In a World of Pure Imagination — a little bit of scene-setting
A: Context time. Do you want to explain about our D&D games, how they work, where they exist—all that sort of stuff?
C: We should maybe begin with how we got into D&D in the first place. I think that I first began—it sounds like I’m a drug addict—I first began playing D&D when I was at college.
A: When you say ‘college’, do you mean school or uni?
C: I mean uni, for all you Brits out there.
A: Thank you.
C: I was at college—uni—and there was one person in my group of friends who was sort of a ‘connecter’ friend, who knew what they were doing and got the rest of us into it.
A: Like you in our group of friends.
C: Exactly. And this was about five years ago, and it was then that I also had my first experience at DMing, in part of my DM’s world. After that I played on and off, but our current group began in late 2016, and we’ve played pretty regularly since then.
A: My trajectory into D&D is pretty similar to yours, I guess, but three years later. I had no experience until we started playing, but I was one of those kids who had a load of ‘choose your own adventure’ books so I came into it with an understanding that you live and die by the roll of the dice.
C: And we both did theatre and performance as kids, which I think can help DMs.
A: And we should mention that we both graduated from a postgrad in Creative Writing, so making up stories is something we do a lot.
C: I would say that the three things that are most distinctive about our campaigns and which inform a lot of the decisions we make as DMs are: we both want to be story tellers; we’re trying to build a lot of it from the ground up together, so it’s got its own niche rule-set; and—
A: Hatred of dinosaurs.
C: Angela really doesn’t like that dinosaurs exist in our shared lore, though she’s powerless to stop it. But I was going to say friendship. D&D is a communal activity, and part of the reason it’s so meaningful to me is because I think of it mostly in the context of being a friend and a storyteller.
A: Nice. I come to it for the storytelling and the snacks, but mostly the snacks.
C: Indeed. Do you want to take a quick stab at being genuine in this one, or are you going to save that for another discussion?
A: Well, you’ve gone all deep and heavy. I was just going to chat about our campaigns. It was going to be, ‘Calder’s campaign: an epic struggle between good and evil; Angela’s campaign: petty witches in a marsh.’
C: Actually, yeah. I’d argue that me being really pretentious about our fucking dice roll slaying monster game and you being like ‘I’m here for the snacks and the witches’ is a pretty good idea of what we bring to the table in these discussions to some degree.
A: And to our games as DMs.
C: True. Well, now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about some specifics in our setting. Both you and I are running campaigns which exist in the same canonical world, which we’ve built together—
A: Which you built, and which I then muscled into and insisted have pyjamas.
C: You did add pyjamas to my existing canon, but one of the good things about D&D is that the world and everything in it is built by multiple people. The DM works with the players; it’s a team effort.
A: But it should still be pointed out that most of the hard work was/is done by you; the rest of us piggyback along.
C: Hmm. I guess piggybacking is kind of the nature of the medium. But anyway, to return to our games—the best way I can think of to describe my campaign is as the fantasy equivalent of a space opera? I don’t think I’m doing anything particularly new by having a close-knit group of people against a backdrop of war, but the heart wants what it wants. The story and stakes have developed with time as well. I didn’t anticipate it being high drama, or high fantasy really, but that’s where we’ve ended up. Lots of battles, politicking, adventuring, that sort of thing.
A: There is a lot of drama, some of it created by the PCs—Farrar tries to match-make everyone, for instance—but most of it is the setting and your characters. Also, the planes split open and lots of demons arrived.
C: There’s definitely a lot of tropes in the mix, I’ll be the first to admit. My game isn’t particularly unique—I’m not breaking any moulds by having religious conflicts or family dramas played out with kingdoms in the balance—and it certainly has a fair few recognisable D&D touchstones. But I like the story I’ve created; I’m trying to present something immersive but distinctive, something which challenges and augments the norms I’m familiar with, and something which offers a lot of depth and substance for players. And I try to work backstories into a grand framework in a pretty immediate and accessible way.
A: We’re both creative writers; I think we’re taught to be wary of tropes, but also to recognise that they’re tropes for a reason. There’s nothing worse than a storyteller who wants to be radical and different all the time just for the sake of it.
C: Right. I should also mention that there are some distinctive things about my campaign, and our game in general, the most obvious of which is that the mechanics we use are heavily homebrewed. When we talk about ‘vanilla Pathfinder’, we mean the original game, and we’ve moved away from that in lots of respects. So beyond a ground-up setting, the rules have been heavily tinkered with.
A: It’s still recognisable as being Pathfinder, but there are a lot of homebrew quirks.
C: Exactly; some of them are minor quirks—like at the start I let everyone add a point to one stat because we had some low-rolling players, so this was a nice boost which didn’t impact that much. That has stayed as a rule, and we did it in your campaign too even though we all rolled pretty high. But a lot of the changes have major repercussions, from getting rid of arcane spell failure to combining swift and free actions into one action type.
A: And we’ve re-introduced some of the original rules, like 5-foot step, which we didn’t bother with until one of our players pointed it out to us.
C: Yeah, I simplified the rules at the start because everyone was new and there was a lot to learn, but our games continue to evolve as we grew as DMs and as players. But I feel like I talked a lot about my game—do you want to talk about yours?
A: Okay; mine is set in a little pocket of your world. You basically gave me a space far away from the main action of your campaign and told me I could do what I liked there. So I created Venice in the marshes and I filled it with witches—which turned out to be a horrible mistake because witches have familiars, and there are so many statistics to work out. But yeah, my campaign exists in your world but is basically separate from it; it’s set a few months before the opening of your campaign so that I don’t have to deal with the invading demon horde.
C: And they have pretty different tones to them. Thematically and all.
A: Yeah. We started my game after your game, so people are back to being lower levels, and I don’t know if that contributed to the feeling of this being the more fun and friendly campaign. With that said, the tone is definitely shifting—it started off being the light relief one, and due to…some party choices—
C: Accidental violence on player behalf.
A: Right. And now it’s gone slightly darker. But it’s still people dealing with issues on a much smaller scale than in your game. It’s much more personal, in terms of the party getting involved in issues on behalf of their friends, rather than saving whole cities at the behest of kings.
C: Yeah, your scope is smaller, which definitely has benefits. As players, we have a much better and more immediate appreciation of what’s happening around us because everything is so focused. We have built up a relationship with the setting. I think one of the fundamental differences between our two games is that I play wide and you play tall. I have huge armies clashing, which works in some contexts, but I sometimes struggle to make things feel substantive and important because of the ground I’m covering. And there’s no point in trying to do high-stakes if the audience isn’t invested, and if they don’t associate those armies or that battle with something meaningful. And by contrast—by locking the party into one place—you keep things relatable for us while still offering depth. There are so many ‘the fate of the world is in the balance’-style narratives now, across genres and mediums, that they often lose touch or just become contrived. Your campaign is a testament to the fact that keeping a focused scope and character-driven story can make for a more profound story, regardless of scale.
A: There are definitely downsides to having one main setting though, because it has to be realistic. When a party is travelling, villages can have a generic pub and a general store, and that’s it. But if you’re making a city, one suddenly has to think, ‘how many taverns should be here? How many bathhouses? Where are the bathhouses? What do bathhouses actually look like?’ and so on. The setting has to stand up to much more scrutiny. I think in terms of workload, both of us have the same amount, just slightly different.
C: Yeah, I’d agree with that.
A: And both settings are fun to play in. At least, I hope you like my town of witches.
C: I’m pretty invested in it, even if all the inhabitants want to kill us.