Monday, November 15, 2010

The Concept of the Elusive "Perfect Milieu"...

Good Evening, All:

Have there ever been times where you just wanted to start all over with a new campaign setting, hoping that this time around, it captures everything you've been looking for in a game world? I find that I'm always suffering from that nagging quest for the elusive "perfect milieu", that one setting that will hold me over for the rest of my gaming days, the ultimate expression of my GMing mastery and creative outlets. I am constantly amazed that other gamers on the net have such a world, one to which they are devoted, and which reflects the totality of their creative efforts. I can't ever seem to capture my thoughts adequately without need to make changes, and yet I see that there are those that either got it right the first time, or have no qualms with making changes in midstream, so to speak.

I suppose that some of this stems from shifting creative foci on my part as well, my gamer’s "ADD", if you will. Most of the time, I tend to run a straight Vanilla Fantasy setting, and strive to make my campaign backgrounds distinctive, flavorful and involving. The secret to presenting such a setting lies in the details, of course. However, as the campaign progresses onward, I almost always find something lacking in the worlds I've created. Maybe it's details about the pantheons, or perhaps the relationship of polities to one another. Sometimes the geography just doesn't excite me after a while, and sometimes I feel like I've painted myself into a corner with a particular campaign plot arc, leaving me with nowhere to go (that I would enjoy running, at least with the gamers I have at the time) after the arc has run its course.

I’m also torn between the kind of world I’d like to design compared to the kind of world that will attract other gamers. I love worlds that tap into the same flavor as the Sword & Sorcery or Sword & Planet literary genres, a world of pulpy high adventure. However, I find that it’s often hard to find gamers that are interested in playing in such a world. Most gamers appear to want the High Magic worlds currently popularized by Wizards of the Coast and other such publishers, and so tend to dislike the "low magic, high action" feel of the worlds I would really enjoy designing and running. I suppose that I probably should stop calling my games fantasy games, and instead call them adventure/pulp games set in a fantasy world. I wonder if that would get me more players that would enjoy the same experiences. Obviously, the tensions of balancing a milieu my players would enjoy with a campaign setting I personally would find most rewarding form a part of that sense of dissatisfaction and elusiveness.

That’s one of the reasons I’m always working on other campaign ideas, such as the World Within. If this is going to be a world I design for myself and that’s all, then I’m going to make it as "low magic, high action" as I can. If I never get to play in the setting because it’s just too different for most casual gamers, so be it. I can always continue to run a "high magic" setting for the players to keep them happy, and shift my work over from one to the other as I find the ideas useful.

Do any of you have similar issues with your campaign world designs over time? Do you have a single world you run your campaigns in, or does each campaign also require a new campaign world? What do you like in your campaigns, either as a GM or as a player?

With Regards,


Trey said...

I tend to like different genres/subgenres in my gaming, too. One world never suffices for long.

I do have one fantasy world which I've refined/altered/cannibalized several times over the years. Sometimes it was more S&S, sometimes it was more like sword and planet+S&S, other times it was more straight up D&D-esque fantasy.

Harald said...

For a long while now, I've been a one-world-GM. It is made up of countless bits and pieces from games and settings I've used before, as well as plenty of stolen elements. It is also the world I've always wanted to GM in.

Now I'm not saying I'll never run another game or setting, but I hope I'll have players to keep the world of Argos going for a long while yet.

Scott said...

I'm a notorious flake when it comes to switching things up - I'm very rough on myself, and never wholly happy with what I'm doing - but am trying to force myself to cleave to one setting for actual gaming, spitwadding on various bits of my frequent boondoggles into side-project territory.

johnarendt said...

I'm with your brother. I flip from gritty, low magic medieval, to ancient world & dinosaurs (like your World Within), all the way to converting something like Midnight 3E to old D&D (Midnight was like Tolkien's Middle Earth if the good guys lost).

Kobold said...

It strikes me that, at least for Fantasy gamers, there's a huge system hangup about game worlds. There is such a plethora of systems around that, while there's an argument that more choice is good, creative inertia sets in if the world builder is worried about rules effects.

Build the world, make it as believable as you require by telling stories about it. These stories will set the scene for the adventures you wish to flesh out for your player characters to explore.

As a player, I find nothing more frustrating than a DM who sets up a game and then abandones it a few sessions in, only to create a new setting and start a new game. I feel that any attempts to characterise my character beyond the stat row are futile as the game will be in the dumper before too long.

Consequently, I have retained the same Traveller setting for the last 25 years, slowly working it over and deepening it as time and interest take me - I have tried a couple of green fields restarts with new players but I keep coming back to the setting I know well, and that my core players know well.

Occasionally I find myself in a mental corner, but a good think and a bit of careful writing can usually get me out again.


Flynn said...

As a clarification, my average campaign lasts 2-3 years, and rarely goes less than one year (unless the world concept just flops and the players give up on it). My longest campaign ran for over seven years. Even if my interests change, I still believe in finishing up a campaign that I start. My players deserve at least that much.

But the urge to create that perfect world still rears its ugly little head from time to time.


With Regards,

Rob Conley said...

Well as the that "Majestic Wilderlands guy" I am obviously a one world referee when it comes to fantasy.

What I will say that the problem I see in most settings is that they suffer from the "Ice planet", "Jungle Planet", "Desert planet" syndrome. The sci-fi trope where our intrepid heroes go to a world and it this "thing" and only this "thing".

One of my tricks to keeping the Majestic Wilderlands interesting is that I try to make it a true world. Just like our own Earth different regions are diverse.

Because I am doing this for gaming I try orient each region plausibly to a different sub-genre. I have a D&Dish area, my main campaign area which heavy on politics, an area to run Swords & Sorcery and so on.

You have my books so you can see the overview of how I do it.

Also I run theme campaigns where players play members of a specific organization. The result of which feeds into the background of the next campaign. For example they could all be members of the city guard. And now you know how your city guards work for the next game.

Also you could set a campaign back in time in a different era that emulate a different sub genre. Broad swatches of MW's history have little detail and so anything the players do will just flesh it out.

Rob Conley said...

One further suggestion, perhaps you could post some summaries of your past campaigns. Then myself and others could look them over and give suggestions on how to tie together into a single world either geographically and/or chronologically.

That way you get to reuse all your past work and not have to start from scratch.

Anonymous said...

I have a lot of ideas for different world concepts that aren't compatible, so it's not so much that one world is lacking, just that I have a lot of different interests. I also have different incompatible takes on house rules I like, which is perhaps an even bigger problem.

I suppose if there were different planets or realms withing one large setting that each had their own physical laws, it might work!

Anonymous said...



Carter Soles said...

I struggle with the same stuff -- I get all kinds of exciting a wild new ideas for campaign worlds, yet when I sit down at the gaming table, my players and I almost always end up in my default setting since 1989, The Lands of Ara. Granted, we move around within that world quite a bit, always adventuring in new regions, but once you have a rich cultural history and familiarity built up, it is hard to leave that behind.

A contributing factor is that my players almost always share the same proclivities as yours: they prefer Tolkienesque high-magic, high-fantasy worlds. I may try to mix it up for my current party with a few dimensional gates / parallel worlds in the near future, but despite my recurring impulse to "make it new," I have a feeling that I may well be DM'ing people through Ara for the rest of my days. And , truth be told, that may not be such a bad thing. In some ways it is very rewarding to see the same basic skeleton of a setting get constantly re-fleshed out and mutated by what new constellations of players bring to the table.

Steve said...


I told agree with the problem WOTC, WoW and others have provided on "high magic." Too many players think potions and enchanted weapons should be readily available through some kind of D&D Wal-Mart or Target.

The setting isn't often the problem but more often the mechanics of the game. I haven't really touched 4E since its playtesting in 2007 yet the earlier editions still suffer from the 15-minute dungeon.

Good to see you're still writing away. Keep it up!