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Day 24: Canon vs AU vs Homebrew Settings in RPGs

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At this point in my GMing career, I’m convinced that basing your role-playing game campaign in a pre-existing setting is just as hard as creating your own from scratch. (Unless, of course, you’ve already taken it upon yourself to become an expert on the topic, but even then there are bits of trivia to remember, opinions to consider, sources to reconcile, etc.)

Running games in an established setting is a shortcut for finding players, but you’ve still got to do your research, be respectful of the correct timeline, and play by the rules. As cool as the Forgotten Realms or the World of Grayhawk seem, I’d be hard pressed to feel comfortable running either without spending hours reading the source material. Still, if you’re aching to evoke specific feelings tied to genre or nostalgia, homebrew worlds won’t quite scratch that itch.

At the same time, creating your own world means you feel the pressure to be creative–and worse, original–for at least a couple hours every week as you craft the setting from the ground up. Or, if you’re me short on prep time or otherwise not feeling very inspired, it means borrowing liberally from your favorite media and re-skinning them appropriately. It makes sense to start small by focusing in-depth on one section of the world and building out as you need, but in order to truly evoke a living, breathing world, I’ve found that you’ll still want to sprinkle off-handed references to people, places, and things happening elsewhere in the setting, which requires yet more time.

Alternate Universes are a happy middle ground between both extremes. You’ve got the player buy-in of an established setting, but you still have the freedom to make it your own. If Luke Skywalker never finds the droids on Tatooine and the Galactic Civil War ends up looks a lot different in your timeline, that’s your right as the Game Master. We frequently do this in our Legend of the Five Rings campaigns: we play in Rokugan, but we set our stories before the Scorpion Clan Coup or any of the other TCG-driven storylines in order to make our own history without regard for the many, many personages appearing in the official timeline.

Right now, I’m playing in or running campaigns in two alternate universes and one original setting, and I might be joining a game that takes place during the Rebellion Era of Star Wars soon. I can’t say that I favor one particular mode over the others, as each have their own boons and banes. It all depends on the needs and wants of your specific group.

What, in your view, are the strengths and drawbacks of established settings vs. alternate universes vs. homebrew world? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on problem players and drama llamas. Thanks again for reading!

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