Playing In Other People’s Worlds – September Blog Carnival

28 September, 2012

This is part of the September Blog Carnival: Running Games In Established Settings kindly hosted by Dice Monkey.

Generally, I do not play in established settings, early experience with the Forgotten Realm left a bad taste in my mouth for such for D&Dish fantasy games and since then I have been fairly aggressive about building my own worlds and settings.  Same for superhero games, I love supers but the existing worlds (DC and Marvel) are so bogged down in their own convoluted histories that they are near unplayable for me.  I want a world that in mine and, because it is mine, I understand how it works.

Now, there are two exceptions to this, Legend of the Five Rings and Shadowrun, both of which I have run off and on since each of they released.  We will look at them in reverse order:

Shadowrun, we started playing this really serious just as 2nd edition came out and, for various reasons, it evolved into a rotating GM/troupe style campaign with everyone taking turns GMing and having a stable of characters to choose from.  Because it was a a) a shared world so we all needed to be on the same page, and b) the crazy mix of magic and tech that is SR, there was far too much baggage involved in running it in any other setting/system.

I still run Shadowrun now, but as I am the only GM for our local game, I can shape the world a bit more to my liking and try to dial back some of the excesses I find in the setting and system.  Mostly they are minor (Bug City being solved more quickly, the California Free State rejoining the US, things on the edges) and do not effect the players or characters but they make the world work better for me, making it easier for me to run the setting.  System wise, I do not tinker too much unless I find something a bit too powerful, then I dial it back, which has only happened once so far in SR4.

Legend of the Five Rings, we starting playing this game right after (as in days after) the first edition came out.  When the game first released, it had a very limited official canon, just the core book and the bits and pieces from the first CCG arc.  Rokugan was really an open world that we filled in with our knowledge of Japan, samurai cinema, anime and the official books as they released, so the setting was really a negotiation between our group and the official products as they came out.  After the big early campaigns ended, playing L5R became a back burner thing, we pretty much skipped 2nd Ed and then starting playing again during 3rd edition.

By 3rd Edition, both the canon and current storyline/metaplot of L5R had become dense, Rokugan was much less open, much more confined by published material.  Neither me nor my players who cared about the storyline (which was not all of them admittedly) liked the current arc, so I rolled my campaign setting back several centuries and kept the framework of L5R without the baggage of playing in the then ongoing setting.  Because we really like L5R and the basic structure of the game and setting, but some of the calls on how the setting has evolved (and the burden of keeping up on the constant ongoing changes to the world) are not something most of us care for, so using the setting shorn of the weight of current cannon is very liberating.

All of the L5R games run by GMs in my group have followed this tactic, resulting in a casually shared world but with the various campaigns only implicitly tied together.  This allows us to share resources without worrying about treading on each others plots.

So, while there is nothing wrong with using a existing setting (I do not mind playing in Pathfinder‘s Golarion for example) I really think you should make the settings you play your own be they from a published source or not.  What are your thoughts on the matter?


  1. Interesting that you should post about this right now – I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to get buy-in from someone else in a setting that of one’s own creation – especially enough buy-in or sense of agency that the other person can comfortably play in the sandbox and feel at home.

    What is it about L5R and Shadowrun that made you want to stick with them, rather than dumping the whole setting and writing your own thing as you were inclined to do in others? (“Writing quality” is certainly a valid answer that presents itself, but is so subjective as to be barely helpful, you know?) I say this as someone who has run a VERY few published settings – Forgotten Realms, Over the Edge, Mage: the Awakening’s Boston – but by overwhelming majority writes his own material.

    • L5R because it has become iconic, the shorthand of the Major Clans, the Empire, the Five Elements, all make the setting very accessible and easy to play in. While it also has the Historical Japan but not Japan so you can let players slide a bit more on cultural issues or let them dive into them if that is their want. It always one to step outside of a modern Western mindset but, as it is entirely fictional, the morality of the samurai is not as grating. In other words, it is a setting we are comfortable with in it basic framework (if not its current storyline incarnation).

      For Shadowrun, see my reply to Trey. *wink*

  2. There are games (and Shadowrun is one) where I often think “I should take what I like about this world and make my own,” but then I never do and go ahead and play it as is.

    • Well, Shadowrun is such a bizarre melange of a particularly 80s take on cyberpunk and fantasy. You would have to totally hack it to pieces and restart and once you have done that . . . why were you not just playing something else to begin with? Besides, half the fun of Shadowrun is the crazy troupe mixing of 80s action movies/cyberpunk dystopia/hippy-dippy magic and elves all blended together in a smoothie of wackiness.

  3. Whenever I play in someone else’s setting, I tend to make it my own, sometimes to the point of making it anew, as in my next campaign. The only exceptions to this are settings that no one really knows. I remember running Deadlands the month it was released, and sticking to the world as written. This was because to my players, it was still a new and shiny world they had yet to discover. But CP2020 is such a well known game in my circles, that I’ve gone and stolen a much less known world, and made my changes to that, and am running it to give experienced players something new.

    And also something they can’t claim to know more about than myself, which might be a very good reason indeed to ditch an established setting every once in awhile. For more thoughts on the subject, http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=251

    • When playing in an established setting there is a good argument for crucifying Elminster and all, but for Shadowrun (less so for L5R) I want it to be recognizable the game people are expecting.

  4. […] Sea of Stars says: if you’re going to play in in an established setting, make it your own. Good advice. […]

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