Beat the Geeks: The Problems of Established Settings
Recently, Dante of the excellent blog StupidRanger “apologized” and asked readers to assist him with his lack of familiarity with the Forgotten Realms setting, which he said would be a liability in his capacity to DM his next session. While this is not entirely a travesty, many D&D enthusiasts would find this shocking. The Forgotten Realms has long been part of the identity of D&D, even if its status as the ‘flagship’ setting is open to debate. Simply put, between video games, novels and other spin-off products, Forgotten Realms is the face of D&D.
Many comments were addressed at how the accumulated canon of the Forgotten Realms have not only killed much of the mystery of trying to run a game, but how some GMs end up with confrontational players who undercut their authority simply because they know more about the setting than they do. As one commenter notes: “This is one of the major reasons why I only run homebrew settings. I’m not going to DM a world that my players know more about than I do. Half the point of DMing is that no one knows more about the world than you.”
Such a dilemma can befall any GM, no matter what system or setting they are running. Right now, I’m currently being looked to by my gaming group to run the next slew of adventures in our Star Wars Saga Edition campaign. The original GM took us from Level 1 to Level 13 across an epic storyline set against the Legacy era and now it’s his turn to play. The problem is that while I know my fair share of Star Wars, I’m afraid to try out my neophyte GMing skills against such high standards and with people whose knowledge of the Expanded Universe borders on insane.
To some extent, I think geek devotion towards popular settings breeds a slavish inflexibility, where any deviations from the canon lead people to cry foul. This is ironic, considering the whole point of playing a storytelling game is narrative possibility, and that I think should permit us to not just stray from setting canon, but turn it on its head. Therefore, I think the heart of the problem isn’t that particular campaign settings inherently limit the abilities of the GM, but in how the geek brain part of a player overrides his ability to suspend disbelief and accept a Genasi in Eberron or a Warforged in Greyhawk.
I guess the rub lies in whether players who are more knowledgeable about a given campaign setting can readily accept the credibility of a GM’s writing or his decisions about how the world responds to their characters. Simply put: these players would be able to suspend their disbelief only if the GM can earn their trust and their faith regardless of who knows more about the geopolitics of Khorvaire or the cosmology of the Planes.