Friday, September 22, 2006

in defense of bog standard fantasy

A lot of gamers on the internet gnash their teeth and bemoan that staple of our hobby, the Tolkien derivative fantasy setting. Plenty of other settings have made their bones knocking the old model provided by D&D. Talislanta with its tagline of "No elves!" immediately springs to mind. And in many ways Eberron is a new-fangled variant on this theme. Keith Baker and his WotC masters are smart enough to leave room in his setting for play of stereotypical D&D tropes, but my read of the basic message of the Eberron Campaign Setting book is "Steampunk robots are cooler than elves". You can argue that my characterization sells Eberron short and you'd probably be right, but I think my point remains.

Still, I find some uses for all those old tropes that so much of the gaming's online intelligentsia seem ready to jettison. Just as d20 (and before it, plain ol' D&D) serves as the mechanical lingua franca of the hobby, so too is the standard fantasy setting a common ground most of us can meet on. A lot of great work has been built upon the foundation of bog standard fantasy. And such work continues to this day. Goodman Games may target the nostalgia market for sales of its Dungeon Crawl Classics, but one of the secret strengths of its modules is they can be dropped into any of a thousand Tolkien-ripoff campaigns. The retro-adventures of Necromancer Games offer similar advantages.

And you don't need to be an oldster to appreciate much of their work. A newbie with the core D&D rules could build a perfectly functional campaign by stringing together a series of Goodman and Necromancer modules. You can't make that same claim about adventures written for more specialized and less generic campaigns. One could build a campaign out of say, Shadows of the Last War (for Eberron), Sons of Gruumsh (for the Forgotten Realms), and Madness in Freeport. Such a campaign could be totally awesome. But it could also be a terrible mish-mash that could drive the DM and players to distraction.

Part of my preference for generic fantasy over the idiomatic, stylized campaign setting lies in my approach to a campaign. We all bandy about terms like "campaign" as if everyone in the hobby agrees what that means. In my experience the term campaign carries a lot of connotations that vary from player to player. For some, a campaign is best understood as a setting in action. Take a setting, set PCs loose on it, let the two (setting and PCs) interact and that's your campaign.

To me setting does not necessarily enter the equation. My idea of a campaign is all about what the PCs are doing right now and the record of their deeds performed in play. For such an approach you only need the barest bones of a setting, the rest can be filled in during the course of play. To take an example from my current campaign, the Red Claws started out as the generic "evil cult" villains of one module. Within the overall scope of my campaign they became the single greatest internal threat the people of the Wild Coast have ever faced.

Now this sort of build-as-you go approach has its downsides. Until Zadrian the Wizard made an appearance I had no answer to the question "who is the most powerful magic-user on the coast?" Fortunately, the players intuit what kind of game I am running and don't ask unnecessary and impertinent questions like that. But if you keep the game focused on the short term ("Hey, someone get this giant leech out of my pants!") and the mid-term ("When I find the mad wizard who built this dungeon I'm going to make his skin into a billowy cape.") no one will have time for useless speculations.

The big upside of my way is that the PCs witness everything that is important to the campaign, because you construct the details of the setting out of the window dressings of their adventures. Starting with a generic setting gives you a leg up in this regards, as you don't spend any time explaining what a wizard or an elf is like in your setting. Instead you can take all that as a given and drill down to the specific wizards and elves that interact with your PCs. Which would you rather spend your time doing, explaining "oh no, in this setting dragons are different because blah, blah, blah" (cue eyerolling from the players) or detail why this particular dragon the PCs are up against is particularly awesome? The former all too often degenerates into the different-for-differences-sake ramblings of an artiste. The latter keeps things personal for the players and feeds directly into the single most important skill for a DMing: reminding the players that their PCs are awesome heroes struggling against impossible odds and unstoppable foes.