342 Changing the Setting

Inspired by how @JaredR changed the cosmology of this Streets of Avalon game, we talk about how cool it is to make your rpg game, using a published setting or not, your own.


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Back in usenet days, people used to talk about plonking Greyhawk across the sea from Forgotten Realms all the time, they’d then match the gods by portfolio, and talk about how factions and npcs would deal with eachother if they met

i ran a few 2e games based on this, and one palladium system. while all of that was non canon, it did not make a huge different to the usual “X gives PCs quest to do Y”, it just gave them more options for travel and who they can interact with at higher level.

On a smaller scale, I’ve used Aliens (yeah the xenomorph kind) and Ravenloft creatures in Shadowrun, just as another threat for the pcs, it worked fine and did not break the game.

In my version of the Midgard setting by Kobold Press, elves are rare, hated, and hide their presence when outside the few remaining elven kingdoms. The elven empire fell less than a hundred years ago and many still hold animosity towards them. Halfway through the campaign, I learned from one of the Kobold Press devs this idea came from an accidental misreading of the material by myself, lol. That’s okay though. It was one of the aspects my group loves about the setting and we kept it because it adds a lot of interesting story beats to our game, especially for the two elfmarked (half-elf) PCs who hide their true nature to avoid trouble.

Speaking of misnaming NPCs. My BBEG was named Evander Stross but I kept calling him Evander Dross. He has connections to shadow fey, thus where I was probably getting “dross” from. It stuck. It happens. We roll with it.

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My comments on this episode are almost the same as for “Episode 342 - How The GM Can Say No And Still Make Friends.” Therefore, if you’re going to read this one on air, you’ll have to do it twice.

Finding that right balance of blocking players with an outright no (or a no, but…) and adjusting existing settings involves the same technique for me. It’s one I developed for my game, ScreenPlay, that involves the use of “initiatives” presented at the table during play. Basically, whatever is presented in game about the game and its setting remains within control of the player who initiated it in the game. So once a player states a fact about this world, it’s valid unless it contradicts an initiative already placed into the game. But that initiating player has final say to accept the change if they like this change. Of course, this includes the GM.

For example, Brett comes up with an idea that all paladins have tattoos as a symbol of their permanent faith to the gods. Then Sean later describes a paladin who doesn’t have any tattoos. As that goes against Brett’s initiative of inked holy warriors, I (their illustrious and noble GM of the ages) can say, “No! Paladins look like biker in the world. Tat that pal up, buddy!”

BUT… it also provides room for Brett to say, “Hold on, why don’t they have a tattoo?” And Sean can answer with a quick tale of how this paladin changed their deity after finding out their last god was actually Hydra, goddess of serpents and deception, and so they had their tattoos removed. Brett says, “Hold shit, Sean, you magnificent bastard, I love it! Let’s do it.” And now these two finally have something they can share as they glance at each other lovingly across the table.

As the GM, that means it’s my job to introduce the setting and its core possibilities, establish any Lines & Veils we want, and anything else fundamental to this game. In short, you’ve got to nail down the key initiatives in an elevator pitch and across Session 0. For some settings, I have stipulated anything in the core rulebook is locked in stone, but my personal preference in play and by design is to allow everyone to pitch in make this world their own. (As per my parallel dimension theory of campaign settings.) This approach allows me to enforce what I need to enforce in the game and provide me that opportunity to give a hard “no” without being a dick about it. It also allows me to adjust our safety tools in play and encourage all players to take ownership of their part of the world.

It’s a technique that’s worked out well over the years and helps encourage creative input in a writer’s table game or help convert a “GM-controls-the-world” game to something more collaborative.

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I’ve really have only done that once. I was playing The Fantasy Trip and decided its deadly and uncompromising system had to go. So, I ported it into Blade in the Dark. The players were a crew of scoundrels doing jobs and it felt like a match… mostly.

First it became a traditoinal fantasy setting, guns became crossbows, people rode horses and not donkeys, and it is nowhere close to how dark and desperate their setting is. I also through out, what I perceived as some of the best rules of the game. Principally, because my players did not take to it. Much to my surprise they enjoy taking hours to set up the job perfectly, rather a few minutes and a roll that cast them into the action. Players, go figure.

But without a doubt the biggest aid I got was from the digital map of the city of Doskvol that I bought. The first thing I did was toss the city’s name. I wanted the macro view to disappear and the focus to be on neighborhoods. Now it’s referred to just as the “city.”

Then to my surprise I found I could digitally edit it. That alone has helped with the player immersion. I don’t know if that was intended or not, but what a great aid. I have colored their territory so they can watch it grow or shrink. All the places they have visited are red starred as well as where NPC’s live. This alone has made the city a dynamic place. Players can literally see how they are changing their world. It has been a blast and has become one of my favorite games I’ve even run.