New Living Campaign
I spent a lot of 3rd Edition playing Living Greyhawk before it ending at the onset of 4th Edition to make way for Living Forgotten Realms. With 4e winding down I wonder what will replace LFR. In an ENWorld discussion on potential replacements one idea was suggested that really resonated: a brand new world. A new setting exclusively for the living campaign.
A New World? Why?!
At first, making another new campaign setting for D&D seems like adding an extra nipple to a male cat: it’s not getting use out of multitudes already in its possession. At last count we have twelve and six half Campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Mystara, Spelljammer, Planescape, Blackmoor, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Eberron, and the Nentir Vale plus the quasi-settings of Al Qadim, Maztica, Taladas, Red Steel, Masque of the Red Death, and Kara Tur). Do we really need a thirteenth? Plus, in addition to that wealth of official worlds there are innumerable 3rd Party worlds. To just scratch the surface, I’ll namedrop Paizo’s Golaron, FFG’s Midnight, and Monte Cook’s Ptolus. With all those worlds, what hasn’t been done?
But, the catch is, all the above already have fans. They have people who have made the world their own, who have preconceived notions of what makes a good “Red Steel” game or what the Nentir Vale/Nerath is like. And because people like them, they don’t want to see them altered. Look how people reacted to the changes to Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms. People have fond, fond memories of the established settings and don’t want to see them messed with.
Because of the above, there’s also a steep buy-in to established worlds. There’s the perceived need to buy read sourcebooks to “get” the world or for the adventures to resonate. With novels and potential decades of canon this only gets harder.
Additionally, because the worlds are primarily the Intellectual Property of Wizards of the Coast LLC, it’s better if they aren’t altered too much, as that can dilute and weaken the property. They need to be left in a state that WotC can publish and republish content every few years to maintain a firm trademark. And because of the risk of losing IP, WotC does not want to open up their established worlds for just anyone to play with and alter.
As such, it’s probably a mistake to make too many changes.
Similarly, not everyone partakes in a Living Campaign. While Living Greyhawk has shown they can be a popular method of consuming the game, Living campaigns do not target the baseline audience. The vast, vast majority of the player base will not consume the game via organized play. So pushing fans of a campaign setting to partake in a Living Campaign is not a good idea, nor is leaving the fate of said campaign world in the hands of people who might not be the sole or even the most dedicated fans of the setting. This goes double for worlds such as Dragonlance or the Realms that have a dedicated novel reading audience that does not consume any of the gaming material.
(Aside: For the above reason, I’ve always been disappointed by WotC’s decision to base their recent Events – like the Rise of the Underdark story – around D&D Encounters, which seems like an especially niche slice of the fanbase, keeping the story away from the majority of players.)
Benefits of Newness
A brand new setting has several strong benefits.
First, players will have no preconceived emotions related to the world. They won’t be attached to people and places and what happens in the Living Campaign won’t affect their homegame. Similarly, there will be no established flavour or canon that the campaign can get wrong. And the buy-in can be very low, such as a single cheap sourcebook or even a couple short PDFs.
Second, it doesn’t interfere or affect WotC’s ability to release their products, such as attempting to coordinate tie-in books or fiction, or the future publishing of that world.
Third, the fans of the world can make the setting their own.This final point is the huge one.
While Living Greyhawk ostensibly could change the world, none of its changes would be canon, and so there was a “why bother” sense to ang changes. And, as a result, very little really changed. Major NPCs and kings were not killed or replaced. Rary and Mordenkainen were never in danger of death. While one of the selling points of Living Forgotten Realms was that the actions of the player characters would have meaning and events referenced elsewhere, this proved too hard to coordinate and manage. As novels needed to be written a year in advance of publication it was not possible to schedule with the more quickly produced modules.
A brand new world would (read: should) be primarily defined by the players. The staff and volunteers making up the campaign could partially define their own regions and make their own grand stories, establish their own conflict, and create their own places and NPCs. Regions could change as the result of the success or failure of their modules and the core plot of the campaign could change depending on the outcomes of tournaments and limited specials.
Suddenly, world leaders can die, the conflict in the world can change, the world can progress, and players can dramatically influence the world.
It’s also makes the campaign very responsive to planned events. If WotC wants to emphasise the drow one year, the module writers could have a year-long event with the drow invading the surface across the continent, with regions under actual threat from the Underdark. Failure could impact the world with entire cities enslaved or devastated. Or the fight being taken to the drow, ending their threat for a generation.
Handling Regions in the 21st Century
One of the hooks with Living Greyhawk and Living Forgotten Realms was that adventure writers were spread out via real world geography: in-game regions were associated with real world regions. It made LG interesting as regional modules could only be played in certain regions (and, eventually, online if half the players were also of that region). This feature was mostly superfluous in LFR as regions just denoted who wrote what adventures with no other benefit (other than only competing with other writers in your region rather than the entire world).
This was neat but it also meant that Living Greyhawk play lived and died based on the activity of the local playerbase, and not just number of players but their willingness to write and skill at doing so. This also meant if the actively writing members of a region prefered one play style the non-active players would be limited to that style: the meta-regionals and the majority of regionals in my area were notorious for being PC meat grinders because a chunk of the playerbase really liked challenging adventures.
However, with virtual tabletops being more accessible and technology being more omnipresent in gaming, do regions have to be limited by meatspace?
A more interesting approach might be to remove physical regions but go to a faction-based system, akin to guilds in MMOs: groups earn power and reputation the more modules completed by affiliated members. This is similar to the method used by the Pathfinder Society Organized Play Program, but could vary through the addition of player-created groups. Players establish a group requiring a minimum number of members and perhaps completion of a special module, and then attempt to grow in power. This does require a little setup and maintenance, although it could equally be handled by emails as by automated processes.
It would be even more interesting if these factions possessed territory based on their membership and number of adventures completed. There could be other perks, such as tying the ability to write modules based on the power of the faction. In essence, this means the factions that successfully play the most adventure get to write more adventures and are rewarded by having more opportunities to play. Factions can also be designed around the type of adventures people want to play, so players can join factions that write adventures they like.
There should still be the equivalent of Core modules, generic adventures that can be played regardless of faction, but these might be limited in number encouraging people to join large factions.
It’s a neat idea that does require a lot of set-up, a large player base, some dedicated staff (i.e. paid), and likely a specialized web service. So one of the few gaming companies that could handle this would be Wizards of the Coast.
Bug into Feature
Continuing my wild unsubstantiated and crazed brainstorming, the problem with all organized play campaigns is the non-linearity and soft continuity. It’s quite possible to play adventures out of order and have the effect before the cause. (“The dragon of Thornwood is rampaging.” “Funny, I just killed him.”) It’s also possible to play at the same table as someone who did the same deed as you but not together. (“You killed the dragon of Thornwood? Funny, I killed the dragon of Thornwood.”) Or even different completely results (“Odd, I thought the dragon of Thornwood escaped.”).
I wonder if this could be made into a feature of the campaign. Something less odd and more a part of the world. Such as a campaign where time and the present is not right and reality is flux, where events repeat or diverge before solidifying. Everything actually is happening at different times over and over again until a consensus is reached.
Because it’s so funky, this would have to be a major feature of the world.
Does it HAVE to be New?
Here’s the catch, the world should be unfamiliar and open enough to allow the players to make it their own, but it doesn’t have to be unconnected to established worlds. One option is setting the campaign on an unexplored continent or region of the world.
With this in mind, it might be possible to continue Living Forgotten Realms via Abier. There might be modules that take place on the traditional Forgotten Realms (such as the Core modules) but the rest of the campaign would be on a separate region the players can influence, possibly trying to conquer or explore this new region for familiar nations or factions.
This does have the problem of making LFR not actually about the Forgotten Realms anymore, preventing familiar people and places from making an appearance.
Another fun oddball idea might be the Birthright world, which has a number of continents that might house an offshoot campaign. Given the narrative of that world is feuding kingdoms blessed by gods, it lends itself well to players being able to establish their own kingdoms. The more more important a faction the more it grows in Regency and territory.
This has the same problem as moving LFR in that you lose all the benefits of having a familiar setting and name, but without even having the familiar name. However, Birthright has a smaller fanbase so this will be less noticeable while still having a name many gamers will recognise. It also lacks the negative associations many gamers have towards the Realms.
Just some musings, but I like to think there’s some fun ideas there.