On Using Published Campaign Settings


I mainly have written for the forgotten realms in the past because it was an option thanks to the dmsguild, but I've never been big into canon.

I'm asking if you agree with the above blog entry when it comes to using publish campaign settings?
 
I think it's also whose allowed to play in the toybox.

I present two different examples

George Lucas

Christopher Tolkeen

For all his faults, George Lucas let us play in his universe and gamers even defined things that became canon.

Christopher Tolkeen kicked us out (mind you MERP took a lot of liberties with his world).
 

JeffB

Hero
I think it's also whose allowed to play in the toybox.

I present two different examples

George Lucas

Christopher Tolkeen

For all his faults, George Lucas let us play in his universe and gamers even defined things that became canon.

Christopher Tolkeen kicked us out (mind you MERP took a lot of liberties with his world).

Publishing, and playing a game at home are entirely different things.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
...That’s my World of Greyhawk campaign, a Frankenstein’s Monster of lovingly assembled parts from material that inspired me........
Grayhawk was always suppose to be a Frankenstein Goleum. You bought one or two lore items and then went off your merry way.
Lore is bore. Or only bores demand you bow to canon.
 

Longspeak

Explorer
I am a big fan of canon that informs current play, and/or that forms a reliable baseline players can share in the knowledge of. I want players to know or have the ability to look up historical events. But you have to build on top of that starting point. It's not static, the world isn't static. Add, alter as needed. And once play begins, nothing should remain sacred.

In my game in Tal'Dorei, the "Chroma Conclave" was a BIG FRICKIN' DEAL from the recent history of the setting. It informs a lot of how NPCs deal with the world today. For example, the PCs kinda sorta unleashed a genocical purge in the setting's largest city... and everyone is having trauma because of how it reminds them of that time their city was almost destroyed and enslaved for months, and the city guards are massively overcorrecting in the name of securirty. And the PCs - by name - are not well-loved at the moment.
 
Last edited:

schneeland

Explorer
I think I agree with most of your central thoughts, i.e.:
  • customizing a setting with your own ideas and other influences is a good idea
  • a set of adventures can help to kick-start a setting (by conveying the intended mood/atmosphere)
Like you, I also prefer starting from an existing setting (mostly the Forgotten Realms or Newhon/Lankhmar for me) instead of completely building something from scratch (or base my fictional world on the real-world).

Where we maybe don't agree is (not sure, maybe we even do):
  • I don't think the availability of a plethora of material for a setting is universally good - I have grown up with the Realms, so that's not a problem for me, but if I had to dive into them now, they would feel quite intimidating, mainly because, as a newcomer, it's hard to judge what material is really useful (also, because time has become such a precious resource)
  • I think some basic canon does serve a purpose - again for the Realms, I can assume that most of my players are familiar with the Sword Coast, Icewind Dale, maybe with Calimport and to a certain extent with Cormyr; so that's something I can build upon when running campaigns in the Realms. If there's no such consensus on the basics, establishing a shared imagination becomes a lot harder IMO
So IMO the ideal size of a campaign setting is 3 to 4 books (1: player-facing material/setting-specific rules; 2-3: material for the DM, either including a monster menagerie or with a separate book for that; 4: a set of sample adventures or a small campaign) of moderate size (100-300 pages). That way, similar to the core 3 books for D&D5, you have a manageable amount of information to get somebody onboard for a new setting.
 

MerricB

Eternal Optimist
  • I don't think the availability of a plethora of material for a setting is universally good - I have grown up with the Realms, so that's not a problem for me, but if I had to dive into them now, they would feel quite intimidating, mainly because, as a newcomer, it's hard to judge what material is really useful (also, because time has become such a precious resource
The huge amount of information available for the Forgotten Realms was the main reason behind the 4E time-jump... and we saw how well that went! :) (Don't blow up popular settings!)

It occurs to me that the amount of material available for the Forgotten Realms is dwarfed by the amount of material available for the Marvel line of comics. But there are people happily jumping into writing Marvel comics and running Marvel RPGs.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be considered a campaign inspired by all that came before. It's recognisably Marvel, but not exactly the comic book universe.

I think that while there is some truth in a lot of material makes it hard for people to approach a setting, there's more truth in that you can get into any setting if it has a good entry point - and the campaign adventures that Wizards have been releasing are good entry points.

If you rely on your audience knowing the setting inside-out, you've got a problem. And you've still got to tell compelling stories.

I do think the blowing up of the realms more was due to a problem with designers writing for the realms (where contradicting canon was jumped upon by critics), rather than how it played at home.

Cheers!
 

schneeland

Explorer
The huge amount of information available for the Forgotten Realms was the main reason behind the 4E time-jump... and we saw how well that went! :) (Don't blow up popular settings!)
My position is that the problem is not that they tried a reboot, but that it was done quite badly :). I'll try to write a few more lines about that tonight (unfortunately I have a day work before me now).
 

schneeland

Explorer
Sorry, that took a little longer then expected.

Again, I find that @MerricB and I share a similar perspective w.r.t. problem analysis, but, at least to a certain extent, come to different conclusions.

So let's start with the agreement and the problem analysis part. IMO there three major reasons why one might want to reboot a setting (two of which Merric has listed already):
  1. The amount of existing information (considered canon) is so large that it creates a significant entry barrier to new users
  2. The amount of existing information limits the creativity of the designers and hampers the development of the setting
  3. The setting either contains element that feel dated or lacks elements that make it attractive to new audiences
In theory, there is also a fourth reason, i.e. having publications on the setting which contradict each other, but I will ignore that here.

So next step is to look at what constitutes a good/successful vs. a bad/failed reboot. For a bad reboot we already have one example, i.e. Forgotten Realms 4e.

For successful reboots, we can look to video games, where this happens more often. Examples are:
  • Tomb Raider (2013), which revitalised the line with the same name that had been running from 1996 to 2008 and overstayed its welcome, partly due to rather frequent releases
  • Doom (2016), which brought back the classic first person shooter game after its third part turned out to be both economically and critically less successful than expected.
In both cases, the pattern followed was similar: the designers went back to identify key elements of the game, considered other titles in the same area and also what the community was doing, and then went back to origins story-wise, but modified the story a bit. I will say that in both cases, I have elements of these reboots that I dislike, but they were commercial and critical successes.

What's noticeable: in both cases, the timeline was reversed to something considered the starting point for the game setting/protagonist. We didn't get to play the story of Lisa Croft, daughter of Lara Croft, or a new recruit following in the footsteps of the Doom Marine - we got to play literally the same characters, but in a modernized way.

My impression is that the same thing happened for the New 52 of DC Comics, but I'm not a comics expert, so I will abstain from making comments here that I might regret :)

Now if we look to Forgotten Realms 4e, what we see is that the reboot is only partial - on the one hand there is the desire to come up with a blank slate and lower the entry barrier for new players, on the other hand the timeline was kept. Instead of going back and trying to get to the core of the setting, the timeline is advanced, a lot of well-known characters are, or should be, dead and for someone who grew up with the Realms, it is barely recognisable. For an older player this might easily feel like a big middle finger in their face.

Unfortunately, Realms 4e is not the only example for this pattern. Another one is Shadowrun 4 with its Crash 2.0. Probably it's no coincidence that this has alienated a lot of older players - similar to the Realms, where I know enough people that keep playing in the pre-spell plague realms, I know another bunch who consider the 2050s and 60s their "true" Shadowrun timeline.

This highlights the major risk of a reboot:
  • you split your fan base, leading to a mixed critical reception and/or less than expected commercial results

So my conclusion is: you can reboot settings, but successful reboots need to identify the core of a setting and then judiciously modernize it. I will acknowledge, though, that this is rather art than science, and not an easy task.

Edit:
Minor clarification on risks added. I guess I should still write something on why I am not completely happy with 5e's way to expose setting information, but I have to postpone that due to dinner and other obligations.
 
Last edited:

Advertisement

Top