A gentleman by the name of ~ZOZ asked to see more OSR campaign setting reviews since Bryce doesn’t touch them. Well and good, says I, I’ve reviewed some in the past, but I’ve never really made any of my standards explicit. With the purpose of increasing usability I shall do so now.
This post focuses on the standards for a campaign setting for DnD or related OSR games. General standards for what makes a good campaign setting are dependent on the underlying assumptions of each game in question and are likely to lead to meaningless generalities.
So any set of standards begins with some assumptions. I am assuming the campaign setting under review is actually meant to be used as the basis for a campaign, not mined for ideas that can be plonked down in one’s home campaign. While some might scoff at the notion that a real GM can set his campaign in someone else’s setting, I would posit the following:
1. Unless you chucked out the monstrous manual, overhauled all the spells, redid all the magic items, and wrote some custom classes while you were at it, your campaign setting is likely to operate under a plethora of assumptions and utilize countless elements that are, in effect, a campaign setting, implicit or explicit.
2. People run games in Empire of the Petal Throne, Carcosa, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dark Sun and plenty of other shit.
As I might have mentioned before, I believe there is a meaningful distinction to be made between two types of campaign settings for DnD. I call them Type A and Type B because I my soul is a withered husk from reviewing modern Lamentations adventures. Permit me to refine/revise them here. Identifying what a campaign setting is trying to do makes sense if you are going to judge how well it is helping you do it.
Type A campaign settings operate on more or less the same underlying parameters as oldschool DnD, and can even be traced back to Appendix N or a subset thereof. That means your setting is going to have dungeons, players starting as low level characters of humble means that must make their way in the world, wizards that cast vancian magic, a world populated by the ruins of old civilizations, a wilderness pseudo-medieval technology level etc. etc. etc. There might be a new class here and some spiffy magical items, monsters, and places to explore there, but you are not fundamentally altering what DnD is really about. These campaign settings tend to be diverse, open and have lots of potential for accommodating different styles of play.
Examples: Greyhawk, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Forgotten Realms, Erde, the Lost Lands, Ahmerth and most hexcrawls would fall under this.
Type B is where there is significant deviation from the underlying assumptions of Core DnD and is often much more specific with regards to what a campaign is meant to be about in terms of theme, adventure, style of play and so on. They also tend to be WEIRD, but there is no law that states they have to be. The defining feature of Type B is that it tries to differentiate itself from what DnD is generally offering.
Examples: Carcosa, Meatlandia, Birthright. Arguably Ravenloft or Midnight.
I’ve run long term campaigns in Mystara’s Grand Duchy, Carcosa and the world of Warhammer 40k. These were some of the reasons why I selected them and not others.
Ease of use: No different from standards for a good module, a good campaign setting makes it easy to transform inert content into a session of play. All the rules of readability, clarity, an index, references, compatability with the core game etc. still apply. A certain efficiency is expected. Does the setting convey its core concepts and assumptions so I can pick which part of it I will begin my setting fairly easily or must the entire work be assimilated first and a first game carefully set up?
Depth: Perhaps the bane of ease of use, Depth is important because it is the pillar on which rests Immersion, one of the Holy Trinity of DnD. Is the game a living, breathing world, or is it only a stage consisting of inns, dungeons and item shops? A setting without depth falls apart after a single question from a curious PC, the illusion is shattered, and suddenly your game becomes a whole lot less serious. What is the size of the garrison in the City of Kelvin? How do the people of Penhaglion stay alive? Why is raise dead commonly available yet no one ever seems to use it?
These seemingly innocuous details enable the GM to extrapolate the ramifications of PC actions and make the world seem alive, and more importantly, generate adventure! If the answer is that it doesn’t matter just get in the dungeon since we are running Tower of the Raggi for the umpteenth time, you are dealing with a low depth setting.
Potential Energy: I noticed it poorly in Isle of the Unknown or the Gazzeteer of Darokin and I noticed it had been done well in Chronicles of Ahmerth and Carcosa. A campaign setting with high potential energy is described in terms of exciting events, either ongoing or with the possibility of happening with minor upheaval. A campaign setting with low potential energy has features described in thick, static blocks of exposition, cities with no troubles, NPCs with static attributes and nation states co-existing in glazy-eyed harmony or slack-jawed enmity.
High potential energy means TERRIBLE AND EXCITING THINGS CAN HAPPEN. The Duke has been nurturing resentment against the king and is waiting for the right time. The City of A Thousand Towers is dependent on precious grain along a single passage through the World Spine Mountains! The Denarians and the Hapulians live in uneasy peace…until now! Too little and your setting is an inert piece of shit that makes the GM do all the lifting himself, too much and your game is gonzo.
Originality: In this current climate, I think originality is probably overrated. I’ve seen too many wacky fucking settings that you would rather commit seppuku then play in floating around in the d20 era and in the OSR so its bears repeating that too often weirdness is used as a crutch for deficient craftsmanship. That being said, if you are going to use someone else’s setting the least you can do is expect that setting to excite and entice, to spark the imagination, as opposed to induce boredom and depression. If you are going to do another vanilla DnD setting, at least give me a reason why I shouldn’t use one of the n settings that came before it.
Appeal: A compelling setting can make you forgive many flaws. Dark Heresy 1st edition is by no means perfect, but it has so many compelling elements and the universe of Warhammer 40k is laced with so many exciting possiblities that it becomes much more appealing to invest the time. Carcosa is probably an even better example. When it comes to useability Carcosa has many defects but it has an undeniable attraction to me that inspired me to make something out of it, come up with house rules, fix some of the broken systems etc. etc.
Suggestions or commentary welcome. Have you ever run a game in a campaign setting or do you always make your own?
We’ll see how well I uphold my own standards as I review Gaz 1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos next.