Friday, February 5, 2010

Controlling the Universe

In my many years of gaming within an established setting like Star Wars, I've come to a few realizations about my preferences in RPGs in general. Keep in mind that in this post, though I speak in 'absolutes', I am really only speaking for myself and my own tastes. Now, central of these realizations is that there should be a time where the GM takes control of a setting and truly makes it his own. In settings where there are constant outside developments (like the Star Wars Expanded Universe for example), this is going to require some kind of mental editing. With the slew of 'backstory' that keeps filling in the Star Wars saga, many things you have come to accept are suddenly turned on their ear—and sometimes not in a way you particularly enjoy. In fact, some revelations may completely overturn the decisions you made early on. You can respond to this change in one of two ways: alter your universe every time some new novel is written or pick and choose which new things become part of your universe—and decide HOW they become a part.

The problem, as I see it, stems from a Trend in gaming that began in the mid-eighties in TSR. For the first time, you began to have series of novels set within the gaming worlds they created. Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms are prime examples of this. You not only have sourcebooks coming out to describe the world, but you then have major characters and plotlines written within those worlds. This is all fine and dandy—to a point. I mean, I loved the Dragonlance novels, and I would STILL love to run a campaign set during that story (with parallel heroes, rather than the 'main characters' of the novels). But for me, there would come a time where I would have to stop letting the authors dictate the course of the world, otherwise, my players would be doomed to obscurity and impotence as they weave around the major plot lines, but have you real way to affect them. In short, I feel that if you follow the course of a bunch of novels, you are turning your PCs into a 'supporting cast'. For some? That may be what they prefer. I do not.

The Battletech setting is another prime example of Novels dictating the game. When Battletech was first released, it did an AWESOME job of providing an incredibly in depth background to its setting—giving you a snapshot of people, places and happenings at one particular time (in this case, the year 3025, on the brink of what could be the 'final' war to reunify the 'Star League'). This left all KINDS of options for what to do from this point. And then....novels happened. And a sourcebook happened, jumping the setting ahead 25 years and describing, in some detail, that 'final' war and its effects on the setting. And even before all this could settle in, a new series of novels and sourcebooks introducing MORE sweeping changes as the 'Clans' invaded the known galaxy. It was really at this point that I first attempted running a game within the setting. We began shortly before the Clan invasion and played for a bit into it. It was fun. But more novels and more sourcebooks kept coming out. And in them, so MANY details were provided that it would make it next to impossible to run a major battle or campaign, because it would be completely stepped on by the official 'canon' of the setting.

The 'end game' of a campaign for me is what is currently going on in my Vermillion Star Wars setting. With the players operating as major leaders and heroes on a galactic scale—nearly on the same level as the heroes of the movies. This gives their actions a LOT of weight and impact on the world around them. Now, I realize that not all campaigns will go on for 19 years, and that most never even get close to an 'end game', but it is always nice to have that option.

When the Star Wars RPG came out in 1987, it was already 4 years 'after the fact', as far as the movies were concerned. And there were VERY few novels or even comics expanding upon that setting. Thus, when my campaign began in 1991, I had a pretty well established setting, but one where I knew the major events and could work around them—and add to them—without fear of breaking 'canon'. Coincidentally, right about the time my campaign was moving past the movie storyline, the series of Zahn novels (Heir to the Empire) came out, detailing events five years after Return of the Jedi. With some discussion with my players, we decided to jump our own campaign ahead those five years and play within THOSE events. Again, with all three novels out by the time we did that, we could easily weave our own stories in with those presented.

It was after Heir that the REAL slew of novels and comics began. I stuck with it through some of them (Dark Empire, Jedi Academy), but I very quickly found it to be frustrating, constantly scrambling in response to what someone ELSE wrote—and often to things that I felt were down-right stupid and poorly written. How could the players ever be free to really 'do things' if I as a GM was not in control of my own setting. That's when I made the conscious decision to break things off right at that point and forge my OWN story—largely based upon the actions of my players, and on my own views of what the SW universe 'should' be. And honestly? I can't think of another way to run a game. Reading novels/comics is one thing. Gaming is another. The former are GREAT as a source of information, but should never be allowed to overshadow the latter. After all, the point of games like Star Wars is to be a hero, not an 'extra' in someone else's story and universe. So my advice to other GMs is, take what you can from a setting—then make it your own.


  1. Star Trek RPG has a similar problem, with so many books that have come out over the years, and there were plenty going back to the 70's that totally mess up "canon." Lord knows what that is in ST anymore. The new "re-launch" under J.J. Abrams does give GMs a chance to re-do some of the Trek universe as they see fit. For as much BS I have seen in some Star Wars RPG characters from other campaigns, the Trek stuff has been worse.

  2. Bob say...

    A lot of the problem is the size of the universe. A game with a large universe with lots of stuff going on, like Star Wars before the prequel trilogy or White Wolf's Exalted has loads of story opportunity. Conversely, a universe with a constantly moving "present" forces the game master to to keep racing to stay current with the story.

    A great example of that was the old AD&D Dark Sun setting. Every supplement that came out moved the plot foreward, and supplements were coming out every month. The clear message from T$R was "Buy every product in this line, or you can't stay current with the story, and your campaign won't be anywhere near canon."

    Exalted has avoided that problem by not moving the metaplot. The new product, "Return of the Scarlet Empress," is the first time since the beginning of the first edition of the game that the metaplot has moved. While my game probably won't use this product, I consider WW's decisions about the game sound business choices.