Campaign settings as coloring books

I am still settling in after my recent move across the country back to the grim North of the Baltic Sea, looking to pick up my great grandfather’s trade as a carpenter, or another great grandfather’s trade as a saddler, or take the old family passion of gardening as a job in a plant nursery. (And yes, we are almost as rural as you can get in central Europe.) So this idea is still somewhat half baked, but something I consider interesting to ponder.

Many campaign settings published for RPGs tend to written in a way that makes them interesting ro read, but not necessarily good to actually play in. When a 300 page setting book tells me that there is a burried ruin at the end of an old elven road in the forest, which is constantly guarded by a dozen or so elves from local clans, and which turn away everyone until they have a special permit from their leaders, it does get you interested and makes you want to explore the place. If you are a player. But if you are a GM, what are you going to do with it? A few words on why the elves make the effort to post a permanent heavy guards and what reasons would get the players permission to enter would be more than just useful. Such information is necessary.

And it’s something that I rarely seem to find. Published campaign settings never seem to be able to decide if they are an overview for players with knowledge that player characters could easily know, or GM guidebooks that provide hidden behind the scenes information to run adventures. I’ve been long of the opinion that these kinds of books should simply be split. A main volume with the standard public informtion, and a smaller booklet with secret knowledge for GMs. But how would such a GM book look like?

I think a good length would probably be about half a page for each location, including a basic overview of what the place looks like, what special features it has, what it is inhabited by, and what kind of big secret it hides. Even with small font side you get half a page very quickly. But I think as content goes this might be enough. Enough for GMs to use it as a starting point to create their own location based adventures. Some ominous words about a room with six portals to other worlds being hidden somewhere in the deepest halls, or frog-like creatures seen dancing around a large fire during stormy nights is insufficient for GMs. It makes players curious and interested to check out these places, but doesn’t give any help to GMs who still have to make up some cool background and story for it from basically nothing. What GMs need is not a finished adventure for every place in the setting, but a solid concept of what each place is meant to be and what it’s special feature is that the players are meant to discover.

In many ways, this would be making a campaign setting like a coloring book. You provide the outlines that already let you see what you’re dealing with, but it’s up to the GM to bring it to life by creating maps, chosing the types and numbers of creatures to be found there, the current situation the players will encounter, and so on. Every GM’s dungeon will be different, so it doesn’t matter much if some of the players have read the description in the past. They will always encounter something completely new behind each door and corner. And even knowing that somewhere in the dungeon is an undead warrior guarding the tomb of a mummified sorcerer who is gathering his strength to return and conquer the country wouldn’t give away how exactly an encounter with these two would play out.

As someone wrote a while back, people don’t like exploration. People like discovery. A campaign setting that only gives you things to explore but no things to discover isn’t really well suited for use in an RPG. And even as a GM, creating places to explore is easy. Filling them with things to discover is much harder, especially for a world you’re only passingly familiar with. I think a lot more could be done in this regard than it has been in the past 30 years.

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