What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
D&D’s creators made a bold decision with the Fourth Edition: They scrubbed clean the setting lore that too often was an obstacle to new players learning the game. The complex cosmology, the maps of mythic places (Greyhawk and the Realms, and the like) and a strict alignment system tied to a list of imagined gods and goddesses were replaced by simplified, yet highly conceptualized, versions of what makes up the D&D world.
The D&D world is fantastic, ancient and mysterious; populated by monsters, some exceptional adventurers, of whom a few can cast magical spells, and a handful of gods that remain aloof from the world.
But where and when is such a place?
DMs who love to homebrew their own campaign settings can take this game with a running start. It’s a blank slate begging to be filled in. The how and why of the Dragonborn, Tieflings and Eladrin are quite simply, just the starting point for those creative folk who love to spin this kind of material into a landscape of their own making.
But some folks like me yearn for just a little bit more structure. Component backgrounds like the Feywild, the Shadowfell and the Astral Sea are a good start. But the pieces that tie them together are missing.
And I admit, in approaching 4E, I feel bereft of the setting assumptions that have grounded me since I started roleplaying.
Explain it to me
Back in the day, explaining D&D to someone required finding common ground, and that usually meant defining what fantastic fiction was. If the person hadn’t heard of the “Hobbit,” then maybe they had encountered Conan (at least the comic book version), and if not that, then you started with fairy tales and the knights in shining armor of King Arthur’s court, with Robin Hood and Merlin the magician thrown in. If you were lucky, they’d read “The Once and Future King” or seen the musical “Camelot”— and like it.
And your first session played off the themes of a medieval Europe, with a touch of magic and monsters thrown in.
Looking to history
But D&D’s designers no longer have to worry about explaining what fantasy is. If anything, the fantastic has become the staple of the motion picture industry. For more than a solid decade, TV and film have given us Buffy and Xena and Hercules and Bilbo and Gandalf and Blade and, gosh, who knows what else. Rules influences aside, “Everquest” and “World of Warcraft” and a host of other video and computer games have defined FANTASY for a new audience. It’s entirely possible to be immersed in the fantastic and never even encounter T.H. White.
I keep searching for historical or literary analogs in Fourth Edition, and that is clearly a misstep on my part. But history has always been my springboard to the world of fantasy gaming. It’s absence is making it tough to dive in.
I would like to accept Fourth Edition for what it is, in the entirety of its presentation, but I’m having trouble finding a place to put my feet.