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I’m sneaking in after the deadline for last month’s blog carnival, hosted by Dice Monkey

The benefits of an established setting

There are a lot of obvious benefits to the use of an established campaign setting. Because I expect a number of other carnival participants to have weighed in on this aspect of the topic, I’m just going to hit some of the high points here (in no particular order), and move on.

Depth of vision

The most obvious benefit is that most game settings have a lot of material to draw on. The 3.x release of Forgotten realms is nine volumes, according to a quick head-count on my bookshelf, while Ebberon is thirteen volumes. This is all material the GM doesn’t’ have to create. On top of that, there may be older versions and sourcebooks that can be easily adapted or simply used as game resources such as the 2nd ed version of “The Ruins Of Undermountain.” On top of that, there are anywhere from a few to a few hundred adventure modules that are designed to plug straight into the campaign setting. In some cases, such as TORG, it can be hard to tell where the game system stops and the campaign world begins. To an arguably lesser- or greater-extent, the same is true of 7th Sea.

Professional standards

Since the material is being published by a professional game company, it is hopefully being written and edited to a professional standard. Most GMs feel that this is inherently (choosing my words carefully) at least as good as anything they can come up with. What’s more, because you will get many authors contributing to the collective game setting, it should be a richer creation than is possible for any one GM working on his own.

Community support

Most commercially-published game settings have their own fanbase, which can operate as a consultancy when there’s an aspect of the setting that a GM is having trouble getting his head around. Such community contributions can even end up becoming canon within the setting. As a result, they are continually growing; rather than being a static environment, they can become a dynamic gaming environment. Probably the most extreme version of this was the Infiniverse updates for TORG, but most game settings exhibit it to some extent. There is a clear development path from this aspect of a campaign setting to the concept of an MMORPG.

Ubiquity

With the same gaming setting common to many different campaigns, transfer of existing characters into other GMs campaigns becomes relatively painless. This can be advantageous when a player has to move for reasons of education or employment. It is also a big factor in Convention play, where a large amount of the background material can be assumed to be already known to the participants, enabling them to get on with the game in a far more immersive environment.

Prep focus

And finally, an established setting takes a lot of the effort required, and a LOT of the time required, out of game prep. You don’t need to worry about game setting prep, you can get on with adventure creation. If you’re using an existing game module, you don’t even have to do that.

The price of an a-la-carte campaign world

There are shortcomings that come with any published setting though, and they are often the flip side of the advantages.

Familiarity

It’s a lot harder to surprise or challenge the players if they have all read the source material – and when you are dealing with commercially-published game settings, you have to assume that most if not all of it will be known to the players.

Baggage

All game settings come with baggage that you may or may not like. One GM I know found Kenders to be nothing but irritating. Another hated Elminster the Wizard, which he regarded as the most obnoxious dues-ex-machina ever published in a game setting. There’s an inherent lack of control over the contents of a commercial setting, and with that comes the absence of a sense of ownership of the setting and the game. There’ll be more on this aspect of an established setting, and how to solve this particular problem, in a subsequent section of this article.

Assumptions

Game settings can make assumptions about the way things work. Utilizing that game setting means accepting those assumptions, whether you agree with them or not. The big difference between material that falls into this category and that which falls under the heading of “Baggage” is that assumptions are about why things happen in a certain way – they concern philosophy, in-game physics, economics, and political theory. Baggage tends to be a concrete expression of some, all, or none of the above, and can be written out or written into the past without overly changing the game setting; Assumptions are more fundamental and much harder to remove.

Experts

The impolite term for an ‘expert’ is a ‘rules lawyer’. With a published game setting, you open yourself up to having to deal with a player who knows more about the campaign setting than you do, or – perhaps worse still – who thinks they do. Sure, this can be advantageous at times, but it can be an acute hindrance at others (or even at the same time).

It’s bad enough having a rules lawyer who is an expert in the rules themselves; there can usually be a beneficial relationship worked out with such a player, tapping them as an expert consultant; but when a player corrects you on elements of the game setting, they can undermine the whole adventure.

But it makes no sense

We’re all human and capable of errors of logic. That means that every game setting will contain such errors of logic, where the designers came up with an idea that sounded ‘cool’ but where their explanations made no sense. Standards have changed a great deal in this respect since the early days of RPGs, when it was acceptable to say ‘it makes no sense because your character doesn’t understand it’ and just move on.

A great example is the dimension of Aysle in TORG. A two-sided coin of a world, this is a fantasy game environment, but in every other respect physics seems to behave more or less as you would expect. Down is always perfectly perpendicular to the surfaces of each coin ‘face’, wherever you are, and gravity is always the same strength, no matter how close you are to the edge of the world – even though gravity functions as a point source. There were no unusual climatic effects of being near the edge, either, and there was no real concept of a sustainable ecosystem in place for the recirculation of water. It still had mountain ranges and volcanoes, but these never unbalanced the world. As adventuring environments went, it was dominated by law of cool – a genuine example of a flat ‘earth’ world. And yet the world was thick enough for mining operations, and underground societies.

The first two years of play in my TORG campaign was set in Aysle before the commencement of the Probability Wars. And most of it was dedicated to gradually educating the players in the changes to in-game physics that I had come up with to make sense of all of the above – and their ramifications. Educating them, in other words, in not only why the world made sense, but in the fact that – despite initial appearances – it did make sense. By extrapolation, this set a standard for all the other environments that they encountered while adventuring in the campaign world, which was not so much about the presence of these differing realities but in their interactions. Until you’ve come across the compounding of Nile Empire weird science and the horrors of Orrorsh, you’ve never really scared your players as much as they can be scared!

Sure, the results of my efforts made the game world completely different in rationale – and, through the logical exploitation of the physical principles I created, different in execution and technology in places – but superficially, everything looked pretty much the same as in the Aysle sourcebook. It’s just that it now made sense to a more cynical group of players, requiring less effort to suspend disbelief.

Incomplete worlds

Another ongoing problem with a published game setting is that it is almost certainly incomplete. The PCs will almost inevitably (at some point) intrude into this terra incognita. This forces the GM to decide what’s there – putting back onto his agenda work that he thought that he’d dodged using an established game setting, and leaving him exposed to the problem of the Incomplete World: what does he do when an official sourcebook plugs that particular gap in some way that contradicts his own creation?

This can be more trouble than creating the whole game setting yourself, depending on the importance of the differences, and how incompatible the two solutions are.

Hexagonal pegs in octagonal holes

Finally, there’s the problem of Hexagonal pegs in octagonal holes. No matter how good a game setting is, its largely worthless if it doesn’t permit the type of adventures the GM wants to run.

Choose the right world

Which brings me to my next major topic – choosing the right game setting to play in.

Subgenre

Is the subgenre the right one? Steampunk and high-fantasy are usually unhappy bedfellows. This is usually fairly easy to assess from online promotional materials and reviews.

Flavor

Assuming that subgenre appears to be correct, the next step is to assess the flavor of the campaign setting. This is the primary difference between Ebberon and the Forgotten Realms – while the former has some steampunk elements, these are baggage that can be easily set aside. The more fundamental differences are in the political structure, the nature of magic, and other such issues.

It’s my opinion that the best approach is to choose a published adventure from the campaign setting before committing to the campaign setting itself. Choose one that looks like it will be adaptable to your game purposes if you choose not to invest in that game setting, or that could be run in isolation. It’s also preferable to buy an adventure written by one or more of the primary authors of the game setting. If you find, on reading that adventure, that it’s exactly the sort of adventure that you want to run, that’s a big tick in favor of the game setting being suitable for your purposes; if not, then you’ve saved yourself hundreds of dollars.

Context

Finally, there’s the game setting itself, and how much it appeals to you. How easily can you envisage it in your mind’s eye? I always had trouble with the Nippon Tech world in TORG, for example – I could work with the characters, and the concepts, and the technology, and the politics, but I struggled to find ways of imagining and verbalizing the world itself.

One of the reasons I set my original superhero campaign in the 1950s, its sequel in the 1960s, and the sequel to that (which was the beginning of the main campaign that ran for a decade afterwards) in the 1970s – even thought the real calendar date was the 1980s – was that I found it easier to envisage that world, and I had more historical context and analysis to draw apon. I understood that era better than I did the world around me in the 80s. The current game date in that campaign world is 1987, but most of the campaign takes place in an alternate 2055. In writing the history (which I’ve been expanding in the ongoing series The Imperial History Of Earth Regency here at Campaign Mastery) is that it all went swimmingly until I reached the 1998-2015 era, the “Post Modernist Dark Age”. I could quite happily write in generalities, as I did in part 11 of the series, but specifics took a lot more time to research and write – which is why there’s only been the one part of the series done since. Part 13 is about 1/3 done, and has been for quite some time. (Part of the reason is that the original draft was written in 2003, and there wasn’t a lot of organized, published history available on the era at the time – there is now, but much of it is still in the form of dates and events, without contextual relationships and analysis. So I’ve been updating the original to encompass more of the events which actually occurred; real-world history forms a moving “wave front”, behind which organization is possible, in front of which vagueness is acceptable, and in which there is a middle ground of chaos.

In general, there is only one way to know for certain if the context of a published setting is right for you – and that’s to buy at least one volume of the game setting.

But there’s a hard choice to make: if you’re an early adopter, you are more likely to be caught by the problem of the Incomplete World; if you aren’t, and a lot of other people also hold back, then there might not be enough demand for the parts of the game setting that especially interest you to be published.

In a perfect world, I would advise the purchase of the core setting book and at least one volume that – like the adventure mentioned in the previous section – is potentially useful in a standalone context. For Faerun, “Underdark” or “Magic Of Faerun” leap out as the perfect starting points; for Ebberon, “Five Nations” or the “Explorer’s Handbook” or “Magic of Ebberon” or “City of Stormreach” would fit the bill. But this isn’t a perfect world.

To some extent, you can be guided by reviews – a positive reception generally means a greater likelyhood of more to come – but this is not a universal constant to be relied apon. In the end, you are better off buying the core setting book and making the decision, based on that book, to either buy nothing more – or to buy it all, as opportunity and financial resources permit, and hoping that if it doesn’t live up to expectations that you can recycle whatever you have bought.

Know the world thoroughly

Which brings us to making the game setting useful to you. Frankly, I have never run a game setting exactly as provided by the publisher, so I have only one piece of advice in this respect, and it’s summed up in the title of this section.

Read everything – several times over. Every time you come across rules content, cross-reference with the game system core rules. It might be going too far to buy a copy of the core rules just for use with this game setting and fill them with stick-on bookmarks and tabs that point to material that diverges in this particular game setting – but I know some GMs who do exactly that, at least in terms of the Player’s Handbook / DMG (or the Core Rulebook if we’re talking Pathfinder).

Any time you come across something you don’t understand, or can’t see the implications of, make a note of it on an index card – then, when you find material elsewhere that supplements or explains or clarifies that issue, add that to the note, building up a cross-indexed set of crib notes for “the hard parts” – then study them extensively.

To be honest, this can take as much time – if not more – than coming up with your own campaign setting, if you are any good at doing so; YMMV.

Making it your own

One of the questions that comes up regularly when official game settings are discussed is the degree of customization that is permissible. The more you make the campaign setting your own, the more you diminish both the advantages and the limitations that come with a commercially-available setting. There are an almost-infinite range of variations between the “as published” setting and the “complete rewrite”. I would contend, however, that even an “as published” campaign setting becomes uniquely your own in surprisingly short order – whether you realize it or not.

Divergence through rulesets

For a start, not everyone has the same sourcebooks, or even the same preference in sourcebooks. This is especially true when we’re talking about sourcebooks from third-party publishers – which means that the degree of commonality in 4e is far greater than is the case with 3.x/Pathfinder, simply because there are more third-party game supplements which can be recombined into the ruleset of the campaign setting.

If I incorporate, say, “Path Of Shadow” into a Forgotten Realms while my neighboring GM incorporates “Complete Scoundrel” and his neighbor incorporates both, we will all end up with slightly different treatments of Rogues, Scouts, Assassins, and any other thief-types. That will then have repercussions through game events on the world at large. The more game supplements there are, the more combinations become possible, and the greater the scope for divergence. Throw in the potential for additions from places like RPGNow, and the number becomes something monstrous – two to the power of the number of supplements, by my rough calculations. If there are a hundred game supplements, that’s a 29 digit number. If there are a thousand, which is more likely in the case of 3.x, it’s a 300-digit number. By way of comparison, it is estimated that the number of atoms in the milky-way galaxy is roughly ten to the 65th power, or a 64-digit number. So the number of combinations for each atom is itself a 235-digit number…

These numbers are so big as to be meaningless. Even ignoring the PDF market, and assuming absolutely no creativity on the part of the GM, many campaigns will be as individual as a fingerprint or a genetic code. Of course, some game supplements will be more ubiquitous than others, so there will be certain combinations that occur with greater frequency, so this alone is not enough to completely individualize every campaign. But the more game supplements you have, including the game setting books themselves, the more unique your campaign will inherently be.

If you want to ‘fingerprint’ your own campaign, count the number of game sourcebooks and supplements you have actually used in the course of the campaign, including adventure modules and Net supplements, add the number of PCs that have appeared, multiply by 0.30103, and subtract 1. The result is the number of digits in the answer. If there are 100,000 gamers in the world – a number off the top of my head – any result with more digits than that (6) is likely to be unique (24). To be on the safe side, the population of the world was 10 digits long in 2011, so any answer of 11 or more (40 supplements) can be virtually guaranteed unique. If you want even more certainty, any result of 13 will give a choice of at least 100 possible combinations for every person on the planet – 47 supplements.

Simply by virtue of the different combinations of rulesets, most campaigns are going to be unique to their GM.

I was talking to a GM at a Science Fiction convention, many years ago back in the days of AD&D, and it was his contention that the best way to assess a new game sourcebook was in isolation, using a published setting with which the GM was familiar (and temporary characters), before incorporating it into the “real” campaign. Even three or four weeks’ trial was enough to assess the impact that the new supplement would have, and show the GM any potential danger points in relation to other sourcebooks currently in use within the primary campaign. I can’t say that I’ve ever used this technique directly, but I was reminded of it when we decided to make the ongoing Warcry campaign a testbed for the rules of my superhero campaign.

Extemporizing the unoriginal

Next, unless the GM is simply parroting the words written in the campaign sourcebooks and modules verbatim at every point, he will inevitably put his own unique stamp on the campaign. Even two GMs running the same adventure with exactly the same rules may employ a different means of describing a scene or setting, or give an NPC a different accent, or have an NPC make a different choice at some branch in the road, or simply roll a different result on a die. Some of these differences will be so small they can’t be measured objectively, others may be so significant to the path taken to completion of the adventure that the campaign will forever after be a little different to all others.

One of the significant facts that everyone who uses text or email communication has to face, sooner or later, is that plain text does not convey tone of voice and is hence devoid of a certain level of contextual abstraction. It’s very easy to say something that is intended to be heavy in context, such as in a sarcastic mode, or as a joke, only to be taken literally. This same lesson applies to dialogue in an adventure, where only vague emotional overtones (at best) are provided – this version of the NPC is irritated, that version is friendly, another version is compassionate, still another is curious, and yet one more is arrogant – the words may be the same, but the context added to humanize the characters by the GM, i.e. to roleplay them, makes them different individuals. When the PCs react to these overtones, the campaign diverges, slightly or significantly, from its neighbor.

Try saying the following in six different ways, and imagine how your players would react each time:

  • Arrogantly: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
  • Regretfully: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
  • Near tears: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition…”
  • As a question: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition?”
  • Conspirationally whispered as though sharing a secret: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
  • Conversationally, emphasizing ‘Spanish”: “No-one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

Over time, the accumulation of these small differences will make each campaign different. In one, this noble is a hothead, in another he’s a wimp.

‘It’s the game setting, Jim, but not as we know it’

PC actions – will transform a campaign setting until it’s no longer the same as any other. Just by being different people, your players cannot help but alter the game world, whether the setting is a published one or an original. Simply watch a couple of sessions of a Convention module – same GM, same characters, same situations, but different players – and see how different the outcomes are and how differently the paths taken to even similar outcomes, and this fact will become incontrovertible.

Monkeying with ‘perfection’

Original material – whether it’s adventures or house rules or metaphysical explanations or simply the knowledge possessed by one GM and not another – will have an even bigger and more dramatic impact. Repeating the Convention experiment with two different GMs will show this quite clearly, or reading almost any issue of Knights Of The Dinner Table. Much of the humor in that comic series derives from the players having their characters act outrageously, and experiencing equally-outrageous consequences as a result, in comparison to what would be expected at a “normal” game setting.

The surest and fastest way to individualize a campaign setting is to add something original to it, to change it in some way.

Some players enjoy this, because it means that two different GMs can run the same module and it will be different both times. To others, this is monkeying with ‘perfection’ and not to be tolerated. Ian Gray is that way about spells, classes, and feats – anything that is aimed at the players, in fact. He has no problem with GMs creating original magic items, or crafting original spells, or original monsters, or new game mechanics – but hands off the published player material.

Babies & bathwater

Every time you add something, you are almost certainly removing something, even if what is removed is simply the absence of whatever you have added. GMs should always be careful not to throw the Baby out with the Bathwater. There is often a good reason for the absence of something, whether that’s a rules subsystem or a particular encounter in an adventure.

There are, for example, a great many ways of adding to the combat system of any RPG. Anything from combat modifiers based on the potency of specific weapons against specific armor types through to critical hits and fumbles through to wounds and combat conditions. An injudicious “enhancement” to the combat system can destroy what little efficiency it has, slowing combat to a crawl. There are also various ways of streamlining combat by removing and simplifying rules, and it might be that if you really want your hit location system, you have to deliberately simplify some other aspect of game play to make room for it.

There is an analogous situation for a campaign setting. You can change the political structure of a city, or populate a region with your new Killer Orcs, or whatever – but if you aren’t careful, the flavor that led to the choice of this particular campaign setting in the first place can be lost.

The compromises

There are several ways to have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to established game settings. I’m going to mention the five most common of them (some of which get pretty exotic, I warn you).

Across the pond

The simplest one is to emplace an established game setting within an original game environment, separated by some natural barrier. The PCs can adventure in the established setting, and at the same time make excursions into the unknown and original, just by crossing that natural barrier. It might be a mountain range, it might be an ocean – the details don’t matter. What is significant is that you have sandboxed your original content out of the primary campaign setting, so it can be junked or obliterated without completely obliterating the campaign.

This is an especially good technique for inexperienced GMs, because they can simply run adventures in the established setting until the next phase of ‘construction’ of the original content is complete, cross the pond, and explore the renovations and extensions – then go back while the GM takes as long as he needs to for the next part. One of my original dungeons had one area being “renovated and repopulated” by “Industrial Stone And Magic” – it was a large open area with stacks of raw materials, a number of caged beasties, and encounters for the unwary with uncaring automata that looked like bulldozers, forklifts, and so on. If the PCs proceeded too deeply without investigating fully those parts of the dungeon that had been completed, they might find themselves in a demolition zone or in an area being renovated. They got no experience for killing anything on those levels – but they took damage from them as usual. They soon learned that the yellow-and-black striped barricades meant “go elsewhere and come back later.” This solution to the question of using an established setting over a home-grown one applies a similar logic – in a more realistic and less tongue-in-cheek manner.

A long time ago…

Another solution is to take the established setting and retread it into it’s historical past. This gives you a starting point for your creative expression, while employing many of the strengths of the established setting. A key decision to be made with this approach is whether the established setting is the fore-destined outcome or just one possible future – the first means that the adventures will be about the PCs trying to make sure that events work out the way it says they did “in the book”, while the other employs the history simply as a background.

A divergent tomorrow

Another approach is to take the established game setting and add a century or more of original ‘future’ to it. This mitigates the problem of the players having read it all, because what they have read is a (possibly inaccurate or incomplete) foundation that relates only tangentially to what they are encountering. This often permits you to use the maps for the campaign setting virtually unchanged, which can be a desirable outcome. Of course, it’s a divergent future because that isolates the campaign from any incompatible changes resulting from the Incomplete Worlds problem. All you need to do is take whatever gets published subsequently and figure out how your game world got from the “A” provided to the “B” experienced.

Holes in space

Somewhat more exotic in flavor is the “holes in space” approach, in which the primary action takes place in the established setting, with one addition: periodically, on a semi-regular (perhaps even predictable) schedule, portals open to somewhere else. Miss the portal opening, and – like early Adam Strange adventures – you might have to make your way half-way round the world to catch the next one. Sometimes these holes in space can lead to another established setting, sometimes to a home-brewed environment. The great advantage to this approach is that all things become possible; you can adapt a Star Wars adventure this week and an Oriental Adventures module the week after. The imperative of the time pressure adds to the element of drama and tension, as does the fact that once through the portals the PCs have only what they have taken with them, what they can find, and what they can take. Limiting the portal size and duration of opening restricts what can be carried back, as well. “We only have four hours to clear the last level of the dungeon and get out – no time to wait for the cleric to recover his healing spells or the Wizard his fireballs!”

Still better is an additional consequence of the limited duration on the other side, which limits the amount of construction and assembly needed by the GM to manageable proportions, no matter how limited his prep time might be, and which prevents the players from digging too deeply behind the curtain, further limiting the amount of detailed work provided. I’ve only seen this approach used once, which is perhaps the biggest surprise of them all, since the benefits are so obvious.

The multiphasic world

The final solution to throw out there for GMs to consider is the multiphasic world. Every time I’ve seen this, it’s been linked to the phases of the moon or to the seasons. The notion is that world is sometimes an established setting, sometimes a homebrew setting, and sometimes something else – it changes in some cyclic way. Even the topology can twist and transform, though there may be a geographic or geological similarities between where you were and where you are. So if you’re on a lake, you will still be on a body of water. If you’re in a dungeon, you’re still in a dungeon – though this one’s upper levels won’t have been cleared, and you may be deeper or higher than you expect. If you’re in a town or city, you will still be in an urban environment of some sort – but it might be an elvish city or a Halfling hamlet.

Who benefits the most?

So, who benefits the most from using an established campaign setting?

Beginners

There are obvious advantages for new GMs, as it gives them time to master the basics of their craft before they move on to creating game settings of their own. Some never want to take that step, preferring to focus on other aspects of being a GM. Nothing wrong with that.

The time-squeezed

Another group to obviously benefit are those without the time to grow their own settings. Using an established setting is as much work as you let it be, most of the time.

Drag-and-drop game elements

Finally, there’s everyone else! We can all use the occasional assist from time to time, and the place you’re most likely to find whatever you need is something that’s already trying to be complete – and that’s an established campaign setting.

I started this article by extolling the virtues of the established setting, in general. Those virtues set a standard, one that everyone who doesn’t use an established setting tries to live up to with our own designs. If for nothing else, this purpose alone makes them invaluable!

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