I’ve been thinking recently about settings that grow, not just over the course of a single campaign, but over the course of many campaigns, perhaps with multiple groups. This, as I understand it, was how Greyhawk and Blackmoor were run, to some approximation. I don’t know how Gary or Dave managed their setting timelines, or even if they cared about things at that level of detail. It seems like Jeff runs Wessex in a somewhat similar way, with various groups of people on G+ and in real life. Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands is perhaps another example.
Obviously, there could be some logistical complications with this. What if multiple groups are playing at the same time and affect each other? What if one group plays in “the past” with regard to other groups? It seems like temporal paradox could potentially be a problem, though realistically I don’t think it would be difficult to avoid.
Another potential issue is that such a setting could become too important. That is, a referee might be more cautious with trying new things, and might also become more sensitive to players that don’t take the setting seriously. I don’t think this would be a problem for me (I love to see what kind of mischief players can get up to), but I can see it being an issue for some. It is probably best to not go overboard on setting background (though this is easier said than done).
Certain kinds of games seem like they would work better with this kind of setting than others. It should probably be generic enough to appeal to casual players (though this need not be a requirement, depending on the players you have access to). At the very least, you don’t want barriers to entry to be too high. Adventures that begin and end in town and can be completed in a single session would be the easiest to run, but are not required (and you don’t want to dissuade players from trying things that might make an impact on the setting, like establishing a stronghold). But maybe these things are just good setting design guidelines in general, and not tied particularly to the kind of persistent play I am gesturing toward. I’m not sure.
I think it has been much more common recently to make campaign settings more disposable. I blame this partly on an embarrassment of riches; there are so many published RPGs and settings out there, and many look like they would be fun to try. Thus the dreaded “gamer ADD” of bouncing around between different options rather than sticking with one and letting it develop. Personally, I’ve had a number of settings that are (or were) “mine,” but I’ve never stuck with any single setting long enough for it really to develop any kind of depth. Constraint breeds creativity, so maybe stricter guidelines about how you are allowed to add detail to the setting might help. Only as preparation for specific sessions, perhaps?
The aspect of this that most intrigues me is how the remnants of one campaign (or group of players) could affecting other, future campaigns. I can imagine setting down enough information for a beginning campaign, writing down a fantasy date (year, month, day), and starting the first set of players out, recording what happens, and incrementing the dates as necessary. Then, the next group would start out at the last marked date, and so forth. It would be like maintaining a “fantasy present” so that you would always know when it is whenever you sit down to play, and what happened recently. Those Oriental Adventures event tables might be interesting, and also see this post by Zak (though his example is explicitly not an in-game day-by-day calendar).
Do any of you have a setting that keeps developing as specified above? If so, did you start with a published setting, or did you start from scratch? How many campaigns or groups has your setting supported? Have you progressed through multiple historical or technological eras? I’m talking about actual play here, not just writing campaign history. What about multiple game systems? Have you ever “upgraded” (or downgraded)? Do you think the diversity of products available now makes such fidelity unrealistic? Are there any techniques that you use to record campaign developments?