Monday, September 20, 2010

Redeeming Canned Worlds

As I stated in my first few blog entries, I’m new to the OSR. One thing I’ve noticed is that old school gamers generally eschew the pre-generated worlds created by TSR and their offspring. Indeed, apart from Greyhawk or Blackmoore (since Gygax and Arneson could do no wrong in many peoples’ minds) it seems they’re almost universally rejected and even looked down upon. I believe that much of this likely has to do with what TSR/WotC eventually did with things like Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms (e.g., railroady modules, limiting other product choices, etc.). Still, I believe these settings can be redeemed and wisely used in the OSR.

I appreciate the want, even the compulsion, to create your own setting (what longtime DM doesn’t?). I understand that all these pre-generated worlds will have things we don’t like about them (as does the real world). But because my free time is limited these days, I still enjoy using the worlds crafted by others. That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to change things at will (e.g., “I don’t care if this is Krynn, you have a war party of orcs in front of you. What do you do?”). That doesn’t mean I need to use their modules, or if I do, to run them as suggested (e.g., “That’s right, I said Drizzt is dead in this timeline.”). It doesn’t mean I need to mindlessly plunk down my hard earned cash to buy every book published for the setting, useful or not (despite my completist tendencies). It simply means that I have a place for the PCs to adventure, explore, and generally ransack as they see fit.

I think that last point is key when an old school gamer contemplates using canned worlds. What the players want to do should be honored. Their goals and desires should never take a back seat to a DMs storytelling endeavors. In fact, the story should emerge as a result of what goes on in the game, dictated by the choices of the players, not the “top down” approach of all too many modern DMs who decide ahead of time what will happen, forcing (or tricking) players to comply when necessary. If you can do that in a canned world, great (I suppose fans of the settings overly infatuated with “canon” might not enjoy such an approach)! If not, perhaps avoiding them is the wise thing to do.

For my gaming group, we’ve always enjoyed the tension of playing in a world created by someone else, but ultimately shaped by our choices and actions. One of our best Dragonlance campaigns ever was when my players actually stopped the war of the lance, shifting the focus to my players and their quest to rediscover the olds gods and away from the “Heroes of the Lance.” One of our best Forgotten Realms campaigns took place during the Time of Troubles but had absolutely nothing to do with it. Unexpected? Yes. Fun? You betcha!


  1. There seems to be a movement under way (and it's certainly something I've been thinking about a lot) towards returning to the original source material and ignoring all the "canon cruft." In essence, to do what you're suggesting here, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've seen quite a few old schoolers, for instance, write about their love for the Realms and assert that the original Forgotten Realms "gray box" is one of the best boxed game worlds ever published. Or how Grognardia's been talking about rebooting the Star Wars universe back to the original film. Scott's doing a similar thing over at Huge Ruined pile with his Wilderlands setting, using only the first supplement as canon.

    Increasingly, I like the idea of taking the original seed of a setting, the thing that got everyone to sit up and take notice and say, "Yes, that's amazing!" To take that and run with it and effectively make it your own and just pretend all the "official" canon that followed never existed except where you find things you like.

  2. I think it's a sandox vs. railroad thing. People in the OSR like canned settings if they are designed as a sandbox.