On Campaign Settings

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.

Something…bold.

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 I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part VIII
Part IX
Part X
Part XI
Part XII
Part XIII + XIV
Part XV
Part XVI
Part XVII
Part XVIII
Part XIX
Part XX

 


19 thoughts on “On Campaign Settings

  1. I recently hacked out a setting in which to run an Old-School Essentials Stonehell campaign. I stole the map from another campaign and made a couple tweaks, same with culture and that sort of thing. It’s basically a hex map with a couple sentences about each settlement or major region. The main thing I created specifically for the campaign was an explanation of the role of each of the classes from OSE (including the advanced book, which is btw amazing).

    This sort of thing is working very well for me. The overall setting is pretty generic points-of-light, making it very easy for your idiot jock to join. I added little twists in that mostly come in during character creation – for instance, actual magic-users are outlawed, although licensed illusionists are relatively common. So you get exposition during character creation, which feels pretty organic. In fact, now that I think about it, a subtle advantage of class-based systems is that they can teach you about about the broader setting.

    There’s really a sweet spot when it comes to information presentation in any RPG product – that’s no secret. Where that point lies for me is when the text gives me a manageable number of interesting details to use as I see fit, and enough of a feel of the world to improvise freely. A town doesn’t need a pre-made roster of 50 NPCs – 2 or 3 is more than enough to get a handle on the place. Other NPCs show up as the story calls for them, and they develop and entwine themselves with the PCs over time. It’s much easier than keeping a big list of facts in your head, which slows me down in practice. Any information which isn’t useful just slows me down.

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    1. I haven’t looked into OSE just yet. Maps are the one area where I wholeheartedly encourage theft since I suck at them and there is some gorgeous, intricate territory out there that adds a layer of plausibility and depth to the game that doesn’t come out if you just draw something in paint.

      Stonehell ey? Megadungeons are an area that I still need to cross of my list. I’ll have to find a regular roster again but most of the people that I know I am either in a gaming group with or have scheduling trouble. I might need to recruit a few new uns…

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      1. [OSE]

        I have a feeling it’s going to be big. There’s already third-party stuff out there and more in the pipeline.

        [Maps]

        In this case, I repurposed my own previous map. I’ve had great success using Hexkit for wilderness maps – it’s quite pretty.

        [Megadungeons]

        This is my first in several ways: first megadungeon, first by-the-books (so to speak; this is OSR) campaign, and my first play-by-post game. The party just arrived at the site of the entrance after recruiting retainers and gearing up. It’s about to get interesting (hopefully).

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      2. @Edge

        [Stonehell]

        I command/request you to play report the fuck outta that shit. I haven’t seen a good play report since eternity. I expect grit, tales of hardwon victory and bitter defeat, the human condition expressed in 9 square feet of air surrounded by ancient rock, men holding in their guts in the darkness, and the bottomless hunger of nameless things that cannot bear the light of day.

        [OSE]

        My gut says increasing balkanization as disparate brands scrabble for market share in a movement that has reached its peak, with some making efforts to distance themselves further from any sort of unifying model. Maybe OSE is the second coming of Jaysus but I don’t think oldschool dnd can be improved as a whole, maybe refined in a particular direction, as it is with Acks and DCC.

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      3. [Stonehell]

        Yep…nameless things…check. I would love to furnish you with this report, oh prince, but the play-by-post format is proving a challenge to player initiative. I kind of expected that but it hasn’t helped.

        So far, they spent a day in town buying talking to the mayor, buying supplies and recruiting retainers. Then they took the ferry ride out the ruins and entered the valley with the dungeon. That took over a week of realtime and now, faced with the main dungeon entrance and a couple distracting caves and doors nearby, they are dithering. They are so close to the murder and gold but they are starting to lose focus.

        As hokey as it is, next time I try something like this I’ll kick it off with an in media res encounter. They might still lose focus after fighting for their lives, but at least we’ll have the fight. I don’t really blame them for this because I’ve been there, but I’d still like to get past it. Any suggestions from anyone are super-welcome.

        Here’s the thread if you’re curious: https://www.rpgpub.com/threads/old-school-essentials-stonehell.3599/

        [OSE]

        I don’t think even Gavin would claim that OSE is actually essential, despite the name. For the most part, it’s explicitly not innovative; the rules are an attempt at a 100% mechanically faithful rendition of B/X. What it brings to the table are much better organization, awesome art, and an attempt to resolve some of the ambiguities of the original text. If anything, this is the opposite of balkanization.

        Of course, the advanced fantasy genre supplements are a bit more interpretive, creatively translating a number of 1e features into B/X mechanics. And they’re planning to come out with more genre books like Asian and post-apocalyptic. Of course, the Asian material is going to be an update of Oriental Adventures plus the monk class.

        You don’t need OSE, but as a publisher, I think it’s a good system to target. If nothing else, it is highly amenable to being converted into all the B/X-derived systems out there. Stonehell was written for Labyrinth Lord, and I’ve been able to use almost all the material without change.

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      4. [Stonehell thread]

        Nice. I always envisioned the best campaign for a play by post is either domain management or a thespian wankathon. Dungeon crawling has too many split second decisions to make much progress in my imagination. I’m curious to see what sort of prose style and further rules you maintain.

        [Publisher system]

        Lord knows we need to get off Gold & Glory. I’ll keep a looksee.

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      5. [PbP Stonehell]

        This is my first PbP game, so I am making it up as I go. I’m also curious to see how we will negotiate some of the detailed decisions and activities that you’d expect. So far, I’ve been adapting my style to provide a little more up-front exposition than I would in real time, just to cut down on the back-and-forth. And if a player proposes a non-controversial decision and half or more of the rest of the players like his or her post, then I act on it immediately. It’s interesting because the format forces me to break some of my cardinal rules for how I run things at the table.

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    2. Stonehell ought be easy to integrate into any vanilla campaign setting. All you need is a nearby settlement or two with a supply of hirelings and equipment, and there is every chance of interesting play. I agree that starting bare bones and adding as needed is a good approach. There could be official positions to fill, with PCs taking some of them; a boom town expansion, with rival adventuring groups, thieves and fences; the Duke’s tax collector could put in an appearance. I believe Barrowmaze Complete actually has some of this sort of detail. (I only ever picked up Barrowmaze I and II.)

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      1. Stonehell is definitely easy to integrate into a vanilla setting because it’s a vanilla megadungeon. Of course, what kind of GM would I be if I resisted the impulse to put my own fingerprint on it all? I decided to reskin goblins into Zog, a race the party has never heard of before. The orcs are now just known as pig-men. We’ll see how long it takes them to catch on.

        Barrowmaze Complete has exactly that kind of detail, but it crosses the line I was talking about in terms of quantity. Too many NPCs and a little too long-winded. But I do really like the little portrait illustrations that were included for most of them.

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  2. I miss your Carcosa APs. They were top-notch gamemastering porn, unlike a certain Uruguayan fugitive’s DCC campaign reports, whose sole purpose seems to remind his stoner players whatever idiotic (I mean, “gonzo”) stream-of-semi-consciousness pseudo-sandbox their Phone Magick Master ad-libbed the week before.

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    1. Hey thanks dude. If it wasn’t for you guys commenting and egging me on, I don’t think I would have kept it up as long as I did. I mean that sincerely, thanks a lot. I wish we could still chill out at YDIS but it has degenerated beyond even my standards which is a shame.

      I tried to read Pundit’s play reports once but they seem designed more as memetic horse-tranquilizers then anything intelligible or inspiring. Nine sentences in the central nervous system shuts down. One shudders to conceive of actually playing in his games.

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  3. Sounds like you had an excellent Dark Heresy campaign. My feelings about DH are mixed. It ought to have been great. The game didn’t really seem to know whether the PCs should have huge resources to call on, or whether they were members of the Penal Legion. (Maybe games should have started with a funnel, with say 2000XP and money/equipment for the survivors.) It should have been easy to referee. You could play “Planet of the Week”: bespoke missions PCs were compelled to attempt, but given considerable latitude in how to proceed; different adventure flavours, sometimes espionage/detection, sometimes dark humour, the odd moral dilemma; wildly different technology levels and conditions. But the official adventures were a disappointment. I liked the free starter
    Edge of Darkness (in a crime slum). But it got no better. The adventure with the referee screen had overwhelming opponents. And then the Haarlock trilogy came along, with a foe so dangerous that half the Inquisitors in the sector should have been assigned. How did the conversations go? PCs’ Inquisitor: “Yes, the whole sector is in peril. I’ve sent a few moderately experienced, poorly equipped acolytes to deal with it. And you, Inquisitor BogBrush, have your vast forces solved the toilet roll thefts yet?” “Yes, I’m almost sure it is Necrons. Or maybe the janitor, who has recently opened up a grocery store with a 3 for 2 offer on triple ply paper.”
    And whilst the WFRP2e rules are a very sound system for WFRP, I’m not sure they were such a good fit for DH.

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    1. So I will agree that Dark Heresy the ruleset was almost a piece of shit and errata was mandatory. Plasma guns were garbage, everything with Aim got a much needed overhaul, a fucking credit system made ZERO SENSE so everyone was fortunately given an influence statt later and without Inquisitor’s handbook it felt like you had half the book. Oh yeah and Disciples of the Dark Gods was a virtually MANDATORY expansion if you were a beginning GM and didn’t know the lore, but then again, if you did it was fucking amazeballs.

      I never even GLANCED at any of the starting adventures and only about halfway into my campaign I read them out of idle curiosity because I read everything else. Long story short Meh. The campaign involving captain Haarlock was a linear shitfest even if the lore was interesting and while the lore was great, the adventure itself sucked. I made ersatz hexcrawls on the virus-bombed ruins of the Meritech Cluster, tried a horror dungeoncrawl in out-of-contact astropathic relay stations at the edge of the sector, did investigation shit in the feudal-world of Acreage and got everyone stranded on a Spacehulk. It rocked and I still had material left by the time we hit ascenscion, which is when I got kind of burned out.

      The final revelation was a little underwhelming, nowhere near some of the other possible solutions for the Tyrant Star, which was the Sector’s #1 mystery.

      DH 2e for the rules, 1e for the lore.

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