As of the end of my previous review I’ve come to the conclusion that my standards for campaign settings are underdeveloped. I can readily differentiate a bad campaign setting from a good one and the end result will have face validity but the method appears to be some sort of fuzzy estimation of individual elements that compose a campaign setting (locations, classes, monsters, items, rules, hooks), the way they interact and their suitability to the system in hand that is unsatisfying. The nature of a campaign setting clearly merits further scrutiny.
The central problem with campaign settings is that unlike modules, which are meant to be used directly, albeit it in an altered fashion, I do not know many, if any Dungeon Masters that make extensive use of premade settings with any degree of seriousness. My only exception would be Warhammer 40k. The only campaign settings that I know of that tend to see much use are the settings provided along with a snazzy new system since these provide a ready-made backdrop against which to launch adventures and novice GMs cannot instantly grasp the implications of a setting via its principal components (monsters, classes, rules, items etc. etc.) and thus benefit from a more codified setting, if only as example to later make their own or alter it to their hearts content.
I am something of a purist in that I consider it best to either start from scratch and make your own campaign setting or, if you are going to use someone else’s world, to grasp its themes, elements, and ideas as well as you can and adhere to them as closely as you possibly can. I loathe arbitrary tinkering. If a campaign is good enough to use it should allow you enough leeway to run the type of scenarios or tell the type of tales that you want. If you have to modify and modify heavily before it is suitable this begets the question why one does not select something more suitable in the first place?
There is a misconception that there is a hard difference between running someone else’s campaign and making your own, while I would argue it is largely a difference of degree. There is a fundamental difference in attitude between running something and making something yourself, but a good campaign setting is open and deep enough to allow the GM to come up with all manner of NPCs, magic items, beasties and quests that he can tie into the world while many a homebrew campaign relies strongly on classes, monsters, magic items and other concepts taken from the rulebook.
I would even argue that running someone else’s campaign setting brings a type of clarity to your gaming that can otherwise be absent. Many novice GM’s leap into their games, brimming with enthusiasm for their fictional world and are all too often overeager to showcase its contents to the hapless players, who are quickly buried under reams of expository dialog, GM PCs and Epic Storylines they do not give a shit about.
Conversely, playing in another setting means the GM has a more objective view and can simply take the presented elements, use them as effectively as possible, and focus on what makes an entertaining SESSION before leaping to the task of making an entertaining CAMPAIGN OR SETTING. The question is whether you think passion beats objectivity. Investment is a requirement for even average GMing, and no GM can maintain a campaign they are not invested in.
There are three campaign settings that I have run for more then a dozen sessions and using these as points for my co-ordinate system I hope to convey my perspective.
Dark Heresy (IoM): My first exposure to campaign settings was Fantasy Flight’s excellent Dark Heresy game (1st edition, all errata), set in the sprawling and ancient universe of Warhammer 40k. Humanity wars eternally with dark powers and vile aliens in the rotting and ossified remnants of a greater past. Ten Thousand Years of History stretch across a million worlds, and you feel the weight of every day as you walk explore soaring Hive Cities, parley with the cybernetic priesthood of the machine god, infiltrate the decadent parlors of a jaded nobility, and fight the mad worshippers of horrible warp gods.
I did not need to make up my own sector for Dark Heresy, though I may have altered a planet here and there, because of the vast size, scope and variety of the Calyxis Sector in the back of the book. Nearly everything I can conceive can be rationalized and has its origin in some era and faction and thus even far-fetched ideas like a mad AI warship can readily be integrated into the whole until it feels seamless. In fact, the setting is so vast that even in one tiny segment I can seamlessly integrate all manner of my own cultures, cults, technologies, daemons and NPCs.
Warhammer 40k is impenetrable because of the sheer volume of the material available but it is not good because there is so much of it. If this where the case Forgotten Realms would be considered good. There are driving themes behind Warhammer 40k that require subtlety, finesse and artistry to implement if a game is to be elevated beyond mere bolter-porn. There are forces ranging from the human to the cosmic, each touching the millenia long lifespan of mankind, of which the Imperium of Man is but the latest, albeit largest chapter. This sprawling depth facilitates almost infinite potential, one cannot help but conceive of a myriad of possible adventures when one peruses the dozens and dozens of major and minor factions that make up the Imperium alone. Everything is instantly tinged with versimilitude and can be EMBEDDED into the setting to a degree that is simply not possible in many settings. The power of 40k is the power of investment. The more consistent and tangible a setting feels, the easier it is for players to get invested.
I ended up running Dark Heresy far past the maximum level in the book, well past a final confrontation with the villainous Rogue Trader Silas Haervan and his sillicate machine master Antiphon, using the horribly overpowered Ascenscion Rules to run a meandering High Politics campaign on Malfi until I got sick of it, but after 50 sessions with a satisfying climax and a 3D-printed Rosette with a booze bottle inside as a thank you gift from my players, I consider it a fucking success.
Mystara: My forays into Mystara have been nowhere near as long as my forays into Wh40k but for some reason I keep returning to it whenever I crack open DnD Basic. Mystara is in many ways the anti-40k, a thematically loose checkerboard of fantasy/history cliches thrown willy nilly next to eachother with wild abandon, that can be shaped to fit almost any conceivable fantasy character or concept.
AND THEREIN LIES ITS USEFULNESS. The problem with settings like 40k is that it requires a lot of investment from the players as well as the GM to make a character that is embedded in the setting and it demands discipline from both sides to adhere to the themes of the game. Conversely, you can help an idiot jock who has never played a roleplaying game to come up with a character for Mystara in five minutes and chances are you can point to the map and say YOU ARE FROM HERE. The question becomes IS THIS A GOOD THING?!?
In time the somewhat surface and simple nature of Mystara would fade as I added details, inferred historical events, and started filling in the blanks. A +1 sword was still +1 but it became the blade of a famed lieutenant of King Halav, lost in battle with the king of Beasts. Every thing became an opportunity to imply or show something about the world without beating the PCs to death with exposition, and if they were intrigued they would try to find out more.
There is a problem with this sort of generic kitchen sink fantasy setting in that I think a single example per rulesystem should be allowed to exist if only as a concrete execution of its underlying assumptions, themes, sources of inspiration and the like and for any particular line a campaign setting can help give any published modules a little bit more body and grounding (nothing is worse then a generic and boring module), but any setting after that with similar themes becomes largely a fucking waste of time.
Oh your amorphous fantasy gibber-jabber has slightly better elf arrangement and a more extensive roster of chromatic dragons then my amorphous fantasy jibber-jabber? Puh-lease. Any new campaign should be wildly innovative, disruptive, different in thematics and brimming with content that alters HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED AND MAYBE EVEN WHAT IT IS ABOUT.
TSR is almost a platonic example of putting out settings that tried to alter, fundamentally, what the game was about. From generic fantasy smorgasboard to gothic horror, sword and psionistry, celtic domain management the game or trippy weirdo plane-walk the game MAN, most of the new settings were radical departures from what came before. THE EXCEPTION WAS FORGOTTEN REALMS. FORGOTTEN REALMS HAS NO REASON TO EXIST IN A LINE THAT ALREADY HAS GREYHAWK AND DRAGONLANCE.
We travelled through the Grand Duchy, breaking out modules, doing some sandbox shit with me improvising or making up encounters or NPCs on the fly as we went along to replace the frequent casualties. Our dude is dead, where is nearest town that has Raise Dead was answered with either a diceroll, a look in the gazzeteer, or an enigmatic glance. Mystara was my introduction to the OSR. After a year or two, we moved to something different.
Carcosa: I need to revisit Carcosa and here is why.
As a premade campaign setting it is almost fatally flawed. You are immediately struck with the strangeness of the setting, the lack of spell-casting means DRASTICALLY limited tactical options in the beginning, the many coloured humans don’t have any inherent meaning and when I started I had never done a hex-crawl, read about one or participated in one.
There is not a single game that taught me more about oldskool DnD and GMing in general then Carcosa.
Character creation was boring…so I started making tables with random character traits to spice up the game since the average casualty rating was a satisfying 1.1 per session. I couldn’t prep much since the PCs could roam the map at will…so I had to think on my feet, look at possible routes, prepare a possible quest or otherwise improvise an entertaining encounter.
Spawn of Shub-niggurath random encounters are boring…so I started using Encounter Rolls properly and suddenly most of them could be interacted with, or could give some sort of information about the surrounding region in exchange for something else.
Gradually the world became alive and factions started to develop. After I had exhausted my Lovecraftian source-material I looked for other stories that could inspire and found solace in the works of Jack Vance, A. Merrit, C.A. Smith and the imagery and pulp comics of Don Lawrence. I read almost every story that was mentioned in the introduction to Carcosa and was on the lookout for more.
Technological items were mostly lame…so I changed them and replaced most of them with Lovecraftian items, or tried to add some sort of complication. It was wonderfully, hypnotically engaging and we kept it up for over 20 sessions until outside social conflict caused the group to fragment. By then we were over twenty deaths, one character was level five and had psychic powers and the Octopotamus lay dead in its poisonous swamp.
My point is this.
The Criteria for what does or does not make a good campaign setting are much more fluid then that of an adventure since a campaign settings main goal, to be something you can use to run your awesome elfgame in that makes it worth the time you invest in it while you could create your own setting, can be achieved in so many ways.
I will perfunctorily suggest a division between the Campaign Setting Primus, that is inherent to a system or setting and is meant for easy integration into a variety of playstyles and themes versus the Campaign Setting Minor, which represents a fundamental deviation therefrom and will likely have a much shorter lifespan as a result of its more narrow focus.
As I continue my foray into the material of yesteryear while rendering judgement on the campaign settings of today, I hope to codify or at least clearly illustrate my preferences for a good campaign setting to ever more elaborate heights. For now, I can only pray my rantings and ravings have left you happier and wiser then when you began reading this article.
Which reminds me. I need to get back to writing Palace. Prince, Out!
UPDATE: For those who are interested, here are my compiled play reports for Carcosa. I stopped recording them after a while, I had …5 more sessions afterward? The Nameless archer eventually died to a mounted beam weapon on a temple of serpent men in the swamp, the Octopotamus was killed and its vast hoard carried off, leaving nearly all of its green worshippers dead, and I remember vaguely an encounter with a robotic alien lab netting the PCs a spider robot with a mind-control helmet.
It was fun to dive back in the past. Thanks to everyone who commented throughout the years and those rare few who still kept it up.
Part XIII + XIV