GM Advice:
Introduction

By Shamus
on Oct 22, 2008
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

(If you haven’t spotted the pattern, these “GM Advice” posts appear on Wednesdays, and will continue to do so until I’m out of advice, I get sick of it, or people stop reading them.)

I wish I’d thought to write this introductory post before I began the GM Advice series, as it would have averted some of the confusion in the comments of previous entries.

I get comments in my D&D campaign posts along the lines of “I wish I was in a group like this” or “I wish I could run a game like this”. People lament that their game is too bland, too shallow, or too simplistic to offer the kind of roleplaying they’re interested in. This series is aimed at those people. I’m assuming you’re coming into this looking for ways to enrich your gameworld or swap techniques with a fellow GM.

I do not pretend to be an expert at running a game. I fully admit to being more of a novice than most of the people reading this. I’ve been playing for… four years? Maybe? I’ve run one game system (D&D 3.5) and read several others. My advice is little more than “here is how I do things and here is my rationale for doing it that way”. My strength, such as it is, lies in creating fun scenarios (on the micro or macro level) and in approximating details to make a medium-detail world feel like something I would call a “vast, rich, and endlessly robust storyscape” if I were a pretentious dolt in need of a backhand to the face. Generally the goal is to just make the world feel a little deeper than it really is, or make it feel like I put more work into it than I really did.

This advice is not intended to be universal to all groups. I’m starting with the assumption that you’re interested in the sort of experiences I am, that you like deeper roleplaying, and that you’re looking for something other than hack-n-slash looting and leveling at your table. )

As the guys at Fear the Boot are fond of saying, there’s no wrong way to play this game, and if you’re having fun, you’re winning. It’s fine if you’re the hack-n-slash type player, or an old-school number-crunching wargamer. But these posts aren’t written with your kind of game in mind and they probably won’t have a lot for you. Also, I’ll probably be poking fun at you from time to time, because we’re different and that makes you funny and strange.

Some people called me a “simulationist” in my earlier post on making dungeons. I won’t argue with the label if that’s how my style seems. (Or we’ll end up arguing over definitions sooner or later.) But I don’t add that stuff in order to make this highly detailed world with a bunch of numbers behind it. I do it because it makes the world more immersive.

More than one person suggested that most players won’t care about where Kobolds poop. But the point wasn’t to put in a latrine in case they ask about one. The point was to put one in because they’ll eventually run into it. And the pantry. And the den where the Kobolds sleep. I believe that you can sometimes draw a group of hack-n-slash butchers into roleplaying by adding details which stimulate their intuition.

In video games, sometimes I enjoy mowing down endless waves of unambiguously vile foes for laughs and sometimes I enjoy pondering the inner psyche of the main character. Sometimes I’m hack-n-slash, and sometimes I’m a roleplayer. The gameworld determines how seriously I take the game and how deeply I’m willing to think about it. In essence, I default to being a hack-n-slash gamer, and am drawn into deeper play by deeper worlds and characters. My thesis here is that in some cases you can end up with different players by presenting the same gameworld to the same group of people but with a few splashes of detail to draw them in. My further point is that these details aren’t that hard to add. If you can create a balanced encounter for a group of players, you’re more than qualified to present a gameworld which feels (to them) convincing.

Depth begins with the GM. Not just in making a world rich in detail, but in finding ways to make your players want to inhabit it.

That’s the goal, anyway.

Topic for discussion: Do you prefer to make your own settings or use pre-made stuff? For myself, I couldn’t imagine using someone else’s setting, since making the setting is the part I enjoy the most.

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  1. Miako says:

    I’ve played a lot of games (five, ten?) and never had anyone bother to use someone else’s premade crap.

    I’ve played crap that got published, but that was just cause I knew the guy who wrote it.

    That clear?

    If your shit is good enough to be published, then I want to play it. ;-)

    It’s way more fun to have a GM who knows his world, inside and out.

  2. Kleedrac says:

    On the subject of setting it really comes down to time for me. If I have an abundance of time (I think the last time this happened was in ’01 or so) I love creating my own worlds, maps, governments, preconceived notions, local folklore, legend, myth, leaders, enemies, pantheons, everything really. It’s the creative equivalent to leftover night as any creative person gets ideas that don’t stand on their own merit. “Sure I’ve got this villain and his little subplot but it would be a boring campaign by itself … next world I make gets this guys running around in another nation and if the PC’s get to him great … if not it’s that nation’s loss!” Especially in regards to the pantheon you can have a lot of fun deciding on god’s personalities (of course in most of my worlds the gods themselves walk the mortal realm from time to time.) And sometimes, just sometimes, you can set up a world so perfectly that you don’t need to write any more stories as every week the players would rather be tourists than adventurers, exploring this magical land and solving the minor issues inherit to each town, village, or region. I think the most fun I had in a self-created world was when one of my players and I had had a discussion involving how game mechanics would be experienced in-character. The subject invariably came to level drain and we both agreed the only way for losing honed skills instantly would have to be some form of amnesia. So he had a character in my world who he rolled at lvl 5 but I had created story for up to lvl 20!! He had a bad run in with a succubus (don’t ask too many questions, most lvl 20 characters can take succubi) and spent the rest of the campaign trying to solve the puzzle of himself! Now I don’t wanna dump on the people who play Forgotten Realms or whatever-flavour-you’re-into. But if you’ve *never* built your own world you really should try at least once :)

    -my 2 cp
    Kleedrac
    (Man I’m gonna have to write down an extended version of that story for my own blog one of these days :) )

  3. Strangeite says:

    “Making the setting” is the part I enjoy most as well. However, I really enjoy reading about other campaign worlds. I have never played or DMed in Forgotten Realms, but I have purchased and read tons of source material.

    World building scratches a particular itch I have and I continue to do it, even if I don’t have a group to DM.

    My son, who is 10 years old and has been playing about as long as you, seems to have no interest in world building. He is the DM of a group of 10 to 13 year olds and uses exclusively pre-designed adventures. I have asked him about this and he states that the ready made adventures tell better stories than he can. He feels that when he tries to create an adventure, his players just hack-n-slash but when he uses a pre-designed adventure they think about their actions more.

    I have a feeling that as he becomes a more experienced DM and his players become more experienced, this might change.

    Thanks for these posts.

  4. Jeremiah says:

    First, I disagree that depth begins with the GM. I believe that depth begins with the group. But, I also play in games (almost exclusively Burning Wheel) where the players have as much narrative control over the world as the GM. And that’s a very different play style than what most people are used to and I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

    I think pre-made stuff is rubbish. That includes playing in a world that a GM has made up. That’s still someone else’s stuff to me. Just because a GM really likes this setting they’ve come up with doesn’t mean I will. And even if there are parts of it I like, it doesn’t mean my favorite parts are the GM’s favorite parts.

    For maximum enjoyment I want input on the kind of world I’m playing in. That’s why I like games where the first session doesn’t mean everyone already has a character and is ready to play; the first session is everyone sitting down and deciding what sort of world they want to play in and then creating their characters together. That way everyone has maximum buy-in and it makes it extremely apparent what each player is interested in so the GM can run accordingly.

  5. Bob says:

    I’ve only GMed games for 3rd ed, and I couldn’t imagine using a pregenerated scenario! I’ve never actually tried to run something premade, but I agree with you completely. Making the world is as fun (if not more fun) than playing in it.

  6. One thing I like to do to create a sense of realism is to come up with some stuff that will be happening in the world that *doesn’t have anything to do with the PCs*. Then when they’re inquiring about things relating to their adventure, they’ll hear about that too. It gives the impression that there is a world that’s going on even when the characters aren’t there. Plus, sometimes they decide that the current events are interesting/important to them and get involved.

  7. onosson says:

    “Generally the goal is to just make the world feel a little deeper than it really is, or make it feel like I put more work into it than I really did.”

    Shamus, you have just described my life.

  8. Gary says:

    Excellent post.

    I am an aspiring fantasy author and I totally understand the drive to create new worlds for characters to inhabit. It is the thing that makes me want to write.

    It is also the thing that allows me to get into a good RPG. For me the world is everything. The characters cannot exist without the world, because the world determines how they will react.

    Also in relation to writing, sometimes you DO have to make it look like you put more effort into it than you did. Though really, I’m an intense worldbuilder, and like to have ALL the questions answered. :D (Explains why I’ve only actually written a handful of chapters, when compared to my vast collection of notes and sketches….)

  9. Teppesh says:

    In my experience, fun can be had with pre-made scenarios/world and with completely home-brewed settings. The key is to recognize that anything written, either by the GM or a publisher, is really just a starting point, and where it goes from there is something that is going to be completely different in each group. One of the guys at work completely hates running anything that was written as part of a module, but as I probed a bit deeper into his reasoning, I discovered that his problem was not with the module, but with his GM, who was effectively railroading the players along the module’s pathways. However, given the GM’s style of running games, the same sort of issue would most likely occur even if the GM had written all his own material. I think the most important part of being a GM is having enough flexibility to react when your players decide to go somewhere other than the dungeon you’ve meticulously crafted for them. It also helps if you don’t take it personally.

  10. Deoxy says:

    I’m with you Gary – Tolkien’s level of world-building (where it feels like you could pick any random house in the world and find people living in it, complete with clothes in their closets, food in their pantries (or not, as called for), a story for every scar, and a birthday for every kid) is what I find myself going for.

    Pantheon, calendars (one for each major people group, if appropriate for them, complete with conversions, which gets pretty complicated with multi-year luni-solar calendars), people groups (both racial and cultural), languages and language groups, values systems, technological developments in different areas, favored building styles, fashion, class differences, gender roles, government type and function, amount and organization levels of crime, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc…

    Yeah, it’s fun, but it would be nice to have a finished product someday! :-)

  11. Ian Price says:

    A friend and I were recently discussing where character development comes from, and we identified two sources that we called Internal and External.

    Internal development goes on in the player’s head. Often when writing the character’s backstory/biography, or journaling the character’s thoughts as the game goes on. This kind of development can create a fertile ground for roleplaying. If a player can’t develop a character this way at all, then depth is out of the question. A certain amount of thought will help make any roleplaying experience more rich. However, it also threatens to smother the seeds if it buries them too deep. Sometimes excessive background gets in the way of spontaneous roleplaying, and overthinking things prevents action.

    External development comes from things accomplished and experienced in the game world. The richness of this development relies on the GM most of all, to give the players opportunities for fun actions. This kind of development is what lets you say, “We explored the mysterious ship and found the evil ritual scrolls the Royal Sorcerer had hidden in his quarters, but then his undead minions found us. We had to defeat them, then he sent a simulacrum of himself to distract us while he set the boat to explode! We barely escaped alive!”

    However, without motivations and details to shore it up, instead of development, you just get a list of kills and an XP total. The GM has to present externally the same kind of details that players mostly come up with internally. The difference is that the GM can’t afford to develop it all and set it in stone, he has to tailor his (or she must tailor her) details to be visible and relevant in the players’ flashlight beam.

    I think I’ll expand more on that concept in my own blog later today.

    Edit: Heh, I missed the actual discussion question. Simple answer is: White Wolf’s settings are tailored to be made your own, and so I’ve been able to run and play in them. The only other published setting I’ve played in much has been the Forgotten Realms, and I didn’t enjoy that as much. It’s a good source of inspiration for my own stuff, though.

  12. Kevin says:

    I’ve been working on my own campaign setting for a couple of years now, and it’s probably one of the best experiences I’ve had with the game.

    However, I’ve used pre-made stuff and enjoyed that too. Red Hand of Doom, for example – I thought that module was great, and was definitely one of the inspirations for my campaign setting.

  13. craig says:

    For me, creating the setting is about half of the game. I love it and it is the only reason I usually DM. However, I really need to have inspiration to do it. Like writing a song or poem or novel, it is pretty difficult to just force. So I have played premade stuff since I’d rather play than not play. I’ve learned my lesson though. I used the premade adventure in the 4e book over the summer and realized that in order for me to really run a game using premade material, I NEED to customize it or else it WILL be awkward. I won’t think about alternate solutions to puzzles or how a group progresses from encounter to encounter unless I make it my own. No matter how detailed instructions are for a setting or adventure, they will leave something to the DM’s common sense which I won’t assume is common sense. Plus its easier to add on custom material once you have made it your own, and it will sometimes write itself.

  14. Nilus says:

    When I play and run I prefer someones “Premade crap” as someone else has kindly called it. The reason is simple. When I play I want to play in well written world and lets face it a lot of GMs think they are good writers but are not. If your own homegrown setting was really all that then why has no game developer ever called you back. This also goes 100 times over for homegrown game systems for which I will have no part of(I am cool with house rules to premade systems as long as they are well spelled out).

    As a GM I want to worry about my players characters and the people they interact with. What stories they will carve into the world. I don’t want to have to worry about the details of every kindgom or who hates who or loves who. So I like a well written premade campaign setting(Iron Kingdoms being one of my favorites as well as D&Ds Dark Sun before they went all crazy with the setting). That way all the big questions are answered and out of my mind and I can focus on what the story my players and I want to be in.

  15. Cat Skyfire says:

    Very good. I think it does begin with the GM. And a good GM can then encourage things from the players to make it all better. (A bad GM would see a player coming up with something, and ignoring it because it’s not what the GM had in mind.)

    As an example, in one game, the GM asked for some backround information on our characters. One player gave her 3 or 4 sentences. I gave her ten pages. This gave her ideas to work with and guaranteed buy in from me. (It’s not just ‘any girl at risk from the bad guy’ it’s ‘my intended bride! Ack!’)

    In that game’s case, it also helped take an awful railroad game (based, literally, on the Eye of the Beholder game for the Commodore 64…)and infuse both some options and, ever important, the illusion of options. (And as most GMs know, players who feel railroaded get grumpy…players who believe they have a choice, even if they really don’t, are happier.)

    A lot of it also depends on how well the GM judges the players. Hack and slash can be fun, but 6 hours of it gets tiring. Roleplaying can be fun, but having to haggle over every purchase gets tiring. That balance is the hard part.

  16. Joshua says:

    I’ve only run two pre-made settings that I recall: Tekumel way back in the day, and more recently Forgotten Realms because I had some players that wanted to. (I guess I also ran a game putatively set in Glorantha, also way back when, but without any of the source material besides the description of the cults.) I much prefer running things in my own setting, both because making settings up is fun and that way I know that I am the expert on the setting and I’ll never have to say “Oh, ok, that’s not the way it works in this version of setting X.”

  17. The problem with pre-made settings is that everyone knows the setting, they know what to expect, they know who they’ll be dealing with, they know how to handle each situation. Theirs no mystery to a pre-made setting, especially if the players have been playing that setting for a while.

    On the other hand, a GM self created world leaves too much mystery to the players(depending on how the GM presents it). They don’t know what they can do, where to make their characters from, what Gods to worship. They can communicate with the GM and ask many of these questions, but it always seems that something comes up that noone had thought to ask about, and suddenly someone wants to change their character ’cause they found something new and shiney. At least thats how I feel as a player of a GM’s world, and to me it makes the world seem more unreal. I’ve got this character who’s grown up here, and while the secret societies I can understand him not knowing about… shouldn’t he know about this wide religion who’s priests we just ran into? Finding things like that always throw me for a loop and make the world feel like its full of holes.

    I try to balance this by offering known worlds, and then adding my own mystery. That way the players know the world as if they are apart of the world, and what I offer remains a mystery to them so they don’t automatically know how to react. I try to incorporate the more obvious things in ways that don’t immediately seem apparent.

    In one of my more famous games (and a friend of mine keeps asking me to write it up), we played Rifts. We had a new player with us, and I sat down with her and created her character. I knew what she was, but she didn’t. So we played her up as Amnesiac, it was perfect, she didn’t know the world, she didn’t know what she could do. All I had to tell her was that she was supremely confident, and that she needed to understand that when I say she sees things, her character senses them, but does not actually see with her eyes and that it is normal for her. That way I could play with her in the group and the others wouldn’t catch on that she was different.

    It was pretty awesome early on in a bar fight when her character takes out a juicer barehanded. She’s playing this fairly attractive but otherwise unassuming female, who with no magic, or obvious enhancement can stand toe to toe with a Juicer and walk away.

    What noone knew was that she was an escaped Altarian, and the Splugorth wanted her back. It was all familiar and well known, but this one character remained a mystery for a long while due to the way I presented her. And beyond her own character and everyone else learning what she is that still leaves: where was she running to?

  18. McNutcase says:

    I should admit that I’m only an aspiring GM, since I’m having trouble recruiting a group, but I’d far rather make my own world than run a premade one. In my own world, I can slot in opportunities for adventure, roleplaying, or just a random bar brawl, without any danger of someone whining “But that’s not there!”. However, there’s also the issue that nobody’s actually published any world which has the feel I’m going for.

    If somebody did publish a world that felt like that, I’d be happy running it, as long as I could give it my own metaplot. The game-level plot is almost entirely in the hands of my putative players; their actions are going to be driving what happens. I see my responsibility as figuring out what the players’ actions are doing in the broader world, so I can set up where they might go next appropriately.

    I just wish more people were into dark fantasy steampunk with highly explosive dragons…

  19. locusts says:

    It is funny reading these posts, because I once sat on a panel teaching new GM/DM/Storytellers how to use advice you are giving Shamus. For only having four years of experience in role playing you have the concepts that some people take decades to learn. I should know, I have a few.

    Personally, it is a matter of time. If I have the time I create something for the players. If I do not have the time, then I use a canned adventure. However, even when I use a canned adventure I read it at least three times.Sometimes, actually often, I will use parts of a canned adventure that the players ignore and build on them for the next few adventures.

    In the end though it depends on the group. I encourage heroic role playing, but it does not always happen. If the group simply wants to crash through adventures hacking and slashing, then I will not put in the effort to give them something that they will just ignore. If the group is a bunch of thinkers and explorers, then I am challenged to come up with something that they will enjoy. Why make a seven course meal for a fast food crowd?

    As for settings, I have never made my own over all setting. When I find that a setting is limiting I move on and try another one. Many systems exist and many settings within those systems. I am also not against modifying one system’s setting to put it in another system. It keeps the seasoned players guessing.

  20. Mari says:

    I’m kind of a half-and-half GM. There are parts of world-making that appeal to me but there are parts I just plain suck at. Specifically, making maps is what I suck at. I can people a full, rich world with political factions, cultures, religions, you name it. But don’t ask me what the world LOOKS like. I couldn’t tell you what’s north of whom or what you find when this forest runs out even though I can go on for hours about the cultural traits of the five tribes inhabiting the forest and how they interact with one another.

    So I pretty much tend to steal somebody else’s map and make it suit my needs. If that makes me a crappy GM so be it. It beats gaming in “Square World” where every continent is a square equidistant from the other squares.

  21. Bryan says:

    My style of play is quite different than most I’ve seen and read about. I tend to start with a few roughly-sketched ideas, and add content on the fly. Believe it or not, there is reason behind this madness: I like giving the PCs the ability to choose.

    I’ve seen a lot of comments on your posts (yes, I actually read the stuff, I just don’t comment myself very much) and also have personal experience about how scripting affects gameplay. People get very attached to things they spend a great deal of time working on, and many tend to enforce the scripting over PC ideas that diverge from the script. While some players prefer to be railroaded into the script, the ones that don’t will reject the script and, indeed, do everything possible to derail the script.

    My original solution for this (and it worked well up to a point) was to write the settings and only outline the adventures. Once the players decide what they wanted to do I would add content on the fly based on the outlines and how it would affect the plot. This means that the players have a great deal of control over what they want their characters to do, since I could adjust on the fly to react to their decisions and still remain within the outlines. Eventually I applied this technique to the settings as well. Less prep work for me, more fun for them.

    I will admit that this is harder on the DM than having scripts and tons of pre-generated data. You have to think on your feet and have reference books nearby to refer to. It also helps if you already have some experience with the gaming system. On the other hand, even the most rigorous groups I have played with found my GM style to be more playable than many of the modules they have tried, even when I have to pause a minute to build a new encounter based on their reactions and decisions. I attribute this to using an adaptable reactionary style over a pre-scripted style.

    Or, maybe I just don’t know enough people…

  22. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    I prefer to take someone else’s setting, and start warping it as I go.

    I don’t have the patience for from-scratch worldgen anymore. Plus, I know of two games which have just fucking awesome default settings: Star Wars (duh) and Exalted.

  23. Ragnos says:

    I use my own setting, since making a believable world is both a great challenge and great fun. In my gaming group (a pittiful 3 guys) we take turns GMing. The current GM chose to use my setting, but about two thousand years backwards, and it’s turning out alright, though I could never adopt someone else’s game world. It’s like sharing your character: it feels strange.

  24. Aergoth says:

    I prefer making my own, if only so I’ve got the benefit of not having to worry excessively about details.
    If the X People live in land Y, in a setting you make for yourself, you can therefor say that the X People also live in the land of Z.

  25. A. Schwarzenegger says:

    I’d just like to point out that it’s not a foregone conclusion that the physiology and biology of other creatures is at all similar to humans’, especially in fantasy games. There’s no reason why kobolds *have* to poop at all, much less in the dungeon (if they’re like dogs, they can go outside to the surface to excrete). There’s no reason orcs have to reproduce sexually, or that goblins should ever grow old.

    That said, the difference between RPGs and craps is the description, so describing things (showing rather than telling) does make the game more immersive, and therefore more interesting. For the most part I don’t even call creatures by name, just describing their appearance and behavior. This helps keep the game evocative of truly genre-defining stories like the Tolkien, Howard, or Moorecock, prevents players from treating encounters as single-solution fights (“Ochre jelly? I burn it”). It also makes it easier to change things up in a hurry, so that orcs can quickly become giant semi-humanoid frogs, or flightless birds, or whatever you want.

    When it comes to fantasy games, I always roll my own setting from scratch. Other games I’m somewhat more inclined to use source material, since it’s usually more work to make up a “real world” setting, but the story to be told is still almost always original. I’ve tried using published adventures before, but the players almost never do what the author expects them to do and I’m frequently at as much of a loss as I’d be if I didn’t have anything prewritten at all. It helps that I prefer the exploration and adventure of “low-fantasy” type games (even ones that aren’t fantasy at all) to Yet Another Epic Confrontation that more or less relies on railroading.

  26. Kevin says:

    In response to leopardeternal’s comments that homebrew worlds are often too vague… I heartily agree. And that’s why I created a wikispace for my campaign world. It’s several pages long and discusses the major factions, towns and NPCs. It even goes into a little detail about other kingdoms. I have been using Greyhawk gods, mostly because I haven’t taken the time to make up my own pantheon – and because religion really isn’t that important to most players (even clerics).

    But I talk to each player when I start a new campaign in my world, I give them the rundown on what’s what – but more importantly, I ask them what kind of character they want to play, and then make suggestions based on my world.

  27. Eldiran says:

    I’m another person who finds using premade settings robs a GM of all enjoyment. I personally make up the majority of the setting, only taking the details found in the Player’s Handbook (races, deities, references to far off places). Not that I shy away from adding my own creatures and deities and lands; far from it. After reading this entry and some of the comments on it, however, I’m finding that my campaign is certainly flawed in that the characters don’t know what they expect they should know when it comes to geography and culture. Primarily this is due to the fact that I only design the area surrounding the current goings-on… but I’m going to try to fix this problem. At the very least, I’ll assume the characters have some knowledge of popular places, groups, and cultures.

  28. Moridin says:

    I make my own settings, but leave them sketchy. That way, if players want something specific like, say, a civilization of cat people, I’ll add one to an empty spot on their map.

    As for maps, I have ready made maps for dungeons, towns, castles and stuff like that, but I’ll let the players draw their own map of the continent/area they are in. That way they know their map is sketchy and inaccurate(just not how sketchy and inaccurate) and they never need to know that I don’t have a ready made map, just a bunch of random and non-random places they’ll go if they stray from the directions they were given. Currently when the campaign hasn’t begun the map has a town where they’ll start, road going through it and couple arrows pointing to directions of important places.

    As for pantheon, it’s as sketchy, although I’m planning to fill it once gods start getting involved in some way(none of the players are divine spellcasters)

    Other details like history I’ll develop at some point, probably when they’ll become important. So far I’ve been busy creating and fine tuning important NPCs, a special spell and primal magic which is way overpowered(giving ability to cast 9th level spells at first level) but driving it’s users very quickly insane if they use it carelessly or unnecessarily.

  29. BlackJaw says:

    I prefer to take someones else’s good idea, reskin it, and collide 3 other smaller good ideas into it.

    My 3.0/3.5 game was Monte Cook’s Ptolus (done from his game logs well before the book) with some other bits from other setting mixed in, and all the names changed to protect the innocent.

  30. Khorboth says:

    I see advantages to all approaches. I’ve completed, as GM, years-long campaigns both with original plot in a published world and with published campaign. I’m now about two years into my first epic campaign in my own world. They were all fun.

    The more published material you use, the more framework you have. Framework both supports and restricts your building. Remember that published adventures, campaigns, and worlds are things that SOMEBODY thought were exceptionally good. Most of them have some good strong points, and some are very strong in general.

    I think that depth does not start with the GM, it starts with the contract. There is a (usually unwritten) contract between GM and players. I try to be very explicit about what I’m doing. If I hand them a 10-page background on my world and tell them that more depth is available upon request, then they create deep characters accordingly. If I tell them that we’re going to be superheroes in New Metroplex, Maine and that once they get powers their background would just be flavor, they don’t expect such depth of world. As long as you meet the players expectations, they’ll have fun. If you break the contract, trust is lost and it’s very hard to regain.

    I’m a big proponent of the games-as-contract theory and believe that everything begins there.

  31. GregT says:

    I use other people’s settings in as much as that’s what the game rules are keyed for. World of Darkeness really works best when you play it in the World of Darkness; Legend of the Five Rings has its mechanics so dipped in the politics of its setting that you really do need to play it in Rokugan.

    D&D claims to be more setting-free, but it’s really not, inasmuch as it’s geared for a world where there are certain fantasy races, magic works a certain way, and you solve problems through exploration and combat. Most alternate D&D settings are not really new worlds; they could as easily be the “next kingdom over”. Sure, you can mod the rules every which way and change the races around and suchlike but then you’re fighting the rules rather than enjoying them.

    That’s not to say I don’t use a lot of custom settings, both at the micro stage as an unexplored subset of someone else’s settting, and at the macro stage of an actually new world with complete homebrew rules to support it.

  32. Moridin says:

    #31: I have to disagree. You could swap D&D in your post with name of any other game system and it would be as true.

  33. Khorboth says:

    @GregT: While I agree with you in principle, I have to disagree about World of Darkness. It plays much better in GURPS.

    @Moridin: Not GURPS.

    Yes, I’m a GURPS fan. I don’t play it exclusively yet, but it’s getting that way the more I learn my way around 4th ed.

  34. Flying Dutchman says:

    I love building the world myself, with the added inspiration and ideas of players. To prevent Leopardeternal’s problem; we usually have one “session” where I tell all the details necessary to know beforehand, as I worked them out. Presenting the players with a map of the town they start play in, and explaining the situation in that town, helps a lot to create good characters.

    But I always resist the temptation to create too much, rather letting the world take shape as we play. We usually begin play with a settlement, knowledge of a nearby city, some local history (not the family trees of every noble house that ever inhabited the area, or the guild master’s name of the goddamn cooper’s guild or some crazy stuff), and basic knowledge of local politics, the main religions, and exclusive perks the environment may offer to characters (such as special classes, races, weapons, mounts, etc.)…

    Letting the world take shape as you play, is great for impulse-DM’s, who watch Pirates of the Caribbean and suddenly want pirates, or who read Lord of the Rings and decide that there must be a King-in-exile, or who read Shogun and decide there must be a forbidden city where a powerless emperor lives. It lets you shape the world step-by-step, living up to most of your players and your own ideas.

  35. Ian Price says:

    @GregT: Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about L5R. And 7th Sea, for that matter. Those, I’d MUCH rather use the printed setting. Also Shadowrun, for that matter.

    Re: your D&D assertion, that’s actually addressed in the 4th edition DMG. The 4th edition core set recognizes the fact that D&D isn’t so much about one setting as it is about a set of core assumptions about the setting, and the DMG lays out those assumptions so you can work with them and tune them to your tastes.

    @Khorboth: Re: WoD in GURPS. Sorry, no. I think you’re in the minority with that opinion. It’s my experience that nothing not designed for GURPS plays better in GURPS. On the other hand, anything not designed for a system plays worse in any system besides GURPS.

  36. Moridin says:

    #33: What about d20 which is D&D without fantasy? I don’t like GURPS myself.

  37. Cybron says:

    I promise it’ll be a long time before I get sick of reading these.

    Even if your advice isn’t directly applicable to my current group (who are more concerned with ‘being awesome’ than anything else), it’s still good advice. I find it helpful just as a new perspective.

  38. Seax says:

    although making my own world is fun, I haven’t done so in more than a decade. nowadays, if I’m lucky, I have to flesh out one big country or a very small continent. there usually enough political bodies and badlands there in order for the PCs to have lots to do without repeating themselves. the ancient-medieval government system also allows for a very rich political surroundings and dynamic economic and political system (ever wondered how many merchant were there at the 11-15th century, or how would a drought affect agricultural societies?)

    since I put so much effort on the large scheme (the map is there to accommodate what I want from the societies that inhabit it), most published settings are not good enough for me out of the box. I don’t like the apparently dettached neighbouring societies that are popular in so many published settings, too.
    they can be custom-improved, though.

  39. Greg says:

    I would never use someone elses setting on the level on which I intended the game to be played.

    What I mean by that is that different games have different scope. One game might be designed for the players to fret and politic in a certain city and the game would rarely take place outside of it. Another might be concerned with a particular nation, maybe some interesting time in its history, its rise or its fall. Another may be a worldwide plot involving a global conspiracy or a mad sorceror looking to destroy it. Another might span planes or dimensions or go into space.

    I’d never use someone elses setting for the level I wanted to play at, but I might use it to flesh out the other levels.

    So if I was running a city game, I’d design the city myself, but I might put it in a pre-written campaign world. If I were running a nation style game I might use a pregenerated city at some point within it, but all of the important things in the nation (including its key cities) would be my own. If I was running an interplanar game I might find it fun to incorporate the odd plane my players have heard of or find interesting, but the metauniverse and the ways in which my planes are connected (and major ‘gateway’ planes) would be my own.

    I think other peoples ideas are good for adding details at levels that aren’t the focus of the game.

  40. Iain Coleman says:

    My preferred game is Traveller, and using the published setting material for that works very well. That’s because the universe is a big place. The setting doesn’t get in the way of anything I might want to make up – indeed, once you start creating an adventure, you have to invent entire planets. What the published setting does is it gives a large-scale framework of interstellar politics, history, economics and culture that I don’t have to spend time creating and, even more importantly, I don’t have to spend time imparting to the players. It helps to create immersiveness, without putting me in a straightjacket.

  41. vdgmprgrmr says:

    My world-making system seems different…

    The way I do it is to start with one city, hamlet, tribe, etc. and put the character in it. No information or whatever. I just think “relatively small farming town named Hamlet.” Then when the PCs ask NPCs about stuff, I just randomly think something up, tell them, then remember it and add it to the world as fact. Whole thriving towns can be made like this. Or, they seem like they’re big and thriving, when if you look at it, only certain people are actually thriving. Then, if the PCs have to go somewhere, just say, “there’s dwarves to the southwest and a large human city southwest.” Then repeat the process. Slowly, the world and relations grow in scale, ending up with a large world with a history and different cultures and everything. I’ll have NPCs say stuff about things in the past, randomly. So maybe out of the blue in a conversation, I throw in a reference to the “Magic Wars,” whatever the hell that was, then go back and fill in details later.

    I made my current setting like that, and still use it. It’s pretty cool. For lack of a name, though, it was called “Tesaro.” It even has a unique technology tree; boats are things of legend, and no one has ever succeeded in recreating one, so everyone assumes they’re magic. Quite a far cry from the inspiration, eh?

  42. Khorboth says:

    @Ian Price: I probably am in the minority. On the other hand, have you read the GURPS WoD books? It’s like taking that nifty dark gritty world and putting a reasonable system on top of it. I don’t know the details of why White Wolf pulled that license, but I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback on them.

  43. Kaeltik says:

    I always made my own settings (not always successfully), but I can’t fault anyone for using pre-made settings. The best campaign I ever played was with a DM using a published setting, heavily modified to customize it to our group, but pre-made all the same.

  44. Face says:

    I prefer to use small amounts of pre-made stuff and sticth them together to create my own larger game world.

    For example, I use a published game wurld that is little more than a well made atlas and a gazetter describing the various countries with one page per country.

    I’ll use smaller maps, some homemade, some pre-fab to fill in the gaps of info as needed. Most of my PCs start out in one particular town which I lifted from a downloaded free adventure. I’ve kept up with the changes to the town due to past PC actions and created my own adventures.

    I’ll often stitch together small one-offs into my campaign, adding my own adventures and making changes as needed to create a series of events of a single campaign.

  45. Anders says:

    Started back when I was 12, I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now and I mostly create my own world these days (something like the last 6-8 years). But of course I steal freely from bought settings if there is stuff that I want in them.

  46. Ian Price says:

    I’ve played GURPS: Werewolf: The Apocolypse.

    Aside from having one too many colons in the title, the feel was incredibly different. It was grittier, I’ll give it that, but the grit isn’t what I identify as important in W:TA. It’s the savage horror – and both the savagery and the horror were down several notches. It’s easier to figure out what’s going on behind the curtain with GURPS, for one thing. So battles became more tactical, less of a frantic struggle with the unknown.

    GURPS is general, just like it advertises. I find that anything put through its lens gets much of its flavor standardized. For settings that already have a solid system strongly flavored towards them, this is usually not as strong. Though, I admit, it’s easier to teach.

  47. Telas says:

    Shamus: My thesis here is that in some cases you can end up with different players by presenting the same gameworld to the same group of people but with a few splashes of detail to draw them in.

    This ties right into my theory that the GM is the most important element in a game. Bad rules can be routed around; bad players can be ignored, rehabbed, or booted; but a game cannot rise above a bad GM.

    It’s a short step from there to point out that the GM is the leader of the group. Accept this role, and the game will go much smoother. (Caveat: The essence of leadership is responsibility; it is not power or control.)

  48. Adalore says:

    Woah lots of posts fast.

    or do I check things slowly?

    I do want to take a blank tapestry and fill it as I gain my own experience in the field of DM’ing. But doesn’t stop me form heh… Copy-pasta the winter haven was it? form keep on the shadow fell some where in that mess, heck the module expects you to. :P

    looking forward to this.

  49. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Though I prefer to use my own setting,when playing a modern or futuristic world,I like to use my town as the base setting.I already have the streets laid out,I have theaters,restaurants,clubs,public transport,everything,so its easy for me to make a realistic city that way.

    Furthermore,I can use different neighbourhoods for different races:Ghetos for orcs and trolls,if I decide to put them here,rich ones for elves,industrial for dwarves.

  50. Telas says:

    Crud; I never answered the discussion question…. Both.

    I take pre-made stuff and mod the heck out of it. Most of the work is done, and usually done pretty well, but I get to customize it. The process of customizing forces me to understand it better, which provides a better game in the end.

  51. Anonymous Botch says:

    I have and do use both. The pre-made stuff tends to be at least fairly well written, but if you want the full campaign background and an extended campaign to run in it, it gets fearsomely expensive, and its not like I am ever going to run it twice. Also I think there is less scope for making your own mark in pre written stuff, your characters are not going to change anything major relating to NPC’c etc unless its scripted.

    I have made my own worlds and campaigns for a variety of systems since the mid 80’s and I have had a lot of fun doing it. My aim is to create a world detailed enough that when the PC’s hear about a place or legend they don’t assume its a plot hook. Its impossible to have the entire world history written down, but I believe that if the tiny part the players do see is convincing, then they will begin to assume the rest also exists.

    Having said all this I have spent weeks creating worlds and campaigns that never got played. The longest and most fruitfull campaings I ever ran were not the ones with the most exhaustive backgrounds. One that ran for years was set in Middle Earth using a combination of Iron Crown source material and homemade campaigns. Another Managed to have a pretty convincing setting despite being largely written in the 2 or 3 days before each session.

    So I suppose they both have there place. And if it wasn’t for Keep on the Borderlands I would never have started, as I have either run it or played it at least 10 times and it introduced me to the basic concepts of roleplaying (as well as introducing a whole load of bad DMing habits) and game running.

  52. Ian says:

    I rob from the published and give to my own world.

    I always found problems with published worlds, and I’m looking at your Forgetten Realms, not that I dislike them but more they have been around for so many years the odds are people I play with know them better than me.

    So I typically take the bits I like and drop them into my own world.

  53. Marmot says:

    I usually make use of the published campaign settings, since I’m familiar with them, like them and think they provide a solid framework for my story (unless the story is something bizzare that would stick out in that world, of course).

    What I heavily dislike, though, is people taking campaign settings as bibles and wanting to use every single city/village/NPC from the book in the adventure (“no, the map on page 98 says that the Eastfair is only 20 miles from Lillywood, not 35”). Also using campaign settings to arbitrarily ban things and finding a way why something doesn’t fit instead of the opposite.

    As always with D&D, it’s a people problem.

  54. Zaxares says:

    I much prefer to make my own settings, where I can go wild over creating the world’s cultures, environments, religions, and history. I once created a world where humanity, under the leadership of a humano-supremacist God named Zarus, has basically conquered the entire world, and all non-humans (yes, even traditional allies of humanity like elves and dwarves) are reduced to mere slaves. In this campaign, the PCs started off as non-human freedom fighters (and one human sympathist) who were struggling to simply survive in a world where lands of non-human rule are just a memory. It was a very interesting world, with common tropes turned on their head. Humans, ALL humans, are the bad guys. You had orcs working alongside with elves, goblins alongside dwarves, racial enmity put aside to battle a common foe.

    Ahhh man, I’m rambling again!

    ANYWAY, getting back to the main topic, I much prefer creating my own settings, BUT…

    Having a full-time job, spending time with the girlfriend, and stubbornly refusing to give up my video game hobby has meant that I’ve had to rely on published adventures for my last campaign. It’s not so bad though; I still tend to tweak the adventures (and the monsters) to suit my own settings, and I still do my best to weave in specific encounters and plots to suit my players’ characters wherever possible.

  55. tussock says:

    Well, I can buy a worldbook and spend weeks of free time trying to figure out how it works (which I’ve done now and then, some of them are quite wonderful), or just turn up on the day and free associate my way through the world that’s been developing in my head for the better part of 20 years now.

    Depends how inspired I’m feeling, or how annoyed I’ve gotten trying to stay true to someone else’s cannon recently. I get burned out sticking to either one too long.

  56. Kevin says:

    I don’t mind borrowing elements from a published source, be it module, campaign setting, sitcom, gum wrapper… if it’s innocuous and it fits. Using someone else’s world exclusively would just be exhausting to me. Too much of my fun comes from watching the players enjoying something that I made. That’d be all gone if it was something someone else made. Like the difference between inviting your friends over for home-made lasagna vs. inviting your friends over for Burger King. It’s still food for them, but not as satisfying for you.

  57. Tizzy says:

    I’ve used both premade settings and home-made ones. Back in the early days, there wasn’t the endless revenue stream from publishing supplements, and materials were hard to come by (it was hard enough to find a store that carried the stuff!) Some games were very good at helping you design your setting (e.g. the build-your-own-apocalypse pages in Aftermath).

    And then some games came with a setting that was so spectacularly unique that you couldn’t help use it (Paranoia). But the really weird settings can require quite a bit of effort to sell to your players.

    When the setting is more generic, I prefer to build my own, and I hate games that spawn too many supplements (I’m looking at you World of Darkness…) In that case, I noticed that the world stops making sense pretty quickly, and forget about making your own setting unless you want to confuse everyone at the table.

  58. James says:

    First – I have been playing D&D since the late 70’s. The majority of the games I have been in were not pre-made but I have been in more than a few store-bought settings.

    I really don’t care if you think your game setting is great. It’s how your players think about it. If your players start thinking about the Saturday game on Thursday afternoon and call you during the week with new ideas THEN your world is a success. If they get together and chant the name of your campaign THEN you got it right. If they get out of the hospital a few days early to make the game….
    You get the idea.

    Pre-made stuff is what you make of it. It’s all about the DM’ing. I have never been in a store-bought campaign that rated higher than the best home-brew ones. Still – almost every pre-made was better than some of those GM’s settings where they think they have everything planned out. Then when something unexpected comes along you get the feeling they are being totally arbitary in their rulings. Yuck…

    Basically, it all comes down to how the players feel. GM’s – talk about your game all you want but it doesn’t mean squat.

  59. James says:

    First – I have been playing D&D since the late 70’s. The majority of the games I have been in were not pre-made but I have been in more than a few store-bought settings.

    I really don’t care if you think your game setting is great. It’s how your players think about it. If your players start thinking about the Saturday game on Thursday afternoon and call you during the week with new ideas THEN your world is a success. If they get together and chant the name of your campaign THEN you got it right. If they get out of the hospital a few days early to make the game….
    You get the idea.

    Pre-made stuff is what you make of it. It’s all about the DM’ing. I have never been in a store-bought campaign that rated higher than the best home-brew ones. Still – almost every pre-made was better than some of those GM’s settings where they think they have everything planned out. Then when something unexpected comes along you get the feeling they are being totally arbitary in their rulings. Yuck…

    Basically, it all comes down to how the players feel. GM’s – talk about your game all you want but it doesn’t mean squat.

    PS. “Teagle Manor” rocked – thanks Tommy. (played in 82)

  60. Brandon says:

    I am, in fact, far better at creating settings than characters, even the characters I play. I’m still not a very good GM, however. But whenever I read a story I’m always thinking of new, derivative ideas from that story. And it’s always setting or background information, never characters, alas.

    I love reading RPG books, though. I have a fondness for core game mechanics (to a point, skill lists and rules expansions bore me to tears) and game settings information. I’m always seeing little details I like that I’ve love to pull into my own product. In fact, I think that’s what I need to do. I need to get off my ass and finally write the two RPG products I’ve been mulling over for a year+ now. Let someone else think of characters and story, I have SETTING!

  61. Vadimirin says:

    You know, I’ve had a setting I made for DnD 4th Edition (though it’d work perfectly in 3.5) and I’ve really been hoping for someone who could help me take it from a macro scale overview and pound out more details. The problem is that in my group we seem to be more ‘Where is it? what is it? let’s kill it. What’s it’s loot?’ than total immersionists, and I kind of want to fix that. Part of the problem is I’m probably one of the biggest proponent of the ‘run in and slaughter them all’ methodology of gaming, and I don’t want my party to get into that habit.

    If you (or anyone else reading this blog entry) are willing to help me with it, I’d be willing to let you use my campaign setting, and maybe a few ideas I was inspired by a friend to come up with. To contact me just send an e-mail to the address embedded in my name.

  62. Roninsoul7 says:

    I prefer to use my own worlds, gods, histories, and political climates. One reason is the same, if I make it I know it without having to look up stuff in the books. The second is that I like having somethings in the world that the player’s do not know about in advance, since it does tend to spoil the surprise (One player I had read the MM from cover to cover and even memorized the descriptions to the point that in relaying what the monster looked like, he knew exactly what it was, and how to beat it, even though his character didn’t have the skills to know, and would use that knowledge.)

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