Late last year I ran across this post on twitter that I found incredibly insulting. The argument, which I won’t link to because I don’t want to pile on the author, essentially argued: “If playing role-playing games is a creative endeavor, why do so many players choose to use the intellectual labors of other players and explore established settings instead of making their own?”
There are a variety of reasons why a player might choose to explore an established world. So lets look at a few of them:
Creating a world out of whole cloth is a time consuming process. Even if a player is simply making a single town and its surrounding area there are many questions that must be answered before play can commence. Who lives in the town? What dangers are present? What locations of interest are nearby? Are there other towns nearby or are they so far away that the settlement is isolated?
Each of these questions beg more questions: like what cultures are present? What is the architectural style of the area? What religions are present and how do people observe them? What are the seasons called? What do we call the days of the week there? What sort of monetary system do we use in the area? Who are the shop owners? Who are the authorities? Who runs the town? Is there a political system and what parties are there politically? Are there districts to the town? Are there sub communities? Do the people here view themselves as a single, cohesive culture or are they divided by where they’re originally from with little communities named after their home regions?
Answering these sort of questions takes time and often with a pre-made setting players are able to find the majority of these questions answered for them. There is still some work to be done but the big, hard questions are often answered enough to make the smaller, secondary questions easier to answer on the fly.
A Shared World Experience
For some players the opportunity to play in a world that others are experiencing as well gives them a greater sense of connection to the fictional worlds they’re exploring. After all, who hasn’t read the works of their favorite authors and not thought, “I would love to explore that world myself.”
That deeper sense of connection goes further than just exploring the same worlds as those we read about, watch, and listen to on our favorite podcasts. By taking up the fictional worlds that we’ve read about we get to experience the major events of those worlds from our own perspectives. We get to fight the War of the Ring, to push back against the Trollocs invasions, and to explore the forgotten temples of the Old Ones. We get to be a part of the stories we love.
Creating a Baseline Experience
Another reason for using an established setting is that it provides the players with a baseline experience. They are given a foundation that they “know” to be true about the world. The Free City of Greyhawk is just off the Nyr Dyv. Dyvers is to the southwest of Greyhawk. The Great Kingdom is to the southeast. The major landmarks are where they expect them to be. The money works like it should, and the cultures are relatively easy to understand.
This is wholly unlike a setting that one player creates for the others. In that situation everything is new and nothing is established until the players exploring the world come across it. Money can be wildly different from area to area. The cultures can be weird and impossible to grasp. The landmarks can constantly shift about with the end result being a world that feels completely alien and poorly thought out.
For some players it’s just easier to have a solid ground to begin exploring rather than to constantly be trying to figure out what “new” thing the world has for them to experience.