Good Afternoon, All:
I was talking to a friend of mine today, discussing cool campaign worlds and the like. One of the disturbing trends I noticed is that, while I like a lot of the different settings that have been published, I often add the caveat "when they are run correctly." In thinking about my tendencies here, I realized that what I really meant with that statement is that, all too often, I find that a world's specific flavor tends to get lost too easily with casual gamers.
Vanilla fantasy is vanilla fantasy for a reason. It's the easiest type of fantasy campaign for players to imagine, it builds on shared experiences and common connotations to create a strong foundation upon which to run adventures and build campaigns, and it requires minimal investment and minimal work on the part of the players to enjoy the game. That makes it perfect for casual gamers, as well as more dedicated gamers that occasionally have a bad day and are simply unable to make the effort they normally do during play.
On the other hand, worlds with a distinct flavor create a unique and enjoyable gaming experience that differs significantly from vanilla fantasy. However, playing in such a campaign requires a degree of dedication from both the Referee and the players to promote and preserve the unique flavor of the setting. Dark Sun, a highly psionic desert setting from TSR/WOTC, has a distinct flavor that's very cool, but if anyone slacks on maintaining the distinct nature of the setting, the flavor is lost and you simply end up with a high-powered fantasy game with sand and loincloths. The World of Darkness by White Wolf has similar problems, in that the flavor of the world gets lost in the powers and characters built without an understanding of the milieu. A well-run World of Darkness game can be like a magnum opus, a great symphony, of roleplaying, but if the group loses the sense of the world, it becomes a slugfest of teeth with 'tude, and little else. In both of these cases, as with most distinct game worlds, the further you get from vanilla fantasy, the more powerful the game tends to be, in order to make up for the loss of interest caused by the distinctive changes themselves by replacing the lost interest with that garnered by "kewl powerz". (Publishers have to sell books, or they don't stay in business long, and power sells.)
The problem as a Referee with this observation is that, as a Referee and a world-builder, I want to create a campaign that isn't entirely vanilla fantasy, but isn't so different that you can't keep the world's flavor going as you bring in new characters and/or new players. Restricting your campaign to a particular style or flavor can often limit the pool of available gamers you have to choose from. The differences in your campaign world must be easy enough to grasp that those new to the setting can be up and running with minimal effort, while still providing you with the distinct flavor you need to make your game stand out amongst the others they will be considering.
As a Referee, I typically look for a few areas where I can make changes to the setting to make it stand out, and leave the rest pretty close to vanilla fantasy. This gives me a few areas to concentrate on to make the game stand out in terms of flavor, but for the most part, new players can come in and start playing without needing a three week orientation course in order to properly "get it" in regards to the world I've created. Most of my players are casual gamers. They love to game, and it's a great pasttime for them, but only one of many such interests. I want the game to be enjoyable for them, and so I don't want it to feel like taking a college course or work. The small areas of distinct flavor lets me build up the world for myself and those like me, who are seeking those distinctive elements, without losing my casual gamers in the process.
For example, aside from some naming conventions, the use of some non-standard monsters and possibly races, a few cultural elements in isolated locations and the history and background surrounding the death of a god, my Madlands Campaign is intended to remain close to vanilla fantasy. That way, it remains easy for me to integrate new characters and players into the campaign as we go along. Since my average campaigns tend to run two-three years in length, turnover is to be expected, and I need to plan for it. But the distinct flavor is what I hope will sell the game during my pitch to prospective players.
Now it's your turn. How do you feel about worlds with distinct flavors? Do you find them as difficult to maintain as I do, particularly as new players come and go? What are your suggestions on how to handle the balance between vanilla and uniqueness?