The GM's World, the Players' Campaign

pemerton

Legend
But thinking about things beforehand doesn't remove interacting with your friends part. That still happens. And we always prepare to game to some extent. We create the characters beforehand. We establish the themes of the campaign. We establish some backstory. The GM might think some NPCs and locations. Technically we don't need to do any of this, we could just improv everything. But most people, even you, tend to agree that doing this preparation is worth it. And I don't think more hurts. Sure, you hit diminishing returns at some point when it is just no longer worth the effort, but ultimately we're just quibbling about where that point lies.
I posted recently about some ideas I've explored in my GMing: https://www.enworld.org/threads/gms-themes.699684/

@Campbell, just upthread, has also talked about thinking about things in anticipation of play.

What I denied was that "a setting mostly improvised on spot will on average have less depth than one that is planned with time and consideration" (the quote is of you in post 59 upthread), taking "depth" to mean something like thematic weight.

Here's a passage from the post I linked to just above:
In my Torchbearer game, the first dungeon that I designed was the abandoned dell of a Petty Dwarf (also called Mim). One artefact in the dungeon was an Elfstone, in which the dream spirit of the Petty Dwarf was trapped. The Elven Dreamwalker PC Fea-bella tried to drive out the spirit, and failed, instead becoming obsessed by the stone. In a subsequent session the stone was stolen, it turns out by Gerda, a NPC Dwarven friend of Golin the Dwarf PC. In the second-last session, what had seemed like it might be the culmination in a change of relationship between Fea-bella and her enemy Megloss - a somewhat sinister Elf - turned in completely the other direction, as a failed attempt to bind an evil spirit meant that it possessed Megloss. And then in our most recent session the PCs brought Megloss with them to confront Gerda the Elf-stone stealing Dwarf, Megloss killed her (after she nearly killed Fea-bella), and Golin and two other PCs (but not the Dreamwalker) killed Megloss. The Elfstone itself was left behind in Gerda's now-empty apartment, where for so many evenings she had sat brooding over the Elfstone.
Elements of the setting that were improvised in play include the Elfstone possessing the PC Fea-bella (consequence of a failed spiritual conflict); Gerda's theft of the Elfstone (prompted by a failed Resources test); Megloss's unfolding personality and orientation towards the PCs (developed in the course of the back-and-forth of various social and other conflicts involving him and the PCs); Gerda's apartment (where the final confrontation took place); Gerda's plate armour (rolled on the Loot table), which played a significant role in the unfolding of the conflict between her and the PCs, which in turn prompted Fea-bella's player to surrender to her, which in turn led to Gerda stabbing Fea-bella with her spear, a stabbing which Fea-bella miraculously survived by which purged her of her lust for the Elfstone.

In case someone thinks that what I've just described is more action than setting, here's another example from the same campaign (re-posted from the currently active GM agency thread):
When I started my Torchbearer game, the first thing we did was build PCs. Each PC in Torchbearer has a home town, chosen from a list of around 15 settlement types. One of the players decided that his Dwarven Outcast, with Explosives-wise, was from a Forgotten Temple Complex. I'd already told the players that, in terms of maps/geography, we were in the Bandit Kingdoms-Tenh-Theocracy of the Pale part of Greyhawk, as that seemed to fit the "northern" vibe of Torchbearer. Looking at the map, I asked the player where the Forgotten Temple Complex was and he said that of course it's in the Theocracy of the Pale. I asked what sorts of gods they worship there and he said "Gods of explosives! What else did you think?" or something very much along those lines.

The same player also chose, during the relationship building phase, that his PC was an orphan but had a mentor (in the Temple Complex), a friend (an alchemist in the Wizard's Tower that another of the PCs came from) and an enemy (a rival in the Complex, who cheated on the exams and hence pipped the PC to a lucrative post, thus leading to the PC being an Outcast).

In a subsequent session (the fifth, maybe?) this PC was in a tavern at the Wizard's Tower and so I rolled on the Tavern Rumours Table, which told me that he heard an unhappy story about his parents. Now, being an orphan, how could this work? So I told him that one of the old-timers in the tavern told the PC a story about how his alchemist friend seemed to always have had Dwarven friends. Why, only 40 or so years ago, a Dwarven couple had come through town and stayed with the Alchemist, and they were expecting a bairn!

The player has mused on this, but hasn't yet had his PC try to find out what happened to his parents.

A little later, prompted by a friend talking about playing through the Temple of Elemental Evil, I decided to convert the Moathouse to Torchbearer. This required thinking about a Temple of Elemental Evil, and our game already had a Forgotten Temple Complex associated with explosives - and right near a swamp (the Troll Fens) just like the moathouse is. In our most recent session (the twelfth of the campaign, I think) the PCs were reading books of lore in the Tower of the Stars, and read something that talked about a "forgotten temple" whose members regarded the Void as an admixture of elemental earth and elemental air. The player of the Dwarven Outcast turned to me and asked, "Is my temple complex full of nutters?" and I replied "Well, they worship the god of explosives, so what do you think?"

Now from my point of view I feel like I've just described a world as living and breathing as any other. With background lore, hints of mystery, NPCs who know and care about one another and the PCs. And at least one player who cares about it all too.

And in this post I've fully described the process of creation, including the respective roles of the players and the GM.
My view that there is no reason to think that a RPG setting will have more thematic weight if planned and authored in advance is not mere conjecture: I am basing it on my own actual play experience.
 

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@pemerton your setting snippet seems fine. Now one might question how thematically coherent are god of explosives* and Glorfindel from LotR as part of the same setting, but things weirder than that get published. But also I don't see significant depth in this setting. Like what are the themes? What sort of feelings or genres it is trying to evoke? And then there is simply the depth of lore, history, factions, religions, all the things that are part of the characters lives.

And I'm not going to say that my own settings are great about those things, but they certainly get better more thought I put into them!
I don't know, maybe we are talking about different things. 🤷 To me the perfect example of a setting with depth is Middle-Earth, and obviously Tolkien put insane amount of work into that.

(*But seriously, what are these explosives? Is there gunpowder in Greyhawk? I don't think so. Or if this version of it does, do they have guns too? Or is it magic explosives? An alchemist was mentioned so is this some sort of alchemical magic? Not really nitpicking, I just found it interesting.)
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
I imagine, however, that it does feel like the world exists entirely to cater to the players. If that's fun for your entire group, great! But your tone indicates yet another poster who assumes a bad DM that needs to be controlled. That attitude does not lead to more people wanting to be DMs.

I'd think advocating for the amount of work it would take to "simulate" an entire world even if the majority of it may never come up is more of an obstacle to new GMs than anything @overgeeked or @pointofyou said in their posts.

Neither of them assumed anything about bad GMs. Unless you think that anyone who doesn't do that level of prep is a bad GM? I don't think you do, but if not, then I don't see how you drew that conclusion.
 

pemerton

Legend
Now one might question how thematically coherent are god of explosives* and Glorfindel from LotR as part of the same setting, but things weirder than that get published.
I think you may be confusing Glorfindel, Elf-lord of Rivendell, with Glothfindel, the Elven ranger who travels the Fellreev and the Phostwood and is a friend of Fea-bella!

I don't see significant depth in this setting. Like what are the themes? What sort of feelings or genres it is trying to evoke?
We have themes of greed and longing - as evoked by the Elfstone, the history and spirit of the Petty Dwarf that inhabits it, its taking by Gerda, and Megloss's attempt to take it in turn.

There are also themes of family, and uncertainty in that respect - as evoked by Golin's learning something about his parents' friendship with his alchemist friend, and in our most recent session Fea-bella learning that she has a half-brother, Lareth the Beautiful, resulting from his mother's (hitherto secret from her) relationship with the human sorcerer Beholder of Fates. This can also be a type of longing.

And there is the theme of the "otherworld's" bearing upon this world - Fea-bella is a Dream-haunted Dreamwalker, and it is the Petty Dwarf's dream spirit that inhabits the Elfstone; the NPC Elf Celedhring stole a post from the Elven dreamhouse, and the house into which it is built was the house of a human wizard before it ultimately became Megloss's house; and beneath Megloss's house is a series of caves in which Celedhring entered into communion with the Outer Dark. This same void, according to a book Fea-bella read in Beholder of Fates's library, meant that Lareth's birth was ill-omened; and is the admixture of elemental Earth and Air revered in the forgotten temple.

That book was On the Mingling of Elven and Human Knowledge of the Firmament. The use of human and Elven relations - Megloss's house, Lareth's birth - to evoke the world and otherworld relations (which can also be a type of longing) is a well-known fantasy trope. Likewise the use of Dwarven and Elven conflict to evoke the interplay of greed and longing, at least since JRRT. While I don't think the setting I've described is especially deep, I think it is as deep as anything I know from GH or Shadow World or the Known World (just to mention some of the FRPG settings I know from their stuff) or that I've heard of from FR (which I know by reputation).

I think the strength of RPGing as a medium for fiction is that it is shared imagining, generated through a distinct sort of process (via the allocation of roles). The thematic content is therefore built up, via play, by the participants. They introduce it, note it, build on it, play on it, manipulate it, sometimes repudiate it. This is why I don't think it's self-evident that doing it in advance will make it better or more resonant.

To me the perfect example of a setting with depth is Middle-Earth, and obviously Tolkien put insane amount of work into that.
I posted this in another current thread, on GM agency:
When it comes to depth, I think about thematic weight. Details are secondary. JRRT provides no detail of the economies of The Shire or Gondor, and the former at least is literally impossible. (The latter is only dubious.) But that doesn't prevent the setting having depth, as a vehicle for the retelling of the Fall in various ways, and related tropes like the restoration of the rightful king; exile, exodus and return; greed, betrayal and redemption.

The World of Greyhawk has quite a bit of detail published about it: I own the Folio, the original boxed set, From the Ashes, both small and big books/maps for The Adventure Begins, and Living Greyhawk Gazetteer. Plus the City boxed set, Iuz the Evil, the corresponding book about Furyondy and Nyrond, the City of Skulls module, all the classic Greyhawk modules, and sundry other bits and pieces.

WoG has, in my view, very little depth. Its virtue is exactly the same as REH's Hyborian Age: you can write basically whatever mainstream fantasy adventure you want on its pages, as it has Elven Kingdoms, Dwarven Halls, deserts, Vikings, ancient empires and their ruins, paladins and other knights, giants in the mountains, etc, etc. But theme and meaning are going to have to be provided by the RPGers who are using the setting. I think some of my actual play posts illustrate how I think this can be done.

A setting which much less detail, but more thematic weight, than WoG, is the 4e default cosmology. Not the minutiae of the Nentir Vale (the virtues of which are no different from those of WoG) but the Dawn War, Gods vs Primordials, the questions of the Dusk Ware and the Lattice of Heaven. This is what makes 4e D&D well-suited for setting-focused (rather than strictly character-focused) "story now" RPGing. Again, I have actual play posts that show this idea in action.
The only FRPG session I know that remotely approximates Middle Earth is Glorantha. (And Middle Earth itself, as a RPG setting, I often feel is stripped of its thematic weight and resolved into its mere details.)

But most FRPG settings in my view are much as I've described Greyhawk above.

But seriously, what are these explosives? Is there gunpowder in Greyhawk? I don't think so. Or if this version of it does, do they have guns too? Or is it magic explosives? An alchemist was mentioned so is this some sort of alchemical magic? Not really nitpicking, I just found it interesting.
I don't know what prompted the player to go with explosives. I don't think that, at that stage, he had looked at the equipment list (which includes alchemical fireworks of various sorts). Maybe he was thinking of Warcraft (is that the game with the Dwarves that say "I love blowing things up!"?)

In the Torchbearer rules, the boundary between what is made via Alchemy and what is made via Enchanting is porous, but it does include smoke bombs and grenades.

That is not canonical for Greyhawk, but given that GH is just Gygax et al's version of the Hyborian Age, and the notion of canon for the Hyborian Age is ultimately incoherent given that the whole point of the Hyborian Age is to be whatever REH needed it to be to tell some or other Conan story, I don't feel bothered by it.
 

I think you may be confusing Glorfindel, Elf-lord of Rivendell, with Glothfindel, the Elven ranger who travels the Fellreev and the Phostwood and is a friend of Fea-bella!
I'm terribly sorry! My mistake they're obviously completely different and any similarities area mere coincidence!

We have themes of greed and longing - as evoked by the Elfstone, the history and spirit of the Petty Dwarf that inhabits it, its taking by Gerda, and Megloss's attempt to take it in turn.

There are also themes of family, and uncertainty in that respect - as evoked by Golin's learning something about his parents' friendship with his alchemist friend, and in our most recent session Fea-bella learning that she has a half-brother, Lareth the Beautiful, resulting from his mother's (hitherto secret from her) relationship with the human sorcerer Beholder of Fates. This can also be a type of longing.

And there is the theme of the "otherworld's" bearing upon this world - Fea-bella is a Dream-haunted Dreamwalker, and it is the Petty Dwarf's dream spirit that inhabits the Elfstone; the NPC Elf Celedhring stole a post from the Elven dreamhouse, and the house into which it is built was the house of a human wizard before it ultimately became Megloss's house; and beneath Megloss's house is a series of caves in which Celedhring entered into communion with the Outer Dark. This same void, according to a book Fea-bella read in Beholder of Fates's library, meant that Lareth's birth was ill-omened; and is the admixture of elemental Earth and Air revered in the forgotten temple.

That book was On the Mingling of Elven and Human Knowledge of the Firmament. The use of human and Elven relations - Megloss's house, Lareth's birth - to evoke the world and otherworld relations (which can also be a type of longing) is a well-known fantasy trope. Likewise the use of Dwarven and Elven conflict to evoke the interplay of greed and longing, at least since JRRT. While I don't think the setting I've described is especially deep, I think it is as deep as anything I know from GH or Shadow World or the Known World (just to mention some of the FRPG settings I know from their stuff) or that I've heard of from FR (which I know by reputation).

I think the strength of RPGing as a medium for fiction is that it is shared imagining, generated through a distinct sort of process (via the allocation of roles). The thematic content is therefore built up, via play, by the participants. They introduce it, note it, build on it, play on it, manipulate it, sometimes repudiate it. This is why I don't think it's self-evident that doing it in advance will make it better or more resonant.
I think those are good themes, but most of them are rather questionably themes of the setting, but rather themes build around the characters. Granted it gets muddy. I think the use of human and elf and elf and dwarf relations to establish themes can most readily seen as themes of the setting, as although they're expressed by specific characters in this instance, they relate to their species and their place in the world more broadly.

I feel that whilst themes relating to the characters are indeed ones that can easily established during the play, I feel that foundational themes of the setting work better if they're established beforehand. And I think a lot of Story Now games do exactly this. Blades in the Dark and Apocalypse World both have pretty solidly established tone and themes for their settings.

I posted this in another current thread, on GM agency:
The only FRPG session I know that remotely approximates Middle Earth is Glorantha. (And Middle Earth itself, as a RPG setting, I often feel is stripped of its thematic weight and resolved into its mere details.)

Yeah not really disagreeing here. Glorantha is great, and at least MERP iteration of Middle-Earth felt somewhat soulless. I think the 5e based Adventures in Middle-Earth does somewhat better job though, albeit I've just read it, not played.

But most FRPG settings in my view are much as I've described Greyhawk above.
I think of D&D worlds Dark Sun has pretty strong themes going for it and Eberron is not bad either.
 
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pemerton

Legend
I'm terribly sorry! My mistake they're obviously completely different and any similarities area maere coincidence!
Quite.

I think of D&D worlds Dark Sun has pretty strong themes going for it and Eberron is not bad either.
I don't know Eberron very well, but what I do know of it makes it feel anachronistic to me. That's taste, but sometimes taste is an impediment to further pursuing something.

Dark Sun I agree, although I feel that some of the thematic potential gets lost in detail. (I think this is a recurring feature of RPG settings.)

I think those are good themes, but most of them are rather questionably themes of the setting, but rather themes build around the characters. Granted it gets muddy. I think the use of human and elf and elf and dwarf relations to establish themes can most readily seen as themes of the setting, as although they're expressed by specific characters in this instance, they relate to their species and their place in the world more broadly.

I feel that whilst themes relating to the characters are indeed ones that can easily established during the play, I feel that foundational themes of the setting work better if they're established beforehand. And I think a lot of Story Now games do exactly this. Blades in the Dark and Apocalypse World both have pretty solidly established tone and themes for their settings.
BitD I can't comment on. (Due to ignorance.)

AW I think is interesting. I'll summon @Campbell for his views on this (I know he has some). To me it seems more like the setting - with its scarcities - invites character-driven theme (loyalty, expedience, ruthless leadership, etc). But that's not an expert opinion.
 

World building is all on the DM. The players don't "build" anything. And most players don't want too.

Though, sure, if you count "player world building" is the player "saying and improving a random thing", then sure a player would "world build". But the player does not do much.

In many games the DM plays the game as the whole world; the player plays the game as a single character. This is why players can alter game reality: they would just say "my character rules the world" and it would be game over.

But even the published games that have vague rules for "player wold building" don't even have the player even make a single brick of the world. The character might walk into a town and the GM might ask "Well, player, what is for sale at the market?". Then the player, after a couple moments of thinking might say a random world like "apples". Then the DM says apples are for sale in the market. The player is then all happy they "world bulided".

Ask that player to do any effort in world building, like write a paragraph about that market stand, and nearly every player will refuse to do that. Really ask the player to write anything about world building down, and they will likely refuse. They simply don't want to do it.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
World building is all on the DM. The players don't "build" anything. And most players don't want too.

Though, sure, if you count "player world building" is the player "saying and improving a random thing", then sure a player would "world build". But the player does not do much.

In many games the DM plays the game as the whole world; the player plays the game as a single character. This is why players can alter game reality: they would just say "my character rules the world" and it would be game over.

But even the published games that have vague rules for "player wold building" don't even have the player even make a single brick of the world. The character might walk into a town and the GM might ask "Well, player, what is for sale at the market?". Then the player, after a couple moments of thinking might say a random world like "apples". Then the DM says apples are for sale in the market. The player is then all happy they "world bulided".

Ask that player to do any effort in world building, like write a paragraph about that market stand, and nearly every player will refuse to do that. Really ask the player to write anything about world building down, and they will likely refuse. They simply don't want to do it.

I don’t think this is an accurate representation at all. I think you’re likely talking about your players, rather than all players.

You should try and make that clearer.
 

pemerton

Legend
even the published games that have vague rules for "player wold building" don't even have the player even make a single brick of the world. The character might walk into a town and the GM might ask "Well, player, what is for sale at the market?". Then the player, after a couple moments of thinking might say a random world like "apples". Then the DM says apples are for sale in the market. The player is then all happy they "world bulided".

Ask that player to do any effort in world building, like write a paragraph about that market stand, and nearly every player will refuse to do that. Really ask the player to write anything about world building down, and they will likely refuse. They simply don't want to do it.
I don’t think this is an accurate representation at all. I think you’re likely talking about your players, rather than all players.

You should try and make that clearer.
It's also not an accurate representation of any published game I'm familiar with.
 

Reynard

Legend
World building is all on the DM. The players don't "build" anything. And most players don't want too.

Though, sure, if you count "player world building" is the player "saying and improving a random thing", then sure a player would "world build". But the player does not do much.

In many games the DM plays the game as the whole world; the player plays the game as a single character. This is why players can alter game reality: they would just say "my character rules the world" and it would be game over.

But even the published games that have vague rules for "player wold building" don't even have the player even make a single brick of the world. The character might walk into a town and the GM might ask "Well, player, what is for sale at the market?". Then the player, after a couple moments of thinking might say a random world like "apples". Then the DM says apples are for sale in the market. The player is then all happy they "world bulided".

Ask that player to do any effort in world building, like write a paragraph about that market stand, and nearly every player will refuse to do that. Really ask the player to write anything about world building down, and they will likely refuse. They simply don't want to do it.
In my experience, so.e players really enjoy adding to the world and some don't. Some that do only do so through the lens of their characters, and others don't limit themselves to that. If a GM wants help creating the world in which the game takes place, they can usually get it from some of their players to varying degrees. The GM has to be willing to invite the players to do so, and then actually incorporate their contributions.

And while there are probably games that codify this process, it's hardly necessary.
 

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