Wednesday 11 March 2009

Playing in Somebody Else's Back Yard

Green Ronin's Song of Ice & Fire role playing game gets released today, I believe. As a reader of the series of novels I suppose I ought to be excited, but actually I'm utterly apathetic. George R. R. Martin's success with the saga has all been about two things - characterisation and plot - and those have absolutely nothing to do with setting. In fact, you couldn't get more bog-standard fantasy than Westeros; A Song of Ice and Fire has no innovations whatsoever to offer in terms of world-building. It's England during the Wars of the Roses with a bit of magic and a few ghosts and dragons thrown in. So I can't see much point in buying a game 'set' there; if I really want to play a game in Westeros I might as well just take a map from the inside cover of one of the novels and use the rules from D&D. (Probably Rolemaster would work better, actually.) If everything that's good about the series of novels is down to the writing, what will a new game based on it offer me? "You get the chance to be Sandor Clegane!" Okay, how's about I just roll up a D&D fighter and call him 'Sandor Clegane' then?

In actual fact, I really can't see the point in buying bog-standard fantasy settings for role playing games, full stop. Forgotten Realms? Krynn? They're very much like fantasy heartbreakers, really: absurdly similar carbon copies with different names, a slightly different jumble of geographical features, and usually a unique (but actually utterly banal) hook - "In Krynn, there are no orcs!"; "In Forgotten Realms, there's a whole world underground!"; "In Saxinfraxin World, elves live in the mountains and dwarves live in the forest!". Zzzz..... I mean, if bog-standard fantasy is what you want, then great, but if that's the case, make it up yourself - you could probably do just as good a job as Ed Greenwood or Tracy Hickman, and at least it would be yours and not everybody else's. And it would be both free, and fun to create. Or, even easier, don't create any world at all. Start off with a village and a dungeon and make the whole thing up as you go along. Free, and even more fun to create.

It doesn't have to be this way. I've never spent a single penny of my hard-earned cash on a Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance product, but I have large collections of Planescape, Spelljammer and Dark Sun (and Warhammer) material, because those are settings which I believe tried to do something genuinely different and interesting - something that wasn't just Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off. More importantly, I never would have come up with them by myself, whereas I feel like I could have made up Krynn during the time it takes me to sing 'What a Fool Believes' every morning while I'm in the shower. Why can't all published campaign settings be so creative?

I understand that there are sentimental reasons for sticking with certain settings - Greyhawk in particular - so please don't interpret this as a diatribe against them. There's nothing bad about Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms; it's just...why pay somebody else to do your imagining for you? Paying somebody to do the imagining that you can't do, fair enough: that's why I have so much Planescape stuff.


  1. "...why pay somebody else to do your imagining for you?"

    Paying other people to do things for me is what disposable income is all about!!

  2. but I have large collections of Planescape, Spelljammer and Dark Sun (and Warhammer) material, because those are settings which I believe tried to do something genuinely different and interesting - something that wasn't just Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off.

    I must salute your choices of campaign settings, because they exactly mirror my own *grins*

    ... Although I admit to also having an extensive collection of Al-Qadim supplements --

  3. You're right. Settings that are just another Greyhawk, Dragonlance, or Forgotten Realms can be boring. Hell, I'll come out and flat out state that those settings are pretty boring in the first place in a lot of ways out of the hands of somebody who knows what to do with them (and Forgotten Realms even then).

    But "bog standard" is pretty standard for a reason. It's something that's easy for people to come to grips with. Dark Sun is great fun, and full of awesome imagination (as long as you asiduously avoid the modules and the novels), but it's really a bit of a hard stretch on some folks at first, and sometimes it's a breaking point. Greyhawk, on the other hand, is a really simple starting point onto which you can graft whatever you want. And don't forget that some places in Greyhawk were pretty damned wierd themselves! The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun springs to mind.

    In the end, I'm a great fan of the creativity and newness of things like Planescape and Dark Sun. They really created some new things and, which might be just a little cooler, took the AD&D rules and stretched them into new things. However, I'm much more a fan of somebody who can take "bog standard" and create something truly memorable out of it. Somebody who can start with a Greyhawk or a Forgotten Realms and create something that really stands out and shines next to things like Dark Sun and Planescape too.

    And for what it's worth, gaming in the Song of Ice and Fire world is really rather dull if you're not playing with people who aren't fans of the stories. Kind of like Star Wars, but with a smaller fan base. However, if you want a decent ruleset that comes pretty close to emulating the world pretty well, the older D20 version of the Game of Thrones game is very good. And that's about the only time that I'll say that about a D20 game.

  4. I like Greyhawk in part because it was so easily made mine. It was almost a setting toolkit, in a way.

    I'm sure I have some nostalgia reasons as well, but I think Greyhawk was among those settings which gave DMs a basic framework to play around in without insisting on a massive buy-in. The Wilderlands are like this, too.

  5. Blotz: I can't really argue with that one, can I? ;)

    Taichara: I like Al Qadim too, but was never able to get my hands on much of it. Now it's a thing of the past...

    Hamlet: Yeah, I understand that bog standard makes things easier. But from my point of view, even in that case I'd still rather use my own bog standard world. Or, as I said, just start off with a town and a dungeon and see what happens.

    Zach: That's why I think Greyhawk and the Wilderlands are far superior to Forgotten Realms or Krynn. Don't even get me started on meta-plot...

  6. Agreed about Greyhawk.

    Do you really sing that every morning? Hah. Your wife must have something to say about that.

  7. Rach: Well, sometimes I sing My Everchanging Moods, and occasionally Piano Man. My wife's used to it by now. ;)

  8. Here, here. Excellent post.