Playing in Another’s Sandbox

When it comes to playing any tabletop RPG, it’s all about the story. Maybe that story is simple, with a certain amount of murderhobo-ing, minimal ‘story’ in the traditional sense, and lots of loot spent on getting better at being a murderhobo. Maybe that story is quite complex, with character development, multiple arcs, themes and motifs and the like. No matter what, it’s a story of sorts, and everyone around the table is telling it. But what about when parts of that story have been told by someone else? Not just things you’ve used to inspire your game, no. I mean, how does playing in a pre-established setting change things and challenge your group?

Meta Knowledge

Meta Knowledge about the game world is always an interesting and potentially risky currency to trade in, but it becomes much more so when you’re working with a published setting. Since the game world isn’t just residing in the GM’s head, it’s quite possible for players to get their hands on material and read up on something that’s caught their interest. If they know, for instance, that a villain has the ability to disguise themselves a certain way, anyone matching the disguise’s description might tempt the knowing player into finding a way to investigate.

Besides that, there are pros to players both knowing things about the setting and not. The biggest pro for them being in the know is that same feeling you get when finding an easter egg or reference in a video game, movie, etc: hey, that cool thing I know about, and was hoping to run into! A D&D character runs into Drizzt and fights alongside him. A Star Wars character goes drinking in the neon bowels of Nar Shaddaa. A Dresden Files character crosses paths with Mab and lives to tell the tale. Players who know about and enjoy the setting in and of itself get to harvest a little bit more enjoyment from it by interacting with their favorite parts in the game.

The biggest thing in favor of players remaining in the dark is surprising them. For example, in my ongoing Eberron campaign, the party spent some time in Stormreach. In the 3.5 book centered on the City of Storms, it is revealed that there is a great and terrible power sealed under a section of the city. Suffice to say the players had no idea that was the case, and the revelation shortly before said power started trying to escape had the appropriate level of punch. If players dig a little too deep in reading up on the setting, they might find themselves spoiling a number of surprises that otherwise might have been awesome in-game reveals.

Breaking with Canon

Every published setting comes with things like places, organizations, and characters that make the setting what it is, but sometimes this can actually cause problems at the table. This is less of an issue for many settings that are effectively frozen in place until the PCs start mucking about: nothing really changes in a cosmic sense for the Dark Heresy setting, for instance, and Eberron assumes a starting point in 998 YK and doesn’t hit ‘Play’ until your game starts. But ‘living settings’ can be much more challenging. Not only do the Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, the Dresden Files, etc., have new material constantly coming out, they also have main character heroes facing and solving  the big league problems of their setting.

Your first consideration should be towards how ‘canon’ the setting’s canon actually is. My personal advice would be that, unless a GM or player mentions it as part of the story either in-game or as part of backstory material, nothing from outside of the table should be assumed to be going on in the background. Don’t worry about where Luke, Han, and Leia are. Elminster is not relevant right now. Harry Dresden isn’t involved. On the other hand, if you change too much or don’t have at least some showing of the setting’s unique properties and characters, then why are you even playing in the setting? It’s a careful balancing act.

Another way to deal with this, particularly in large settings, is to find a corner of the setting relatively unaffected by the main characters from the source material, or to stress the importance of what the player characters are dealing with. Yes, sure, there’s the Galactic Civil War going on, but you lot have pissed off the Black Sun syndicate and an Imperial Inquisitor. Keep your mind off of the big picture, you’ve got personal problems to deal with!

There are some players that will chafe against the idea of even playing in a published setting because of the perception that what they do ‘won’t matter’ if the main characters from the book/movie/etc are just going to deal with the big bad. Making it so the main characters’ success is no guarantee, or giving the players something just as important/urgent to deal with, can help alleviate that.

So Many Choices, So Little Time

When you’re creating the game world yourself, generally speaking you’re going to know what sort of game you’re going to be playing. You are, after all, the one creating all of the plot MacGuffins and Big Bad Evil Guys. But in a published setting there are already a bunch of both, and it can be tempting to cram in as much as possible. While you certainly want to show off what the setting has to offer, it’s important that you don’t tie in so many different plot threads and bad guys that you end up turning everything into a tangled mess.

My biggest piece of advice for dealing with this issue is to not just pick what sort of world you want to play in, but decide ahead of time what kind of story of story you want to tell within that world. Let’s use Star Wars as an example. Okay, sure, Star Wars, that’s immediately evocative of a lot of different things. But are you going to be telling the story of a group of colonists trying to create a new life for themselves beyond the Empire’s grasp? A group of smugglers and criminals on the run from their past misdeeds and manipulated by larger powers? A rag-tag team of post-Hoth Rebels crammed together in a squad and forced into Special Operations? A pack of rogue Force Sensitives mucking about in the Prequel Era trying (and failing) to avoid the ire of both Jedi and Sith? A heist team that may as well be Ocean’s 11 in Space?

These are told in the same published setting, but in action are going to be very, very different stories. So pick yours before you start planning out the campaign; then, while it’s perfectly okay to wander down side paths now and again, keep that story idea as your framework for what you bring into the game from the source material. This will keep the game focused and more coherent, which will generally help the players chase the right plot threads.

Oh, and while you shouldn’t spoil too much, tell your players what kind of story within the setting you want to tell! That way you’ll get characters that fit.

While it’s not for everyone, playing in a published setting offers a lot. The GM is given a kit to work with, and the players have a general idea of what they’re getting into. Fans of a setting get to play around in one of their favorite worlds, while newcomers get an introduction. As with any game, though, there are unique challenges; hopefully some of the above advice can help! Have any advice or lessons learned from your own games, or a question about some aspect of playing in published settings not covered above? Type away in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Playing in Another’s Sandbox”

  1. There is a potent middle ground in published settings, which is the “canned setting” implied in nearly every RPG. While Dungeons and Dragons has strong setting assumptions (like the classes and the magic system!), it is much more open-ended than, say, Cyberpunk 2020, where the history of the world has been rewritten and there are a dozen corporations with their own motivations and stories. White Wolf games, as another strong example, provide the players and GM with not only a list of clans and cabals, but an entire sequence of metaplot events which can affect your game.

    What’s powerful about settings like these that often takes a lot of pressure off the GM to worry about player expectations. Unless your players are Shadowrun gurus, they probably don’t know what Renraku Computer Systems is and won’t mind if it doesn’t show up in your game. My personal experiences with pre-made settings often involve players drifting towards the familiar, from a high school game where one guy always wanted to make a Drizzt clone to Star Wars games where pet EU characters would mysteriously get referenced in haphazard ways. The line between cameo and retread is a fraught one, and GMs should err on the side of original in most cases.

    Often the value of playing in someone else’s sandbox is seeing where you get inspiration. The Star Wars EU is a ripe setting for RPGs because it was in most part *written for an RPG*. The original West End Games Star Wars system deserves a gigantic amount of credit for providing much of the baseline for the future EU books and games. And just like other settings, the EU wouldn’t be as rich as it is today without some game designers seeing what was there and making up extra stuff that sounded cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, West End Games. I got into RPGs after their time had passed, but have still snagged a few issues of their Adventure Journals over the years. Fun to read, chock full of great ideas.


      1. “The Star Wars movies themselves are always my basic source of ‘real’ knowledge. Supplementing that is a tremendous body of background material put together by West End Games over the years for their Star Wars role playing game. The WEG source books saved me from having to reinvent the wheel many times in writing Heir [to the Empire].” — Timothy Zahn

        WEG Star Wars is one of if not the largest sources of material for the expanded universe outside of the movies themselves.


  2. Nice article.

    My advice is that it is rarely the best choice to run a setting or adventure as written. That applies to your own setting or a published one. Know your setting, your adventure, and your system so that you can react to your players flexibly and consistently during and between games.

    Here’s an example from my current game:

    I’m running the FFG Star Wars Chronicles of the Gatekeeper adventure for a casual RPG group of good friends. I’m fairly knowledgeable about the SW universe and so are most of the players in the group.

    I’ve found that my way of keeping things interesting is to always make the setting and the story my own. I add, remove, and change NPCs, change a few plot points, and alter details. I’m transparent about this and tell the players up front so they don’t feel I’m being arbitrary or unfair. Many of the changes are made to better engage, challenge, and reward them based on their player knowledge and their characters. I don’t give them specifics about the details of the changes.

    I strive to keep the spirit of the setting and the adventure intact. This isn’t as much work as rewriting or starting from scratch, but I can confidently say that I could run this adventure for many different groups before it gets boring. I could also run it for the same players with different PCs and their experiences would be substantially different.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Excellent advice! No plan survives contact with reality, and no adventure or setting survives contact with players. I addressed this a little in one of the older Adventure Logs, Part 8 I think, in relation to published adventures. You’ve got to tweak things to fit your group and their characters, and you need to be ready for when players throw a curveball, or else the entire thing screeches to a halt while you figure out what to do.


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