Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is it wrong that I don’t want to create my own campaign world?

Many Dungeon Masters (DMs) aspire to be world creators.  They create intricate campaign worlds with fully realized politics, cultures, and geography.  They design unique races, monsters, and classes to compliment the vision of Dungeons & Dragons that they have in their head. 

This is not me

In my current gaming group, my friend Brian spent years developing the World of Tyr.  While not all of our games have been set in that world, the passion Brian showed for it caused us to brand ourselves as the Lords of Tyr when we decided to create an online presence.  In the RPG Bloggers Network, Wyatt shares the development of his game world with his readers on the Spirits of Eden.  The time and energy he spends developing his world is evident on the (virtual) page.

In the shadow of such evident passion, I have to admit, perhaps a little sheepishly, that game world design never appealed much to me.  My first game worlds lacked coherence, having a lot in common with the “throw everything in” nature of the implied setting in Dungeons & Dragons 4e.  When I bought the original “old grey box” Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, I pretty much abandoned world building entirely.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to tell stories.  I can spend hours working on plots, coming up with motivations for my villains, and finding ways to bring the player character backstories into play.  I work very hard to engage my players in the plots of my stories and ensure everyone has a personal stake in the adventure.

Which I suppose is the point.  I tend to focus on character drama rather than on sweeping epic storytelling.  This is probably why I prefer to work in established campaign settings.  It allows me to “sub-contract” the work of world creation to someone else, allowing me to focus on the character drama that is my bread and butter.

I suppose this is true for most other roleplaying games I have ran as well.  In Sci-Fi games, I tend to go for established settings like Star Wars.  When it comes to superhero games, I prefer to run in the Marvel Universe (although this may be more of a result of my encyclopedic knowledge of that universe than anything else).

Still, I sometimes look at world builders with a little bit of envy.  When a good world building dungeon master is on a roll they can create truly amazing campaign setting which put even the best published campaign settings to shame. 

I suppose it is just a different skill set.  Some DM’s are like George Lucas, capable creating vivid worlds and writing vast epics but stumbling over character motivation and dialogue.  Some are like Joss Whedon, giving you great character interaction and willing to tweak the world for the sake of the story.  Rarest of all are those DM’s like J.R.R. Tolkien, capable of telling personal stories while building a world  of epic scope.

So what kind of a DM are you?


Kameron said...

I use to be a worldbuilder, but now I reserve that particular creative exercise for my fiction. These days, I prefer to borrow from existing settings and tweak them for my campaign. It saves me time and allows me to focus on integrating the PCs.

satyre said...

Nothing wrong with that at all; some of us prefer to let people do the hard lifting and leave us to fill in the gaps.

I like world-building but Real Life makes it difficult to do it right so this is becoming a default state for my game playing.

And I'm getting more games in.

Buccaneers Guild said...

Nothing to be ashamed of. World building satisfies a certain creative element in people. An element that sometimes has bugger all to do with actually having fun around the table at the end of the day.

But if you have that need then fulfilling it is fun in itself. I'm guilty myself of building worlds. But I've never had the time to make them as rich as say a published world can be.

If you don't have that need then, frankly you've got more head-space for plots and adventures surely?

So from a players point of view, having a DM that doesn't spend x amount of his time world building could be considered the superior position.

Another alternative I've used is to build a very quick skeleton world, and get the players to help fill in the details. A wiki is great for this. Here's an example campaign we ran like that, where all I started it off with was the map.

Luquin Sea

Now cartography! That's how I'm most guilty of wasting time!

misterecho said...

I find the idea of creating a coherant and intresting world daunting!

Tyler said...

A drawback to worldbuilding in addition to finding the time is getting everyone else to buy into the process. I've heard too many stories of GMs spending inordinate amounts of time lovingly crafting their ideal campaign setting, only to find the players have no interest in investing anything in the world themselves.

Sometimes, not rolling your own is the sensible thing to do.

Ameron said...

As satisfying and gratifying as creating your own campaign setting may be, I've always seen it as a tremendous amount of work. But for those interested in taking this route, we have a whole section on Campaign Design that you might find useful.

Personally, I'd rather take an existing setting, find the broad strokes already provided by the publisher and add my own signature to it. When I discovered Eberron I found that it was so full of rich materials that I had very little need to make changes.

Anonymous said...

Some people like world building and some people do not. (And, it must be noted, some players have aversions to various of the published campaign worlds.)

I build my own campaign worlds because there are usually specific themes I want to explore. But I can easily understand not wanting to go through that work when there is so much good setting material out there.

Dennis N. Santana said...

There is nothing wrong with using a pre-existing campaign setting.

The reason I do the work I do on The Spirits of Eden is because I am just absolutely sick of the D&D campaign settings out there. They just utterly bore me, even Eberron (sometimes, especially Eberron, but it's at least better for me than Forgotten Realms for the most part.)

Especially with 4e's "everything fits everywhere" attitude which I dislike.

So since nobody's gonna do it for me, I went out and made the game world I would want to play in, with the unique races, creatures and themes I want in a game.

Swordgleam said...

Good! If there weren't people like you, those of us who make worlds would be out of business, since no one would want to buy them.

Medraut said...

@Kameron – Thanks for the words of support. I can definitely understand why you would reserve the world-building for your writing.

@satyre – Yeah, that pesky real life does tend to get in the way.

@Buccaneers Guild – Its funny, but our own world-building DM Brian also has a deep interest in fantasy cartography. The maps he puts together for Tyr are absurdly detailed.

@misterecho – Agreed.

@Tyler – I have seen quite a few cases over the years where no players bought into the campaign world the DM created. It never ends well.

@Ameron – I too find “filling in the gaps” with my own stylistic touches to be an enjoyable endeavor.

@seaofstarsrpg – One thing I tend to do is focus on a particular corner of a campaign world when I want to explore a theme. While the Forgotten Realms (for example) may not have any overarching theme, a campaign set in Calimport may be a great place to focus on corruption while Moonshae easily transforms into a pseudo-Arthurian setting.

@Wyatt – I have to admit that it is your blog, more than anything else, which inspired this post. It is always a great read.

@Swordgleam – That’s what I like, a little enlightened self-interest. Seriously though, I do appreciate the hard work game designers put into campaign settings.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

One thing about world building, it doesn't require any players.

Players (or players with time) are sometimes hard to locate.

Carter Soles said...

I am a world-builder, in part because it gives me stuff to do between gaming sessions, but also because I am personally turned off by the "throw it all in" approach. i need / want there to be limitations imposed by the campaign setting; i am notorious for disallowing certain classes and creating other new ones to suit the particularities of the setting I want my PCs to explore. That said, this could be seen as a kind of crutch, or a kind of narcissism or control-freakishness. Like "nobody else's world is good enough, so I'll create my own that works just like I say it does!"

That said, I love letting my PC parties change the campaign world through their actions, even quite radically. My settings usually have a (very loose) sense of ongoing history or time-flow, so player character deeds can impact (or forever eliminate) certain future events / possibilities.

Medraut said...

@Norman Harman - I have been lucky that we have no shortage of players up at the Lords of Tyr. I know a lot of gamers are not so lucky, so I can see where world-building could be good option to get in your gaming fix.

@Carter Soles - I agree with you that letting the PC's change the campaign world is important. While I usually start with a published setting, once the campaign begins, I don't feel an obligation to keep the campaign world in line with what is published.

If the characters accidentally bring about the apocalypse (as happen in a D&D game) or fail to save Hank Pym from Ultron (as happen in a Marvel Superheroes Game), so be it. I just roll with it at let the players deal with the consequences of their actions.

rook103 said...

Besides it being ancient history, we all thought that invading Thay was a good idea. We should NOT have given you the day to "think about" how you were going to handle it. After the whooping we received, we'll think twice about ideas for invasion or world altering events that we may influence.


Stephanie said...

As a newb player who is aspiring to one day DM, I was really happy to know that I didn't have build my own world for a game. When I first started watching the lords of tyr when Chad and began dating, I really thought all the DMs created the whole plot and world and everything that went into them. I just thought all the extra books everyone had with them were "the rules." Chad and I talk about creating different worlds for kids campaigns when Shane et al are older. I'd love to have a Hogwarts-esc world for the kids to play in when they can read the books at the same time.

Medraut said...

@rook103 - Perhaps an invasion plan more complex than "we will walk into the country and take down anyone who gets in our way" would have helped.

@Stephanie - That sounds like a great idea, although I might recommend another game system to more accurately capture the feel of Hogwarts (or its non-infringing equivalent). Mutants and Masterminds, GURPS, and Mage:The Ascension all strike me as good starting points.

Medraut said...

@rook103 - Perhaps an invasion plan more complex than "we will walk into the country and take down anyone who gets in our way" would have helped.

@Stephanie - That sounds like a great idea, although I might recommend another game system to more accurately capture the feel of Hogwarts (or its non-infringing equivalent). Mutants and Masterminds, GURPS, and Mage:The Ascension all strike me as good starting points.