Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Setting" part 1

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: What a Wonderful World
            Last week and the week prior I talked about making monsters more exotic and interesting and pointing to various examples of othered creatures in fiction.  (“Exotic Monsters” part 1 and part 2).  This week I am going to start talking about a bigger and more fun concept, world building.
            Generally speaking the Game Guy’s job can break into 3 sections: provide challenge, provide a narrative thru line, and provide a world.
            Challenges, to me are the easy one.  There are 10,000 ways to arrange the monsters and traps present in the core books, ways to make them tougher, ways to make them simpler.  It can be difficult to eyeball all the math that goes into these things, but generally speaking given trial and error you will learn the sweet spots.  This is a thing that can only really come with practice because even if you take a carefully crafted dungeon made by someone who publishes material for a living, if you do not understand HOW the elements come together then the whole thing will play in a clunky fashion.

"Just eyeball it, I want to play!"
             Narrative thru lines are (again, to me) another easier element.  Giving a bad guy with a clear motivation, minions that follow him for a discernable reason, people who will be victimized by his actions, and rewards for defeating the cad.  Players often have to bring their own motivations for the WHY they are participating in the story, you can’t control everything, but this is the bare bones of what you need.  Greater complexity to the whys and hows come with time, but judging by many video game stories the only motivation the villain needs by most player’s perceptions is this, “He’s just an asshole”.
            Quick aside to players: you are here to play.  If you want your character to be a dangerous loner who has no interest in saving the day or working with anyone else you have two options, make a different character or find a reason for the character to want to play with the others.  The GG has too much stuff to do to try and justify bending every narrative element to keep you engaged.  You have to meet him halfway.  So, either have your character arc be, “learning to work with others and embrace saving strangers because the world needs heroes more than it needs mopey loners” or make a character who will PLAY THE GAME.

"Clang!  Clang!"
            The last element, World Building is what I wanted to talk about here.  Really, that is what most of these blogs are about… Or what I thought the majority of them were going to be about, I think only 3 of them actually are… Whatever, the point is building an effective world is often the most difficult and the most fun aspect of being a GG.  It can also be the thing that causes you to overdo it and make the game less fun for everyone.
            I speak from experience.

Published Materials: Why not just adventure in (blank)?
            There are many people out there that love Oerth, Mystara, or the Realms.  These places have appeal for any number of reasons.  Some people like have lore so thick and so deep that they can smother themselves in it.  Some people enjoy knowing that everything is mapped out and if they wanted to they could look up the best place to go have an adventure.  Others just like the stories and characters they have read about in a particular book series and the idea of putting their own character into that story and having them adventure with their favorite guys is the whole appeal, “Dungeons and Dragons: Self-Insert Fanfiction Edition”.
            All of these things are perfectly valid and there are some settings I see as being more magical and fun than others, I have drawn inspiration from basically all of the ones I have seen and taken elements that I like sometimes in their entirety (Hello, Vecna).  There is value to having a setting that is beloved by lots of people serving as the adventure local: built in audience, maps, and lore ready to be picked up and used.  If you are fascinated with a place and want to dive into it, go to it.  There is lots of tasty fluff for your consumption.  But, I will give you some warnings.

            Some players will be MUCH MORE into the setting than you.  They will know the history and major players in exceptional detail, more than you could hope to research.  They will be taking their own baggage about the setting to the table, whether they like Mystra and Elminster or they hate them, whether they want to play a Drow, or where Drizzt Do’Urden is and what he is doing.
            Maybe you appreciate this depth of interest from your players, but you won’t if you ever hear this line, “that wouldn’t happen”.  Maybe it is caused by you going against established lore, maybe it is because you have a popular character acting out of character, maybe you have your original villain defeat someone who is important… Whatever the cause of this line being uttered it will start the process of unraveling that player’s appreciation of the game for the same reason many mega fans can’t stand film adaptations, “You changed it, now it sucks”.
            This of course will not always happen.  Many players like permutations, expansions, or subversions of established lore, this is a rarer phenomenon than I am making it seem.  But it can happen and things will grind to a halt.

            Some players will like the premade stuff MUCH LESS, I am one of them.  The amount of lore can be daunting.  There are dozens of novels, numerous comics, posters, miniatures, video games… There is just a lot of stuff.  And there reaches a point in which I wish we would stop bothering to learn how to pronounce names like Drizzt Do’Urden and instead just call him Daniel or Darren.
            I do not like the Forgotten Realms as it is the gold standard of being both so bloated with lore as to be impenetrable to me, and the lore being so derivative that it is boring to try and get into.  There are too many gods, too many kingdoms, and too many super powerful named characters.  The map feels filled in and crowded to me, like all the cool stuff has already been visited, cleaned out, renovated, and they will be opening a Starbucks there next week.
            If a good world feels lived in, then to me a world like Forgotten Realms feels like it has lived out a full life and by all accounts should have passed away years ago.
            A player like me will disrupt the game not with a statement of resistance to lore, but instead will underwhelm you with this statement, “I’m sorry, who?  Are- are they important?  I am having a hard time keeping up with all of these names.”
            This is coming from me.  I have a mind like a steel trap for fictitious BS.  I know the name of Dumbledore’s brother off the top of my head (I would have to look up the spelling) and I never finished past chapter 8, book 2 in the Harry Potter series, because I kind of hate it.  Forgotten Realms is Dungeons and Dragons something I have been diving into for ages, and Realms lore slides right off my brain.  I can only imagine the random Tim, John, or Sarah that is trying out the game for the first time and is immediately put off by all of the content.
They do always get gold standard artist talent when presenting this place.
            I do not care for published settings.  As you have seen above.  That being said, they do have lots and lots of good things in them, and the multiverse is a great big thing to draw on.

Inspiration: Drawing from Fiction
            I am going to wager that a majority of people who enter into Dungeons and Dragons get there because they fell in love with Fantasy literature, movies, shows, comics, or non-table top games.  For instance, the Dragonlance novels have followings that probably don’t even know what Dungeons and Dragons is as they are so present in those circles solely because having a world in which DRAGONS are so present is awesome to lots of people.
            Nothing that exists in fiction is entirely original, everything is a remixing of elements that have appeared in older stories, myths, legends, and the popular consciousness.  Drawing from “Lord of the Rings” for DnD is pretty blatant by any standard.  DO NOT be afraid to borrow.

            That being said you eventually need to cover lots and lots of bases if you want a fleshed-out world and if you borrow elements from all over the place things might end up feeling not all that cohesive.  If you want the background of your game to be, “Evil Empire who ruled for ages is starting to collapse to numerous threats from within and without” that means you are going to have to answer this question for every new element you add to your game, “How do you feel about the Empire?” with the follow up of “Why’s that?”
            When you borrow an element of great size and complexity then it is best to understand how such a thing would affect your world.  Let’s look at something everyone knows coming into this hobby, “Lord of the Rings” (the movies, I couldn’t get thru the books).
            LotR is so ubiquitous in fantasy culture that almost all high fantasy published after it is a reaction to it.  Without Tolkien, elves would be helping Santa and making cookies, not nigh-immortal archers who live in ideal forested lands mastering healing magic and divining the nature of the stars.  Would Dwarves exist as bearded craftsmen in pop culture the way they do now without LotR?  Sure, Viking myth is a thing, but maybe the most popular image of a dwarf in high fantasy would be from the “Thor” comics at Marvel.  With Kirby drawn forges that have stylized magi-tech creations.  Or, Tyrion from “Game of Thrones” would be the only “Dwarf” in popular fantasy.

            So, if you wanted to take Middle Earth as a baseline but then start dropping in things you liked from other stories how would things change?  I don’t know.  Let’s throw some out there.  The biggest question you have to anser for all of these will inevitably be, “What’s up with you and how about that Sauron guy?”
            “I liked Conan, so I am going to ad Stygia to the south of Middle Earth, they kind of fit too because one of the main bad guys uses the Black Ring to summon monsters.”  I would guess that Stygia was on the side of Sauron during the War of the Ring, but what if they weren’t?  What if they saw the One Ring as too much of a threat to try and control it and sent poison bearing cultists of the Snake god to help in the defense of Rohan?  Or maybe they are a country that has disappeared into myth and their lesser rings are all over the place with cultists cropping up to follow the path they laid?

            “I like Greek Mythology, so I am going to use their gods instead.”  I guess Sauron is a Titan now?  Is Gandalf still an angel, or is he some kind of demi-god and if so which god is his father or mother?  Does Zeus still bump around with women all over the place if so is there a Perseus or Hercules?  Does Rohan worship Poseidon for his associations with horses even though they live nowhere near an ocean?  Where is Olympus?  What do the elves believe considering some of them have been around so long that they seem to have recollections about the world being made?  Are there any other Greek elements like phalanxes or Greco architecture?

           “I like Batman, how do I make more Batman in this?”  Is he an urban warrior fighting back against infiltrations against those who believe in Sauron’s vision of a used up industrialized world?  Was he trained by elves and rangers to get his martial arts and detective (maybe make that magic) skills?  Maybe make all of the Ringwraiths be inspired by Batman’s rogues’ gallery and give each of them different abilities based on 9 different Batman villains?  (I would suggest Scarecrow for fear powers, Mr. Freeze for cold powers, and Firefly for fire powers as those would be the easiest things to translate into game rules; 6 more shouldn’t be too hard.)

            Do you see how you can take some things from a different story and drop them in?  And they can be as limited or as expansive as you want.  Sure, Batman might be like Beorn (the were-bear) and only show up twice as a fun little aside, or he could be 10th guy of the Fellowship, or maybe a feudal version of Gotham city is under siege and breaking it is a multi-session long story in and of itself.

The Beg for Attention: Let’s take a break
            I am going to stop here for now.  I am going to start making a deliberate effort to keep the length of these blogs from getting too long.  Besides this is a logical place to end it, having talked about the good and bad of using a published campaign world and how to ask yourself key questions when blending borrowed elements into a familiar world.
            Having a good and familiar baseline is smart, but knowing how to push out the scope, or how to distort the expectations is key to building something into your own story telling landscape.  Sure, you’re inspired by other works, and because you aren’t publishing this (at least not for now) you can reference things by name, I once took inspiration from two historical figures, Shaka Zulu and Genghis Khan, didn’t even try to stop myself from calling him Chaka Khan and having my players NEVER FORGET his name or what he was about.
            Silly can be an asset.  It’s supposed to be fun.  Have fun.

First Impressions 5th Edition
            You know what makes you feel a little old when playing Dungeons and Dragons?  When a published dungeon you vaguely remember playing when it came out is republished in a “classics” collection.  And that published adventures are still as lethal for level 1 players as they have always been.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.


  1. This was very useful. I to have been working on a world for playing D&D but here resent I've gotten stuck. Hopefully I can take some of your advise and put it to use. Thank you. Matt

    1. I ended up taking a week off just as I was starting this series, sorry about that.
      Since you were kind enough to comment I wanted to make sure to draw your attention to part 2, I hope you find it useful.