Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sand Castle Worlds

Inspired by this post over at my favorite Homebrew D&D blog, Scott's World of Thool, I am compelled to consider the ramifications of pursuing the creative side of our hobby. In the formative days of D&D, it was accepted that each referee's world was a unique vision of the possibilities of the open-ended format of the game. Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Arduin and Tekumel come to mind. There was no actual setting introduced with original D&D. Referees were on their own.

In reading the little brown books, one is guided in very basic methods for world creation; design at least three dungeon levels, place a town near the dungeon to serve as a home base, draw a basic overland map of the regions surrounding the dungeon. That's it. This is the foundation of D&D as envisioned by Gygax & Arneson. The dungeon as the adventuring hub, with limitless possibilities beyond the dungeon waiting to be discovered by player exploration.

What draws me to D&D, and what will keep me playing it for the rest of my life in one form or another, is this creative potential. I think that many of us plunking the keys out here in this old school blogger circle appreciate the hobby for exactly this reason. Nearly every blog I can think of is written by a referee, DM or GM. It's another creative outlet for our ceaseless desire to make crap up for D&D and its derivatives.

When we're not playing, we're writing about playing or what we plan to play in the future. We review what others have done in this regard or wax philosophically about our hobby. Whatever the case, we write and we write and we write some more. The bottom line is we like to create. It's what has kept us coming back to D&D, or never leaving in many cases.

One of the draws of OD&D is the realization that there in no published campaign setting inexorably linked to that edition. I think that's the primary reason I have aligned myself with the 1974 version. I appreciate not only the creative potential in the rules themselves, another topic entirely, but the fact that OD&D does not conjure up any notions of a particular world at all. It's a sandbox for the referee as well as the players.

Given a creative sandbox in which to build, tinkering types like me tend to knock down the foundations and begin with nothing more than the sand. Over time, our ideas and designs build and build, becoming unrecognizable to others. They are clearly our own little visions of the game, our Sand Castle Worlds. There's a lot to love about this aspect of the hobby. There's also the risk that those not in tune with this level of homebrewing will look upon our creations with disdain.

From where I sit, a unique world full of mystery begging to be uncovered and defined through exploration and discovery is the ultimate game setting. Unfortunately, I believe that this appreciation of truly homebrewed worlds has gone the way of the vinyl LP. There's something new, shiny and familiar for most modern players of D&D; the published world and the exceedingly expansive accompanying rules.

Most DM's of modern D&D satisfy their creative desires by writing adventures and plots and by further defining that which they have been provided. I'm not saying that the homebrew school is more creative, I just think we are creative in different ways. We're doing the same thing in essence, it's just that when we further define that which we have been provided, we are working from more or less a blank canvas and an idea.

The main thrust of Scott's post was this concern that it has become more difficult to attract players who think in modern terms to his homebrew vision of D&D. I believe that given the chance to actually experience a unique campaign world, players will come crawling back for more, time and again. I commented in the above referenced post, but I'd like to reword what I wrote there as follows:

1. Let the weirdness unfold in layers.
2. Keep all the monsters behind a curtain.
3. Let the players discover the strange bits of the world, sandbox style.

I'm convinced that once the action begins, there will be no looking back. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but here's to hoping that you can teach a new dog old tricks.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Scott said...

Hey, Dave. It's 4:45 a.m. and I have to drive to a federal prison a couple hours away, but short version: I've taken some of the advice I've received over at my blog to heart and decided if I still can't find players to play the game I want, I'll just play online.

I'll check back in when I get home this evening.

Christopher B said...

Back in the day (~'81) I wasn't much interested in creating anything more than a dungeon and its environs. I picked up Greyhawk (the folio edition) very soon after getting my D&D Basic Set and that became my default world setting (with a bit of tweaking here and there). I was never inclined to create my own, and - in fact - the mere thought of doing so seemed such a daunting task that it turned me off. I found my joy in creating characters, dungeons, and new monsters and magic items. (And making maps - I always loved making maps.)

Flash forward 25+ years, and I find it's just the opposite (except for the map-making bit). I feel totally constrained when attempting to run my games in someone else's world, to the point where I'd rather build my own world "from sand" (I like that analogy) than tweak a published one.

I guess my point is that I don't know if there's really an old school v. new school thing here, exactly. Granted, the published worlds we had back in the day were no where near as glitzy as those nowadays, nor as prevalent, but they did exist - and some us were more interested in using them than coming up with our own.

The issue I see is that the need for creativity beyond at-the-table play is not the default nowadays; this world-building point is but a symptom of the larger issue. The rules are so complete, the published settings so accessible, and the adventures so numerous (and all so well-produced) that it creates an atmosphere that fosters using published pieces over creating one's own.

That's not to say that the game nowadays stifles beyond-the-table creativity; but - unlike earlier editions - it by no means encourages it.

Of course, that's my POV, and its early yet - so I may just be blowing smoke out my buttocks. :P

Sham aka Dave said...

Glad to hear that, Scott.

Chris: After I was done reading what I wrote, I made sure to insert the word "Most" in the paragraph about DM's of modern D&D. I know there are still many who homebrew worlds and change the rules even for 3.5 or 4E. I think we are speaking the same language. Sand Castle Worlds were encouraged and expected in the early days, but not so much now.

Natalie said...

I started GMing because I wanted to homebrew. Heck, that's why I bought the PHB in the first place -- we had enough at the table for character creation, but I wanted a copy at home as examples for my own stuff.

But I definitely share the sense that full homebrew has gone out of fashion. The first DM I had pretty much only runs Adventure Modules, and most of the gamers I know here at college are Exalted players first and foremost, and will go on for ages about the setting. I have to resist giving them weird looks, because as far as I'm concerned, there giving up the best part of running the game.

Robert said...

My experience is that published settings were rarely used “back in the day” and continue to be rarely used today. Even when they are used, they aren’t taken too seriously. (Especially since they are most often used in the least serious of campaigns.)

And although I am often one of the DMs in my groups, I am seldom the one most often in that role.

Sham aka Dave said...

Oddysey: Glad to hear that. Keep inventing ahd putting your brand on games.

Robert: My experience recently has been that homebrew is a bad word when it extends beyond monsters and magic items. Settings are often homebrewed, but not from the foundations. They're just new maps with different place names in the same milieu. It sounds like you have an excellent gaming group, one perhaps rooted in the old school style?

I'm not decrying anyone's appreciation of published settings. I for one enjoy Greyhawk. Using these settings still provides limitless creativity. They just aren't Sand Castle Worlds at that point (they're someone elses).

Robert said...

I have had excellent groups, but I have a hard time believing I’m incredibly lucky in that regard. ^_^

I think the point (and one I’m quick to miss) is that neither of our experiences may be typical.

Kevin Mac said...

>It's another creative outlet for our ceaseless desire to make crap up for D&D and its derivatives.<

Amen brutha, amen.

Kevin Mac said...

>I feel totally constrained when attempting to run my games in someone else's world, to the point where I'd rather build my own world "from sand<

Having started my own world as a kid after getting my hands on the original books, I feel very blessed to have used that same world for around 30 years. It has payed off with my new players being astounded by the rich history and detail of the world. History often made by characters that came decades before in game time. It really brings the world to life for the players, and that is a great joy for me. My little childhood fantasy world, enjoyed by smart and funny adults.

Of course, it was great fun to dick around with Judges Guilds's city state and environs back in the day, but if I had stuck with prefab worlds I would likly not be gaming anymore.

Sham aka Dave said...

Robert: Good point, and I'd have to agree that my own experiences are likely far from the norm.

Bruno: That's some really awesome stuff. My problem is I never stuck with any one world. I kept starting anew or relocating the new campaign in some other corner of the same rather generic world. It evolved into "barely" D&D eventually, with new rules, classes, races, monsters, items, etc...but the physical world itself never congealed.

I'd love to see some of your Sand Castle World on your blog one of these days! I love this kind of stuff.

Dwayanu said...

At least one of my players seems to have had very little experience of DMs using modules. That matches my own history; products were bought and read, and perhaps borrowed from, but rarely used comprehensively.

On the other hand, I get what my players mean by "just normal D&D." There's a fair bit of implied setting even in OD&D, and in the AD&D (1st ed.) era there was a general consensus that I reckon is aptly called Gygaxian. The game became in a sense a genre and "world" unto itself. It was really with 2E that (for better or worse) the concept seemed to get shaken up a bit, from the core books to the supplements, from Dragon Magazine to TSR's setting lines.

I think that's when "setting" as a self-consciously original creation, particularly as a work prior to actual play, really became a hot topic.

The tournament games, from which most TSR modules were drawn, may offer in their context some of the reasons that was not such a big deal earlier. People wanted just to show up and play! The races, classes, spells, equipment and so on in the PHB formed a conveniently common knowledge base. The MM and DMG informed most DMs because it was easier to start with the assumptions therein, a quicker route to the real meat of adventure, than trying to imitate J.R.R. Tolkien or M.A.R. Barker.

So, campaign worlds tended to grow "organically" in the course of play. Here's a neat idea for an adventure! Let's see, it involves a a tribe of non-evil giants, and a weird monster from a "falling star" ... and Wade wants to play a refugee from Atlantis ...

Bit by bit, all sorts of "weird" stuff naturally got charted and described. The main thing was to keep a step ahead of the players with something interesting for them to explore. Sometimes they went "off the map," and the Referee had to make up something on the fly.

I'm sure that's not how everyone did it, but in my experience that's how most people did it -- and it worked!

There's no need to "front load" a lot of exotica. IIRC, the Wilderlands campaign started out with the assumption that it was set in Middle-Earth. As I understand it, the distinctively funky details of Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Aquaria, Forgotten Realms, Arduin and so on were built up over years of play.

My current players have said that they're not interested in the kind of Middle and Far Eastern trappings familiar to me from (e.g.) Howard's tales of Conan, or in anything smacking of "science-fantasy."

That's fine; if it's not their idea of fun, then I'm not going to hit them over the head with it. It doesn't mean, though, that they won't get opportunities to dip their toes in that direction if they choose.

Should it turn out in the event that they want more along those lines, then I'll throw in more. The possibilities are endless, because adventures need not even be limited to a single planet.

An "original" fixation is still a fixation. I can dig playing strictly on Tekumel or Glorantha or Harn, in Lovecraft's Dreamlands or Smith's Zothique ... but such a tightly defined focus is not what I've come to associate with D&D.

Dwayanu said...

From The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

MAP. ... Further, you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it.

APOSTROPHES. Few NAMES in Fantasyland are considered complete unless they are interrupted by an apostrophe somewhere in the middle (as in Gna'ash). The only names usually exempt from apostrophes, apart from those of most WIZARDS, heroes, and COMPANIONS on the Tour, are those of some COUNTRIES. No one knows the reasons for this. Nor does anyone really know how an apostrophe should be pronounced ...


This is an absolutely essential book! The entry on HISTORY, for instance, is applicable to about 99% of D&D worlds, in my experience. Or at least the "patchy and unreliable" bit ought to be so ...

Scott said...

Seconded on Tough Guide. I check it out of our library about once a year and find myself laughing shamefully at myself every time.

Sham aka Dave said...

Dwayanu: This is perhaps one of the best comments in the nearly 12 months I've been running this blog. Another reason why I respect your opinion so much. Much of it echoes my own observations from "the old days". Most Sand Castle Worlds evolved during play from what I've seen.

This topic deserves some follow-up, so I'll move that to a new post later today.

Oh yes, I need to check out that book, thanks for the heads up!