”I'm always struck how much easier it is to create once a campaign starts moving. I always found that there is this essential tension between creating a world that exists apart from PCs and also being conscious of the fact during creation that this is a campaign setting that is meant for players. It is both "indifferent" and "all about them" at once. I'm curious to know your thoughts on that.I do beg to differ, though it's really a quibble. I don’t believe that the campaign ‘setting’ should reflect the players at all – as Axe says, the world exists apart. I see it that way for a couple of reasons. For one, there are too many possible players with widely different personalities for the world to cater to everyone, and for another, I am used to a world that is largely indifferent to me. I feel that a D&D world should be likewise – that it shouldn’t ‘cater’ to the players in terms of its construction or how it functions.
But, on the other hand the campaign itself, the weaving of enemy motivations and encounters that formulate the sessions – this should very definitely be ALL about the players.
I told you it was only a quibble.
What does ‘about the players’ mean, exactly?
I have never liked the term ‘referee’ where it is applied to RPGs, fundamentally because I’m not one. Whereas I have on occasion interceded on a player’s behalf to defend them from another player, I don’t do this as an authority figure, but as another person in the game. My players learn from experience that I never take any opportunity to ‘punish’ players for wrongdoing, either for their behavior as players or as human beings. If someone offends me, I demand an apology. But my role as DM doesn’t include spanking bad players.
Now and then, a player’s own actions will incur the wrath of NPCs ... but I usually try to mitigate that wrath by giving players repeated opportunities to mend their ways. I’ll have the bad guys threaten them, and then I’ll have the bad guys break their thumbs, and only after the player repeatedly acts like a bozo will I actually have the bad guys kill.
In very rare occasions a player will incur an assassination attempt. I don’t invoke assassins lightly, and I usually make the assassin the same level as the player when the player committed the offense – which usually means by the time the assassination actually occurs, the player is one or two levels higher than the assassin. But not always. Sometimes a player is very arrogant and very deserving, and the assassination happens very quickly.
Sometimes a player will raise some evil spirit that comes looking for payback. This usually involves a one-on-one combat for about three rounds before the player gets help (I like to be fair). It takes a fairly blatant act of blindness or stupidity to create this scenario.
In almost every other situation, I will give my players a chance to run ... even when circumstances dictate they really shouldn’t get that chance. This, too me, is intentionally arranging world events to suit the players. It doesn’t change the setting, however. It may be that the only place for the players to run is straight out into the desert, where they can expect to die soon without a lucky encounter roll. But I will make the roll.
Life and death is only the most obvious situation. There are hundreds of less obvious things that I do, that I am very careful never to tell the party about.
Running even a sandbox campaign requires that certain details are worked out in advance of the party. Strangers must have motivations and plans which the party will not discover until a later date. There must be a room designed on some level, even if it only in my head, beyond the door that is yet unopened. And I’m a human being – I am not above subtle changes in the next room based on what is happening at a given moment.
I love irony. If I can make my world a bit more ironic by changing the number or variety of monster in the next room, I will. I’ve tried running a world where I’ve steadfastly obeyed the dice on every occasion and the result is an adventure that lacks continuity, rhythm and the steady, demanding build to a climax.
In the same context, I’ve also ‘rushed’ a party through a potentially boring travelling campaign in bypassing encounters and events, just so that I can get them from point A to point B in a minimal period of time. Now and then, I’ll have someone teleport them. Most times, I’ll simply calculate the number of days and move on.
As I say, I draw the line at the world itself. I won’t move cities, I won’t have monsters die from spontaneous heart attacks, and NPCs don’t just give over magic items out of the goodness of their hearts. I will move things along to keep the campaign from getting boring, but I won’t furnish the party with a ring of teleportation just to get them out of one jam.
This sounds very much like I’m changing things all the time, whereas I’m really not. In my earlier campaign incarnations, twenty years ago, when I didn’t have maps and developed house rules, or the solid campaign design I have now, I was forced to make spontaneous changes constantly. The campaign I used to run simply didn’t hang together as well as it does now, I was not as well-versed in a wide variety of subjects the way I am now, I was not as adept at creating complicated plot weaves and so on ... and I had to take short-cuts.
And now very often I read on other blogs about how these short-cuts cause a world to be more ‘imaginative’ or ‘fluid’ ... further supported by arguments that forethought and foreplanning make a world stale and predictable. I find all this a kind of ‘praise of half-assery’ – where it makes an argument that magic and mysticism can’t been developed thoughtfully and intricately and then laid out ahead of time, on a grand scale, because it sounds like ‘work’ and this is all supposed to be ‘play.’
Creating a world is very much ‘work’ to me. When I step out of the room, I say to my wife, “I’m going to go back to work now.” I take the whole issue seriously. Players depend on me to be clever and as precise as possible, and D&D is a huge, cumbersome system that defies my attempts to take into account every detail. That’s why I love it. It is labour. It is effort. We don’t call them ‘plays of art.’ It is a Work.
It is only during the session that I refer to the game as ‘playing.’ And during the session, I apply my hard-worked world to making things as much fun as possible ... through driving my players through every emotion from fear to excitement to hilarity. For that I make changes on the fly. I’m thankful now that most of those changes are tweaks rather that sweeping shifts.
I cannot begin to imagine why every DM doesn’t want to work so hard on their worlds that their fingers bleed. I cannot imagine why, once they’ve created their worlds, they seem to treat them with such disdain. I continue to be puzzled when I see long time players announcing that they have a ‘New’ campaign they want to run. Didn’t they work hard enough on their old campaign? Couldn’t they find any respect for the things they worked on?
Are they incapable of falling in love?