World Building – Setting and theme (Aka Ramblings about campaigns)

First off, I want to give a shout out to the folks at Ludus Ludorm.  Graham has a great site and there’s quite a few poignant articles on world building, statistics and general gaming. I loved his post on pantheons, and will probably borrow some of what he’s set up for my own campaign.

There are relatively few ideas out there that are truly original, and even when I have come up with something that I thought was unique and exciting, I’ve found there are similar themes out there.  One of the ones I was really excited about, was in the mid 90’s I came up with an idea about an advanced civilization of humans who had suffered a catastrophic defeat against a race of genocidal aliens, and to survive they retreated to a world and gave up much of their high-tech goodies in order to survive and not be detected.  Wrote up a whole setting for it, complete with social castes, a religion, and rebels. And a plot to overthrow society to regain humanity’s heritage.  Imagine my surprise when I read the Safehold series by David Weber a few years ago. But I digress.

So the challenge for myself is to create a setting that is powerful, memorable, and believable.  Players need to be able to suspend their disbelief in order to really buy into the setting. They need something to care about, and there needs to be conflict in which they can choose to participate in.  I’m also  a huge fan of moral ambiguity. Things are rarely black and white and even when it appears to be that way you can see that the black and the white are both shades greyer than one would like.  I’ve always felt that player’s need to be faced with hard moral choices.

So what’s worked, and what hasn’t in my previous campaigns?   In the Red Sun Rising setting, the players were tasked with rebuilding an extinct minor clan in L5R.   They had some resources, and were able to secure a lasting legacy for their PC’s lineages by their actions.  And while there were NPC’s, the players ultimately were the ones that the most to gain, and their actions also resonated throughout the setting.  By empowering them they could make allies or enemies with different clans and could shape the outcome of the chronicle through those decisions.  Also, in addition to the diplomacy (or lack there of) they were able to take a much more direct approach by how they solved problems.  The metaplot was epic in scope.  It was world changing, and had real ramifications on the empire.  My players loved it, and many felt it was as epic as the Day of Thunder storyline which drew us all to L5R in the first place.

In that setting, the Emperor has near infinite power. The clans all owe fealty to him, and all property is ultimately his.  The Emperor also claimed this by the fact his lineage was direct descendents of divinity. Early on I saw some sub-themes of Excalibur (the Land and the King are one) however the published setting went away from this.  I took that and ran.  I also decided that since the Hantei bloodline still had some power, it was a far-cry from what the original members of the bloodline wielded.  What is an ambitious prince to do?  In our villain’s case, he opted to try and steal more divine power for himself. In part, to fix what he saw as a huge imbalance in the world.

By putting the empire into crisis, where drought threatened famine, and disaster, I was able to give the villain a sympathetic reason for his actions.  He’s trying to save his empire from ruin.   He doesn’t believe his older siblings are capable of making the hard choices.

As the campaign moved on, the players began to realize their placement and the timing of their good fortune wasn’t all that it seemed.  Despite being the chief protagonists, they couldn’t exist in a vacuum in that setting.  So they needed to be involved in bigger picture.  I’ve had a tendency to do info dumps on the players.  Mostly because I want them to participate in the bigger picture.  Unfortunately a good deal gets lost in translation.   In L5R the players were familiar enough with the setting, I could simply focus on listing out the information of the bigger picture through scenes and roleplay as the game grew.

As it continued, they had to deal with immediate threats, such as bandits, shadowlands raids, border skirmishes with neighboring clans. However they began to see the broader threat which included a corrupt emperor, the destabilization of the heavens, a growing civil insurrection, and civil war.

Ultimately, they did stop the threat, was able to save the emperor’s sister, who became empress, and they changed the face of Rokugan not only for their current game, but for games since.

It’s been difficult to capture that success.  Part of it is myself, as my enthusiasm or time was limited, other times it was my player base.  Having one of my primary players quit playing for a long time (girlfriend aggro) put a damper on the group. Plus, life gets in the way from time to time.

Also, it seems hard to regain that rags to riches style of epic play.  The first part of the game, they were struggling to survive, making choices on the future of their nascent clan and families. Later once survival was no longer their primary concern, they could look at the bigger picture and how things impacted their plans.  The final five games we played were some of the best roleplay I’ve seen from my group.  They spent hours just discussing amongst themselves what they needed to do.  And when I turned up the pressure during the entire climax, by introducing a shadowlands force threatening their very lands and the lives of their families, the decisions and sacrifices made their decisions all the more relevant and impactful.  In the end, two stayed behind to act as generals, while the remainder of the party made a mad dash across the empire to try and save the princess.  Watching them choose to ride along side the Lost Moto, was perhaps the sweetest moment for myself as a storyteller.

They still talk about that campaign, and it was nearly a decade ago now. Why then haven’t we been able to recapture that?  As I alluded to previously, I believe it’s a combination of things.  In L5R, I believe it was setting fatigue.  I’ve ran that game so much that I found myself jealous of the players on more than one occasion and wished I could just play.  Subconsciously, I probably self sabotaged those games.   Likewise, just general burn out.  When we put a great deal of effort and time into a long running campaign it can drain creativity. It seemed like no-matter what I ran, it was spin offs or reruns of previous campaigns or stories.  Almost if I was trapped by the very setting I so loved.   The players too fell into ruts.  They almost always played the same character concepts over and over again, and instead of getting something new and fresh, it felt like we were trapped in rerun land.  We tried a couple of high-tech games, where the unfamiliarity with the rules and settings made the players cautious, and resulted in info dumps that made it hard for them to really get some buy in.   In short, it was the perfect storm to prematurely end almost every game we played for four years.

So what’s changed?  Why now?  D&D is the system we’re using now, and in many ways it gives my players a sense of nostalgia.  The rules are smooth and familiar enough that they’re not getting in the way of the game play.  Having a western fantasy setting has given me a blank slate to put things together and paint my own picture, free of many of the constraints of L5R.

The idea I had in this fantasy setting, involved a world on the cusp of being conquered by the forces of darkness/evil etc.   While I’m not familiar with the 4th edition D&D setting (points of light) which seems to be the aftermath of something similar, I’m pulling my inspiration from L5R and the Clan War saga, as well as A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin is a bastard) Conan the Barbarian, Dragonage, Dragon Lance, and similar fantasy tropes that are undoubtedly lurking in the back of my head.

I love to take and mash together bits and pieces from other fantasy settings, and freely admit to swiping parts of my setting wholesale from other games.  I loved how elves were treated in Dragonage as an example. It hints at the traditional tropes that define elves but turns those tropes on their head.  In Dragonage the elves faced off against a human empire, and despite their magical prowess, ultimately were subjugated and had much of their culture co-opted or outright destroyed.  Flash forward a handful of centuries  and the elves are free though are second class citizens by humans. Most live in special enclaves in the cities, while small groups of them living a nomadic existence while they attempt to reclaim some of their past.  It still pays homage to the trope, without being consumed by it. I pretty much lifted that story element wholesale and planted it into my world. Plus, it saves me some time and effort by allowing me to tweak the element I want, and add it with minor tweaks.

I started the campaign in a more classic setting, one which was a traditional high fantasy setting where kingdoms clashed. I quickly realized I had gone into info-dump mode and the players were kind of shrugging off the info they got and instead focused more on their PC’s abilities and such.  In short, they didn’t really care.  The info dump removed mystery and discovery.

So looking at the themes I wanted to incorporate, I decided to throw them into the beginnings of a war.  I wanted more mystery and the chance for them to become epic.  I snatched them out of the current setting and deposited them into this new land.  There information is scarce.  They have to fight for scraps of information, either through role-play or research. The threat has been foreshadowed both by a deity,  The mistress of ravens, and personal experience.  They witnessed attacks upon a fortified town, and witnessed the devastation caused by a dragon upon said town.  Much of which has been implied, not directly seen.

Between that, and the impact of their actions upon some of the populace, they’ve started to really discuss what their alignments mean, and how they’re portraying their PC’s.  Also, now given the hints of information that has been dropped out, they’re unsure if the main civilization (human) is as good as they thought it was originally.

More to come….

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6 thoughts on “World Building – Setting and theme (Aka Ramblings about campaigns)

  1. You bring up alot of interesting (and common) DM’ing issues, how have you handled players playing outside of their Alignment? I’ve been on the player side of wanting to play chaotically, but trying to adhere to a character’s Lawful side.

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  2. Getting back into a alignment mindset is perhaps the hardest part of running D&D again. The vast majority of games I’ve ran had morality quantified in vastily differing ways from the classic alignment matrix. That being said TV tropes has great articles on alignment which have proved useful. In particular I really enjoyed the articles on lawful good/neutral vs being lawful stupid. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CharacterAlignment

    In our last session a couple of PC’s were really into trophy taking. They liked to skin various nonhumanoid enemies and make boots or cloaks out of the hide and skin. The NPC’s who witnessed these acts recoiled in horror, and after our out of character discussion one player decided his pc would have an epiphany and change his actions to more reflect his chaotic good alignment. As he was trying to skin the dead dragonborn warrior, he realized they weren’t so different than him, and started to question his actions. The other pc, was chaotic neutral, merely stopped the practice due to peer pressure.

    In the balance of things it was good fun. I figure characters will slip up from time to time and I just try and track their behavior. If its more in line with another alignment I’d probably just shift them there and try and reflect those changes in the game. NPC’s might comment on how he’s developed a lack of or has little respect for the laws etc. Evil PCs will be shunned for their villainous ways, or other such complications. In short try and make the change into a personal story for the character.

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  3. Wow, there is so much here I can empathize with! Your material came to my attention through my friend Gray, whose pantheon material you mentioned at the beginning of your article, and also from the really excellent argument you made on one of my own articles on the Ludus site. It really strikes me that we are all struggling with a host of similar issues related to how games, campaigns and settings work.
    We’ve been trying to address many of the same issues over on our site, and I particularly empathize with your points about trying to create a dynamic setting that is adaptable and allows the players to integrate into the world without having to have a huge “info dump” session.
    In the past we’ve used established settings, much as you did with L5R (which seemed like an intriguing world to me, but which I only know from a brief time when my gaming group played the trading card game).
    Our vehicle of choice was Greyhawk, and it worked quite well for many years. We managed to keep the campaigns going for nearly a decade by alternating DMs (Gray and I traded off fairly regularly) and allowing players to swap characters in and out of various campaigns so we avoided the stagnation and burnout you mention above. It was a great experience, but it finally came to a sputtering end when outside life intruded, just as you noted happened to your own group.
    The new edition helped bring me back in to the game, playing with a small group at the campus where I teach. A friend and colleague started up a weekly session using the play-test rules for a group of faculty who had mostly either never played or had not played in years. I was shocked by how quickly I got back into it. It felt like I had never left. I simply had to get my old group back together.
    Still, with the new edition I really wanted to get back into the process of being a demiurge, a creator of worlds. That was always the part of DMing that appealed most to me. So, I sat down over the summer and tried to really come up with a world that could have serious legs, with room and variety enough for years of play and multiple campaigns. I’ve really tried to start back at the beginning and think about what a D&D world should be like and what the system means for the setting. I’m also trying to tackle a lot of the issues you bring up about having a setting that can change and that makes it possible to start over or introduce new material without having to totally scrap the whole thing. I’m developing all this over on the Ludus site, but what I think is really great is that the new edition has got a bunch of us back into the game and really thinking about what makes a great setting for D&D. I look forward to reading more about how your campaign develops and how you deal with these archetypal setting issues.

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    1. Hey I appreciate the feedback and the commentary. I hope that I can give some small insights that folks can use. I’ve certainly taken quite a bit from your group’s blog already. Storytelling and gaming are a passion of mine and I enjoy discussing it.

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  4. I can definitely appreciate the worth of a setting that strays from the classic g v e of most high fantasy. The new fantasy movement of the last decade has done a great job painting in grays with the black and whites.

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  5. I agree Flannel, while the classic G vs E can be fun, and epic as well, I always felt that when we followed that trope, I was personally always less invested in the game than I was when there were harder choices to make.

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