Persistent Campaign Settings

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?

14 thoughts on “Persistent Campaign Settings

  1. faoladh

    I have not done that, myself, but it is one of the goals for the Black Blood of the Earth game I’m currently working on.


    1. faoladh

      It’s posts like this one that have been helping me out by giving me ideas of what to try – plus, what things I should be on the lookout for! I’m currently thinking about an almanac notebook, like Zak’s in some ways, that gives me useful information divided up by session, or game day, or whatever. Then, I plan to keep file folders dedicated to particular gameworld subjects, like NPCs of various types, the actions and intended actions of NPC groups, and so on. Whether the information in those folders ends up on a computer is a matter I haven’t decided about.

      One thing I might try at some point is running a group in the same, persistent, setting using a different set of rules. For instance, I might run a particular group using, say, Labyrinth Lord instead of the normal AD&D 1E – or, more radically, I might try the WRG-based system that I’m working on occasionally, Fantasy Wargaming, The Fantasy Trip, or whatever else. I’d do this because it would reinforce that the rules serve the setting, not the other way around. Though, I’m not entirely sure how I’d transplant characters from the more diverse systems, so I might just stick to FLAILSNAILS-capable systems.

      Largely, I’m just typing this out to organize my thoughts, so don’t take anything I’m saying here too seriously. I really should make this a blog post.

    2. Josh D.

      In all seriousness I think the Gygax’s mandate of time tracking is precisely about this. Although I’m not sure he had moving through epoch’s in mind.

  2. Trey

    My setting I used in one form or another (like comic book universes, it suffered unexplained revisions or retcons with time) had characters in different eras and characters which heard about the exploits of others. This wasn’t generally done in an advancing fashion, but rather just where I felt like beginning a campaign as we switched systems from AD&D to 2e to GURPS at various points.

  3. James Smith

    My Kastmaria Campaign. Started around 1987. Upgraded it to 3e in 2001, after I moved to Birmingham. It’s now retired. I realized that for me, a large part of what made the campaign special, was creating it new and bringing it to life with its original players, over five years of 16-20 weekly hours of gameplay. When I ran it for 3e, with an entirely different group, it just wasn’t the same.

  4. John

    We recently had a campaign end in one DM’s homebrew setting, and it looks like next semester a different DM is going to take up the same setting with new players a few years after the events of the first campaign. I probably won’t be able to play in it, but I will have to keep an eye in it. I’m personally looking at stealing parts of his world for ACKS; doing the Lovecraft Mythos thing, I guess, where several authors borrowed names but altered meanings a little.

  5. d7

    I’m currently running such a campaign, though it’s just started. However, it’s based in an area that is 300 years after the events of a previous short campaign, so there’s already some of that. And, once I decided on that, I also rolled in the location of a completely separate past campaign, though its far from the events of the current game so only relevant from a worldbuilding standpoint.

    I have been doing the incremental “campaign present”, where every session follows the time of the last regardless of whose characters are present this session. That’s facilitated by also doing the thing where every session begins and ends in civilisation. The table is open, so players come and go. As a convenience, the time a character has been away also gives wiggle room to say, “and you just so happen to have travelled over *here* where tonight’s session begins…” without it being space-time bending. It’s contrived, yes, but it does get on to the exploring and dungeon-crawling quickly.

  6. LS

    I’ve always wanted to run a persistent world, but I’ve never loved a world enough to want to set a second game there. By the time a campaign ends, I’ve made so many improvements to my GMing style and my world-building technique that I want to completely start fresh.

    Even my pride and joy, Negune, has a lot of problems I’d like to avoid in my next game world.

  7. Matthew James Stanham

    Yeah, my “World of Silver Blade” campaign setting is persistent. We have run about seven campaigns overall, though it has been on hiatus for a while. My “World of Greyhawk” campaign setting is much newer, but more episodic, which is to say all our current pick up and play modules are set there. It is yet to be seen whether this will mean it never really develops like Silver Blade did.

  8. LordVreeg

    I ran a number of campaigns and settings from my earliest gaming days to realy get the feel and finish and play style together that I really wanted. And as many mention, there were improvements and houserules that went with the type of game and setting.
    And in the end of 1983, the first characters were made by one of my High School gaming groups for Celtricia, what would become the World of Factions and the center for 95% of my gaming for the next 29 years and forseeable future.
    It was totally from scratch, and there is actually only one published adventure I have ever used.
    To answer the questions you asked, we just hit 50 Regular full-time players (not counting one-shots) and 171 Player characters. About 13 real campaigns and 7 real seperate groups.
    We only used one time period and 6 major game centers (some groups had 3-4 areas, as I seem to specialize in some very long term campaigns), but very, very strict track of time has always been kept. The first group and campaign started in Gosun 1, in year 888 of the Reckoning of Nebler, and the furthest group is the Steel Isle game at Tanos 50, 895 RON. However, we have played in a pretty wide gepgraphic area differential, so the PC groups running at the same time rarely have much of a chance of hitting each other, though it has happened 3 times.
    The game system started as a Hybrid AD&D, but I realized very quickly that those rules were doing a poor job of being the physics engine for the game, in that there were constant mismatches in the game I wanted to play and the game the rules were creating, so by 1986 I had really started moving into my own system which has slowly evolved.
    AS to the massive amounts of published works, they never really attract me. GMing has always been 1/2 creation, 1/2 play, and doing one without the other has never really attracted me. I like reading published works to hone my craft and to see how others do things, but with one exception, I run my own stuff exclusively.
    Much to the same point, I have written many bits and pieces that talk about the ability of a long-term setting (and in particular, a long-term sandbox) to build on itself and enhance the versimilitude through this continual enhancement.

  9. Michael J Brisbois

    Monte Cook ran two co-current Ptolus games some time ago; some the player’s overlapped and I believe two characters were twins, but were played in different groups. There were some campaign notes on Cook’s website around the release of Ptolus.


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