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D&D Burgoo: Making a Setting Your Own

Want to know the secret to making a game world or setting your own? Whether you’re using a published setting or brewing your own homeworld for adventures, the key is creating an organization that’s unique to your game.

Simple, huh? One organization of your creation makes all the difference. But why?

1) It gives you mastery over a segment of the world.

I’m not going to learn the names of all the “important” NPCs of the Forgotten Realms, nor have I figured out all dieties that occupy Varisia. I don’t even know who is and isn’t a member of the Circle of Eight these days. And all the dragonmarked houses of Eberron? Don’t have a clue.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is forming your own organization, whether it be thieves’ guild, adventurer’s club, church order or elite guard unit, and fleshing it out so that it meets your expectations and fulfills the players’ needs. Primarily, such an organization should serve as an anchor upon which the rest of your adventures are tethered.

Like a good homebase, a well-definied organization occupies a “place” and a “time,” both of which are important for establishing a “reality” for your players. Because, if it’s “real” to the DM, it will be “real” to the players, so long as she can convey it through storytelling, handouts, NPC interaction and the course of the adventure.

2) It gives the players a stake in the setting.

Whether they join or stand opposed to this organization (by all means, make your organization a hive of villainy. Where would the Realms be without the Red Wizards of Thay or Krynn without its Knights of Takhisis?) the players are now invested in the idea of the group.

But it’s more than simply buying into the concept. It’s the sense of discovery. Just as exploring a dungeon makes it come alive in the course of play, so too does finding out about a good organization.

So, what organizations have you created for your D&D game, and how did your players react to it? Were you using a published setting, or one of your own devising?

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4 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: Making a Setting Your Own"

#1 Comment By Idran On June 16, 2008 @ 5:08 am

One thing I’m unclear about, why is an organization you make more “real” than one that already exists in the setting? I mean, you can always take an existing organization, fill in the gaps if any, and master it with respect to your campaign just as well as you could a homemade one. I’ve done that before, and at times I didn’t even need to fill in the gaps to do so.

But then again, I’m a huge campaign setting geek, among many other types of geekery; if I’m not mastering something, even if it’s a part of a given setting I don’t plan to use any time soon if at all, I still feel like I’m not doing my job. 😀

#2 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 16, 2008 @ 6:48 am

You can also take one of the organizations that haven’t been described very much and make that your own. That’s what I did back in the day, when nothing had been written about the Night Masks of Westgate in the Forgotten Realms, and it paid off in spades.

Now, of course, the Night Masks have been described in excruciating detail in various sourcebooks. Were I to return to Westgate for a game – and I would in a cold minute, it’s a great setting – I’d use my version of the Night Masks, since I’ve already done the hard work, and they’re supposed to be a secretive organization, so campaign setting geeks like Idran and myself really shouldn’t have anything to complain about. ; )

The Illuminated in Planescape basically appear in one adventure, and the references to them in all the other books would fit in this sentence. So they became the major adversaries of the first act of my campaign, and it’s worked out beautifully.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 16, 2008 @ 9:03 am

Nothing at all prevents someone from customizing an existing organization. In fact, it’s an excellent exercise. In fact, it might be a lead-up creative effort to doing one from scratch.

But I think an organization of your own avoids correcting/explaining/divulging:

1) how your interpretation of published material may differ from canon, the DM’s priviledge to change anything, notwithstanding. (Invite players over for a jaunt through the Realms, then have the unavoidable problem of preconceived notions about the setting based on what they’ve read.) With something of your own, you avoid some of that.

2) the mysteries of your creation. Roleplay is an exercise in discovery. I think at its simplest, an element of the DM’s creation preserves that sense of mystery, and as the players romp in the DM’s adventure, that mystery is revealed only as the PCs discover certain elements, or the organization can be crafted to meet the backgrounds/goals of players.

That second is meant to be a reward to the players. In addition to offering something tangible the PCs can grab hold of, the DM asserts his “ownership” of the setting by introducing something of which he reveals as the the story dictates — rather than what can be unearthed in the sourcebook.

I’m not contrary toward published settings as all. In fact, I prefer them, for a host of reasons. I think establishing a mindset where the DM is in “control” of the setting is important. And as a write that, I know there will be a host folks who say such a statement is illusory, but contary to cooperative game play. 😉 But that’s what experience has taught me.

#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 16, 2008 @ 10:00 am

That’s really more what I meant – that tailoring an existing organization is a good lead-in to creating your own. Defining the relationships between your new affiliation and the existing / published ones is good plot grist, too.

Sometimes it just depends on how much campaign prep time you have: the -real- threat organization in my game is a mostly original creation, but I resorted to a published adventure to get my campaign off the ground in a hurry. The Illuminated were the bads in it, and I didn’t have time to change it. So I ran it as written, and absorbed the Illuminated into the larger, more mysterious threat in the process (and that power play became part of the story as well).

And if you have creative players who can come up with organizations, you might as well milk that too…!

I used to worry about bugbears like “continuity” and “metaplot,” which was why I was, at first, angry when they started detailing the Night Masks (for example). I’m much more comfortable with making things my own now, but I still hear those voices nagging me sometimes…

#5 Pingback By D’s Feed Favorites 6/18/2008 On June 17, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

[…] Stew gives some advice on how to make a published setting your own, and how to do a pilot adventure (both especially timely as many of us prepare to start new […]

#6 Pingback By Random News Table | UncleBear On August 28, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

[…] D&D Burgoo: Making a Setting Your Own Want to know the secret to making a game world or setting your own? Whether you’re using a published setting or brewing your own homeworld for adventures, the key is creating an organization that’s unique to your game. (tags: gamemastering) […]