A lot of people enjoy roleplaying in a well-established, detailed setting. In some cases it has to do with wanting to play in the world of a beloved book or movie — Middle-Earth or the Star Wars Universe, for example — while some just like the idea of a fully fleshed-out world like Hârn, or The World of Darkness. Others enjoy playing in a historical setting like classical Rome or Warring States China for similar reasons.
Running a campaign in such a well-defined setting can be a problem for the GM. Worlds that have a well-established metaplot, including real world historical settings, can be an especially large nuisance. If the GM hasn’t read every available source about the game’s setting, he will almost certainly contradict established continuity. When his players are devoted fans, they will probably interrupt play to point out every single one of those mistakes.
I’m not inclined to judge that kind of player too harshly, either. Sure, they’re being incredibly anal pointing out that, if Wen-ki Bowa is a Jedi, he cannot have a red lightsaber. When a group decides to play in a well established world of that sort, though, seeing contradictions between the game and the established universe is jarring.
The natural, conservative response is to keep the campaign nibbling around the margins of the setting, where the characters are unlikely to bump up against anything familiar. This solves the problem, but part of the reason people want to play in that world in the first place is the players’ love for the characters and the places that appear in the metaplot and other media. Deliberately avoiding them seems like avoiding the biggest potential source of fun that the world has to offer.
Another common solution, especially with historic settings, is to use a thinly disguised analogue of the setting or historical society. In fact, several commercial RPG products have been written around this concept. Unfortunately, this has the feeling of eating tofu when what you are really craving is a medium rare steak. Sure, it’s nutritious, but it lacks a certain something (note to anyone that doesn’t love steak: trust me, it’s not the same).
So what’s an admiring-but-not-addicted GM to do? How do you keep the ambiance that draws people to a setting without being encumbered by what has been written before? How can you take advantage of the pre-written material without having to buy every single thing ever written about the setting or tripping over a player that has?
Judd Karlman (yep, him again), gave a wonderful answer to this problem in an episode of the Sons of Kryos podcast (I can’t pin down which episode it was), which he co-hosts. One of his friends approached him, anticipating that he would have this problem while running a Forgotten Realms campaign. Judd suggested that his friend start the campaign in a way that would clearly say that the established continuity is not being followed religiously. He suggested having the characters start the game by having the players’ characters, while travelling to Waterdeep, discover Elminster’s crucified body at the side of the road.
Dead Elminster certainly says “this isn’t your standard Forgotten Realms campaign.” In addition to being sort of a BHAC premise — the players will almost certainly want to figure out how Elminster came to such a grisly end — it takes the Forgotten Realms signature character, part of almost every major happening, and chucks him out the window. From here on, anything is possible.
Of course, you don’t have to kill a character that is central to the fictional universe every time. Littering your roleplaying table with the corpses of Gandalf, Luke Skywalker and Mordenkainen will quickly get stale. What you should aim for is putting your stamp on the gameworld out of the gate and saying to your players “Yes, I love this world, but I can’t live with the handcuffs of the metaplot.”
You have plenty of options. You could include a major natural disaster that does not factor into the metaplot — maybe a major earthquake decimates Minas Tirith. Changing the leader of some high-profile country or organization could work — if Yoda is deferring to Mace Windu, leader of the Jedi Council, the players will notice. You could change one of the major nation’s form of government — ”umm…how did Vlad Tepes get elected to be Prime Minister of Transylvania?” The simplest way of putting your stamp on an established setting may be just to start off with an easy-to-recognize departure from the established “history” of the setting, though — news arrives in Rome that General Gaius Julius Caesar‘s march on Rome was stopped short of the Rubicon when an assassin’s knife was plunged into his heart while he slept.
Remember, settings should be tools for your enjoyment, not a big ball and chain that drags down your fun.