Campaign Settings: Published vs. Homebrew

Any GM getting set to start a campaign must make a choice up front whether to run a published campaign setting or a homebrew. This choice helps set the stage for the whole game.

Several factors can influence which option a GM or a group chooses. Sometimes the GM makes the choice for the group, considering time, familiarity with a published setting and interest in a published setting. Other times the group will come to a consensus, though I find this more the case of how interested the GM is in running a published campaign world and having players have some input on which one.

My Past Choices

Since I came back from my sabbatical from gaming many years ago, I have been running my games in published campaign settings. I originally came back with Forgotten Realms, dipping my toe in little used areas, like The Vast (yeah, go check your campaign maps, it really is a region). Then I moved on to regions like the Silver Marches for the region to start my games.

I had a brief stint of seriously considering converting my games to the world of Erde from Troll Lord Games. I never did end up running a game in that world, but I think the fact it was lesser used and more of an unknown to many people is what tempted me to try that campaign setting out.

After many years of Forgotten Realms games Golarion caught my eye from Paizo and I started to run games in Golarion. A large portion of that was due to adventure paths being set in the campaign world, so it was only natural not to re-write all of those bits.

Why did I choose published campaign settings when I picked up gaming again? I thought it would save me time. I wanted to run adventures, not design whole entire campaign settings. That was my prime motivating factor in choosing to run published settings.

Now I do like the settings I have chosen in the past. I am a Forgotten Realms fan and Golarion has proven equally fun to read and run as well. But essentially, I chose these settings because I thought it would save me time by laying the framework of the world as my canvas.

Reconsidering

Recently I have found myself reconsidering running games in a published setting. I am starting to question whether it actually saves me time or not. The biggest hassle of running campaigns in published settings for me is the constant nagging that a decision I make on the fly ends up contradicting something within the campaign setting. Getting a distance wrong, judging the next door kingdom’s attitude towards the one the characters are currently in, the name of a prominent Inn in a major city, and more. Frankly, it starts to feel like homework learning a new campaign setting well enough to run without constant contradictions. The prep just to learn the published setting starts to take away from the time I can prep for an actual adventure itself.

My New Choice

For my most recent campaign under the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG system, I chose to “homebrew” my campaign world. Rather than starting with a completely mapped out and detailed world, I took a module and used it to start my world. From there we will be growing out as needed, the lands become more known and the story growing from there.

If I need an organization as a plot hook, I make one up instead of researching it. I can often make one up with some rough notes faster than I can research published materials to find just the right one. If I need a Kingdom next door that is threatening to stop transportation of raw materials, I can again jot down a few notes and the Kingdom springs into existence.

Or maybe I do see a city map and description I like in a published setting’s guide. I am free to yank that for my own use and drop it into my world. I can use the building names alone, borrow NPCs, or if I need, ignore power structures that don’t blend with my world and remove them.

So far it has been a great decision. It feels much more liberating. Things I make up on the fly are jotted down in notes and the world grows outward from there. No worries of contradicting something or needing to reference a campaign guide.

For times I do need something more involved, I can borrow something from a published setting and drop it down into my world with much less concern of invalidating something that is canon in the campaign world.

Conclusion

For years I thought I was saving myself time by choosing a published campaign setting. Given what I have learned over the past couple of months I am not so sure anymore. I think the work to make things fit well into a published setting wasn’t really saving me as much time as I thought.

With that said, I still plan on reading various campaign settings and collecting the ones that interest me. There are a lot of good ideas out there and I would be foolish to ignore new settings all together.

What about you? Do you find published campaign settings a timesaver?

20 thoughts on “Campaign Settings: Published vs. Homebrew

  1. Funny you should ask. I’m in the midst of setting up a campaign for DCC. In an interesting turn, I’ll be working with Adam of Dispatches from Kickassistan (http://fromkickassistan.blogspot.com), because I’ve really enjoyed his blog, and he and I, after talking a bit, have discovered we have very similar visions of what would be cool.

    I’m going to use the Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting, but only so far as it is useful. It’s great to have a map and info about the climates of various places, and a sense of where cities, water, resources, etc. might be found. Some of the encounters could be used, but I’m not inclined to do so. They’re very 3.5 in flavor, and that’s not what we’re interested in. Also, this is going to be a low fantasy, human-centric world, so I’m not sure the “humans and elves and dwarves and orcs playing happily together” thing is going to happen for us. In our world, the humans have only recently thrown off their chains (the elves were the primary oppressors of humans), and are really only friendly with halflings among the demi-human races.

    On the other hand, I do like the idea of there being many human civilizations, pirates, barbarians, vikings, and all that stuff, so I think some of the color/fluff is worth using. It’s also nice to have some NPC names to use (or not) in the various towns and villages.

    We’re going to use Adam’s Ur-Hadad (the First City of Men) as the jumping off point, and will make it proximate to the Sunken City detailed in the Purple Sorcerer Games adventures. In Wilderlands geography, this is in the eastern part of the map, and will take the place of Viridistan, a major city in that setting.

    • Sounds like a fun campaign! It sounds like a good way to get a solid start on a campaign world, letting the setting do the heavy lifting and then adjusting it from there. Are you going to tell your players you are using the Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting or mainly use it as setting the foundation unknown to them?

      Also – I’ve been making heavy use of Purple Sorcerer stuff so far in my DCC game. My group has been having a great time with it. Have fun!

      • Yeah, I’m gonna leave that a mystery. If they know the Wilderlands, they might recognize some of it, like maps and some of the names, but we’re pretty much going to reskin it and go.

        Judge’s Guild put out a really nice package with that. I got the bundle off of RPGNow, and haven’t regretted the purchase.

      • Reskinning existing settings could be a happy medium I think. I bet that works out pretty well for you. You get to have the heavy lifting done, but not be saddled with avoiding memorizing the entire campaign world to avoid canon conflict.

  2. As someone who has always Homebrewed my settings, and never played a module in 30 years, I am very happy with my own world. It’s a combination of Celtic folklore, Arthurian romance, Epic Fantasy, and a bit of steam punk now and then. I’m kinda crazy about it. My players have mentioned that my world is a lot of fun for them as well. So I think it’s a win.

    There are a few things to look out for, however. One is that as your world grows, and the history grows, you still can accidentally create conflicts in the story. Sometimes you might forget that so-and-so did xyz, but one of your players does. That kind of thing can happen. The good news is that you can always pause and if you think about it, fit in a plausible explanation. Or revise the story. My players know that sometimes that happens, and they’re pretty good about saying “oh wait, didn’t you say …?” and giving me the space to adjust or amend things. So stay flexible. Keep good notes. And one thing I like to do is keep a Characters Relationships Map, that shows all the main characters, npcs and monsters and links them with green lines (allies) and red lines (enemies) and gray lines (neutral), according to what has happened so far. I also like to create Plot-Maps that show the area’s main places, and who or what influences them. Here is an example:

    http://elthosrpgforum.informe.com/gallery/149-5/DSC01489_C_S.jpg

    This helps me to keep the Total Perspective of my campaign in mind without having to read through reams of detailed notes. Much easier.

    I also use https://bubbl.us/ for a similar purpose. I’m currently, though, shopping around for a good mind mapping tool. If you know of one, I’m looking for suggestions.

    Last bit of advice – read a LOT of classical and fantasy literature. It helps tremendously. I also like to watch old adventure movies, the campier the better. I can often glean cool plot points from these kinds of sources.

    Anyway, I think you’ve taken a new road. It’s liberating I’m sure, but there are some challenges ahead as well, and I hope my little bits of advice will be helpful to you as you go forward. Best wishes and happy GMing!

    • Excellent advice! I do definitely need to watch out for my own conflicts in history as things progress. Campaign organization probably does become a lot more important to reduce the number of conflicts. I do agree with you though, that it will hopefully be easier to adapt to the occasional conflict on the fly if it is all things I created to start. Fixing conflicts in a published setting seems to cascade into a messy affair.

      The plot map looks very cool. I have not made use of many tools like that in the past. I can certainly see why it might be useful though.

      I have used a mind mapping tool before. I tend to use FreeMind when I feel the need to do that:

      http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

      I have also used MindJet on the iPad occasionally. Though I have not used it much recently.

      I also agree that reading a lot can help with a multitude of things. I sometimes find myself busy with working on campaigns, blog posts, side writing projects that I consciously need to make time for re-energizing with absorbing content. It pays off in allowing ideas to come to me easier and broadening my scope. But I do need to remind myself to do it sometime.

      Thanks for the comment! Very useful!

  3. I am running my first medieval fantasy campaign using the Golarion setting and Pathfinder rules set, my previous games have always been in systems that have an integral campaign setting (Shadowrun, Star Wars Conspiracy X).

    My view has been if i contradict something in the cannon its ok because its my game. Once the game starts the only thing that is cannon are what my players and I decide is cannon. If we want Galt to be revaged by an undead plauge so be it, if Shadowrun Seattle has the blue helmets of the UN roll in because there is just too much crazy coming out and Aztechnology is to blame, so be it.

    • When I do run published campaigns I do state to my players that our game might contradict canon. Especially in my FR games of past. I played with some that knew the world pretty well, often better than me. By prefacing the game with the thought I might ignore canon, it really helped set their expectations.

      Golarion is a great campaign setting though. Pretty easy to find a region that hits the feel you want for your game. Have fun!

    • We did that once with the DMG back in the day. Had a 36″ x 24″ blank hex map-started in the center and the players wandered around and I rolled up terrain, random encounters, and made stuff up. We did about 10-12 hexes before calling it quits. It was just TOO random, and the players wanted some sort of narrative or overall goal.

    • It gets very frantic and as a DM leaves you trying to make a story out of a land no one knows about. It requires serious improv on not only the DM but the characters part. If you can get that, you could possibly create a beautiful world.

  4. I like using my own setting as you know. I’m enjoying using the Pathfinder setting as it works well for what we are doing. With either the challenge seems to be getting the players interested in the setting.

    • Player interest can make all of the difference. I really like Tellus and have enjoyed our games there. In fact, I bet if you quizzed the group, folks would recall more campaign facts about Tellus than they would Golarion!

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  6. I think there is something to be said for mining ideas from published settings but then making a world of ones own. I do however, start with a bit of an outline of where I think the campaign might go so I can introduce things early for later (a legend about an artifact that won’t show up fo months, a casual meeting with a not yet important NPC, etc.)

    • I think this strategy has a lot of merit. Sort of a blend of both worlds. Your own world so it doesn’t feel like doing a lot of “homework” just to learn a setting well enough to run it well and borrowing ideas from published settings to keep prep time down. Realistically, this is the blend I will likely use.

      • That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do with Wilderlands, in converting it to the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign setting. The people are there. The climate is there. I keep the details I want, replace or reskin the rest, and there ya go. It makes life a lot easier in most ways. I just need to create a document to help with translation of some creatures from 3.5 to DCC. I have a sheet that does AD&D to DCC conversion, but I still need to look for one that does 3.5 to AD&D conversion.

      • I suspect you will have lots of success with your strategy. Let the heavy lifting of creating a world get done by the established setting and feel free to reskin it.

        I still don’t feel in touch with the DCC RPG power levels very well. I’ve seen some folks say just convert 3.x creatures on the fly and run with it. But I am having difficulty knowing when a CR6 creature is appropriate for a certain level DCC RPG party. I am sure I will pick it up after more time with DCC RPG though. I suspect it is more a subjective “feel” thing, I just need to accept that!

  7. I have been recently torn between wanting to use an adventure module set in another world, or once again freestyle it through one of my many mapped worlds of Mythe.
    Being able to draw maps has helped me with the creating my own land in which to gallavant adventurers through, and it definitely leaves me quite a bit of freedom to work with. Though it grows frustating when I must make every town the adventurers come into. As well as, who is in this town, what do they offer, and how do they feel about the wandering groups of vagrants that call themselves adventurers?
    My groups will often catch me “dropping” or “borderlandsing” as they’ll call it, which is where I incorporate something of a joke reference to some book, movie, or tv show as a way of humor and filling time to think of what to do next.
    Normally it’s a character, monster, or similar story element that the players laugh about and move past.
    It’s freedom to do these poo-brained acts that keeps me from using another person’s world.

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