Here There Be Dunces
I think that part of the allure of tabletop roleplaying games, for some, is the ability to get their inner Tolkien on and create an entirely new world. Sometimes this happens by accident, with years and years of roleplaying just layering the places and people and histories, but other times it’s someone’s raison d’etre for approaching TRPG in the first place.
There may be historical precedent for approaching TRPG from this direction; Tolkien, the Grandfather of High Fantasy, has created the most enduring, most influential world-setting of all time, and it’s because of Lord of the Rings that we have Dungeons & Dragons. As a creative medium, it stands to reason that the hardcore players or TRPGs would want to take a crack at Tolkien’s legacy with their own approach, at the very least so that the setting they base the adventures in doesn’t seem as Middle Earth as some of the D&D settings.
I was a member of this camp. The allure of creating a new world from the ground up was not only attractive but functional. I could decide everything that had happened up to the point where the players entered the scene, but more importantly, I could arbitrate stuff as time (and gameplay) went on. Even when a party plays an adventure in Faerun or the world of Greyhawk, their exploits can be woven into the homebrew legends, but there are still constraints backed by years and years of source materials, wikis, and ardent fans who would insist that canon not be exploited and modified. Custom world building gets around this by giving the GM the power to Make Stuff Up on the fly and to have it added to canon on a whim while also have some idea of the constraints regarding what can, cannot, or did happen over the course of gameplay.
Recently, though, I’ve been trying to get away from the idea of creating the entire world ahead of time, or in aiming for the end game and working backward to create the adventures. After wrapping up our D&D game and looking back on how things went, I realized that there just wasn’t enough player freedom available. The module was partly to blame, and I was also partly to blame for sticking so close to the module. On the other hand, would I have done much different had I been running a homebrew adventure? I am fairly certain I would have picked an end game condition, a starting position, and then setup up scenarios, encounters, puzzles, and interactions that would lead the players to that end game configuration as a way of making my job easier. The result would have been just as much “on rails” as any pre-packaged adventure, except without the benefit of it having been created by a professional.
Last night I was taking notes on a Call of Cthulhu one-shot module that I had purchased for Fantasy Grounds. Being a one-shot means that it can be run from start to finish in a single sitting*, but more importantly, it can be used as a jumping off point for other adventures whether they be pre-packaged or homebrew. In thinking about that fact last night, I opted to take as many notes as I needed in order to keep the information straight and to ensure that the NPCs don’t suddenly change personalities, but that’s where I stopped. I wasn’t going to pre-configure paths that the players could or should take in order to get to the end of the module. What should happen instead is that the players drive the story, and when the story is done, find a scrap of what’s left when the dust settles to use as a jumping off point for…something else. It doesn’t really matter what that “something else” is at that point because the players should do the investigation and in doing so, build the world based on what they find, when they find it or when they need to know it.
* One sitting is dependent upon how much time the group has to devote to playing. Our D&D sessions were only 2 hours, so a one-shot adventure would have had to have been extremely short, especially if there was combat involved. Thankfully, CoC doesn’t rely on combat, and 2 hours might be doable for this particular module.