My Stellar Players
An apt subtitle for this column would be “How Their Thirst For Detail and Rounded Lives for their PCs gave us the detailed Forgotten Realms.”
Because, you see, it did.
As it happens, I love worldbuilding, and my players love feeling immersed in a setting rich and deep enough that they can with ease pretend it’s all real.
More than that, they want to feel that they can sink their metaphorical teeth into the Realms and do things, not just as marauding adventurers, but as investors (and speculators!), workers and spies, ongoing players of intrigue (socially, politically, and in “fields of mercantile endeavour”), and as the founders and promoters of businesses. Even, in one or two cases, matchmakers. Often, private detectives.
Doing any of those things with any lasting roleplaying enjoyment requires a lot of detail, developed and renewed in an ongoing manner. And that’s where I come in—and enthusiastically, too. I love crafting imaginary bibs and bobs, and I’ve never been afraid of work. So as the years have passed, I’ve just kept on detailing, a name here and a deed or description there, and the tapestry that became the Realms started to unfold . . . and still unrolls to this day, month after month, and (shifts into aged sage’s dryly wry Voice of Doom): aeon after untold aeon . . .
So, you see, it’s all my players’ fault.
Now, this is not going to be a “tell all,” with names and pratfalls and all of that; it’s not my intent to discomfit my players by telling personal stories, or even misfortunes befallen around the gaming table. Friends don’t do that to friends, save perhaps for recounting noble or beautiful moments, after death, for posterity. And I very much want my friends to live, well, forever!
What is more widely useful and more lastingly interesting than dishing any dirt is some exploration of “hows.” As in, which PC activities spurred what lore crafting, and how to pitch into said crafting without getting bogged down.
My “home” Realms campaign has developed over many decades, but I ran more than a dozen “mini campaigns,” usually 13-session-long, defined sequences of weekly adventures at various public libraries I worked at, as Teen (later, “Young Adult,” because progress always seems to entail Enlightened And More Obfuscatory Jargon) programs that, oddly enough, proved more popular than Good Grooming And Hygiene For Young People.
So as not to waste precious playing time rolling up characters and explaining background, I fell into the habit of beginning these mini-campaigns by handing out Player Packs that included crude and incomplete “maps of what your character knows” of the world around, and “potted characters” that came complete with portraits, built-up back stories, and skills (sometimes even active professions). Play began in the kingdom of Cormyr, with Player Characters being members of newly-chartered adventuring companies—because these charters built in a “starter mission” for the group. (In the Forest Kingdom, you receive the legal right to walk around armed to the teeth and do violent adventuring things within the realm in return for a royal charter in which you undertake a task for the realm, such as “scour out the ruins at Brokenhelm Crag of monsters and outlaws.”)
I had to breathe life into these invented Player Characters, but at the outset of play bring them to a “rite of passage” moment of life growth and change so players could readily make these characters their own . . . and I had to introduce scores of colourful Non-Player Characters and monsters. Crucially, I had to introduce too many such beings to interact with for the players around the table to drift or be forced into adopting one or two as allies or ongoing villains without making choices about it.
By the time they’d either accomplished their starter mission or made such a hash of it that fleeing Cormyr and dropping their charter moniker seemed wise, they had to be used to working as a group, valuing working together over striking out on their own, and had to have developed the habit of making literally life-or-death choices in the proverbial heat of battle. (If you just react, one thing leading to another without any choice or time to think about what you’re doing, where’s the heroism? Or the pride of accomplishment?)
This is all just basic Dungeon Mastering, but having steered matters to where my players could shine, they very much did!
There’s no One True Way of roleplaying. Running the game with full “meta” awareness of the rules and football-quarterback-huddle-style round-by-round planning of battles is just as valid as Monty Python-ish ham acting with funny put-on voices, but there is a “Preferred Style” of play many groups settle into, sometimes shedding or gaining members in the process, and my core ongoing players have always preferred to speak and act “in character,” saving most of the real-world banter, gossip, and so on for breaks in play at which we often consume copious amounts of green tea and potato chips and artery-hardening chip dip.
They also like their characters to have jobs, pay bills, amass wealth, buy property, and even acquire noble titles in the Realms. Immersing themselves in the setting, if you will, not just concentrating on adventuring moments and handwaving the rest.
They also enjoy intrigue (the manipulation of others, the steering of unfolding politics, the uncovering of deceit and secrets, and being aware when they are themselves being manipulated) over monster-slaying.
Which in turn has forced me to do what I love doing anyway: making sure all of these NPCs and sentient monsters are pursuing aims and goals of their own when the PCs run into them, making their own alliances (and joining or even feuding within various in-setting organizations), so the Realms isn’t a lifeless backdrop the PCs strut through, but a seemingly-alive, ongoing, busy place with interesting things unfolding on all sides, wherever the PCs look.
Which in turn leads to an approach to detailing the Realms that’s rather different from the “Town X has a population of Y, is situated on the banks of the River Z, and is noted for major temples to A and B, and for its market, dominated by an old grist mill that burns down with suspicious frequency” way. Oh, I do that, too, and with gusto, but to me, “Town X” is a collection of people and what they’re currently up to first, and a collection of landmarks second. All I really need is a map and a quick architectural “What Strikes The Wayfarer’s Eye” description, and I can turn to the fun stuff.
Which often runs something like this:
“The town’s leading local families are the Vrundurs and the Maraxrams, who hate each other with a Montague-Capulet passion that has only deepened over three centuries of broken trade-deals, unhappy intermarriages, business swindlings, and duels by night. Currently, Larusklar Vrundur, the cold, aloof, and calculating patriarch of the Vrundurs, is determined to draw the three brawny, lusty young rapscallion Maraxram sons (eldest to youngest: brutish Hroldrar, sly and sneering Ilmur, and pranksome, recklessly jovial Marask) into various dooms of their own enthusiastic making, so as to blunt the rising wealth and dominance of the Maraxrams. In this, he is aided wittingly by the third prominent family of the town, the Brelfonts, who see the downfall of the Maraxrams as making room for their own rise, and unwittingly by the old failed merchant families of Caldan, Torthil, and Worrund, now reduced to keeping shops on the main street, whom the Vrundurs manipulate time and again into being in the way of new Maraxram ventures, and causing difficulties with tenants of the rented-out Maraxram farms.”
Pretty words, and little more, so I then must craft specifics of what Larusklar Vrundur is plotting right now—schemes and strivings, that the Player Characters are going to blunder into the heart of.
And I have to know, because my players are going to swiftly make it necessary that I know, what the heads of the Maraxrams are up to, how they’re dealing with Larusklar’s machinations—and if they’re not, why not; what’s going on behind their closed doors that’s more important? Do they see the arrival of the Player Characters as a sent-by-the-gods opportunity for shattering Larusklar Vrundur’s satisfaction? Adventurers arriving from afar, ignorant of local ways and feuds, could make ideal allies, or dupes, or blundering battering rams that could upset the status quo for everyone.
My “home” Realms campaign players, and most of the library campaign players (gamers are smart people!), very quickly saw how their characters could be manipulated, and made it their business to try to learn local feuds, lore, and “what was currently afoot” from many sources (people they could get drunk in taverns, sages, local in-place allies such as Harper “eyes” and priests of the same faith as PC clerics, and so on). And that, right there, forced me as a DM to be ready, not just with news and rumors, but with the truths behind them.
Making the Realms not just a thin veneer, but a thick, sink-your-feet-into carpet. So you have my players to thank for that.