"No one appears for a football game in order to watch the field. The field is lacking as an entertainment medium. It's sole purpose is as a measuring device to determine who wins and who loses."
This, I felt, deserved a few words of its own.
Very often, in fetishizing a setting such as we read in books or see captured in a film, we tend to attribute a greater importance to that setting than it really deserves. This is the meaning of a 'fetish' - to take an ordinary object and embue it with supernatural power, such as a cross or a book. This supernatural fetish takes hold of a culture and continues to manifest itself in ridiculous traditions, such as having a President swear to be a good President with his hand resting on a Bible - as though the swearing itself means nothing if it is not supernaturally 'enforced' by the Bible's presence.
Consider a setting familiar to most gentle readers: Middle Earth.
|Some Americans can indicate the location of Rohan on a map more easily than they can Romania.|
But remember that Rohan does not look like "Rohan," not really. Remember that what it looks like is New Zealand.
Fact is, as a setting rich with interesting places to see for D&D, it's actually pretty crappy. If you don't believe me, get out your copy of The Hobbit and then copy out everything the book says about the Misty Mountains. Don't embellish, just write out the actual descriptive words from the book. Good. Now how long did that take you? A couple of weeks? A day or two? Did it take as much as an hour?
The reality is, there's almost nothing, really. Tolkein knew he didn't have to extensively describe the mountains, because he was writing a book, and not an RPG setting. He knew his reader would fill in the greater details from the reader's familiarity with mountains in Norway, or Switzerland, or Poland, or America ... or New Zealand. That's why encyclopedias of Tolkein like this one are loaded with oblique references of what King Durin VI or Azog or Balin did that happened in the area of the Misty Mountains, but virtually not a thing about the mountains themselves. The mountains ARE mountains. There's nothing really special about them.
But is it different for an RPG? I'll tell you truly, no. I run the real world, and my setting does take advantage of a cultural reflection in people's minds of the Alps or the Urals or the Andes ... but most people have not spent great gobs of time in those places, and even if they have - we're still talking mountains here. I have lived most of my life in and around the Rocky Mountains, and though I've camped overnight hundreds of times around them, and tramped up and down their slopes in summer and winter, I can't make the mountains themselves interesting or exciting for very long, not to people sitting around a kitchen table.
The mountains aren't important. Middle Earth isn't important. If you think that by running Middle Earth you will be running a setting that is amazingly more interesting than a setting of your own cobbled-together imagination, you will be amazingly disappointed. We are talking about a big, empty map, with less words written about what's actually there than you'll find in the smallest pocket travel guide, and in the whole it won't matter. What will interest your party isn't the magic word "Rohan," but instead the seventeen orcs standing fifty feet away.
Settings are deathly dull, in case you didn't know. This is why a dungeon that presents empty room after empty room makes for a dismal night of running - even if the last room found is full of creatures and treasure. What you really want is a setting where EVERY room is full of some kind of creature, and some kind of treasure (informational, if not pecuniary), because living things that threaten or cooperate are only about ten thousand times more interesting than four walls with a door.
Advice like this will not stop would-be DMs from scratching out walls and doors, one juxtaposed with the next, ad nauseam, as though the shape of a hall or a room somehow in itself creates excitement and drama. In roleplaying this truly is a fetish - otherwise, how can you explain representations of a campaign environment like this:
|The people who dug these passages - did they want to spend every minute of their lives on their feet?|
Or as my offline party likes to say, "You have now gotten through the maze that allows you to reach the next maze."
So streamline your world. Make it less about your world and more about the people in it. A conversation with a wall is very, very boring. A conversation with seventeen orcs, MUCH more interesting.