It must always be remembered that I know no more of Nehwon than I have put into my stories. There are no secret volumes of history, geography, etc., written before the tales themselves were spun. I rely wholly on what Fafhrd and the Mouser have told me, testing them against each other, and sifting out exaggerations and lies when I must. And while my conferences with the Twain have been rewarding, they also have been fewer than I’d wish. I have handled no little books of Ningauble or scrolls o[f] Srith.Let me begin by stating for the record that I have a profound amount of respect for Ed Greenwood. Poor Ed gets a fair amount of grief heaped on him, mostly by those looking for an easy target to blame for the disintegration of the home-brewed campaign world. TSR and WotC certainly did their best to turn Ed’s home-brew world into a cash cow, but that decision was made by marketing, not the man himself. I won’t deny that Ed probably saw his bank account swell a bit, but given that the man is still working his day job as a librarian proves he’s either dedicated to his career or that his compensation was something less than grotesque piles of cash. I also think it is fair to say that some of the ill-will pointed at Ed comes from pure jealousy. Ed managed to achieve every referee’s dream when his boxes of game notes were bought and published by TSR. I’ll admit that if someone came along and wanted to buy my campaign notes outright I’d probably delay only long enough to find a pen to sign on the dotted line with. When I was younger, I idolized Ed for managing to pull this off and I set about to mimic his method of world design with the assumption that, if I just did it the way Ed did, TSR was sure to come knocking on my door. And thus, one of my biggest old bad habits was formed.
- Fritz Leiber, The Dragon #1
When I heard the stories that Ed literally had boxes full of game notes for the Forgotten Realms, I was certain that he had some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of his entire world. He could probably tell you whose face appeared on the smallest coin minted in the most obscure kingdom of the Forgotten Realms, I surmised. So I began to plot and plan and draw and design, all in the insane effort to document every historical period and great event that occurred in my campaign world since the gods first wandered out of the primordial chaos at the beginning of the universe. I drew a gigantic map that spanned four sheets of poster board, sketching in details down to which way the ocean currents flowed. I made list after list of names and titles so I’d be able to just plug them in when I needed to properly record the achievements of ancient rulers. In short, I temporarily went crazy.
After such a period of frantic creativity, it was no wonder that I began my slow decline and gradual exodus out of the hobby. I’d overwhelmed my senses with a fantastical world of sword and sorcery to the point where I just lost interest. If it hadn’t been for the fact that this burnout occurred just as White Wolf’s Storyteller games where getting off the ground, I probably would have stopped gaming right then. As it was, the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade was so diametrically opposed to Dungeons & Dragons in just about every way, that it provided a temporary respite on my way out the hobby door.
When I made the decision to come back to the game as more than a casual player, I did so with the caveat that I wouldn’t make the same mistake when it came to world-building. One of the charms of classic D&D is that you don’t need to write a personal version of The Silmarillion before you get running. All that is required is a base of safety and a dungeon to poke around in. You don’t even need a full dungeon. Gary points out in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures that all you really need to start are three levels fleshed out. Everything else comes later. I strive to stick to this wisdom, having stopped working on the Dungeon Which Still Remains Unnamed After a Ridiculous Amount of Time™ after level two was completed.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t attempt to create the illusion of a deeper world. I came across the above quote from Fritz Leiber just about the time that I settled in to work on Ol’ Nameless and I think it’s the best example of how a referee should go about building the details of the greater campaign world. What Leiber is saying is that he never bothered to plan the particulars of his world until they were explicitly needed to tell a story, either as background elements to add depth to his tales or to advance the plot. A referee could do much worse than follow this philosophy. Any time and creative energy spent on developing parts of the world other than what immediately pertains to the party and their adventures is, at the very least, time and energy that could be better utilized for the instant gratification of everyone involved. At its worst, extraneous details can lead to the referee desiring to show-off his latest world-building project, which is often the precursor for railroading the players into what the referee wants them to do and see, rather than letting the players decide what shenanigans they’re going to attempt - a definite “no-no” in old-school playing style.
To later-day gamers, the idea of using the dungeon as a way to add depth to the campaign world may seem odd. After all, the dungeon’s just a hole in the ground that you go down to hack up monsters and steal their stuff. How on Oerth is that going to add to the complexity of the overall campaign world?
The answer is: by sheer deception.
In my notes for Ol’ Nameless are many small details jotted down which pertain to some of the set dressing that the characters might encounter during their forays. In every case, these details are three sentences or less. A statue might bear the note: “Tane the Dog-Lord. Led barbarian rebellion against the Old Empire in 984. Captured but escaped public execution to rally the tribes against the city of Forr-var the following winter” or a painting detailed as: “Silpeh Mahin, gnomiss wizard and inventor. Silpeh created many technomagical wonders including: the first submersible ship, a clockwork chariot and horses, a gristmill that turned raw ore into finished armor, and a tin-man who could answer any question”. It never goes any further than that. I don’t even concern myself that these short details might contradict other historical details. History is a subjective field, so someone probably recorded something wrong.
What I hope to accomplish with this is to imply to the players, and thereby their characters, that the world has a history that extends further back then their own efforts and trials. They are standing in the shadows of giants at the moment. But with effort and a bit of luck, perhaps one day they will be immortalized for their achievements. The casual gamer may take this information and promptly discard it, with the assumption that these details have no long-term value and are merely presented to set the scene. A more dedicated player might make note of this information in the hope that this knowledge might serve useful in their coming adventures. In either case, with just three sentences I’ve increased the depth of the world and how the players perceive it. There is no need to drive myself crazy in establishing the particulars as to why Tane rose up against the Old Empire, or where exactly Silpeh carried out her experiments. A resourceful player might even use these shreds of history as an adventure seed, deciding that Tane might have a burial barrow to plunder, or that Silpeh’s creations might still survive, waiting to be rediscovered.
Whether through wisdom, sloth, or sanity, I’ve firmly planted my tent in the camp of “Less is More” when it comes to working on R’Nis. I no longer have the misconception that I need a campaign world of “Greenwoodian” detail to be successful. (I’ve since learned from statements from Ed himself that the Forgotten Realms, while very detailed, was not as well documented as I was initially led to believe.) I need just enough to make it look like I know what I’m doing and to keep the players and myself entertained. I’m not against having more details, but I’m certainly not going to invest the time needed to cultivate extraneous elements at the expense of more pressing matters. It’ simply not worth the stress which detracts from the enjoyment that I’m supposed to be getting from a recreational activity. After all, one third of any RPG is “game”.