Go Directly to Settings Prison

How do you like that? I add a new link to a blog which focuses on good ol’ fashioned Greyhawk, and then I bash settings? It isn’t anything personal, mate. It’s just some stuff that I want to get off of my chest.

To start off, I want to tell you a story. RELAX!!! I’ll make it quick. When I first got into DMing, I had played under a bunch of different DMs, almost exclusively in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting. By this time, there were hundreds of books detailing what color of shoes that Elimenster wore on Mondays, and giant tomes about all of the fabulous stuff that Volo discovered. IT WAS TOO MUCH!!! I wanted to DM but I didn’t know where to begin! The amount of material available for Forgotten Realms drove me off. Instead I picked up this awesome box set called RAVENLOFT which was based off of gothic horror, a subject that I know VERY well. Above Role-playing, I am a horror geek. This thing was awesome! I picked up everything Ravenloft that I could, which wasn’t too hard, as it didn’t take an encyclopedia collection to run. The drawbacks were that it was designed for a one or two shot deal, however it did become immensely popular cause guys love werewolves!

I understand the need for settings. I honestly do, however I think that they are a giant crutch too. I seem to remember some designer bitching because people were brand-whores back in the 90’s, and we were because it was designed that way! They thought that we could just run a Dark Sun module in a Al-Quadim setting, and you couldn’t! All of the rules were different and it just took more retooling then what it was worth. I have always been kind of jaded about modern modules anyway. I wouldn’t care if they were what they said that they were, 1 shot deals, but they aren’t! They got some story that has got nothing to do with what you as a DM are doing. SURE it’s a fancy story, but big deal. You can have all of the plot in the worlds, but that doesn’t mean that it is good for the game.

Lets slow down, I’m getting too far ahead of myself.

The settings, I believe, were designed to take away some of the work involved in building your own world. They also showed you the formula that it took to construct your own settings as well, how to organize stuff, what cities should look like, how to retool the rules and tailor them into exciting forms that keep your PCs off-guard.

It would be one thing, if that is all it was. One or two box sets, and a handful of modules to get you started with. Now I some of us do some bitching because we see this as a marketing ploy, and it is!!! Old TSR, as much as I loved them, hid lots and lots of information in lots and lots of different products. THIS WASN’T GOOD MARKETING!!!! In fact, this was the opposite of good marketing. Granted, in my opinion they did make up for it in some ways by putting out the greatest monstrous manual of all time, as well as wonderful Monsterous Compidiums. THIS IS STREAMLINING!!! This is making lots of information easy to find.

Lets take the worst example of a setting that there was. PLANESCAPE! Now I don’t doubt that I’ll be getting heat for picking on Planescape, but as far as scary information that did more to hurt the game then to help it, there was no greater sinner then Planescape.

It didn’t become, we’ll put this product out so that you have a clearer idea on how to run your campaign, it became STREAMLINED into creating a “definitive” world. And by definitive I mean that you can take a character that you are playing in Planescape under one DM and go play under a different DM playing in the setting as well, and they should be the same setting.

This has got to be the largest hunk of bull$hit that we’ve ever been spoonfed. As soon as you open the box and roll up characters, the DM’s world is no longer TSR’s. It’s no longer definitive because our first job as a DM is to make a total mess of it. THAT RIGHT THERE IS THE VERY BASIS OF THE GAME!

Planescape didn’t streamline anything. It didn’t make it easier to play, in fact, it did the opposite. It made it incredibly hard! Instead of just rolling dice and making it up totally randomly, now we have to read a box set, buy a stupid module that is over priced for some damned map that will make Stan the Warrior, who specializes in Planescapes lore, feels at home and that he is infact in Planescape. Meanwhile, you just spent 50 bucks on what use to be randomly generated for free!!!! And TSR has the nerve to call me a little bitch for complaining, and turn it around saying that they’ve got to make money?

Making money is cool, but I honestly think that there are better ways to make it, then by putting out an entire book that details monster mythology. That used to be in the Legends & Lore tome that we won’t give up because the latest and greatest edition didn’t bother to put it in.

NOT ALL OF TSR’S BOOKS WERE UTTER CRAP!!! A good deal of them were worth the money. I loved the Handbook series. I felt that I got my money’s worth out of each of them. Granted, I didn’t pick up all of them. Creating an entire book on the selling power of making Bards more Bardier wasn’t enough for me. Again, I’m straying from my own topic.

Settings, as soon as you put out too many sourcebooks on making “Living and Breathing” Settings, you’ve screwed yourself. Dark Sun looked like an awesome campaign setting! I wouldn’t know because I couldn’t figure out what book was the core rule book. They stopped publishing it, and instead just make more box sets that refered you to some rulebook that was already out of print! Forgotten Realms, I believe, was the same way. It was just too damned big, and the dream was a bubble. Steve, the DM down the street ran a different Forgotten Realms then Jake, and there was always at least 45 minutes of bitching between the players about how So-And-So don’t do it that way, and it is suppose to be Streamlined.

Streamlined, GOD I hate that word. No good has ever come out of its usage. You might as well just change it to “breaking it before it ever had a chance to function correctly“.

My own favorite setting, Ravenloft, got busted too, and by an excellent book, mind you!

Ravenloft was designed for a weekend of terror, but folks like me just kind of happily stayed there. TSR finally updated the setting by giving it a nice Hardbound book called Domains of Dread that attempted to fix lots of things. Now you could make characters that were Native to Ravenloft, THANK YOU!!! Of course we were all ready doing this, but the book made it much cooler by adding racial bonuses depending on what domain that you were born in. However, in it’s attempt to “streamline” the setting, it made maps that were utterly worthless, updated it so that all of the events that took place in all of their Ravenloft modules already happened, destroyed domains like Darken, which were fan favorites, and worst of all, added a damned Timeline to events that took place. WHAT!?!?! Parts of the Timeline was cool, when each lord became imprisoned in the realm, but adding all of the modules into it . . . BROKEN!!!!

But the biggest thing that turns the setting into a prison, is when you are a DM like myself. I think that the game really caters to those who enjoy working within restrictions and guidelines. WE LOVE IT!!! A part of us actually does want to play under the “DEFINITIVE” Forgotten Realms Setting, and the DEFINITIVE Planescape setting, and that creates a serious problem. WE BECOME AFRAID TO INVENT!!!!

I am horrible about it, man! Say I want to take the players into the land of Barovia, WELL BY GOD IT HAS GOT TO BE BAROVIA!!! And I’ll by the adventure with Straud, just to get the castle map! And By God I will be a hero to the entire world for doing it! My players will be able to pick up a Ravenloft novel and say BY GOD! I’VE BEEN THERE AND I BOUGHT THE SOUVENIR ASHTRAY TO PROVE IT!

But what about stuff that don’t have a clear map. They never made a module about Anton Misroi, by god I’LL TACKLE THAT LORD!!! His stats are in the book, but I’ve got to build his house and really flesh out the land of Souragne, and you spend your life’s blood on building it up . . . And then . . . And then some stupid book comes out and all of your plans crumble like a house of cards.

How is that good for the game? They invent hooks and suggest plots, and then a few years later they fill them out in a way that the average DM just can’t compete with. Thus, we get stuck in our prisons. We’ll wait, instead of actually doing the work ourselves, and saying SCREW YOU TSR!!! I bought this, this is my game, and I’m going to play it my way, we always end up caving and picking up the modules, just to look at the maps, because lets face it, the stories are crap!!!

I got this one called Web of Illusions, and it is an unplayable railroad job from hell! The actual maps are good, but the module itself has absolutely zero encounters in it. The players cannot deviate at all! Myst was more hands-on then this adventure was. BUT THE MAP AND KEY WAS AWESOME!!!!

I think that THIS should had been their focus. If they would had stuck to that kind of plan, just putting out books of maps and NPCs, they probably wouldn’t had lost their shirts to Wizards of the Coast. Now, Wizards is falling into the same trap. Trying to make money by calling something STREAMLINED just because “Bill” down in marketing said it was.

PUT OUT THE SETTINGS!!! But BUILD upon them. Put out material that people want, and need to run their games, instead of railroad jobs on glossy paper. Put your fancy writers to work on developing traps that blow us away. On constructing maps that we might actually get some use out of!!! Put out an entire compendium of maps! Bring back the old box sets, you put enough maps and keys to cool places, trust me, DM’s will pick them up! Leave all of that fancy 4e stuff to the curb, you don’t need it when you are producing maps. Quit telling us not to make 3rd level PCs fight 15th level monsters, and let us divvy out treasure like we see fit. YOU put out stuff that we need, and can get some use out of, and we’ll fork over the cash! Give us stuff that we can lay into our games, regardless of what we play.

But alas, that is NEVER going to happen. Dungeons and Dragons is going to continue to divide its player base by making more rules. RULES!!! Take away the storytellers, take away the mystery, take away stuff that if we wanted it gone we would had ignored it already, and that is all you get is cold, streamlined rules that don’t care. THAT WILL PUT BUTTS AROUND THE TABLE!!!!

It really is a shame. You take the Dungeon Master out of the equation, and nobody is happy. All of my new players have tried e3 but were dissatisfied with it. Get them around a table with experienced players and a DM that knows what he’s doing, and just look at the light that comes on in their eyes. THIS IS ROLE-PLAYING!!!! It isn’t about rules, it isn’t about chopping up ogres with giant broadswords, or casting spells, or any of that stuff!!!! It makes it interesting, but that isn’t role-playing. Role-playing isn’t always about finding the easiest way out, or collecting treasure, and fighting hordes of armed goblins. It’s about sitting down and using your head with your friends and turning the world off for a couple of hours. Rent is due, but right now I have to save a princess from a burning tower before the dragon-lich eats her.

I may sound really critical with this post, and I guess that I am, however I am targeting myself too. I am targeting my own weaknesses, because I am just now realizing that somewhere, some how, I became lost. I fell into this trap where I have to construct stories that blow my players away, and I need a setting, but more, I need to know every nook and cranny about it. I need to compete with these damned modules, and I just didn’t realize how imperfect that they were!

I know better too. I think that anybody who studies my gaming logs can see that I know better. All I need is NPC’s, a couple of decent maps, and an idea on where I think the PCs want to go. How this evolved into me spending countless hours drafting complex plots and storylines isn’t a secret to me, but it is frustrating that I do it. When I over think something, I’ll never be pleased with it. NEVER! My most shining moments have always been by the seat of my pants, I’ve got my NPC’s and I just let them tell the story, well, them and the PCs. Listening to the Players always leads to better results then when I just sit here on my computer and tell the story with no input at all besides my own fickle fantasies.

All of this spawns because of a brilliant post by James Maliszewski on his blog Grognardia. I had forgotten how much FUN randomness can be. I still use it, when the players head off of the map, you can either ask them to stop, or just blow smoke out of your butt, and if they do something cool that you hadn’t even thought of . . . Well, then they just earned themselves some magic swag in my magic restrictive world, and that stuff is always rolled up randomly.

RANDOM RPGing!!! This is what separates the tabletop gaming from it’s computer gaming kin. Randomness within the illusion of logic. It is the random factors that always make the best war stories. It’s never talking about storylines or plots or twists or hooks or any of that stuff!!! It is the time that you went to go fight Blacky Beard the retarded dragon and got mixed up with a party of orcs that slaughtered you. They killed the healer, but you couldn’t turn back! So you went ahead and fought the dragon anyway and you would had won too, if it hadn’t been for them damned orcs!

Lesson learned, my man! Now, lets just see if I can fix my sloppy behavior of being inflexible . . .


Noumenon said...

Say I want to take the players into the land of Barovia, WELL BY GOD IT HAS GOT TO BE BAROVIA!!! And I’ll buy the adventure with Straud, just to get the castle map! And By God I will be a hero to the entire world for doing it! My players will be able to pick up a Ravenloft novel and say BY GOD! I’VE BEEN THERE AND I BOUGHT THE SOUVENIR ASHTRAY TO PROVE IT!

I love it when you get enthusiastic. Fortunately, you're almost always enthusiastic!

Anonymous said...

I can't argue a bit with your thesis. It's true and I would venture a guess to say that no pre-made setting has ever "streamlined" play or will ever make things easy for the DM. Even on my beloved Traveller no two Referees ever have the same take on the Traveller Universe (i.e. The Imperium).

However with D&D, I think Greyhawk came the closest. Not in a true streamlining sense, but in that within the folio/boxset it provided just enough information for a DM to take it and run.

The problem came IMO, when individual creativity began to wane. At some point a huge number of DMs stopped creating their own worlds and spin offs of Greyhawk and wanted someone to do all the work for them. Why? I still don't know after all these years. Maybe it was pure laziness? Who knows?

But Forgotten Realms came in and as it expanded over into 2e it became bloated with how to do x, y, and z. It seemed to try to eliminate the need for DM creativity. As the other settings followed, they went even further down the path.

What I would consider streamlining and what TSR considered streamlining were to very different beasts. TSR's streamlining was to provide a system that was 100% complete and all the DM had to do was have players create characters to dump into the world. Then all the DM would have to do is read the boxed text from the FR modules and roll dice when needed. If a question came up that concerned the setting, either the answer was in the setting books or there was a chart he could roll a couple of dice against.

It is not a mystery to me how we went from OD&D and 1e where the DM was the creator, controller, and arbiter of the settings and worlds in the game to 3.x where the GM was becoming nothing more than a fleshy dice tower that dropped numbers for the monsters.

When will D&D finally become the game that it has been moving towards all these years, D&D Monopoly. Where there will be no need for a GM at all. Some player will be named as the Treasure Keeper and another will be named the Experience Keeper. As one progresses with his official collectible D&D mini around the mapboard and kills a monster without being sent straight to the Nine Hells without passing the Adventurers Guild, then he can collect his Treasure and Experience.

Remember to try to avoid the Adventurers Tax and especially the 4 Geas locations - the side adventures on those are so damn railroady it isn't even funny.

If one is lucky they might even land on the Dragons Hoard and collect the free 500gp (more if you are using the optional rule that all the Adventurer Taxes get deposited into the Dragons Hoard).

Yup it will eventually happen.


RipperX said...

Oh No!!! D&D Monopoly would never work, because people would lose the game, and we don't want that!!!

Hilarious analogy, welcome to the blog!

Settings, I think are a two-edged sword. I have always used them to focus more on my DMing skills, I think that I am ready now, to create my own world. I've tried in the past, but I think that I was just too young and inexperienced to know what to really do with it.

My current campaign takes place in a cool setting called Masque of the Red Death, it is perfect! It contains a great box set, and only two supplemental books full of stuff that are actually useful. It is based on our own world in the year 1890, so finding other stuff is a challange, but honestly, my players haven't been to many locals outside of the US, so I can afford to be inventive. If you are a history geek, it is a ton of fun!

Settings can help a DM's game or destroy it. I think that the biggest factor on home-brewed worlds were the pcs themselves. Mine weren't all that interested in adventuring in what they felt was a generic setting, and if you make them do it, then they aren't going to be totally into the game, but just going through the motions, if not actually bitching about it.

Secular Transhumanist said...

No offense taken!

But one of the things I absolutely love about Greyhawk (well, the Gygax-era Greyhawk) is, I think, exactly what you're getting at. It's skeletal. Not overly-described. That original Folio edition was brilliant because it gave you just enough to get you started, and then it LET YOU FUCKING DESIGN FOR YOURSELF.

I think I'll post on this subject tonight. Thanks!

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