Salutations, nerds. Today I want to talk to you about playing in tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons in established campaign settings and disrupting the status quo. Not clinging by wrist and ankle to the cannon so you don’t get fired across the playmat — it’s canon? Hmm. Okay, well, that metaphor’s over, now, moving on.
Making the campaign setting yours
Role of the audience
Art is not only the work of a creator. A painting is a wonderful expression of its artist, but it requires a viewer to complete its purpose. The same holds true of a novelist, their novel, and their audience. As a Dungeon Master, this goes twofold for you, because your 5E D&D game literally cannot be without its players. They are your audience.
Let’s take another step back to the people designing all these campaign settings we like to play in. Most of us have played in the Forgotten Realms at least once. Raise your hand if you’ve met Drizzt! You’ll notice I’m leaving mine down. And to be honest, I think that’s a bit of a shame.
(Yes, yes, I can hear you gasping back in the corner, hold your hippogriffs I am going somewhere with this.)
Canon and player agency
Many DMs like to take the attitude that the canon of the game is something sacred and the status quo must never be disrupted. Their version of the Forgotten Realms has to snap right into this other DM’s version like they’re playing in the same world. I suppose that’s true if you’re playing 5E D&D Adventurers League. It’s kind of the point. In your home game though?
In your home game do whatever you want. The most fun play experiences I have ever had have been the ones where the DM took this setting, took the pieces they were given, and then made it theirs. And ours. If we the party wanted to overthrow a faction, we were allowed to do so.
Of course having overthrown the Zhentarim at the end of our campaign isn’t going to make it true of the canon or any other game. I’m pretty sure that’s why we did it. Players want their characters to be remembered in the campaign setting of the game they’re playing. They want the ability to be ambitious and be somebody who moves and shakes the world.
And if you’re lucky enough to have a party like this, I say you should give it to them.
If you’re playing 5E D&D games set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for any length of time, I mean…come on. Who doesn’t want to encounter Drizzt Do’Urden?
Your version of this setting
From the second you start playing, you’re no longer playing in the same Faerun Ed Greenwood ran. The places all look the same, you’ll see some familiar names and faces, but you are now in the AU in which your amazing characters exist and have the ability to create their own goals and change things.
And it’s so much better than having a Bathesda choice because you’re not limited to pre-programmed options. I mean, if your DM is kind they probably gave you some, but when the wicked Lord comes down from Castle Darkskull and starts causing all kinds of problems for the layfolk, you can choose to handle this however you want to.
That means if you have a plan to blow up Castle Darkskull…you can go blow up castle Darkskull.
DMs, take note. I know at this point most of us would be panicking a little bit.
“I can’t just let them blow up Castle Darkskull!” you may be thinking. “It’s a historical landmark. It has significance to the campaign setting. They might set future games here and then it won’t be in our setting to play with. What happens if someone finds out I let my players *gasp* change something?”
Listen. My friends and I have a favorite story involving our half-crazed Inquisitive rogue Ledrick shooting Mordenkainen with a crossbow. Every time we get together with other gamers and start shooting the breeze, someone brings that up. Everybody laughs. We feel a shadow of the awesome of that moment once again.
We still to this day have spells in 5E D&D game my wizard Nicophel made up. We’ve had players start schools and factions of their own when they come up in game sometimes and a little excitement always comes along with that.
Any time you play in a campaign setting long enough, this is going to happen. When you give your players any agency at all, the world you play in varies from the setting you’ve been handed and isn’t this the point? We already live in a world where it’s hard for an individual person to make any significant change. We go into these game worlds to be more than what we are.
Don’t be afraid to use the canon NPCs, it’s what they are there for.
Don’t be afraid to let your players kill, romance and start rivalries or friendships with the canon NPCs. That is what they are there for.
Don’t be afraid to let your players change the status quo and become real leaders in your setting, even with canon factions.
Don’t be afraid to change things yourself. Because we’ve all had to run a game with that one player in it who has a better idea of the setting than we do and is constantly saying things like “Ah, yes, but this is the year 1417 and he didn’t get his carnivorous horse until at least 1420.”
This is your version of a setting. Yours and your players. Remind them of this. Your job is to preserve the feel of the game. To create verisimilitude over realism. You don’t have to know every single thing about the setting you are running in, in order to accomplish this. You just need to know what it feels like.
Besides, what’s the fun if your players already know all the answers?
If you’ve got a fun story about changing the status quo of an established campaign setting, hit me up in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing about it. And until next time, stay nerdy.