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Troy’s Crock Pot: Putting 4E in its Place

What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.

D&D’s creators made a bold decision with the Fourth Edition: They scrubbed clean the setting lore that too often was an obstacle to new players learning the game. The complex cosmology, the maps of mythic places (Greyhawk and the Realms, and the like) and a strict alignment system tied to a list of imagined gods and goddesses were replaced by simplified, yet highly conceptualized, versions of what makes up the D&D world.

The D&D world is fantastic, ancient and mysterious; populated by monsters, some exceptional adventurers, of whom a few can cast magical spells, and a handful of gods that remain aloof from the world. 

But where and when is such a place?

DMs who love to homebrew their own campaign settings can take this game with a running start. It’s a blank slate begging to be filled in. The how and why of the Dragonborn, Tieflings and Eladrin are quite simply, just the starting point for those creative folk who love to spin this kind of material into a landscape of their own making.

But some folks like me yearn for just a little bit more structure. Component backgrounds like the Feywild, the Shadowfell and the Astral Sea are a good start. But the pieces that tie them together are missing.

And I admit, in approaching 4E, I feel bereft of the setting assumptions that have grounded me since I started roleplaying. 

Explain it to me

Back in the day, explaining D&D to someone required finding common ground, and that usually meant defining what fantastic fiction was. If the person hadn’t heard of the “Hobbit,” then maybe they had encountered Conan (at least the comic book version), and if not that, then you started with fairy tales and the knights in shining armor of King Arthur’s court, with Robin Hood and Merlin the magician thrown in. If  you were lucky, they’d read “The Once and Future King” or seen the musical “Camelot”– and like it.

And your first session played off the themes of a medieval Europe, with a touch of magic and monsters thrown in.  

Looking to history

But D&D’s designers no longer have to worry about explaining what fantasy is. If anything, the fantastic has become the staple of the motion picture industry. For more than a solid decade, TV and film have given us Buffy and Xena and Hercules and Bilbo and Gandalf and Blade and, gosh, who knows what else. Rules influences aside, “Everquest” and “World of Warcraft” and a host of other video and computer games have defined FANTASY for a new audience. It’s entirely possible to be immersed in the fantastic and never even encounter T.H. White.

I keep searching for historical or literary analogs in Fourth Edition, and that is clearly a misstep on my part. But history has always been my springboard to the world of fantasy gaming. It’s absence is making it tough to dive in. 

I would like to accept Fourth Edition for what it is, in the entirety of its presentation, but I’m having trouble finding a place to put my feet.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Putting 4E in its Place"

#1 Comment By Rafe On September 25, 2008 @ 6:49 am

Lack of a structured setting is actually hugely beneficial. It means you can set your 4e game anywhere with less hang-ups. The only issues (that I see) are the Shadowfell and the Feywild. However, call them something else. Most homebrew worlds have alternate planes so that shouldn’t be an issue.

#2 Comment By John Carr On September 25, 2008 @ 8:06 am

Whatever feelings I may have about the rules aside, this is one of the things that also gives me trouble with 4th ed. While I like to develop my own settings, I’ve always liked being able to run the occasional game in which the specific details of the game world were made up as we went along and the general tone was “generic D&D.” But I have a much harder time rolling with the extremely fantastical baseline of the new edition than I did with the quasi-Greyhawk of previous editions.

#3 Comment By cooperflood On September 25, 2008 @ 8:17 am

4e is just new rules or crunch. There is nothing keeping experienced groups from using the old 3.X cosmology, gods, and other bits of flavor. I mean we all own stacks of old d&d books we might as well use them for something.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On September 25, 2008 @ 8:21 am

I’m kind of conflicted about 4e’s setting lite system. The groundwork for saying “fantasy” and having the majority of people understand what you are talking about has been laid more strongly in the recent years, and this enables WOTC to do setting lite with 4e. However, it feels like a bit of a cop out to not include as many unique setting elements.

I know one of the prime entertainments for my gaming group is sitting around and reading eberron books, extolling the cool elements or asking the GM to include a newly discovered order of villains or dungeon in upcoming adventures. It makes you feel more like part of a world. As the GM, using a published setting makes me feel like I’m exploring along with the players and gives me an additional sense of fun.

However, as a GM you are also locked into what the published world has. When a new supplement comes out and a player gets hold of it, you are almost required to implement elements of it. You can, of course work it into the social contract and say that those elements aren’t present yet, but it is hard to dampen a players enthusiasm for buying a new or unique mount or hunting a new magical weapon that has cool thematic elements.

I can see the benefit of less setting as well. It lets the GM put his or her own vision into the world. However, I’ve found that players get engaged in homebrew worlds less easily. Listening to the GM extoll the virtue of their own Paladinic order is cool, but seeing the pictures of the Knights of the Rose or the Emerald Claw in a published book has a different sense of legitimacy. I’ve also noticed that homebrew GMs tend to stay close to the established fantasy standards, embellishing with their own personal flair. Competing against published material from the outside is different than trying to build upon it from the inside.

The beauty of any published material is that once it is in your hands, you can change and modify as you see fit for your own games.

#5 Comment By nblade On September 25, 2008 @ 9:27 am

I can’t comment on 4ed itself. (It’s really not my cup of tea). I’ve always however viewed DnD as setting agnostic. I guess I’ve just played DnD for too long. (Since AD&D at the age of 9). Actually many of the early game systems were setting agnostic to some degree.

Campaign settings generally ofter two things when published. It gives the publisher a place to put everything and it offers the people that use them a share experience of sorts.

Now to the question at hand, how do you ground yourself? That is a tough thing. There is no easy answer to that. It seems in your case, you just have to start trying to place things and see if they fit your sensibilities. There are many games I have not played because while the rules for the game may be sound, something about violated my sensibilities. I think what you experiences is just that. You like the rules for 4ed (again, for disclosure I don’t, but I say play what you like) but the limited setting information has somehow violated what you wanted or expected.

#6 Comment By LesInk On September 25, 2008 @ 10:19 am

Who needs a setting?

My history is I started playing D&D back in ’82 or so and I was hooked. It was my Warcrack of the time. But what did I play? Dungeon crawls. Pure and simple dungeon crawls. The modules were … dungeon crawls. Setting? Pratically non-existant.

When did setting become important? In truth, I don’t know. If I was going to take a bet, I’d say it was when computer games competed with D&D time and Living Greyhawk became popular. As the game switched from just hack and slash to social groups, we needed more than a bunch of grunt dice rolling.

To me, 4th edition harkens back to the origins of 2nd edition and the dungeon crawl. You don’t need good settings, just good encounters where you get XP and loot. With such drastic changes, they probably felt it was important to clean the slate and start over — with — well, practically nothing. The pieces of settings we are getting are more ‘monster ecology’ than anything else.

However, I suspect with Living Realms on the horizon, that will become the defacto standard for setting and in a couple of years, we’ll not be looking too much into the ol’ points of light setting.

I will say that I agree with the above comments that setting hasn’t really changed that much. You can still use it. I don’t really see why you can’t other than the ‘crunch’ is (immediately) missing. 4E just represents more work to bring those older settings up to date (rules wise).

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On September 25, 2008 @ 10:25 am

I think that you’re right when you mention that looking to history is the wrong place to put your feet for 4e grounding. I think the attempt to make 4e complete and self contained (in terms of mechanics and powers) encourages extrapolating from what’s presented, rather than going back to historical sources.

Real world historical ties have been set far back in terms of influence. Some advice in the 4e DMG is to add excitement and more fantastic experiences– there’s some attention paid to continuity, but none to historicity. Which makes sense– with all of those humanoid kingdoms, alien beasts, and isolated points of light– it’s not going to remind you of historical Germany or China.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 25, 2008 @ 10:37 am

I see two elements at work here. One is the “agnostic” setting that many modern games use. (And bless them; I hate to see great rules systems burdened by complex or awkward settings.) The other is the “modern” definition of fantasy that is trending away from the “classic” definition.

Although I grew up on AD&D, and am a Greyhawk grognard at heart, I like to keep my rules separated from the setting as much as possible. Yes, some commingling is inevitable and even desirable, but when something like alignment, the nature of divinity, or planar travel is so tied in to the rules that it’s difficult to excise, I don’t like it.

For this reason, I’m kind of a fan of 4E’s ‘setting lite’ approach. Don’t liek the Feywild or Shadowfell? Change them. There’s no reason an Eladrin has to step into the Feywild to teleport; he could be doing any number of other things. Want to change the nature of divinity? Easy.

On the other hand, the very definition of fantasy is changing. This is probably inevitable, as it takes a bit more to make something seem fantastic to a jaded audience, but I am not a fan of the trend. More is not better, and this is where I start to disconnect with 4E. Yes, we play to escape reality, but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to be cranked up “all the way to eleven” all the time.

#9 Comment By Swordgleam On September 25, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

I actually think 4e has too much setting. The setting details for dragonborn and tieflings irritate me, because I don’t understand why Wizards of the Coast is trying to tell me how a bunch of humans ended up with draconic and devilish features when there are so many possible good reasons out there, and the ones the designers chose aren’t even all that exciting (to me, anyway). Feywild and Shadowfell are interesting, but weaving them into powers annoys me.

All of that is fluff that can easily be removed, of course, but then I have to explain to players that, “No, you’re not the descendent of a long-lost empire,” and it’s irritating to have to pick out which parts of the book they should take as gospel and which they should ignore.

Maybe it’s because I got started DMing with tri-stat, which is a book of rules and nothing else. Maybe it’s because I’ve never once played in an “official” setting, nor one based on any published author’s fantasy world. But I personally don’t think ANY fluff should be part of a CORE book. Even in the monster manual; I think I can work out for myself which monsters in my world are likely to be found together and which aren’t. I understand including gods, for convenience, since divine classes come standard. But it seems to me that the rest could just as easily stay in setting guides, so people who want them can have them.

Of course, just saying that certain races are “core” and certain are “monsters” is an element of setting, but I’m fine with that. You have to draw the line somewhere, or all you’re providing is numbers on pages. But if elves and dwarves don’t have any specific origen, I don’t see why tieflings and dragonborn do.

#10 Comment By Sarlax On September 25, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

I have many of the same feelings about the changes of the game. For me, light rules = good, light setting = meh.

I don’t think there’s a need to explain fantasy anymore. If someone asks, “What’s D&D?” one need only say, “It’s like a game with a world like Lord of the Rings,” or, “It’s like WoW around a table.” There’s enough context in contemporary culture that the setting isn’t a barrier.

The idea of a game setting being the barrier seems unusual to me, since the core rules don’t have any setting to speak of, just the implied context of fantasy monster smashing.

So why kill the settings? Once you’ve picked up the core books, you have everything you need to play D&D and you’ve met the setting-light standard.

I feel that the published settings should have a lot of information. If you provide a lot of detail in settings, individual groups can cut back as much as they want. IE, you can lighten heavy details, but you can’t do the reverse.