Intro from Mike
Hey guys! My friend Glass is extremely talented at weaving together all sorts of different details in order to make a grand spectacle. He was one of my DMs that taught me a little bit about how to focus more on the five senses when discussing a location or creature. His Play-by-Post Planescape game has easily brought me some of my favorite D&D memories, and so I asked him along to write a Friday piece for the site! If you have any questions for Glass, you can use the contact page to send them! Just label them as *For Glass*. Thanks!
Hi, my name is Glass – or at least that’s what I go by. I’ve been Mike’s pal for near a year – and before I start spouting some crap about RPGs at you, let me tell you a little about myself; I’m Scottish, have had a relationship with Table Top RPGs for about ten years (we don’t talk about the first few) and I’ve been GMing for the majority of that. I like dragons, metal dice, creating unique things that’ll make a player go ‘huh’, and never sticking to just the books. I’ve also been DMing a play-by-post game of D&D 5th edition for Mike and a couple others which has hopefully made him go ‘huh’, which certainly doesn’t stick to the setting in which it’s playing out in.
From all that, it should make what I’m about to go on about seem near typical as a topical choice. I’m no authority beyond being a guy who GMs but philosophical ramblings on creativity and enjoyment are something of a specialty.
Mutability of Setting
Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms of Abeir-Toril are perhaps among the most famous of D&D settings right now thanks to Wizards of the Coast’s focus on their use, future Seattle is ubiquitous with Shadowrun, the Calixis sector of Warhammer 40K with Rogue Trader and Dark Heresy, and the Old World with Warhammer Fantasy RP. These are all games I’ve at least looked at, or and I’ve played or GM’d for the majority – and every one of these games has something in common: a rich and powerful history to back up their world and keep them interesting for the player thrust into the underbelly of Waterdeep, or the dingy grimdark streets of Warhammer’s Altdorf. These settings provide excellent and helpful worlds in which a Games Master can find any one of thousands of stories to experience with their players, especially with the aid of adventure modules or story books.
This is not what I do, and regularly I throw these resources to the wind in favour of my own ideas. I’m a flagrant abuser of canon and a big fan of taking some random idea and running with it. I of course make strong use of a setting as a basis if I choose to work within its borders but as a Games Master you or I should never feel restricted or held back by the confines of the world in which we choose to set our game – the idea of jumping into the Forgotten Realms is what, in the first place, made me at a young age set out to create my own worlds; not through a need to be creative, though that was present, nor a distaste for the setting but because of the intimidating nature of approaching a decades old world more rich and beautifully tapestried by detail than I could ever match in my younger years. It took some time to develop the GMing chops and self-confidence to attack a setting like that head on – to say ‘what IF the Moonstars’, somewhat the architects of medieval stasis and technological control in Toril, ‘decided to stop smashing machines and blowing up warehouses full of gunpowder?’. What IF you had a cool idea but one that was a little nuts and didn’t fit in with the setting’s pre-established lore?
Do. It. The best advice I can ever give to a fellow Games Master, any fellow enthusiast of creation is to chop and change and switch things around: The Lord’s Alliance of Faerun – the triple threat of Neverwinter, Waterdeep, and Baldur’s gate? Fix, destroy, and rebuild what you think doesn’t work – make the Jewel of the west, Waterdeep of the beautiful harbour, a cheap and decrepit pit of poverty if that’s what suits you. Sigil, the torus city at the centre of the D&D multiverse? Throw it into a civil war unlike anyone has ever seen – one to rival the fiendish Bloodwars that colour so much of Planescape history and which makes the faction war of Sigil’s past look like a pale squabble between children, a war that the even gods defying Lady of Pain can’t stop. And if you have any idea of Warhammer’s recent (recent to me, damn it, despite it being years old) death – ignore the end times, ignore the failure of Order, send Karl Franz’s Empire to war with the Norscan hordes perpetually and let your ratcatcher party run off to Bretonnia, land of weirdo Arthurian knights.
The purpose of all of this is to create a fulfilling experience. A fun one, you might say but I know people have issues with that word as the primary focus of tabletop RPGs – many long arguments have proven that to me. The duty of the GM is to be the arbitrator and the adjudicator for those wonderful storms of chaotic energy we call players, within a world that should appear sane by its own logic most of the time – but that world must also be an enjoyable experience to create. If that means colouring outside of the lines? If that means there’s a new forest, a new city, a new army, or a new god? Then the Games Master has that right – no, that responsibility to themselves – to endeavour to create something they can be proud of. A personal example would be the game I have set in Planescape – the multiverse is vast but I choose to use places such as Sigil – the City of Doors, and the Astral plane as my backdrops. Both of these places that have received a lot of attention from their creators. I can’t spoil too many of my changes, considering I’m writing this as a guest on one of my players’ site but treating Sigil as a hub full of twisted normality and desperation in equal amounts has helped immensely to give a sense of grounding. Sigil is a city that you could set a thousand adventures in without ever stepping through one of its famous Portals – but instead my players are flying around the Astral Sea on something resembling a spelljammer – a spaceship, without so much as a puff of oxygen outside of its magical bounds to keep them alive. They look down on a shard of Helheim, and they must explore it. None of this is accurate to the previous versions of the Astral – other than the huge profusion of arcane energy, of travellers of incredible power, and of interesting beings like the Gith and Ilithid lurking in the dark. I in truth have made it similar to space in and of itself – because that felt right. It felt interesting and so far my players seem to be enjoying it.
That is the best feeling a Games Master can have, in my humble opinion. That you have done your job and completed your duty of creating something interesting and engaging without even having a dragon involved. Without having a +2 sword of cold to thrust into your fighter’s hand, or a cloak of stars to wrap around you wizard’s shoulders, or a grenade minigun for that one Orc shadowrunner who really wants to kill some Corporate security with Chunky Salsa rules. To create more than just a game of looting and killing, conniving and stealing, to fulfil a sense of joy and wonder that you would find in a favoured childhood book or the first time you opened your RPG manuals to see beautiful artwork and fascinating possibility.
I play RPGs for the joy of creation. To be a character, to be many characters, and to forge a world of my own. Settings make for interesting premises to build upon and to play within but you should always lay claim to them – leave your mark on Abeir-Toril. Make Seattle, make the Sixth world your own. Shape the Calixis sector to your liking and to the needs of your players. And for the love of Sigmar, keep the Old World alive. Don’t let doubt get in your way – if you make a mistake, you can fix it, and you can fix it with the help and consideration of your players. Self-critical thought in limited amounts is all well and good but my friend I have suffered excessive self-criticism for many years and it is a demon you must slay to allow yourself a better and more fulfilling creative experience. Be adventurous and brave, don’t let true doubt stifle you, work hard to create something you will love and value – both for yourself and for that sparkle of wonder in a player’s eye.
No matter what world you find yourself in and no matter who the players in front of you are, remember to make that world your own. Be it grim dungeons haunted by liches, hive spires full of gang-scum and heretic cultists, or a castle stocked to the gunnels with courtiers and glittering false smiles – it is your tapestry to weave. I wish you luck, fellow Games Master, or even players who want an insight in just one way of tackling the world you mess about in. Keep rolling.