As often happens, my favorite podcasts cause me to think of a lot of words, and it makes more sense for me to post here, on the blog, than it does for me to clog the arteries of their communities with my commentary. In this case, were going to be looking at Gaming and BS’s show on campaign settings, which you can find here:
Gaming and BS #203: Campaign Settings
Dragonlance Adventures, Brett, and Dragonlance Inspirations
Brett mentioned that one of the campaign setting books that disappointed him when he purchased it in his youth was the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover for AD&D 1st edition. He further mentioned that he was a fan of the setting from the novels, but the hardcover didn’t do much for him.
I remember having a lot of fun running Dragonlance when I was younger, but I also remember picking up a lot more relevant setting information from both Leaves from the Inn of Last Home and the Dragonlance Atlas. The Dragonlance Adventures book had stats for what some of the races and classes looked like, but not nearly as much information on running campaigns outside of the War of the Lance, or details on locations or events that weren’t already touched on in the novels themselves. It was very much a book that defined what you saw in the novels in game terms, rather than opening the world beyond the initial information that a reader would already have.
I latch on to this both because of the supplementary material I picked up, and because Margaret Weis Productions did an amazing job making up for this lack of detail. Both the War of the Lance supplement and the Time of the Twins sourcebooks at a great deal of information that fleshed out regions and even time periods only mentioned briefly in the novels. The Time of the Twins supplement was a favorite of mine, for detailing several alternate history campaigns that could be utilized.
I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention the Time of the Dragon boxed set and Taladas. TSR didn’t seem to know what they wanted to do with Dragonlance for a while, but Taladas was a setting that could have been an amazing product line with more support. Detailing the continent on the other side of the world from Ansalon, Taladas was 100% designed to be adventured in, and could give the feeling of “familiar, but different” that a lot of people who were fans of the setting might have wanted in a campaign supplement. “Roman” minotaurs, a nation that supplemented their military with zombies, dragons of both families that ignored the call to war, gnomes that sail on lava, and desert nomads that sailed on sand all provided plenty of interesting space to adventure, but TSR quickly pivoted back to Ansalon and a narrow focus.
Speaking of campaign settings I loved in my youth–I never fell for Greyhawk or Mystara (when it was still the Known World). I though both were great when you needed proper names for cities or didn’t want to think about geography, and I ripped Karameikos out of the Known World to plop into my own world when I started running games. But I fell for the Realms when I first started reading about it.
The key point here, though, is that it’s not the raw elements of the Realms that made me love it. The Old Grey Boxed Set has entries in it which are capped off with Elminster’s comments on those entries. Sometimes he mentions that the entry may be wrong, or there may be more to the entry than anyone realizes. There were details like adventuring company charters and the census of Shadowdale at the time of the last Zhent invasion.
Waterdeep and the North continued to throw tidbits of information that may or may not be true but was certainly information that someone in the setting would know, and think was true. More of Elminster’s wit followed. Then, the Savage Frontier came out. I loved that book, not just because I have an unreasonable attraction to settings that have a frozen north. The Savage Frontier had its own unreliable narrator providing commentary on the information presented in the book. It wasn’t just Elminster that could be a sarcastic commentator on the setting, but the setting was filled with unique individuals with their own spin on what was and wasn’t important. I loved it.
I’ll also say that, when it comes to supplementary material, Jeff Grubb’s Forgotten Realms novels, as well as the DC comic that he wrote, are some of my favorite fiction to ever come out of the setting. Both the novels and the comic seem to convey the same spirit that was in evidence in the boxed set and the early supplements.
There was also something at play in the setting that I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on until much later. Superficially, Conan and Fafhrd and Mouser seem like they cover very similar ground, but Fafhrd and Mouser have a certain sense of humor about them. They don’t have the seriousness around them that Conan often has. Conan was often driven, but Fafhrd and Mouser are often motivated as much by whimsy as by determination. It would take me years to really put my finger on it, but the Realms reminded me much more of Fafhrd and Mouser than Conan, and I’ve always felt more at home with them than with the Cimmerian (I’ve still got a soft spot for Conan stories, don’t get me wrong).
I was disappointed in a lot of Realms material over the years. The Horde boxed set felt too much like “we cut and pasted this history book about Mongolia into this product, and change some proper names, and there are a few magic things and monsters at the edges of the map.” A lot of good authors still seemed to make the mistake of seeing what was magical about the Realms and missing it just by a little. For example, the Realms has a lot of quaint, non-rules oriented details floating around, but some authors mistook the presentation of those details through NPCs with lots of personality, with the details themselves being the important part.
In 2nd edition AD&D, my favorite products were always the Volo’s Guides, both because they often provided more “mundane” details, and because Volo was very clearly a personality with his own quirks and oddities, and, even better, his notes got edited and commented on by Elminster.
Because I had taken a multi-year break from D&D before I jumped back on close to the dawn of 3.5, I didn’t quite realize that the 3rd edition Realms wasn’t working that well for me. The continual presentation of Realms Shaking Events were driving a lot of the whimsical side of the Realms to the edges, and there were too damn many stats. It could be entirely anecdotal, but I don’t remember nearly as many people complaining that Elminster should solve their problems when his stat block was, in total: Elminster, human male wizard 26, CG. Once he had hit points, level appropriate magic items, and a set loadout of spells, suddenly that became a measure of what Elminster should be doing in the world on a day to day basis, instead of being a crotchety, half-crazy old man who had long ago retired from adventuring.
I don’t think the modern D&D products set in the Realms do the best job of utilizing what is unique to the setting, but in a lot of ways, I do think they at least understand and respect some of the quirks the setting has more than 3rd edition products did.
On Star Wars, Canon, and the Size of a Galaxy
First and foremost, I think it goes unsaid way too often in RPG circles how amazing West End Games work on the Star Wars setting was. George was one guy doing a set of three movies. He didn’t need setting bibles or details on anything that he didn’t want to detail in the movies. He could come up with all kinds of evocative phrases that didn’t need to mean anything, because they were only there to provide the illusion of depth.
West End Games took notes from Lucasfilm, and a billion random references, and stitched together a coherent wider galaxy from those threads. Not only did they do all of that, but their work fed back into work being done at Lucasfilm, so that the connective tissue that an RPG company did to make a setting playable helped shaped the direction of a multi-billion-dollar property.
Other properties have had a leg up on providing RPG settings. Tolkien’s way of writing meant he just couldn’t tell stories in the present of his setting without him creating copious notes on past eras and distant lands. Properties like Star Trek had multiple screenwriters present from the beginning, necessitating series bibles so that the various writers could get on the same page with their stories from the start. Star Wars lived in George’s head. Reading about the development of ESB in Star Wars The Annotated Scripts, it becomes apparent that George didn’t really share out a ton of setting information–he often let writers go down a certain path, only to say that he didn’t think what they were writing fit what was in his head.
That firmly established, I’ve always kind of marveled when people wonder how to play a Star Wars game that doesn’t step on canon. It’s . . . a . . . galaxy! That’s a pretty damn huge place. There are all kinds of Imperial governors, crime lords, and bounty hunters for the PCs to run into without ever running into Vader, Luke, or Mon Mothma. There are tons of capital ships and superweapons for potential Rebels to blow up to secure the safety of a local sector of space. There are more fortunes in the Corporate Sector or Hutt Space that a scoundrel could ever imagine–of course, it also helps that the Brian Daley Han Solo novels established early on that you could have some fun, pulpy adventures away from the main saga.
Campaign Setting Personal Ads
What I want in a campaign setting is something that knows what it is and can communicate that. I don’t dislike details, but details along don’t give a setting personality. If you have a personality up front, however, the details can do a lot to reinforce that personality.
I don’t want a campaign setting to be clever. I don’t want it to hide the kind of stories that it wants to tell by making me read through the whole thing and guess. I don’t care if a setting is using old tropes I’ve seen a hundred times, if it knows that it is using those tropes and is milking everything it wants to use from those tropes.
I want a setting that is designed for a tabletop RPG to be table ready. What that means to me is that I want adventure hooks and meta-discussion about why this region of the campaign setting is better for these kinds of stories than this other area. I want examples of how to use the game rules to reinforce the tropes and themes of the setting.
You can give me a timeline, but I’d rather have a short set of bullet points summarizing what’s important to know.
And since we were talking about Star Wars above–avoid absolutes. If you have an awesome order of people called the Azure Knights or whatever, I’d rather you say, “they are rare, and seldom seen,” instead of saying “there are exactly three of them,” especially if you later go ahead and name who all three of them are and what they are doing.
Although I’ve seen some complaints about it, one of the things I’ve liked about the 2nd edition 7th Sea material is that there isn’t a lot in the way of absolute details. There aren’t a lot of “exactly 256 years ago, this happened,” or “there are 275 ships in Queen Elaine’s fleet.” It enough for me for the books to mention that this nation is known for being a naval power, while this other nation lost most of its ships during the War of the Cross.
Sean Was Right
I wholeheartedly agree with Sean when he mentioned that the importance of a campaign setting is often in giving everyone the same starting point. Everyone has this common ground they understand about what is true about the setting. That shouldn’t lock the campaign into a certain direction or be leveraged for advantage when accessing trivia about the setting, but it is a great tool for quickly getting everyone in the same headspace when the game first begins.