Sunday, August 22, 2010
Other Campaign Worlds and Me
To wrap up the impromptu theme of the week here are my experiences with some other published campaign worlds:
Empire of the Petal Throne - The first published campaign world - I have never seen a copy in person nor have I played or run anything in it. From what I have seen it's not anything I would be terribly interested in but I understand why some people still revere it. James M gives a more detailed discussion of the game and its history than I could here.
City State of the Invincible Overlord - The Judges Guild world is one I do own - I have several of the paper supplements and the original "books in a bag" sets of City-State and Tarantis, plus the Mayfair boxed set. It's an interesting setup and many, many people love it, but it is a wide-open kitchen sink type of world - there's not really a particular vision of what makes the world different here. Then again at the time it was published just having a world setting was pretty unusual in itself - it didn't need to separate itself from the pack because there wasn't a pack. I've never run it and never played in it but I considered it for 3E briefly and I might do it again just to say I have. Apparently the Wilderlands of High Fantasy set in either original form or 3e Necromancer games form is what really makes the world come alive and that's a piece I sadly lack. James M again has a nice overview of some of what makes it special here. Reading some of that I need to get my copy out again - it might get some use in the upcoming 1E campaign.
Glorantha - It's not D&D but it's probably the most influential non-D&D campaign out there. This is the Runequest world and it's very different than traditional RPG Fantasy worlds. The gods are fewer in number and more directly involved in the history of the world than most. Technology tends to be bronze age as a standard (if you have iron plate armor you're a big deal and it's worth a lot of money). The feel is more mythic and nothing is generic. Mountain ranges are the backs of sleeping dragons, elves are plant creatures, many of the monsters are unique (no orcs or goblins here) and it just feels different. I've never run Glorantha but I played in a long-running RQ3 campaign and owned the boxed sets for a time. I wouldn't try to run D&D in it, but it does make for a nice change if you are burned out on D&D, both system-wise and world wise.
Planescape - Published in 1994, a big and seemingly very popular 2E AD&D world that no one in my circle of friends played or ran. Never owned it, never read a single product for it. It gets a lot of love now and looking back at the authors I see names of people whose later work I like, but it was always an also-ran line as far as I was concerned at the time. Plus, it looked and felt like TSR was trying to emulate White Wolf (Vampire was very popular at the time) and WW was my gaming kryptonite at the time. I can appreciate it more now, but at the time it felt like Planescape was targeted at someone else, not me.
Spelljammer - similar in some ways to Planescape as it was a 2E product that my friends and myself basically ignored. We were firmly grounded in our Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms games and this added what, exactly? It looked silly and we bordered on active dislike for it on the rare occasions it came up. Looking back at us we took our D&D games fairly seriously and there was no way we were going to waste our time with this - you take your flying boat and go fight your hippo-men with guns, we're going to attack the Vault of the Drow and try to win a barony for ourselves. Looking back at this, it looks like a lot of fun and I would love to play it today. Again, never read any of it, never owned a single product of the line. Having a pretty good idea of what it's about though, I can tell you that the 4E Manual of the Planes (which I am reading right now) contains a pretty good update of this concept including a discussion of Spelljamming vessels. I think an episodic campaign of "D&D Star Trek" could be a blast - in any edition.
Ravenloft - I never played the original module, never read or owned it until a few years ago. I'm still not sure who thought it was a good idea to sort of turn it into a 2E campaign world. I have never read or owned any of the campaign materials so I admittedly have limited knowledge of the setting but I just don't see gothic horror as a good fit for D&D. A Vampire can scare lower level players in most editions but compared to the Huge Ancient Red Dragon, A type VI Demon, a Pit Fiend, or some of the other big nasties of the D&D world it's just not a top-tier opponent past a certain level. Without some mechanical support for "fear", PC's aren't going to act afraid. One of my good friends played in a fairly lengthy 2E campaign of this and it just sounded OK at best. It seemed like a lot of special rules to force players to act a certain way when everyone couls have had a lot more fun just playing Realms or GH or Spelljammer for that matter. Not a fan of this one.
Al-Qadim - a 2E world. I never read it, played it, owned it, or cared to. It just never excited me.
Oriental Adventures - I own it for 1E and 3E but my players are just not interested. Never played it or ran it, probably never will.
Eberron - a new setting for 3E and republished for 4th. I picked up the main book not long after it first came out and it looked like a friend was going to run a game. It fell through and though I have read a lot about Eberron I've never sat down to read the book and I've never played or run in a game set there. It's kind of an odd blind spot to have after 10 years of 3E and part of a year of 4E but there it is. I will probably pick up the 4E books before too long but I have no plans to run anything in it at this time.
Kalamar - at one time I would have had a lot to say about Kalamar as I really liked it early in the 3E era but as time has gone on I just have lost all interest in it. What seemed interesting at first as a "realistic" medievalish fntasy world now just seems boring. There's really nothing I can point to as making the world stand out from other options or as better than other options or unique in any way. Having every book published for it and having run 2 campaigns in it I can say that in my expert opinion it's very plain and has nothing to distinguish it as a world in its own right. The only game that I see it fitting with now is a gritty GURPS fantasy campaign emulating low-level D&D play and the odds of me running that are pretty slim. So my good-sized set of Kalamar books is on the chopping block for my nest trip to the used book store.
Scarred Lands - This was a 3E campaign world put out by Sword and Sorcery (an imprint of White Wolf of all things) and it was very good. This is the setting where those 3E Creature Catalog books and Relics & Rituals books are from. I will write about it in more detail down the road but if I fire up another 3E game it will most likely be set in this world. I also have every book published for this setting and the contrast with Kalamar could not be more pronounced. The setup is post-apocalyptic fantasy with the world recovering from a war between the gods and their progenitors the titans which the gods won, similar to Greek mythology. Certain races were created by the Titans while most were created by the gods and the tension between the Divine Races and the Titanspawn is a big part of the setting as the titan-bred races try to find ways to return the titans to power and the divine races try to prevent it without squabbling too much between themselves. Druids get their powers from the titans while clerics' powers come from the gods, so it's not just a racial thing. There are a ton of interesting monsters tied to the world, 3 continents covered in some detail, some nice poster-maps of said continents, and some regional sourcebooks breaking down parts of the world in more detail.
It has a unique feel fluff-wise with things like the Blood Sea which is red because there is a titan with his heart cut out chained to the bottom of it. The blood leaking from this titan cause all kinds of bad things to happen so you have an ocean full of mutated weirdness including bloodthirsty fish-men and shark creatures and various tentacled horrors.
It is also unique mechanically because of the monsters & magic items detailed in some of the books, the details on the gods and titans in others, and the massive number of prestige classes available in the books that let characters join some of the legendary organizations talked about in these books.
The best thing I can say about it is that nothing feels generic - they don't take the easy way out at any point yet you can play regular D&D here - it's not so far-out as Dark Sun or Spelljammer that it feels like a different game. To me it's the best mix of "new & different" with "ground-based, prime-material plane-based regular D&D" that I've seen since the Realms came out for 1E.
Dragonlance - I read and loved the original novels and I own the Dragons of War strategic game and the one with the battlesystem scenarion at the Clerist's Tower but I've never played in a DL campaign or even an adventure, nor have I run ny of them, nor have I owned any DL campaign material until recently. Not too long ago I picked up the 3E Dragonlance Campaign book and it is very nice. So I like it and though I wouldn't necessarily be up for running it I would gladly play in a game if one opened up. DL has a bit of the "Star Wars Problem" in that a big epic story has already been told, so some players are going to wonder what their characters are going to do. I think that's surmountable, but the DM has to have some specific ideas in mind - I think it's a campaign that needs to be plotted out to some degree and not just a sandbox game.
Note: I was not a big follower of this world past the initial novels & the twins trilogy but they did 2 things that pretty much killed it off for me later: First was changing it over to that Saga card-based system. I can't think of a stupider move either creatively or business-wise than taking an iconic D&D world, probably the best known to non-D&D'ers at the time, and making it NOT D&D! Pure jeenius at wrok! The other bad move was "Dragons of Summer Flame" which was the original writing team coming back to TSR after some kind of dispute and writing a novel to advance the timeline to the next big thing - it got all kinds of hype and was published in hardback (not many D&D books were at the time) and I got it and it was terrible. Not just because it killed off most of the main characters from before, and not just because it had to go and find something worse than Takhisis for the big bad, but also because it was just a bad book.
So that's my wrap up of my brushes with the various campaign settings associated with D&D (plus Glorantha).