Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meditating on Established Settings

Dice Monkey is hosting the September Blog Carnival and the topic is Established Settings. He asks:
Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

Let me say from the outset, that I have a love/hate relationship with established settings. In terms of my hobby dollar, I am more likely to spend money on an established setting than I am on just about anything other than a map (especially if the setting comes with a cool map); however, as a Referee/GM/DM/Labyrinth Lord etc. I have only ever used one of these settings — Judges Guild’s Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

Even then, I would guess that most who have read my Lost Colonies posts over the years would be hard pressed to recognize it as a JG Wilderlands-based campaign. Indeed, the only reason it is a Wilderlands-based campaign is because I knew not whether it would last very long (I was introducing a bunch of 3.5 players to LL) and I didn’t want to waste a lot of prep time on a sand box that would last only a few sessions.

I chose the Wilderlands specifically because it was primarily a map with a bunch of adventure seeds littered all over it. I was free to fiddle as much as I wanted with little concern for campaign world canon, history or all the other stuff modern gamers can expect from an established campaign world. Thus, it became MY campaign world despite the fact that I didn’t draw the map.

Indeed, this is how I would characterize the best established settings: there should be enough information to spur on the imagination, to encourage players to do what they want and to allow a world to develop into its own unique entity at every table that it is played at. Besides The Wilderlands, there are several established settings that emulate this style:

This is not to say that I don’t own established settings that have far more detail and canon (admittedly, I have a huge Traveller collection). My problem with all of these settings is that, due to that level of detail and canon, I never feel as if the campaign world can ever truly be my own. I will always be beholden to the whims of future publications and players who know the canon better than I.

This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about them (I do) or that I don’t liberally lift ideas from them (I do). This latter is probably why I think that established settings are always a wonderful curiosity — we get to see how other creative people do what they do in this beloved hobby of ours.

I will note, however, my experience of established settings as a player is much different. I’ve adventured in the Wilderlands, Kalamar, Golarion, the Star Wars universe and a few others whose names escape me. I enjoyed all of these experiences, but only because I was able to play the kind of character I wanted to play due the guys that were at my table. I felt that (at least at the level of my PC) I could mark out a tiny territory that was truly mine. If I were asked to completely adhere to the reality as written, however, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. (For those interested, my characters generally would understand various gods as angels, saints or avatars to the Most High God or some variation there of).

Of course, there was also understanding on my part, as well. Many of the games that I took part in as a player used 3.5/Pathfinder rules. As I have stated before, I have zero interest in running a game using those rules. For those that do, I do not begrudge them using an established setting and modules written for them. It makes running the game possible for those of us who do not have the time necessary to run the kind of game we like to play (wide open and driven by player choice, in the case of my table).

Indeed, if I ever was forced to run a 3.5/Pathfinder game (someone’s life would probably have to be at stake) I would fall back on several of my Goodman games modules and Goodman's established setting the Known Realms wherein all the modules could be set in order to make the whole endeavor even remotely possible. Even then, though, I would fiddle with the pantheon to more closely adhere to a psuedo-Christian medieval church structure.

At the end of the day, however, I find that established settings are best utilized and enjoyed as source material for my own campaigns, rather than as something to use for the basis of a campaign.


  1. "...there should be enough information to spur on the imagination, to encourage players to do what they want and to allow a world to develop into its own unique entity at every table that it is played at."

    Exactly how I feel, though the boundaries of "enough information" will vary from person to person.

    My two favorite settings are TSR's "Greyhawk" and Games Workshop's "Old World" (for WFRP) But, in each case, I liked the initial/early presentation and level of information, then declared "my world is the right world" when later material disagreed with my vision. In essence, I didn't feel bound by canon in company products, instead keeping what I liked and tossing out what I didn't. I think that's an essential attitude for GMs to have. It's your hobby, you game; make the world your own.

    I should also mention "Harn." It's a setting I greatly admire (I have most of the regional modules. Gorgeous maps.), even though it presents way too much detailed information. (For my tastes.)But one thing I liked was their approach to home games: the official setting would never advance beyond a certain year, so a GM's campaign would never have his legs cut out from under it by "current events." Were I to publish a setting, it's a rule I'd adhere to.

    1. I forgot about Harn. I agree that it has too much detail. For that reason (and the price tag) I never got into the setting; however, that never stopped from from pining after it...and the fact that they don't publish past a certain date makes me pine even more.

  2. Thanks for this post--Torsh turned out to be exactly what I needed for some upcoming fun in my campaign, and I'll probably be cribbing some of the other sources as well.