September Blog Carnival: Running Games In Established Settings

This post was written for September Blog Carnival, hosted by Dice Monkey.

The meat of any game session is what I refer to as “plot”. This could mean a pre-written storyline which the players move through, a series of characters and events which the player interact with in line with what they take an interest in, or even the events which spin off from the player’s own agenda and actions.

I contrast this with the setting, by which I mean the geography, culture, religion, major characters and so forth which make up the game world. You can’t have plot without setting (even if it’s only implied), but it’s not the focus of the action in a game session. It stands to reason, then, that any prep the GM does should focus on plot rather than setting, and that published settings should therefore be an ideal aid to the GM, allowing them to skip creating the setting and get on with preparing plot.

But the fact is that I love creating setting. I find the business of drawing maps, creating political factions, the sweep of history, strange fictional races, magic, gods, and so forth one of the most enjoyable parts of being a GM. When it comes to thinking about actual gameplay, I tend to procrastinate, obsessing over details and time-wasting by… creating more setting detail.

Anyway, it should be obvious from the above that pre-written settings are even more valuable for me than the average GM. Yes, I like to create my own settings, but rather like a drug addict, I should not necessarily be given what I like.

So what do I like in a published setting? I’m a fan of “dark”, be it dark fantasy, dark futures, horror – you name it. You can probably deduce my favourite settings from that straight away. The Warhammer 40k universe, Dark Sun, Call of Cthulhu, all big favourites of mine. But at the root of this, I’m looking for a setting that inspires me. For some reason I find darkness inspiring, go figure. But it isn’t the only thing I like; one of my favourite settings is Immortal: The Invisible War, which is more baroque than dark. Whatever the setting, I’m looking for something that’s going to trigger a torrent of ideas.

I pretty much never use published settings as is, though. This is a point of pride. I feel the need to put my own spin on it – often ironing out annoying inconsistencies in the background (and then reintroducing them through misinformation and rumour), and adding in major historical events that I can tie into my plots. Call me a snob, but I regard any GM who doesn’t introduce their own ideas into the game world as not really trying, even if this does slightly defeat the purpose of a published setting.

Bottom line: published settings are an incredibly useful shortcut to enable the GM to skip world creation and focus on what really matters. But I imagine I’m not alone in thinking that this also means skipping a big part of the fun of being GM.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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