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 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!