect of the setting exists if the characters are not interacting with it.

<snip>

So what do you think? How do you run it? Is your campaign setting realized and existing even without character interaction? Or do you only detail what the characters are interested in?
There seems to be a misunderstanding that I run improvised settings, or settings that "serve" the players. I don't think this is true... I run settings that serve the characters and grant the players fun, interesting challenges! Usually what I'll do when the characters enter a new setting is that I'll create a list of "truths" about the place. I'll also ask the players for ideas of what might be there, or what they want to encounter ("I've always wanted to fight a beholder" or "we haven't encountered any magic item shops yet" for example). When the characters are exploring and investigating, I'll pull results from my list of truths, or create new truths based on ideas they have.

For example, if the characters are coming to a seaside port city, I might have truths including "ruled by a corrupt hedonistic baron" and "pirate merchants sell illicit goods" and "an abandoned island temple may house a pirate treasure hoard." As the characters talk to NPCs, investigate the city, and as the players ask me questions, I'll pull out stuff from the list. Whatever doesn't make it usually gets tied into the next setting.
If you're asking only about D&D, I think there are some challenges in running a D&D setting in an improvisational or "just in time" mode. 4e comes the closes, but still has some limitations in this respect. Here is something I wrote around 10 years ago about that:
In this respect 4e resembles a game like The Dying Earth. I've never read the Vance stories, but feel that I could run a game of Dying Earth from the rulebook. It gives me the "vibe" and "meta-setting", plus tips on how to set up situations/scenarios that will exploit that vibe to produce a fun session.

My feeling is that 4e was written with the intention to be GMed in this sort of way. I say this because (i) it fits with the game's emphasis on the encounter - combat or non-combat as the basic unit of play; (ii) it fits with the obvious effort to create that default atmosphere, with the gods, race backgrounds and so on in the PHB and the little sidebars in the Power books; (iii) when you look at the original MM (with most of the campaign info located in skill check results), plus think about how skill challenges should play out (with the GM having to make calls about NPC responses, and other elements of the gameworld, on the fly in response to unpredictable player actions), and even look at the whole emphasis on "situations" rather than "world exploration" as the focus of play, the game seems intended to support "just in time" creation of world details, using "points of light" and the default atmosphere as a framework for doing this in; (iv) it fits with the absence of a developed setting.

Unfortunately, though, the rulebooks don't do much to support GMing this sort of game. A contrast is provided by The Dying Earth rulebook, which does offer tools to help the GM with this sort of situation-based preparation and play.

For 4e, this is really provided by Worlds and Monsters. Good art, interesting stories, and (most importantly for a GM) good discussions of the way in which those stories have been designed to help make an interesting game. Big chunks of this book should have been incorporated into the 4e DMG, in place of (what are in my view) unnecessary or overlong parts of it like the tedious discussion of giving adventure locations personality and the random dungeon generation. If they had been, that would have gone some way - though not all the way - to helping GMs run games in the sort of fashion that the rulebooks seem to intend.
In other systems, which have better support for this sort of play - I'm thinking especially of Burning Wheel and Torchbearer in my own case, and also to an extent MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic - doing "just in time" setting creation, where setting is established as needed to support the needs of play (typically either framing, or failure narration), works very well.

There are also one-shot-ish systems like Cthulhu Dark and Wuthering Heights which don't need any setting beyond a sense of "OK, we're in late Victorian London".

Unless it's a railroad by definition a world must consist of more than the party interacts with. Because otherwise there is never the possibility of options not taken and choices offered and turned down.
I read the rest of your post, but I think I still disagree with this claim. A setting doesn't need to be established, and certainly doesn't need to "exist" in the form of a GM's notes, for the players to be able to make choices and declare actions for their PCs. It's true that players need some sense of open possibilities, but I think this can flow from framing and associated expectations, without requiring the GM to have actually built out the "world" in which those possibilities might be realised.
 

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Oofta

Legend
I frequently improv stuff, but if it's of consequence beyond the current encounter it gets added to my notes a canon. I don't have a ton of details planned out for most of my world so I can fill in the blanks as I go. But I do have a general outline so I can keep everything straight and have something to base my improvisation on.

Some people can probably improvise absolutely everything and keep it all straight, but many people fail. I remember talking to someone about potentially joining their game and they and their friend were talking about how he improvised a town. The PCs had gone in a direction he hadn't anticipated so the first NPC they came across was named Bob. Then the next NPC was also named Bob. Welcome to Bobtown where everyone, male and female, was named Bob! This may have worked for the DM and his friend, but that would just be too goofy and obviously an idea that should have garnered a second look.

On a related note it's also why I have random lists of things like town, shop, NPC names. If someone goes off the map and I have to come up with a town, I just glance at my list and pick names that make sense. It makes a lot more sense if Drywell has a tavern named The Spotted Toad and the bartender's name is Lars and is owned by Tuli, a female dwarf. This information also goes into my notes. Improv is fine, but I want some predefined structure and tools for that improvisation.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
It matters if (or, IME inevitably, when) the DM ad-libs herself into blatant contradictions or inconsistencies due to not remembering or not writing down what we saw there last time or what we-as-characters/players already knew about the new area.
I've found it's much more about the DM and their comfort with responding to situations/experience than it is about whether they've prepped or are ad libbing. Just because something is "written down" or prepped doesn't mean the DM will be able to respond to curve balls well - that's the kind of thing that usually comes with experience.

Parts of the world that never - and never will - intersect with the players/PCs, sure. But how do you know ahead of time which parts those will be unless you intend to somehow force your players to keep their PCs within a predefined area?

Generally, things work more smoothly when players find and stick with the DMs proffered plot hooks. If they constantly veer off in random directions, doing random things not related to anything the DM has put forward, there is little room to complain when things they encounter come off as half baked!

I played with a guy once whose character's motto was "Where the map is blank, I'll go." And he did, all over the setting world. Characters like that - or even the potential existence of characters like that - are why I think a DM wants at least a vague idea in mind of what's where in the world beyond just the adventuring region.

That kind of player would irritate most groups, not just the DMs of those groups. If I set up a campaign based in Balder's Gate, have prepped Balder's Gate with plot hooks etc. 3 of the 4 characters are exploring the city and #4 decides 10 minutes in that Baldur's Gate is boring, I'm going hop the next caravan or ship to Candle Keep! The DM is perfectly within his rights to say "OK #4 the rest of the group is exploring Baldur's Gate, Rexnar can hop the caravan to Candle Keep sure, he's out of the current set of adventures for now - you can pick him back up if/when the group ever makes it to Candle Keep. How about you roll up a new PC that has some motivation to stay in the city/with the group?"
 

Voadam

Legend
Which is why efficient worldbuilding is oriented towards a purpose. The idea of big campaign settings that can be anything to everyone and covers whatever style of fantasy you could ask for, like Forgotten Realms in particular, is nice on paper. But you end up with so much mush that is rarely going to be of any use to anyone that it makes finding and remembering the more useful elements more difficult. Not to mention the amount of writing time that is spend on it.
I regularly feel that the best campaign settings are the ones that have a general idea of what kinds of stories are going to take place in them, instead of offering a place to play any kind of story, but being spread thin on useful specifics everywhere.
I find diverse kitchen sink settings with lots of options like the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Golarion pretty useful as a player and DM.

They provide a lot of character hook options. If you or one of your players come up with a Celtic or Viking or Ancient Egyptian or East Asian fantasy character concept there are places in the world that these exist with some history and integration in the setting to build off of that is ready to go.

If you have modules you want to run you can often find an analogue type of place and modify the module to fit in. If you want to run the Freeport Trilogy in Greyhawk there are Pirate Kingdoms ready to go to set the adventure in. If you want to follow that up with running the Legacy of Fire adventure path as a tonal change of pace you can place them in one of the Baklunish Greyhawk fantasy Arab kingdoms and it should work well, while keeping the pantheons and world history you are familiar with.
 

Oofta

Legend
...
That kind of player would irritate most groups, not just the DMs of those groups. If I set up a campaign based in Balder's Gate, have prepped Balder's Gate with plot hooks etc. 3 of the 4 characters are exploring the city and #4 decides 10 minutes in that Baldur's Gate is boring, I'm going hop the next caravan or ship to Candle Keep! The DM is perfectly within his rights to say "OK #4 the rest of the group is exploring Baldur's Gate, Rexnar can hop the caravan to Candle Keep sure, he's out of the current set of adventures for now - you can pick him back up if/when the group ever makes it to Candle Keep. How about you roll up a new PC that has some motivation to stay in the city/with the group?"

To me, this really depends on campaign style. If I've agreed to play a module, I'll do my best to color within the lines and stay on track. If we're doing more of a sandbox campaign like I run, then if they want to ignore all the plot hooks, we'll figure something out.

However there is a limit. I had a player once that went out of his way to avoid plot hooks, even ones designed to appeal to his stated character goals. Not only was this annoying to the rest of the group, but if I ever tried to insert an important NPC or event the first thing he would do was run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. He finally left the group stating that he wanted to play a game where the group was in a tavern and "stuff happened". What stuff, other than running up a bar tab? I have no clue because he rejected anything and everything I set in his path.

Now? I ask poll the players after a we resolve whatever story arc they chose last time (usually takes 2-4 sessions) what they want to do next session so I can prep for it. I still improvise a lot but we've all agreed that if the group is investigating why all the cattle have disappeared in the local village, that's what we're going to do. How they go about the investigation and what they do about it is totally up to them. Meanwhile the thread they didn't pursue about people in the poorer part of town going berserk with rumors of a new drug may just fade away or be tied into a future potential arc.
 



Cordwainer Fish

Imp. Int. Scout Svc. (Dishon. Ret.)
blatant contradictions or inconsistencies
Rule 1 of the Thieves' World stories was "there are no inconsistencies". Rule 2 was "if you find an inconsistency, see rule 1".

(Rule 3, per C.J. Cherryh, was "you write your first TW story for money; you write your second for revenge".)
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I've found it's much more about the DM and their comfort with responding to situations/experience than it is about whether they've prepped or are ad libbing. Just because something is "written down" or prepped doesn't mean the DM will be able to respond to curve balls well - that's the kind of thing that usually comes with experience.

Generally, things work more smoothly when players find and stick with the DMs proffered plot hooks. If they constantly veer off in random directions, doing random things not related to anything the DM has put forward, there is little room to complain when things they encounter come off as half baked!
The second claim can be mitigated by the first - and you're right about experience helping - but hitting those curveballs is something IMO a DM has to at some point learn how to do, and do well.
That kind of player would irritate most groups, not just the DMs of those groups. If I set up a campaign based in Balder's Gate, have prepped Balder's Gate with plot hooks etc. 3 of the 4 characters are exploring the city and #4 decides 10 minutes in that Baldur's Gate is boring, I'm going hop the next caravan or ship to Candle Keep! The DM is perfectly within his rights to say "OK #4 the rest of the group is exploring Baldur's Gate, Rexnar can hop the caravan to Candle Keep sure, he's out of the current set of adventures for now - you can pick him back up if/when the group ever makes it to Candle Keep.
The map-is-blank guy did just this - his character went on a solo trip around the world, which the player and DM took care of in their own off-cycle sessions.

And I'm cool with this as both player and DM, as if it's what the character would do then so be it. Further, as DM I have to be ready to handle the outcome if any of them do find Baldur's Gate boring. Early in my current campaign, for example, I'd kinda set things up such that when they got to a particular city they'd run into all sorts of spy stuff, political intrigue, factions, and so forth. After their first real engagement with some of this, they left that city as fast as they could and didn't go back for years (and in some cases, never); so bang went all those ideas.

That was 12 or 13 real-time years ago. That setting is still active today, and I'm still hoping one day that a party will go into that city and engage with what's going on there; as even though five-ish in-game years have passed it's still a maelstrom of spying and intrigue. :)
How about you roll up a new PC that has some motivation to stay in the city/with the group?"
How about you roll up a new PC - sure. IME a player like this (who can sometimes be me) would already have dice in hand before this question even got asked. But, asking the player to play it a certain way is sometimes a near-guarantee of exactly the opposite end result.
 

cbwjm

Legend
How about you roll up a new PC - sure. IME a player like this (who can sometimes be me) would already have dice in hand before this question even got asked. But, asking the player to play it a certain way is sometimes a near-guarantee of exactly the opposite end result.
Considering that you've got a group together to play DnD, having a character that shares the general motivations of the party isn't that big an ask. If the player constantly wandered off on their own adventures, then that's a sure fire way of getting booted from the group. One of the things that annoys me the most is players who don't want to work with the rest of the party.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
The map-is-blank guy did just this - his character went on a solo trip around the world, which the player and DM took care of in their own off-cycle sessions.

Before marriage, kids and serious work and life obligations? Sure, I'd veer the PC off and DM them separately at a different time (back then ANY excuse to play!) Now? It takes massive scheduling just to get the group together once a month!
 

cbwjm

Legend
Before marriage, kids and serious work and life obligations? Sure, I'd veer the PC off and DM them separately at a different time (back then ANY excuse to play!) Now? It takes massive scheduling just to get the group together once a month!
Yeah, the whole "everyone has a life now" really messes with scheduling.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Considering that you've got a group together to play DnD, having a character that shares the general motivations of the party isn't that big an ask. If the player constantly wandered off on their own adventures, then that's a sure fire way of getting booted from the group. One of the things that annoys me the most is players who don't want to work with the rest of the party.
I just see it as if it's what the character would do, then it's what the character does; and that takes priority over everything. With one non-negotiable caveat: what happens in character stays in character.

As DM I'll make the time to run solo-shots if needed; and players are always welcome to roll up new characters if their old ones have role-played themselves out of the party (which I greatly prefer over finding contrived excuses for characters to remain together when they otherwise would not). A character wandering off doesn't (or certainly shouldn't!) drag its player out with it; never mind that character is still out there and can come back in sometime later and-or form another party around itself with the same or different players attached. (the campaign/setting is always bigger than just one party or group)

And yes, sometimes getting a group of disparate or argumentative characters (not players, characters!) to work together can be an exercise in herding cats. I'm fine with that too: if they want to argue all night instead of getting on with the adventure, it means I don't have as much to prep for next session. :)
 



TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Before marriage, kids and serious work and life obligations? Sure, I'd veer the PC off and DM them separately at a different time (back then ANY excuse to play!) Now? It takes massive scheduling just to get the group together once a month!
Yea, I just don't see how a game really runs when a player and a DM just run a character in sessions that aren't part of the normal game itself. That seems more like a West Marches game with some extra steps.

I mean, I guess it works if you have the time and energy to run multiple concurrent games in a shared campaign world that lasts for many years, but that seems to be fundamentally at odds with the way modern playstyles work.
 

So what do you think? How do you run it? Is your campaign setting realized and existing even without character interaction? Or do you only detail what the characters are interested in?
I...don't really do either one?

We play to find out what happens--but I also do prep work. A fair amount of prep work, actually. I try to give enough weight, enough significance to things so that there is the feeling that yes, the world really does exist beyond the limits of what the players directly interact with. I try to have at least some prepared thoughts, some underlying connections. I don't really know how, for example, you can have a true mystery (e.g., something where there's a definite "whodunnit" but you have to piece together the clues) without preparing to at least some degree the answer to questions like, well, "who done it?" But that doesn't mean that the path is fixed, nor that one cannot discover new information which casts the old in a new light.

For example, a while back the party was tracking down a woman who had been married to several different spouses, each of whom had died, with just enough justification to throw off suspicion (e.g. one died of injuries from combat, another of illness, one was murdered by someone else, etc.) The party already had their reasons for tracking this woman down, it would take too long to explain why, suffice it to say they were committed to ending her. But as they delved deeper, they began to realize (read: we as a group discovered) that things weren't as they seemed. Far from being a conniving manipulator, she seemed genuinely unaware of her connection to anything nefarious. The players dug deeper and discovered, to their horror, that in a very real sense the woman was unaware: the pact she had made with her succubus patron (matron?), due to her failing health as a teenager, was powered by grief. So each time, the succubus removed any memories she had of the pact and other such things, so that the grief at the death of her spouse would always be real. Needless to say, the party completely changed their goals at that point, and decided to try to find a way to break this lady out of the cycle she was trapped in, rather than kill her to complete the contract they were fulfilling.

And all of this came about because the party Druid signed a contract with a devil. I did a fair amount of work (as I've said many times here) to make my devils interesting and not complete idiots, and that information is stuff the party only learned during the process of working through this situation. Is that "realized and existing even without character interaction"? Is that "only detail[ing] what the characters are interested in"? Is it both? Neither?
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yea, I just don't see how a game really runs when a player and a DM just run a character in sessions that aren't part of the normal game itself. That seems more like a West Marches game with some extra steps.

I mean, I guess it works if you have the time and energy to run multiple concurrent games in a shared campaign world that lasts for many years, but that seems to be fundamentally at odds with the way modern playstyles work.
At odds, maybe, but it's what I like to do.
 

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