How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Setting

As those of you who follow this blog regularly may know, both of our D&D campaigns are set in the world of Eberron, the most recent campaign setting created for the D&D brand that sports what I call a ‘dungeon noir/etherpunk’ vibe. Most gamers know that Eberron was the winning entry in the fantasy setting search that Wizards of the Coast held a few years back, but over time this stigma has eroded and its popularity as a product line has grown, especially after diminished support for older settings like Dragonlance, Ravenloft and Planescape.

Experienced gamers, especially those with more grumble on their grognard, often wonder why I favor the use of a published setting instead of a homebrew one, let alone Eberron. Some actively dislike the ubiquity of magic in daily affairs and the overwhelming significance of The Last War. Others would argue that because Eberron turns over many of the core assumptions about race and alignment, it is less accessible. Most prefer their setting twists to be easily grasped such as the cowboys in space world of Serenity or the cyberpunk/Tolkienesque amalgamation of Shadowrun.

The initial reason I began running Eberron games, other than an actual appreciation of its exotic and multicultural flavor, was that I knew players couldn’t really wrestle with me over the finer points of the campaign setting. The result is less nitpicking among players. The aspects of mystery and intrigue that can really add spice to a campaign are more easily sustained. The mere fact that Eberron’s races play against type and the geopolitics are so tense make second-guessing difficult even for those familiar with the setting.

Taste matters notwithstanding, others think I’m limiting my creativity and ambitions by working within a published setting. Sure, I could always raise the white flag and say, “I’m a newbie DM!” but that’s a copout that’s all too easily dismissed. As it is, I think it’s a fallacy to say that one’s creativity is limited by published settings. That’s like saying there’s something wrong with writing for superheroes at Marvel Comics or being one of the many talents contributing to the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Creativity, as Lawrence Lessig wrote in Free Culture, happens more often than not when people build upon the work of others. Scientists and researchers build upon the findings of others before them. Genre writers often play around with the tropes and elements introduced by others before them. As such, those working within the parameters of other people’s worlds also practice a form of creativity. Hundreds of writers have contributed to the totality of the Star Trek franchise, taking it into new frontiers to cover 28 seasons worth of television programming and 11 feature-length motion pictures. William Shakespeare has been repurposed into forms to numerous to count.

Sure, some pundits will debate whether Enterprise is a ‘worthy’ addition to the franchise, or argue about the merits of new issues of Fantastic Four compared to those of previous issues. Some will even insist that it is totally wrong when they make some changes in the film adaptation of a book that people only pretended to read because TIME Magazine gave it a positive review or it won the Pulitzer. Still, the ‘quality’ of work this kind of creativity generates and the manner by which its audience receives it is utterly beside the point.

Over the course of many games, Eberron grew from being used merely as a necessity to have world details pre-developed for me to becoming an exercise in toying with things I didn’t create myself, an exercise I take great satisfaction from. Simply put, what might be seen as restrictions in a published campaign setting can also be seen as a challenge. While some might say that it ‘restricts’ creativity, using campaign settings is the opportunity to work within parameters that have been defined by someone else and the simple pleasure of making them work for you.

If you like, totally appreciated this post, consider supporting us by purchasing any number of D&D products from Amazon.com such as the Eberron Campaign Guide and the Eberron Player’s Guide. You might also want to read the book mentioned in this post, Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. It’s a really great book.

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Comments
2 Responses to “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Setting”
  1. netherwerks says:

    Interesting post. I hope you are having fun, whatever setting you use! It’s a game. If you like Eberron, then that’s cool. I have looked at it off-and-on but always felt less than enthusiastic about it. But then that’s mostly a function of my having already done a lot of similar/parallel things previously on my own, and less of a function of what they’re doing. The addition of constructs as a PC-race was nice and long overdue in my estimation. (Tin-Man from Oz anyone?)

    I will have to look at Lessig’s book that you referenced. Sounds particularly relevant to a number of things I’m involved with currently. Thanks for pointing that resource out.

    Enjoy the game!

  2. I actually agree with your assessment of Eberron. I imagine a number of the ‘twists’ introduced into the world are already things that people have incorporated into their own campaigns such as the ‘low magic is commonplace’, ‘golems are a race’ and ‘orcs and undead are not an indicator of evil’.

    To me the major selling point is its tightly woven geopolitics – that being the political relationship between over twenty major lands and a handful dozen organizations – which you could do in a homebrew campaign, but is such a pain to build from scratch.

    Thanks for the kind words and glad you enjoyed the post!

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