Monday, 3 July 2017
I'm the Worst
Hey, it's next time, and I have in fact changed my mind about what I'm running again.
Sort of. To be more precise: I've changed my mind about the scale I should be working at. It's fun to try and figure out the general thread and theme of a whole campaign setting and to draw a big world map, but at the end of the day that's just not really the level at which the game is actually played. Published campaign settings are expansive and large-scale because that's what makes them worth buying: a bunch of background work has been done for you and you can drill down into the specifics of whatever particular region or adventure hook catches your fancy.
When it comes to doing it yourself though, that kind of work often turns out to have been superfluous. Campaigns often spend multiple real-life years in a relatively small in-game space. Yes, having done a bunch of background work beforehand can help make thing seem richer, but so can taking the time you took to do that to design a small area and make it cohesive and interesting. Background can emerge organically; that's how it's going to happen for the players, in any case. Those big infodumpy speeches you give at the beginnings of campaigns to explain how the setting works? Nobody's listening, dude. I know this from the experience of attempting to run various published settings, for both D&D and other games, including settings like Planescape that seem to demand that players have a bunch of extra information up front. In pretty much every case, as far as I can tell, if players don't already know the setting, they absorb it through play, and they understand it primarily in the context of what happened in play. So if having a bunch of information up front doesn't really do the players any good, it doesn't seem like it does the DM any good either.
I know all of this, intuitively, but I still seem to have gotten caught up in big grand world-building. Even going "I'm going to set this in the Wilderlands" got me into all kinds of trouble as I started expanding and tweaking things that would take months for my players to actually experience, if they ever did.
Part of the problem is that I've become too enamored of the idea of the "sandbox hex crawl," or at least with a certain idea of one typified by the Wilderlands and by modern incarnations like Carcosa. The truth is, I just don't need to detail that much real estate right off the bat. The classic beginning-of-campaign paradigm is "Everyone starts in a tavern and then goes and explores a nearby dungeon" for a reason. A single village or town and its surroundings are more than enough for a good sandbox - certainly for its early stages, and probably enough for an entire campaign. The entirety of Skyrim fits into a single six mile hex. In terms of what you directly need to start a campaign and even to maintain it long-term, the Wilderlands paradigm is perhaps a bad example to follow.
So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to design a village or small town, probably with the help of the many random tables in Judges' Guilds Villages 1, and probably kinda-sorta based on The Village of Hommlet. I'm not going to worry about what the continent it's in looks like or what the nation it's in is like or what the larger geopolitical situation is or whether elves and dwarves get along or any of that shit. I'm going to take the time I would have spent worrying about that shit and apply it to fleshing it out the village and its inhabitants in reasonable detail and designing the first couple levels of a large-ish dungeon that will be nearby and to giving some thought to a usefully vague and malleable "vibe" for the kind of game I want to run. There will also be some other dungeons nearby, that I'll probably take from classic modules. I'll come up with a rumour table full of adventure hooks that may or may not hint at broader things going on in the world at large. I may even work out a single six-mile hex's worth of map, probably at a half-mile-per-sub-hex scale. And then I'll just let shit develop from there.
So that's my plan. Join me next week when I really sincerely fucking hope to God I haven't changed my mind again.