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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When You're Not On The Same Page...

What are you supposed to do when you are not on the same page as your players, metaphorically speaking? As a DM I run into this issue more often than I would like, partly because of my gamer ADD and partly because my players have a set of expectations when they come to the table to play D&D. Sometimes it's a stylistic difference, and part (or most) of the group is on board with the way things are going, like the more socially oriented games I have been playing with my overwhelmingly female group, where the guys playing are outnumbered 2:1 or more usually; sometimes it's more about the game I want to run, like the number of times I have tried to run a game that was more grounded in actual medieval (or ancient or Norse, whatever) myth and reality and had it not quite go as well as I'd hoped because the players really just wanted to "Play some 'regular' D&D".

This can be a problem for me, personally, because it leads to frustration and burnout on my part, as DM. I start to think the players aren't having a good time and that makes me not have a good time, which then turns the whole thing into a self fulfilling prophecy. I am also a little annoyed by the whole "Regular D&D" thing, it as though, just because I try and put a little verisimilitude into my home-brewed campaign worlds and avoid the cookie-cutter sameness of the published "Standard" D&D worlds, from Greyhawk and The Known World (Mystara) to the Forgotten Realms, the primary campaign areas in those worlds are like a renaissance festival with a large fantastic component; it's like they took the entirety of Western Europe from the Fall of Rome through the Age of Exploration (minus the guns) and threw them in a blender and then added Orcs.

Now, before the fans of those settings jump on me, I have loved each of them; and once you get off the beaten path, they start following the same patterns of verisimilitude that I do by stealing real Earth cultures and their mythologies and making them work in their fantasy settings. I loved Kara-Tur but it may as well have been a map of Asia with Japan on it twice. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was just a Byzantine Greek take over of Slavic territory, for the most part.

I digress though, and maybe ramble a bit, my question here is why do I spend so many hours building a realistic campaign setting, a world with a lot of internal consistency, when all of my players would be happy with just playing in Greyhawk or Mystara, and some would seem to prefer it? Now, some of them are setting junkies, some of them loved Rokugan for instance, but some would be happier if there was just a town that appeared outside the dungeon when they needed a place to spend their gold. The greater campaign world means little to nothing to some of my players and I have a hard time understanding that. Town doesn't need a name, or more than a handful of token, nameless NPCs; it's a place where they are (relatively) safe to rest up and refurbish between adventuring expeditions and I think there's a problem with that. Is it my problem though?

Am I expecting too much out of my players when I present them with an entire world based on an extrapolation of what Gaulish and British society would have been like if it had flourished for another couple of centuries, rather than being wiped out by the Roman empire and driven to the "Celtic Fringe"? Or is it too exotic to have a setting based on Arthurian Myth and other medieval legends, complete with all of the Christian trappings? How about the Norse pseudo-historical setting I have running right now, where they have already run into creatures out of Norse myth? I have one player that wasn't interested in that one, so he sat it out. 9th century Scandinavia was too far outside the realm of what he wanted for "regular" D&D. Which is kind of funny now, because, despite it's historical start, the party of Vikings is now trapped in an ancient Dwarven mega-dungeon complex on a mysterious moving island in the north Atlantic.

Do I like to use fantasy analogues of real world cultures, sure. The past is a great story. Adding in the myths of the people that you are putting in your world to make them more fantastically real only makes sense if you are playing a fantasy role-playing game, I do it all the time. TSR did it all the time too, with greater and lesser effectiveness. Authors do it too, Harry Turtledove used Romans traveling to "Videssos", which was just a Constantinople stand in with magic. Turtledove got his start as a medievalist specializing in Byzantium, information I got because he was my college advisor's brother's college room-mate, it came up one day when she saw me reading one of his novels. Anyway, if stealing cultures from Earth's history is OK for the professionals at TSR and famous authors like Harry Turtledove, why shouldn't I do it too?

Or is there something about D&D that needs to be generic, western European fantasy based to make it appealing to people? Oriental Adventures wasn't super popular, it has always been kind of a niche D&D fandom. I assume that Al Qadim and Maztica and other exotic, non-European based settings are too. The ancient world doesn't seem to fare too well either, I've run games more than once in settings based on Rome and rarely had them last for more than a couple of sessions.

People just seem to lose interest in the exotic. One shots are fine, campaigns are not; is this everyone's experience?


  1. You are letting your story get in the way of your players' stories. It's theirs that matter. You are simply a facilitator for their telling of it.

  2. Both player and DM participation is necessary for a good experience with pen-and-paper gaming, in my experience. If either party thinks only their contribution at the table is important, the game will not work the way it should. If that's your style of play (player or DM), what you're really looking for is Skyrim, not D+D.

  3. I think you just need to beat your players more. I recommend an axe handle beating. A baseball bat leads to more broken bones and that just slows down the game and makes it harder for them to role dice. An axe handle will do more bruising damage and make them appreciate a well crafted setting, and then you can still use the baseball bat if the axe handle doesn't work out.

  4. I'm guessing the ones that just want generic Town as a safe place to restock for the crawl are video gamers in spirit and not role players...that said, and despite the fact that we are co-developing an intensively detailed campaign world setting, I believe (as you know) that the story is the thing, and the setting just the backdrop for the story. I've always assumed that we were about 1000% percent more interested in the story of Garnia than anyone else would least in gaming terms...the novelization and shared world anthologies might have broader appeal.

    RE Garnia I figure that while our detailed histories are going to be interesting making the present as developed and playable as possible is going to be the key...

    oh, I also agree that more frequent beatings may be the order of the day...

  5. Clich├ęs are tedious in almost any other medium, but they are the bread and butter of rpg's.

    Nuanced worlds are largely scenery... but you have to dole out the pieces slowly. Note how the Firefly series used entire episodes to introduce the Reavers and the show what the Alliance worlds were like. Pace yourself!