Thursday, January 27, 2011

Creation Through Play

Among old school fans, it's a popular sport to make fun of the Forgotten Realms, something I've never entirely understood. While it's certainly true that many of the products and novels published by TSR and WotC made the Realms look absurd, for me, it was Ed Greenwood's articles in Dragon that most fully depict the setting. I remember reading many of those articles with great interest back in the day and thinking how wonderfully evocative they were.

When TSR published the Forgotten Realms boxed campaign setting, I was quick to purchase a copy. What I remember most clearly about reading it for the first time was how much more detailed were the Dalelands and Waterdeep and surrounds compared to the rest of the setting. Indeed, the Realms struck me as strangely undetailed outside of a few areas and I wondered why at the time. In retrospect, the answer is obvious: Greenwood only detailed those parts of the Realms that he had to as his campaign progressed. The rest was left vague or unexplained, to be picked up later when and if it ever became necessary. That's more or less the exact approach I've adopted in my Dwimmermount campaign, where anything "off the map" remains, for all intents and purposes, unknown, even to me.

What's interesting is that, once upon a time, this was the norm. Dave Arneson's Blackmoor setting, despite being its age, is remarkably limited in its scope, centered as it is on the kingdom of Blackmoor and the territory immediately surrounding it. Information about anything beyond that comparatively small area is sparse, undoubtedly because such information was unneeded in play. The same seems to have been true of Hargrave's Arduin and (initially anyway) Stafford's Glorantha. Conversely, Barker's Tékumel seems to have had a lot of thought put into it outside of the context of actual play in the setting, with Professor Barker going so far as to create extensive socio-cultural (and linguistic) details for places that had little or no impact on the campaigns he refereed.

I'm not quite sure where to place Gygax's Greyhawk setting. Its published form has some relationship to actual play in Lake Geneva, but the relationship is not one-for-one. The World of Greyhawk owes its existence at least in part for a need on the part of TSR to present a sample campaign setting for D&D players to purchase. Most of the later development of the setting has absolutely nothing to do with actual play in Lake Geneva, being created solely to sell products. Dragonlance's Krynn is even more a creature of marketing, being a setting designed by a committee to launch a new brand. Unless I am mistaken, the only parts of it that derive from actual play by anyone involved are its deities, which were inspired by those in Jeff Grubb's OD&D campaign, as outlined in his The Matter of Theology. TSR's 2e era settings have even less grounding in actual play.

I sometimes come across as being opposed to the very idea of published campaign settings and that's not true at all. I have great fondness for many of them and have often used many of them over the years. What I actually object to are settings that don't reflect anyone's actually having used them in campaign play. I dislike settings that exist solely as commercial products without a foundation in play. The early to mid-1990s were therefore to my mind an awful time in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, dominated by the publication of setting after setting conceived from start to finish purely as commercial products and nothing more. So, it's not that I object to publishing campaign settings as such, but it'd be nice if those settings had a history deeper than the project pitch made to fill a hole in a release schedule.

54 comments:

  1. It's a good point, but as ever, I suspect there's an exception to the rule. I can't imagine Planescape -- for example -- having developed from actual play, but it's one of the most fondly remembered settings from the AD&D2 era.

    On the other hand, Ptolus did arise from actual play, but all anyone seems to talk about is its size, not its historical depth.

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  2. When we played growing up, we only ever used forgotten realms or our own home brew worlds. To me, the realms represented a fantastic high fantasy setting with just enough info on the varied cultures, npcs, and organizations to get you started on a great campaign. Not to mention it was such a large setting that it easily allowed incorporation of site based adventures not necessarily marked on the map. As you say, the creation was left up to the dm. Yes, it most certainly did get cheesy as the years went on especially after salvatore made them aware they could sell a crap ton of books with the realms logo on them. Still, I really enjoyed. The setting in its early stages and still use it for my main game today.

    And for the record I hated Planescape.

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  3. One of my great joys in looking at and reading rpg sourcebooks, blogs, and so forth is seeing the bits that have created fun for other players.

    New monsters, items, settings, etc. that are primarily thought experiments have an obvious air of sterility about them that's off-putting.

    That's why, for the time being at least, all the game material I post to my blog is stuff that's come up as a result of actual play needs, whether it be items, spells, character class concepts, monsters--or dungeons, or setting background material, and so forth.

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  4. IIRC, I think Glorantha was originally created by Stafford through short stories and epics (Snodal's adventures in Seshnela).

    But those stories did not take place in Sartar (which was Stafford's campaign, while Steve Perrin's game was in Pavis).

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  5. I have to agree with you about those early Greenwood articles in Dragon. I loved the little bits of detail that were littered about them, and consciously attempted to emulate that style when developing my own campaign worlds.

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  6. The Gray Box:
    'Among old school fans, it's a popular sport to make fun of the Forgotten Realms, something I've never entirely understood.':
    Me neither, the Gray Box was totally Old School, by late 2E, I'd say not so much, but YMMV. I guess it has something to do with Elminster(Who's practically inaccessible in the Gray Box!) and Drizzt's(He was secondary to Wulfgar the Generic Barbarian originally, IIRC.) over-exposure(in RPGs, anyway).

    Blackmoor:
    This setting was intriguing 'til the end, and I heard Arneson played regularly for about 30 years. I hope my game makes it. I would've loved to have sat in at least once! EGG said anyone emulating him would take their campaigns to the highest level and that he was Gygax's favorite referee! I really need to get my hands on the First Fantasy Campaign. I have some Basic Stuff he did, as well as Blackmoor(for D&D), and its pretty evocative. I believe the PDF of Supplement II is still on the site; it's free as Arneson owned the rights to all things Blackmoor(his personal setting, not the facsimile in Greyhawk) , as I understand.

    Arduin:
    This setting was NUTS, and it had heart.(Hargrave was the Man!) Only Synnibarr, Mazes and Minotaurs, and Encounter Critical seem to have its spirit in recent years, imo. May its like return again and again!

    Runequest:
    I need to get the 2nd Edition. Heard nothing but good about this. Wish I played back in the day.

    Empire of the Petal Throne
    Isn't this campaign still ongoing?
    In any event, the delineating of Tékumel was a labor of love, and useful to the Professor when PCswent to/NPCs came from/rumors were spread about whatever; I like creating worlds in this manner as well. Though I dare say I haven't come up with an EPT! :-)

    Greyhawk Box Set:
    If you look at various interviews and forum posts Gygax answered questions in over the years, the likelihood the box set had much of anything to do with his home campaign approaches zero. He noted on several occasions he switched the home group to the Box Set 'cuz he liked it better than his homebrew! He, of course, was planning to release further sets to describe the world in heavy detail, including more on Len Lakofka's Lendore Isles and Frank Mentzer's Aquarian(?) setting. He consequently dumped the campaign after his ouster in 1985, unfortunately losing much of the material over the years, especially after moving houses.

    2E Settings:
    Dark Sun and Ravenloft were actually played quite extensively at TSR, from what I understand.

    'it'd be nice if those settings had a history deeper than the project pitch made to fill a hole in a release schedule.':
    I particularly enjoy campaigns with a history, it gives them a 'lived in' feel.

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  7. I agree with most of your sentiments here :) (Although I have a soft spot for Exalted's setting, but I think it may be going rotten)

    Question though - what game _system_ do you feel best promotes creation of a setting during play?

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  8. "I'm not quite sure where to place Gygax's Greyhawk setting. Its published form has some relationship to actual play in Lake Geneva, but the relationship is not one-for-one. The World of Greyhawk owes its existence at least in part for a need on the part of TSR to present a sample campaign setting for D&D players to purchase."

    I look at Greyhawk (that is, the initial pamphlet and map that came in a folder) as one large "gray area" to be filled in as needed. In other words, my campaign, which was based in the Lordship of the Isles, really only needed those islands and the nearby coastline developed. The rest was just the "land of rumors" until needed. I imagine it served the same way for other DMs using other areas.

    "I dislike settings that exist solely as commercial products without a foundation in play. The early to mid-1990s were therefore to my mind an awful time in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, dominated by the publication of setting after setting conceived from start to finish purely as commercial products and nothing more."

    I think you're being a little unfair here. The original Dark Sun was a very good setting, even though it was a commercial product. The key for me was if the commercial setting still left room for a GM and players to fill in areas through play to fit their needs.

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  9. I've definitely become a fan of creation through play. I'm not old enough to remember Greenwood's articles or a lot of classic stuff, but it sounds like my current world-creation style is similar.

    Also, I'm not much into published settings, but I do love me some Planescape!

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  10. I think it is natural to let the environment grow in the telling. One alternate though that I like is called the "They LIED strategy." I've seen it best used in early White Wolf products. Each vampire, werewolf, rubber boggy monster game had vague information on the other inhabitants and it turned out to be 90% shit. Even if you didn't have everything White Wolf had once you got the idea you knew you could take things wherever you wanted.

    Lazarus Lupin
    http://strangespanner.blogspot.com/
    art and review

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  11. Back in the day we had the Greyhawk folder that included 2 huge maps and a pamphlet that told you what level the ruler of each country was and how many soldiers he had, etc. As I remember we didn't really use it that much; sometimes we would just pick a spot on it and make up everything as we went along.
    I always remembered the Wilderlands fondly, even though I mostly used them just for the maps and made everything else up.
    I kind of skipped most of the 2e 'heavy setting' stuff since the few bits of Forgotten Realms, etc, that I bought didn't impress me. What was strange, though, was how much I enjoyed Greenwood's articles in Dragon about the realms.
    One guy I used to play with always wanted to 'do' a Dragonlance campaign where we all had to play people from the novels and 'do' what they did, but I don't enjoy D&D 'fiction' and never read those novels, so the idea of playing a character who couldn't do what I wanted him to do did not appeal to me at all. And that is one of the aspects of the 'mega campaign' (as opposed to the 'setting' where the DM and players develop it as they go along) that bugged me.

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  12. From what I have been told by someone who knew Hargrave, He wasn't much of a note taker, but he loved to create maps and had a good chunk of the world mapped out and created close to a dozen kingdoms (similar in size to the published Arduin map)for a few of this friends to GM. Be nice to see some of this stuff one day.

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  13. @lazarus:

    I use that strategy liberally in my games--not necessarily because of xenophobia, but just because a lot of the folks you encounter base their beliefs about places they've never seen and people/things they've never encountered on rumour and hearsay.

    So of course the majority of locals in any given place are going to have a fairly uniform set of beliefs about something, and most of it is going to be one-third ancient trash talk, one-third scary story, and one-third practical advice.

    When you talk to veterans, powerful adventurers, scholars and lords, you start to get something different, but those aren't always conveniently available...nor do novice adventurers always think to consult them before running off after the foozle...

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  14. Agreed on most of your points. However, I would extend your sympathetic approval of the early, pre-boxed set Forgotten Realms to the pre-novel Dragonlance modules. While I agree that the novels embody much of what turned old schoolers off TSR from the mid-80s onward, the original Dragonlance concept was a fairly old-school series of 12 dungeon-centered modules, one for each of the classic MM dragons. Hickman was an ingenious module designer, as Ravenloft and Pharaoh abundantly demonstrate. The other main co-designer of the DL modules, Doug Niles, was no slouch (Against the Cult of the Reptile God, anyone?). To my mind, DL1-3 are all solid 1e adventures, if you ignore the storyline railroading.

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  15. @Michael:

    Unfortunately, the storyline railroading is hard to ignore because it influences (directly or indirectly) pretty much everything else that happens.

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  16. To my mind, DL1-3 are all solid 1e adventures, if you ignore the storyline railroading.

    I think this is the problem with published settings in general, after the initial boxed-set release. Like with Forgotten Realms or even Dark Sun, I think the initial boxed sets were good and full of inspirational ideas and concepts. But it's when they start coming up with the supplements and add-ons and things that basically say "Oh, and then five years later, THIS happened." And you're thinking, "Uh... that didn't happen in my game!"

    That's the annoying part of published settings - the perceived "need" to further develop the setting after the initial release of the product, rather than just letting it be and letting the players and referees use it as they see fit.

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  17. Another setting that fits these parameters is the Wilderlands. It's quite clear where exactly the player's in Bob Bledsaw's campaign romped around. Same goes with Rob Conley's version.

    I think this is largely the reason I love the Wilderlands so much.

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  18. @Michael - I don't mean to be nitpickey, but there really is no such thing as "pre-novel" Dragonlance modules. The modules and novels were released simultaneously.

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  19. @ Martin:

    "But it's when they start coming up with the supplements and add-ons and things that basically say "Oh, and then five years later, THIS happened." And you're thinking, "Uh... that didn't happen in my game!"

    That's one reason I liked columbia Games' approach to its Harn setting: IIRC right, the setting year was 705 (or thereabouts), but that's where it stopped. While they developed the various areas of Harn, they never advanced it. Little risk of one's campaign having it's legs cut out from under it.

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  20. As much as I treasure my Greyhawk folio and boxed set, they never got much use. It seemed too much information about too many places and not enough information about any one area.

    I loved Greenwood’s Dragon articles, but for some reason I never bought the FR box. Maybe because I hadn’t gotten enough use out of the GH stuff and expected FR would be likewise.

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  21. This reminds me of a post I was going to do on my blog but I'll write a bit of it here since I'm really interested in your input James and the input of those who read your particular blog.

    One of my players and a very good friend of mine named Dave and I were recently discussing setting in games.

    Now I love a good setting but I've very picky. I homebrew the vast majority (wait for it...) of the games I run since I really find a setting I love. The exceptions to that rule however, are the games I actually run the most, like Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Star Wars and DC Comics.

    I was telling Dave how I miss building a setting as I go. Picking a game/genre and than creating a true sandbox situation that creates a world eventually.

    Dave doesn't like that at all. He said, "If you tell me we're going to play Star Trek I'm excited because I've seen the show and know some of the stuff. I'm not a huge fan but sure, I want to beam down, fire phasers and all that jazz. But if you say we're going to play a Sci-Fi/Space Opera game and don't tell me anything else I'm not that excited."

    See Dave is a late 20something guy who grew up on video games and anime. If there is no setting at the start of the game, its difficult for him to envision where he is and why he should be there.

    This makes certain games go over really well for Dave (and players like him). Star Trek, Traveller (Canon Third Imperium), Star Wars, Deathwatch (Warhammer 40K Space Marine RPG), Forgotten Realms, Middle Earth, RIFTS, World of Darkness, etc.

    While those will work, what won't is Star Frontiers, D&D Sandbox style, a Superhero Sandbox game where no one know what the world is like or who its heroes and villains are, etc.

    Its interesting and somewhat frustrating actually. For example, my guys love my D&D-But-Not world but only got interested in playing in it after I told numerous stories about it.

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  22. I think dismissing the 2e settings as an awful time in gaming is a little uncharitable, and also somewhat misleading. For one thing, all of those campaigns grew out of a single idea, expanded to be useful for a sandbox for players. This may have not been organic, but they were conceived much the way that any campaign was conceived - a cool idea extrapolated to the extent necessary.

    Furthermore, many of those early campaign settings were not terribly detailed outside their campaign areas. Dark Sun is focused on the Tyr region, especially Tyr, while Planescape focuses on Sigil. One of those campaigns, Ravenloft, did grow out of someone's personal game. Birthright's genesis was in an unpublished novel by Richard Baker, and is very open ended and undetailed.

    Additionally, it is also a bit dismissive of the authors who wrote those settings. Yes, they may have written them to fill a hole in the release schedule, but that does not mean they did not work hard or devote themselves to them, or put every bit as much effort as any other creator into their work.

    Turning these settings into robotic protections of the evil T$R publishing juggernaut overlooks the fact that many, many DMs and players got their starts by beginning with these settings, and were inspired by them, and would later craft their own settings once they had the experience. It is probably also unfair to deride these settings because they were made for profit, as opposed to organic games that were adapted to be offered for profit, because you cannot expect a company to do anything else.

    The fact that they were conceived as a commodity does not mean they are not valuable, nor that they did not draw on the same creative juices and devotions as anyone's homebrews. Several of the lines had particular authors who really shaped the setting (William W. Connors on Ravenloft comes to mind) and might be surprised to hear that their setting was less worthy of admiration or play because they were produced primarily for distribution instead of just a home game.

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  23. @arcadayn - No, the first few Dragonlance modules did precede the novels. DL1 was published in March 1984, but the first novel wasn't published until November.

    @Taketoshi - Any half-capable DM could shear away the storyline from the DL modules. Take the dungeon from DL1, make the disks into a generic artifact Macguffin, and you have a fine dungeon that will put 4th-6th level PCs to a hard test against an ancient large black dragon. The railroading is, at least at the beginning, not much more obtrusive than the railroading in the Drow modules or I3-5.

    Again, these are not the greatest modules ever printed, but they are hardly the embodiment of anti-old-school gaming. They are perfectly suitable for classic D&D, and at times they are old school -- Skullcap in DL3 is a classic dungeon (which, as far as I know, never appears in any novel).

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  24. I mostly homebrewed what I had. Greyhawk only saw the light of day in placenames, and I picked a hex and developed there.

    Forgotten Realms was a fantastic setting, when the Grey Box was out. AD&D took itself further in the wrong direction shortly thereafter, but I loved the Dragon Magazine articles and the original set.

    Planescape rocked. You could stick doors to that setting anywhere, and explore as much of it as your group wanted, and leave again if they hated it.

    My understanding is that Dragonlance got its start from a campaign played by the authors. The Wikipedia article confirms my memory on that, for what it's worth. While I didn't care for the setting or the books, it's worthwhile to set the record straight on that.

    The settings that were published for 2E weren't necessarily abominations. The sad thing is, the company was in the hands of a woman who hated RPGs, and she forbade playtesting at the office. To playtest something, they had to use their off-hours at some other venue. Hard times, for people who worked there because they loved what they did.

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  25. Vast world building as theorycraft doesn't work for me at all. I find that hints I give in earlier adventures turn into great ideas if I give them enough time to sit in my brain and mull them over. I believe to pull in players you just need to give them a real good idea where they are starting the campaign. Take a small neck of the woods in some undetermined world and write up a couple paragraphs tell the players a few things they know about the world and the starting point so they can create characters that have some connection to this creation. And let the rest grow as they travel and adventure forth. My maps aren't even hex grids. I just use rough drawings with a inch = so many miles scale. Some times I have to pencil in a place that some NPC mentions. And make a point to incorporate a bit more facts or use it as an adventure hook. In our last campaign the two groups of players heard of the evil witch island Benn many times. Even met agents and an army from there, but never set foot on the cursed island once. The same went for another place. I never had to flesh out the place beyond a few details that gave the players an impression of what was there. Yet they all had a good idea what it was without me having to create an entire source book on the locale. I have a small collection of the old source books 1e days and some of the setting books for 4e. But, I usually just use small pieces of them for mechanics or ideas and reskin them to my liking. Stealing the market place haggle rules from Lankhmar book being a good example. Some players like the world to be defined since it gives them some level of control over the world. But, most I have seen will gladly accept a living world document if you keep it fair and lively.

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  26. I think there's a strong element of elitist artiste in the painting of the 2e era settings as soulless commodities produced by a faceless committee rather than settings developed collaboratively by talented and creative gamers who liked the idea that the various settings espoused.

    Planescape in particular, according to reports published later in Dragon magazine, was under the radar of "management" and was always a haven for game designers to do exactly the opposite of what you seem to be implying that these settings were. Ravenloft was, as said earlier, one of the guy's home game. Dragonlance you also specifically pick on, yet ironically it was a setting that was developed by gamers who were gaming in the setting and then loosely adapting their home games into modules and later even novels.

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  27. @Barking Alien:
    One of those people who prefer franchises to original settings, huh? I never had much of an experience with this. My players in his age range, or younger, LIKE new settings.(As well as old ones.) They feel they can make them their own, instead of treading someone else's territory. I did have one player oppose using Star Wars BECAUSE it was too defined, she didn't want to get into fights over 'canon'.(I'm like: 'here's what you know from the movies, you may see some of it, but there'll be new stuff, you know what to expect mostly, now let's roll!' And she was like,: 'OK!' It worked!) Oddly enough, the ones who were more set on using established stuff were 30+. I think it's just as you mentioned, an individual's preference.

    I look forward to your thoughts on the subject!

    @steelcaress:
    'the company was in the hands of a woman who hated RPGs, and she forbade playtesting at the office. ': both of these assumptions have been disputed, interestingly enough.

    Birthright:
    'Birthright's genesis was in an unpublished novel by Richard Baker':
    And it shows! :-) This was another generic world with the slight variations that the PCs(and some more important NPCs) were descendants of divine beings, with diluted powers, and some nations were ruled by 'monsters' like Medusae. The domain aspect was not one I was interested in, either.(I start from the bottom up, and I'm not a fan of 'uber' PCs in general.[DC Heroes, Street Fghter, and the cyberpunk superheroes of Underground excepted :-)]) IIRC this was their worst selling line(they ended up giving away a fair amount of it free online, along with Rd Steel and other Savage Coast stuff.), unless you count Jakondor as a line. Apparently, even today, it's not fondly remembered.

    @Joshua:
    'Planescape in particular, according to reports published later in Dragon magazine, was under the radar of "management" and was always a haven for game designers to do exactly the opposite of what you seem to be implying that these settings were.':
    I remember overviews of the setting, excerpts from a mad warrior's journal focusing on the factions, and an interview with the designers. Starting around Dragon 214 or so?
    It seemed professionally designed rather than someone's bitchin' campaign thrown out there for all to see, like FR. Maybe it was just me, though...

    Dragonlance:
    As a home campaign? Really? I need to look that up.(Never had much interest in this setting, I especially had an antipathy to joke characters like Kender[Kleptomaniacs] and Tinker Gnomes[Genetically incompetent at the core skills of their society!], and Gully Dwarves[Filth dwelling, airheaded, animist dwarves, really?], the One God and Its Biblically named brethren, Dragons[and near worship of Dragons] EVERYWHERE, and so on... Too bad, the Post Apocalyptic element could've been cool, imo.) It seemed more like a novel tie-in product.(The modules and original novels were in development at roughly the same time as I recall.)

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  28. I can't imagine Planescape -- for example -- having developed from actual play, but it's one of the most fondly remembered settings from the AD&D2 era.

    I have a fondness for Planescape too, but it's very clearly a "high concept" setting and it shows.

    On the other hand, Ptolus did arise from actual play, but all anyone seems to talk about is its size, not its historical depth.

    I wonder how much of the Ptolus book derives from actual play in Monte's home campaign and how much is additional material he added to flesh out the setting.

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  29. Question though - what game _system_ do you feel best promotes creation of a setting during play?

    All of them :) Seriously, I don't think any RPG does a better job at this than others, though there are probably some that do a worse job -- mostly those that possess integral settings. This is a case of where I think one's attitude counts for far more than anything else.

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  30. I think you're being a little unfair here. The original Dark Sun was a very good setting, even though it was a commercial product. The key for me was if the commercial setting still left room for a GM and players to fill in areas through play to fit their needs.

    I liked Dark Sun FWIW. Heck, I'm probably one of only a handful of people who even liked the expansion of the setting beyond the Tablelands. However, the point of my post wasn't about quality. It was about the relative lack of products that show any origins in actual play and I'd be amazed if Athas had ever been used prior to its being created as a way to pimp The Complete Psionics Handbook.

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  31. the original Dragonlance concept was a fairly old-school series of 12 dungeon-centered modules, one for each of the classic MM dragons. Hickman was an ingenious module designer, as Ravenloft and Pharaoh abundantly demonstrate. The other main co-designer of the DL modules, Doug Niles, was no slouch (Against the Cult of the Reptile God, anyone?). To my mind, DL1-3 are all solid 1e adventures, if you ignore the storyline railroading.

    I've noted this before in my retrospectives on many of Hickman's adventures -- the dungeons in them are usually quite well-done and clever and could be used in an old school fashion. Unfortunately, they're not the main draw of these adventures; it's the railroad-y stories that are the main attraction.

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  32. Unfortunately, the storyline railroading is hard to ignore because it influences (directly or indirectly) pretty much everything else that happens.

    Yes. It's a situation that gets worse as the module line advanced and were tied ever more strongly into a specific story. The early modules, I think, are salvageable with a skilled referee, but the later ones, by and large, are not so easily extricated from the overarching plot of the series.

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  33. That's the annoying part of published settings - the perceived "need" to further develop the setting after the initial release of the product, rather than just letting it be and letting the players and referees use it as they see fit.

    Yes and that's really my biggest beef here: the need to sell product becomes the driving force behind creating and developing settings rather than the demands of actual play.

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  34. Another setting that fits these parameters is the Wilderlands. It's quite clear where exactly the player's in Bob Bledsaw's campaign romped around. Same goes with Rob Conley's version.

    Indeed! How I forgot the Wilderlands I have no idea.

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  35. If there is no setting at the start of the game, its difficult for him to envision where he is and why he should be there.

    That's an unusual perspective. I wonder how common it is.

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  36. For one thing, all of those campaigns grew out of a single idea, expanded to be useful for a sandbox for players. This may have not been organic, but they were conceived much the way that any campaign was conceived - a cool idea extrapolated to the extent necessary.

    "To the extent necessary" is the crux of the matter. What necessity required, for example, that the Forgotten Realms experience the Time of Troubles? Why, the transition to 2e did. What necessity required that most of the sorcerer-kings of the Tyr Region die? The sale of Dark Sun novels, of course. This is my beef with the era of D&D we're discussing.

    Furthermore, many of those early campaign settings were not terribly detailed outside their campaign areas. Dark Sun is focused on the Tyr region, especially Tyr, while Planescape focuses on Sigil.

    I think you miss my point. I never said any of these settings were bad or unusable. I said it was an awful era for D&D because it was dominated by settings that grew to meet perceived market demands rather than anything resembling actual play.

    One of those campaigns, Ravenloft, did grow out of someone's personal game.

    Whose? That's the first I ever heard of this and I'd like to know more.

    Birthright's genesis was in an unpublished novel by Richard Baker, and is very open ended and undetailed.

    You make my point for me. Cerillia was not a place where anyone had actually played a D&D game; it was a fantasy novel setting turned into a vehicle for selling an endless string of domain books.

    Additionally, it is also a bit dismissive of the authors who wrote those settings. Yes, they may have written them to fill a hole in the release schedule, but that does not mean they did not work hard or devote themselves to them, or put every bit as much effort as any other creator into their work.

    Again, my point is not that any of these settings were bad or unusable or un-creative. My point is that they do not reflect actual play and their subsequent development make this very clear.

    Turning these settings into robotic protections of the evil T$R publishing juggernaut overlooks the fact that many, many DMs and players got their starts by beginning with these settings, and were inspired by them, and would later craft their own settings once they had the experience. It is probably also unfair to deride these settings because they were made for profit, as opposed to organic games that were adapted to be offered for profit, because you cannot expect a company to do anything else.

    I've used many published settings quite profitably, so I'm not knocking them or denying their utility. But I think it's preferable to publish settings that have their origins in someone's actually having played them rather than as brainchildren of designers.

    As for expecting a company to do anything else, that's not my concern. I'm speaking purely as a player and fan of RPGs, not as a businessman. Even so, I feel TSR could have chosen different approaches to the development of D&D than they did and the one they ultimately settled on was far from ideal.

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  37. My understanding is that Dragonlance got its start from a campaign played by the authors.

    Which one? This is the first I've heard of this.

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  38. I think there's a strong element of elitist artiste in the painting of the 2e era settings as soulless commodities produced by a faceless committee rather than settings developed collaboratively by talented and creative gamers who liked the idea that the various settings espoused.

    Perhaps I wasn't clear in my post but my point was not that these settings were necessarily bad or soulless but that they didn't reflect actual play, which I prefer to be the origin and driver of gaming products. Their existence is a symptom not a cause of deeper malady that afflicted the hobby in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.

    Planescape in particular, according to reports published later in Dragon magazine, was under the radar of "management" and was always a haven for game designers to do exactly the opposite of what you seem to be implying that these settings were.

    I'm not denying passion or creativity in any of these settings, but I am suggesting that it's quite clear that none of their designers ever played in these settings prior to their having written them down for publication.

    Ravenloft was, as said earlier, one of the guy's home game.

    This keeps getting repeated and it's news to me, so I'd be curious as to whose home campaign was set in Ravenloft.

    Dragonlance you also specifically pick on, yet ironically it was a setting that was developed by gamers who were gaming in the setting and then loosely adapting their home games into modules and later even novels.

    So far as I know, the only element of Krynn that predates its creation for a product line are the gods, which come from Jeff Grubb's Toricandra campaign. Is there something else I'm forgetting?

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  39. Wrt Planescape -- It was published at the dawn of the internet era. I remember that Colin McComb did take a lot of fan feedback, which was based on actual play, into account.

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  40. I wouldn't say that Dark Sun was a way to "pimp The Complete Psionics Handbook." At least, not wholly. In my view, Dark Sun always was a sort of experiment or demonstration of what could be done by taking the 2nd edition ruleset and stretching it as far as one could and applying it to a concept. I think, in that sense, it succeeded marvelously and showed just what could be done with the toolset mindset.

    It's kind of inspiring to see what one could do in the same vein, by stretching things as far as they can go and seeing what you get before something breaks apart at the seams.

    Personally, I'd like to see your opinion on Kingdoms of Kalamar. It's one like the 90's settings from TSR (engineered), but very much a result of in-house play. I think it's a setting that just begs to be played and is loaded with inspriation.

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  41. So far as I know, the only element of Krynn that predates its creation for a product line are the gods, which come from Jeff Grubb's Toricandra campaign. Is there something else I'm forgetting?

    Well, yes. I thought it was well-known that Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, etc. actually played the game and then loosely adapted the modules and novels from stuff that emerged from play. It says as much in the afterword of the first Dragonlance novel, if I remember correctly.

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  42. I remember that Colin McComb did take a lot of fan feedback, which was based on actual play, into account.

    I'd be curious to learn more about this. Do you know where you might have read this?

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  43. Personally, I'd like to see your opinion on Kingdoms of Kalamar.

    I've never read a copy, so there's not much I could offer on this one.

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  44. I thought it was well-known that Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, etc. actually played the game and then loosely adapted the modules and novels from stuff that emerged from play. It says as much in the afterword of the first Dragonlance novel, if I remember correctly.

    What I recall, perhaps mistakenly, was that some of the events and characterizations in the DL novels bore some relationship to actual play of the modules, but that's rather different than what I'm talking about. I'm interested in products whose origins are in actual campaign play.

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  45. Yes and that's really my biggest beef here: the need to sell product becomes the driving force behind creating and developing settings rather than the demands of actual play.

    Everything I publish is the result of a slavish demand to satisfy my commercial release schedule, I don't know about you ;)

    If there is no setting at the start of the game, its difficult for him to envision where he is and why he should be there.

    That's an unusual perspective. I wonder how common it is.


    In my current campaign, I have had five players who have never played rpgs before--out of those five, three of them had trouble at first because they couldn't really internalize the conceit of the game. I gave them a small but well-described starting location, some potential adventure hooks (even a possible motivation or two), but they were VERY slow to engage with the game (in two cases burning out after a couple of months) because they felt "set adrift" and unable to orient themselves properly.

    I think if they had been in Star Wars, or Star Trek, regardless of their feelings about those settings/IPs, they would have had a much easier time.

    Ultimately, it's probably a personal preference/personality type issue more than anything else.

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  46. What I recall, perhaps mistakenly, was that some of the events and characterizations in the DL novels bore some relationship to actual play of the modules, but that's rather different than what I'm talking about. I'm interested in products whose origins are in actual campaign play.

    The writing of the modules themselves was based on the actual play of the game as well.

    I guess the distinction you're making eludes me. It sounds like the same thing to me.

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  47. The writing of the modules themselves was based on the actual play of the game as well.

    Is there any chance you or someone else who's reading this can reproduce the quote you're talking about? I do not recall ever seeing anything that supported the notion that the DL modules were based on or inspired by campaign play beforehand. I can believe they were playtested by the design team, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm interested in products whose ultimate origin was someone's home campaign, like Arneson's Temple of the Frog or Gygax's Hommlet.

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  48. James,

    This question, and today's Friday question, bring up something in my answer to last Friday's question I'd love to see you write about:

    What is the line between implied setting and published setting?

    While it is clear in classic TSR products, later products such as Traveller, Star Frontiers, and the WoD lines (and to a lesser degree Scion) from WW it's harder to tell.

    If I use the Traveller rules books (just the initial box) and base my campaign on Regina subsector from Adventure 1 which I bought at the same time am I playing in the implied setting or the Third Imperium. How about a combo of the original World of Greyhawk, T1, and the GDQ series as my defining elements?

    It gets even worse with modern day games like Vampire. The core book has much more implied setting that any version of D&D yet I'm hard pressed to believe using just it and even some of the class, sorry clan, splats that you're not in a homebrew setting.

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  49. Re: the pre-publication history of Dragonlance:

    If I recall correctly (from interviews with the designers), Dragonlance began strictly as a series of AD&D modules. Someone observed that, despite the name of the game, no TSR module series prominently featured dragons. So the plan (approved by Gygax, by the way) was a 12-module series, with each module focusing on a different dragon type. Early in the design process, it was decided to set the series in its own campaign world, with an overarching storyline. In the course of playtesting, Hickman found the stories and characters interesting enough to pitch a series of books as a tie-in and a way to boost the TSR Books division.

    So the modules came first (with the setting developing simultaneously), followed by actual gaming, followed by the novels. Once the novels became a hit, alas, the direction of influence was pretty much reversed.

    For the record, I like several of the modules, am really unimpressed by the setting, and bored by the books.

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  50. One of the things I like best about the OSR is its cool to talk about the tiny minutiae of actual play again. I mean right down to the nuts and bolts of any play procedure, whose hands the dice are in, who initiates it, who does the arithmetic, if its a secret roll or an open roll. These things matter. A basic D&D thief feels significantly different depending on whether his abilities are rolled by the player or the DM.

    In fact I think these sorts of things are so complex that they need to develop through actual play. There are so many terrible house rules out there. It's so easy for a rule to look good conceptually or formally but just not feel right in actual play.

    It always amuses me to hear people talk about the older versions of D&D as if they're "rough around the edges" without a rational unified mechanic, and harder to play for this reason. Thankfully the newer versions finally got around to cleaning up the mechanics. Yeah right. Do you really think that rough edges would survive thousands of hours of actual play by the creators? This sort of "natural selection" won't necessarily create a perfect game, but the basic mechanics will be polished. I trust creation through play to make a good game moreso than creation through theory, anyway.

    Anyway...as with rules, so with setting elements.

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  51. If I recall correctly (from interviews with the designers), Dragonlance began strictly as a series of AD&D modules. Someone observed that, despite the name of the game, no TSR module series prominently featured dragons. So the plan (approved by Gygax, by the way) was a 12-module series, with each module focusing on a different dragon type. Early in the design process, it was decided to set the series in its own campaign world, with an overarching storyline. In the course of playtesting, Hickman found the stories and characters interesting enough to pitch a series of books as a tie-in and a way to boost the TSR Books division.

    So the modules came first (with the setting developing simultaneously), followed by actual gaming, followed by the novels. Once the novels became a hit, alas, the direction of influence was pretty much reversed.


    That's pretty much my recollection as well, although it's been years since I actually read anything related to DL.

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  52. Interesting debate. If we decide that "organically grown" settings - based on real campaigns, developed over the course of several years by a small group of "real gamers" - produce the best game worlds, then the logical business model would be for the DM or a small circle of gamers to self-publish a couple of setting books and maybe some associated adventure modules ... and then disappear for several years or decades from the world of published games.

    If the setting (or RPG) became a real hit, there would be consumer demand for regular additions to the product line, very few of which could be anything other than purely commercial designed products.

    It seems impossible to imagine any games company (other than a not-really-expected-to-turn-a-profit "hobby" business)that would only make/sell "organically grown" products. Their initial handful of products might have their origins in a real, played campaign; but after that the commercial design origin would have to be present, and likely come to dominate all future products.

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  53. @James:
    The Genesis of the Dragonlance world & modules gets a brief mention in a interview with Tracy and Laura Hickman at Tome of Treasure. (Interestingly, Ravenloft was also played intensively by the Hickmans.)

    Pertinent Excerpts:
    Ravenloft and Dragonlance in Play:
    "Vampyr was played and tested for over five years before it was sold to TSR and became Ravenloft."

    Dragonlance was "about general concepts of dragons being used as beasts of war. We borrowed from Eye of the Dragon ideas and the ideas of my campaign world for the foundations of Dragonlance."
    "Eye of the Dragon in part, became the seeds of what would become Dragonlance."

    Link here: http://tomeoftreasures.com/tot_tsr_gems/daystar_west/daystar_west_hickman_correspondence.htm

    Also regarding Ravenloft, Bruce Nesmith, William W. Connor, and Andria Hayday played in a house campaign I'm told. The nickname for this group, the Kargatane, became used for a Domanin Lord's(the Lich Azalin, supposedly from Greyhawk!) band of vampiric secret police. Fans of the setting referred to the developers as this, too, IIRC.

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  54. I don't have a lot of time running games in, so I can't really say how it works, but I just can't start with a small area. I have a dozen continent size maps here and there, all with some level of grand concept behind them. Right now, I'm starting small, Australia-size instead of Africa-size, but it's got an overwhelming campaign arc built in.

    I like having some handhold to build characters on, too. My current PC is an elf who went adventure in the Sword Mountains as a youth, went home to Evermeet, lost his wife and children in the Time of Troubles, etc. All of those names communicate a lot between me and the DM with one word and even if he let me make up huge details about the world in my backstory ("let me get this straight; an overgod threw all the gods out of the planes to wander the world as avatars that could kill each other? Try again."), it would be a lot more work to create the story, and communicate it to the DM, and it would feel less real, since it's all made-up, instead of being based on things preexisting in the game world.

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