Friday, May 17, 2013

Campaign Setting Toolbox, the IRS

Hi, folks! Welcome back. Sorry about the slow pace, it’s been a very busy few weeks. I just finished a significant rewrite to the novel my agent is shopping around, knocking almost 10,000 words out of the early chapters to pick up the pacing. I’m working up in Redmond three days a week (and at home the other two) on Pathfinder Online. And I’ve got another secret project that has been absorbing whatever attention I have left. It’s all good stuff, but it’s a little crazy!

One more thing: I’ve got a big announcement coming soon, and I think I may be relocating my blogging efforts to a new venue. So, keep your eyes peeled!

Gaming: I’ve been thinking about campaign setting books lately, specifically what they do right and what they do wrong. I’ve been involved with several over my career, including 2nd Edition Birthright, Alternity Star*Drive, 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms, and 4th Edition Dark Sun. And I’m starting to wonder about the conventional wisdom behind the “classic” campaign setting organization.
The conventional wisdom is that the best settings lay out vast narratives of history and lovingly detail dozens of important kingdoms. They include large chapters dedicated to rules sets that customize your characters to the setting, and hundreds of named NPCs arranged carefully in relational webs, with scores of stories waiting to unfold as the DM picks a few dominoes and knocks them over. Settings such as the Forgotten Realms or Golarion are great examples: There’s enough material in either of those books to run your next fifty D&D campaigns without playing in the same locale twice. But here’s the problem: Most campaigns really run 4-8 months before the group hits a switching point and moves on to something else. We professionals build these settings as if we expect everyone who buys them to spend the rest of their natural lives exploring one particular world, but few groups really do that.

In my opinion, a good setting book shouldn’t be an atlas or a “frozen snapshot” of a living world. A campaign setting should instead be a *toolkit*, a set of things that make it possible for a DM to easily create great adventures in an interesting, memorable world. Ten thousand years of history doesn’t make a setting inherently more suitable for gaming: What you really need are a short set of fallen empires and ruined kingdoms to explain where dungeons in your game come from. Unique NPCs with compelling narratives are great, but what’s even better are ready-to-use monsters and villains the DM can use to populate a dungeon. New character classes or feats are great, but how about information on how existing characters fit in the world?
With that in mind, here are the components I think I’d want to include in the next setting I work on…

-          A BIG chapter devoted to world-specific monsters and villains. One of the most important ways you define a setting is by the baddies you fight there, but many setting books skimp on providing ready-to-use libraries of bad guys (usually because those are reserved for a separate monster book). They ought to be included in the setting book from the start.

-          A long list of “known dungeons,” like the one in the 3rd Edition FRCS. That 2-page spread does more to inspire DM adventure-creation than 100 pages of atlas/gazetteer about all the countries in the setting.

-          Scads of dungeon and site maps. The old Iron Crown sourcebooks used to be great at providing these. Drawing interesting dungeon maps is tough for a lot of DMs, and there’s no reason the setting book can’t help out with that.

-          Player material that anchors the PCs in the setting, but doesn’t make you throw out the Player’s Handbook. If you’re running a 3e or a 4e campaign you have a hundred races and thirty classes to choose from already; settings should focus on fitting those pieces together instead of adding to the clutter. Dark Sun’s themes were pretty good, but I think it could be done with a little less new crunch.

What do you wish your campaign setting books included? Where are the publishers letting you down?

Politics/Current Events: Well, there’s certainly a lot going on this week with the Benghazi whistleblower testimony, the IRS scandal, and the AP record search. I’m just going to poke at the IRS story for a moment. Either the IRS was directed to bias itself against conservative groups, or its bias is institutional. The former would be bad enough—Nixonian, really—but the latter troubles me even more. Unfortunately, it makes all too much sense. When one party has represented itself as the party of government for decades, it follows logically that people *in* the government voting their own self-interest would naturally come to support that party with their own votes. Anybody in the federal government (well, outside the military) could reasonably conclude that their odds of seeing pay raises, more generous benefits, more opportunities for promotion, etc., would be improved by electing politicians who want to increase the federal budget. That’s why public-sector unions such as AFSCME or AFGE are such strident supporters of Democrat politicians and positions.
I’ve griped more than once about the conflicts of interest inherent in public sector unions. However, most public sector employees don’t have the power to directly suppress opposition. The IRS does. It has a special responsibility to be absolutely impartial. If the bias at the IRS is institutional, that is a gigantic mess, especially when you consider that the IRS is about to become the primary enforcement arm for Obamacare. Bad enough if the IRS has its thumb on the scales to suppress opposition speech. What happens if they start putting their thumbs on the scale to penalize individuals or businesses with opposing viewpoints once they’re wielding the powers they gain under the ACA?

This isn’t a matter of “We don’t like the Tea Party, so of course they should face extra scrutiny for tax exemption.” Equal treatment under the law is the very foundation of the American social compact, and if that principle is called into question, bad things can follow. We need to get the politics out of the IRS, and pronto.

The Finer Things: I ran into a nice amber the other day: Scuttlebutt Amber Ale, brewed by Scuttlebutt up in Everett, Washington. Quite good! A little hoppier than most other ambers, but not remotely into bitter or IPA land. I’m not a big hops fan, I guess.

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