“Everyone Digs the Custom Rigs”
While running a game in a published campaign setting has a number of benefits, there are a few hazards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan and active consumer of published settings. I’ve run Greyhawk games since the early 80s, and have no intentions of stopping now, regardless of which rules system I use.
The benefits of a published setting are obvious: The authors have done the work; anyone with a half-finished campaign setting can tell you how important this is. Published settings help your table to establish a shared set of assumptions  about the gaming world, even by those who have never read or played in that setting. The setting has been game-tested and many of the bugs have been worked out. They are a “known quantity” when you want to talk about your game (and what GM doesn’t want to do that?).
The drawbacks may not be as obvious. Here are a few…
“It doesn’t work like that!”
One or more of your players may know far more about the setting than you do. This usually happens with the older and more popular settings, but it can also happen in any setting. While it’s great to have an enthusiastic player in your game, it can also ruin a session, or even an entire campaign. Worse, a player may know more about the story or NPC you’re using than you do.
“I know what you know…” (in annoying sing-song voice)
If you bought the book, so can your players. When running a published campaign or setting, integrity is the only thing keeping one of your players from cheating. This is even more important when it comes to published modules or the “campaign paths” that are popular right now.
“Wait, how far away is Calimshan, again?”
Popular campaign settings may have been through a few iterations over the years. (I’m looking right at you, Faerun.) Additionally, the fiction that is set in that world may not be entirely true to the setting, and is almost certainly not true to the rules system. Explaining that “we’re using Forgotten Realms” may mislead players who know about the setting from a series of novels or from a previous version.
“I really don’t like this aspect of the world.”
Sometimes, a campaign setting will be near-perfect, but one or two imperfections will really stick in your craw. Don’t like Gnomes? (Then get the hell out of our site!) Have a problem with the whole Inspired/Kalashtar thing? Think the “Time of Troubles” was christened by the first DM who had to deal with it? Tired of Tharizdun? Trust me, you’re probably not the first.
What to do?
Luckily, there’s a single fix for all of these. Customize it. Make it yours. Own it.
- Identify a few aspects of the setting that fit the following criteria: They can be changed without rewriting entire chapters of the setting. It will be obvious to those who casually know the setting that something was changed. The changes will not create any kind of mechanical imbalance in the game.
- Make your changes, double-checking the above criteria. Document what you’ve changed, and why you changed it. If you do create a few contradictions, don’t stress over them; the players probably won’t even notice. (And if they do, consider it an opportunity to throw in a plot twist, or to exercise your improvisational skills.)
- Advertise the fact that things are not necessarily as they seem. Tell the players that you’ve changed a few things, and not everything they think they know about this setting is necessarily accurate. Make sure you take the opportunity to show them in the game as well.
If your players know more about the setting than you like, this will let them know that you’ve changed it up a bit, and they’ll be a bit more hesitant to rely on metagame knowledge. When the players see that Elminster is an oft-mistaken, arrogant, male-slut of a busybody instead of a confident protector of the world, they’ll get the clue. Don’t turn their favorite character of the setting on his pointy black ear, but get the point across that things are not always what you think they are.
If your players are cheating, you should kick them out of the group. Seriously. OK, but if they inadvertently stumbled across plot points, hints, or other metagame information on the internet, the few changes you’ve made to the setting might encourage them to ignore such forbidden knowledge on the chance that it could backfire royally.
If your players are mistaken about the setting (either because they’ve read all the related fiction, or are coming from an older version), then they’ll expect to find a few changes, and you’ll look like a genius.
And if there’s something you didn’t like about the setting, it’s not there anymore. Nothing will make for a good campaign like a GM who is enthusiastic about the setting, and that enthusiasm can spread to the players. (Will save to avoid, DC10 + GM’s enthusiasm on a scale of 1-10.)
Finally, when you start making changes to a setting, you really start to understand it. It’s like the difference between changing your oil and rebuilding your carburetor. (For the younger and non-mechanical readers, it’s like the difference between buying a computer from Dell and building your own.) You’ve researched the material and looked at other options. You understand why certain things are the way they are, and which ones are really important. You’re more enthused about the setting. These are all Good Things.
A customized setting really is the best of both worlds. The names, places, and such are familiar, but the setting itself is not so familiar as to be predictable. The bulk of the world creation is done, but it still bears your mark, and you get the opportunity to flex some of your own world-building skills. The players won’t be so hasty to make assumptions based on their prior knowledge of the world. And you get to really understand the world as you look into the changes that you’re making.
So, what are you waiting for? Get the fiberglass, mag wheels, and pinstripes out, and start customizing!