Friday, June 19, 2009

Brand Expectations

There’s a common counter-argument that’s raised whenever one complains that TSR’s aggressive marketing of the Realms robbed it of its old school “do what thy will with it” charm. This argument is used both by defenders of the Realms and by those with no particular investment in the setting. Summed up, this school of thought states that there’s nothing forcing the DM to use all the supplemental material published for the Forgotten Realms if they don’t want to. It’s a valid argument and I support it completely in theory. In practice, however, I’ve found problems with it.

The issue here is that the Realms have become a name brand – one with a significant amount of marketing and product awareness behind it. It could be said that the Forgotten Realms has become the Coca-Cola of the role-playing game industry, solely based on market penetration and name recognition. And like Coca-Cola, certain expectations have arisen whenever the Forgotten Realms brand name is invoked, most of which were spawned by the plethora of novels and sourcebooks that were published to drive the brand.

As a DM wishing to run a Forgotten Realms-based campaign, I’m now trying to compete with TSR’s (and WotC/Hasbro’s) media machine. That places me in the predicament of trying to convince potential consumers that my brand of the Forgotten Realms is just as good as the mass-produced one they’ve been exposed to. In essence, it’s as if I’m trying to get you to drink the homemade root beer I cook up out in my shed. We both want you to buy our soft drinks, but Coke’s got the edge on me.

Does this mean that there’s no market for the crazy homebrewed stuff I make and enjoy? Not at all. In fact, a great many people like homebrewed products because it’s such a welcome change from the mass-produced stuff that gluts the market. The problem becomes, “Is the effort required for me to win a share of the audience worth the enjoyment I’m going to get out it?”

After the demise of my first Forgotten Realms campaign, I joined another gaming group as a player. We had been playing the DM’s homebrewed campaign world for almost two years when he decided that he wanted to take a break from behind the screen and join the ranks of the player class again. This decision coincided with the release of the Spelljammer boxed set. He and I talked it over, and it was decided that I’d start a new Realms campaign to give him the downtime he wanted. Since Spelljammer was the new toy on the market, we thought it’d be an excellent vehicle to allow us to export the current adventuring party from his world into the Realms, and after getting our hands on a ship, we shoved off from his game world to crash land in a turnip patch in Ashabenford. Everyone was keyed up for a brand new campaign in the Forgotten Realms. Unfortunately, the reasons the players were excited were different from why I was excited.

It’s said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but when it comes to the Realms, a lot of knowledge is damn near fatal. Unlike the players in my original Realms campaign, this bunch arrived with a lot of preconceived notions about the setting and I found myself having to explain again and again that things were different from what they might have read. After about the tenth or fifteenth utterance of “Not in my Forgotten Realms!”, both the players and I were getting frustrated. The players weren’t getting what they had expected in a Forgotten Realms campaign and I was feeling like King Cnut swinging a sword at the tide. The campaign fizzled out a few months into it and, in retrospect; this incident was the catalyst for my eventual exodus from the hobby.

I discovered that I didn’t enjoy spending time trying to convince the players that my crazy Forgotten Realms was just as good (if not better) than TSR’s published one. I’d rather spend that time playing the game or adding more details to my own version. The effort vs. enjoyment ratio was horribly uneven in my case.

When I returned to hobby in recent years, I toyed with the idea of revisiting the Realms as a campaign setting, but in light of the even greater amount of detail and world change that had grown up around the Realms, I quickly abandoned that idea. I’d been down that path once before and had no desire to try and swim against the tide yet again. Instead, I’d concentrate on my own homemade world which had no preconceived notions associated with it. I wouldn’t be fighting against the expectations of a name brand.

Does this make me a poor or a lazy DM? Possibly, but I play this game because it’s something I enjoy and I’ve discovered that, as I get older, I have less tolerance for anything that doesn’t assist the entertainment value I get from the hobby. Does the branding of the Forgotten Realms mean that everyone wanting to use the Realms as they see fit is doomed to failure? Absolutely not, provided they have the desire to overcome the established canon and players willing to embrace their DM’s possibly unconventional take on the Realms. But as some of the comments made during the past week indicate, many DMs feel like I do and would rather spend the time cultivating a campaign world with less baggage attached to it.

To those of you either still playing a homebrewed Faerun game or who enjoy the “official” Forgotten Realms, I'm glad it remains your playground. There are days I wish I could join you, but I’ve come to realize that I lack the tenacity or wherewithal such a commitment would require on my part. I wish you the best.


Anonymous said...

I've the enjoyed the heck out of this weeks FR post's. I too have a love/hate relationship with the setting. I've never played in a FR campaign, but I've DM'd a few, and all of them have had whole chunks of Toril changed. To ease my players into it I simply changed the name from "Forgotten Realms" to "Dude, where's my Realms?"

Will Douglas said...

No experience with the Forgotten Realms (my groups all pretty much used homebrew), but I can relate as concerns Traveller.

When I talk about the game, I'm talking about the three little black books (or the one larger black book that replaced them), but it seems like everybody else in the world is talking about the entire edifice of the Third Imperium (which I don't use for reasons you've elaborated above). It gets frustrating.

On the other hand, I know a guy who runs 3.5 and only allows the 3 core books. No funky weird feats from some splatbook, no bizarre character classes (or prestige classes...) from some third party module. And people eventually get used to it -- or they just don't play. So some gamers at least are amenable to doing things differently from the norm.

Robert Fisher said...

When I ran a Lord of the Rings campaign, I told the players up-front that they’re entering my Middle-earth. While obviously I was aiming for it to be recognizable, I reserved the right to change, ignore, or be ignorant of any “canon”. This let the players know to check about obscurer points rather than making too many assumptions. (Or choosing to interpret any bad assumptions on their part as an example of their PCs naturally having an imperfect understanding of their own world.)

Pretty much the same for Traveller if I run the 3I, but most people I play with don’t really know the 3I.

Now, that doesn’t mean that players won’t be disappointed, but it makes it for fewer nasty surprises from conflicting assumptions. I’ve not yet had a player refuse to play in a campaign because my version of a existing setting didn’t meet their preferences. As long as we’re clear about things up-front, most people understand that some compromising of preferences is required to make a gaming group go.

Brett said...

Boy, it just sounds like your players had a failure of imagination. How hard is it accept "You may have heard a different version of this story, but this is the version I'm telling, so forget your preconceived notions (and, anyway, quit metagaming!)"

Norman Harman said...

I've never liked (well hated) all published settings for the reason you mention. Players expect the setting to be as published (I'm an prolific tinkerer) And they often know more of the setting than I do.

As far as running a not as published FR campaign without player angst, I have one very simple solution.

Don't call it Forgotten Realms. Even when players pick up that there are some aspects of FR in your campaign, they won't have that physiological expectation that it should be 100% like what they know. Labels are immeasurably powerful.

Badmike said...

Boy, it just sounds like your players had a failure of imagination. How hard is it accept "You may have heard a different version of this story, but this is the version I'm telling, so forget your preconceived notions (and, anyway, quit metagaming!)"

Wow, what Brett said. I ran three different FR campaigns back in the day, and I always said upfront "Don't believe everything you've read; those are the legends, my campaign is the reality". Elminster may be a 9th level hedge wizard with good PR; Fzoul Chembryl could be a powerless figurehead manipulated by a demon; etc. My players enjoyed ferretting out the "mistakes" in the way things appeared in the printed products to my "reality". Those are some dang lame players that don't enjoy the thrill of solving mysteries in place of a predictible setting.