How to Play With Someone Else’s Toys 2

The other day, I got to talking with a friend about game-running, particularly in a setting for which the game-runner is not the initial creator. This includes LARPs, tabletop games, and for that matter, content development in video games – something most folks will never need to care about, but I have considerable experience in this field, and many of the same ideas apply. To cover all of those cases, I’m not really talking about game-running, but about how to be a content creator in someone else’s domain.

There are basically two ways this can go, both of which have their pitfalls: the initial creator is aware of and involved in the latter’s ongoing creation, or not. The former case applies to comparatively small-scale game communities, such as LARP Plot committees, or to Content Departments in video game studios. The latter is a possible case in LARP committees and Content Departments, but it is nearly universal for published tabletop settings. Though I want to address both of these, I’m starting with the latter.

Playing with a Stranger’s Toys

I touched on some of this back when I wrote about the Forgotten Realms: published settings focus on detailed content with interesting connections, but don’t spend enough time on teaching people how to use that material in the constructive way that is intrinsically obvious to the initial creator(s). For any piece of content, there are four logical possibilities:

  • The creator had a particular idea in mind for what happens next, a secret to reveal about that thing, or some other way that the content relates to the rest of the world. The creator didn’t go into detail on what those were, either to leave things open for later users or… any of the other reasons people don’t write things, such as the finite nature of time and space. (Curse you, space-time continuum!)
  • The creator wasn’t particularly going anywhere with the idea. What is written is as far as the writer thought it out. One generally hopes this isn’t the case, because interconnection and thinking things through is a hallmark of good writing. On the other hand, the user can’t “break” anything, since there are no dependencies.
  • The creator solved for finite time and space by going into exhaustive detail about the secrets or meta-plot direction of the content, possibly by releasing a separate GM’s Guide to My Setting (such as this or this). This is both the best and worst solution. It’s the best because, if the writer(s) are good at their jobs, there’s rich, interwoven content with secrets, momentum, and interest. It’s the worst because all of that interconnection places the greatest possible burden on the GM’s memory to use all of it.
  • The creator accounted for multiple valid next steps or explanations behind mysteries, and listed several suggested solutions. This is not common; Eberron does this with its mysteries, and Dawning Star does this with its meta-plot, but I don’t think there are that many other extant examples. It shares the memory-load issues of some other ways of doing things, but it’s absolutely amazing for firing the GM’s imagination during session prep and supporting 

In all three cases, I’ve had a tough time picking up a setting book and creating new storylines or adventures with it. (If you’re one of those miserable bastards who finds this stuff easy, I hate you just a little bit. Now please write the rest of this blog post for me.) I find that my initial ideas consistently run toward introducing a completely new villain or organization, rather than using what’s already established in the setting. In a new campaign with a stranger’s setting, there’s nothing wrong with this, as such, except that if you were going to do that, you’re getting less of a benefit out of the setting you bought than you otherwise might. (It’s different in shared worlds, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

For example, in Forgotten Realms, I could add a new villain organization with the power and scope of the Zhentarim (pretty much the setting’s version of Nazis). If I leave the Zhentarim in and just add in more bad guys, the conceptual space gets a bit cramped, though I do think the setting could use the shakeup of bad guys having the upper hand for a bit. So… maybe a bad example, but the point is that the setting will be better off if I put forth extra effort to use what’s already there and establish a feeling of ownership in the setting. There’s something fundamentally juvenile in that initial desire to tack on something completely my own, rather than doing the harder but more rewarding work of figuring out what makes the pre-existing content tick, and then running with that.

Another example: In my Mage: the Awakening chronicle of a few years ago, I used the published Boston setting. While I did use the primary cosmic evil from the book, the Prince of 100,000 Leaves, I found it incredibly hard to get any compelling conflict out of the existing mages and cabals. If I’m honest with myself, the problem was that I wasn’t willing to have NPCs start murdering each other or presenting the PCs with really hard choices, because I couldn’t completely invest myself in the NPCs presented. The ally/villain (Facebook status: I Owe You a Debt, But Our Goals are Fundamentally Opposed) that they seemed to really care about was one of my own creation, though they didn’t know that until I told them. I think the reason they cared about him (both liking him and hating him, by turns) was that I invested more in bringing the character to life and making plotlines connect to him; with more effort I could have done the same with any of the setting’s characters.

The point I’m trying to make is that published content is useful and interesting, but doing anything more than scratching the surface has consistently been hard for me, and I might not be alone in this. Most of my campaigns are entirely my own creation, but there are still published settings that I adore (or have a more love-hate relationship with). For that matter, even after two whole chronicles I’m still not comfortable enough with M:tAw to spin up my own setting – modern occult fantasy being much more challenging content for me than medieval.

The bridge, I think, is to take the NPCs on the page and add one little tweak, in personality or goals, to break the ice on making them my own. When tackling an organization, drill down to the specific: this one Zhentarim officer carrying out this one narrow plan. Go ahead and figure out how that NPC connects to the Big Names in the setting book, though – that kind of thing can be really annoying to backfill, and all too often ends in a messy contradiction. You don’t need to figure out the whole of the Big Bad’s plot, but make sure that the junior officer’s goal would have factored into it if he had succeeded.

Another idea: run a freestanding adventure that doesn’t relate to the villain or organization, except that one of the rewards at the end of the adventure is a highly detailed infodump on the person or group in question. Why did the orc tribe have this? Good question, but one bloodstained uniform is enough explanation for most folks. The purpose of the infodump is firstly to get the players interested, because information is the beginning of leverage, and secondly to twist (my, your, pronouns adjusted to fit) arm into using the content. It’s the conceptual equivalent of shouldering past the exposition and moving on to the rising action. (Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll probably discover more graceful ways to accomplish the same thing.)

Playing with a Friend’s Toys

This is a lot messier when you have a personal connection to the initial content creator, whether that’s because you’re on a committee together, you work in the same content department, or you’re in one of those tabletop groups that uses round-robin GMing in a shared setting. On the other hand, assuming your group is not massively dysfunctional, the initial content creator wants you to have that feeling of ownership and comfort – that’s why you’re here! The bar for that ownership is higher, as a result, but there’s someone standing there trying to give you a leg up.

This one I’ve experienced from both sides – as the new staffer joining a Plot committee as the campaign shifts from its first arc to its second, and as the campaign director trying to help other staff members feel comfortable enough to write storylines. For the latter case, see Sharing Your Toys with Someone Else, below. I’ve also been the new hire trying to get enough of a handle on an MMO’s setting to write plotlines – this is essentially identical to being on a LARP committee, but with a paycheck on the line.

As above, my first impulse was to create a new villain or organization, so that I could do whatever I wanted. This is acceptable, if not the absolute best, in a tabletop game with a single GM, but it is definitely not when you’re writing for an ongoing setting. The reason I wanted to create something new, in thinking back, was laziness on my part (though I’m not accusing others of this) – to write a new story involving established groups, I needed to track down a detailed explanation of who they were and what they had done to date. Considering that some of the organizations in question were originally written by people on the first arc’s Campaign Committee that I had never met, this seemed insurmountable, and I looked for an easy way out.

Wildlands South was, however, had a Story and Module Guidelines document that put a very firm kibosh on my Easy Way Out. (To say nothing of an excellent Director, +Louis Puster.) I can’t say enough good about that document, and I’d like to explore some of its finer points in the future – but the salient point is that it spelled out all of the significant in-game locations and organizations that were available for use. To my knowledge, we didn’t update that part of the document from Everhold to the Carrion Scar, but the lesson still took root.

The reason you must not introduce new organizations and major villains is that continuity is everything when content is created by committee. You absolutely cannot have one staff member – especially a staff member looking for an easy way out – go off in a corner and make up something unconnected to the rest of the setting. Games with small numbers of players and a single game-runner, such as tabletop games, can get away with this; the solo game-runner (or one with a co-GM) can generally keep continuity straight and avoid tripping over one another. This is a luxury not afforded to content departments or campaign committees.

The advice for how to bridge that gap and develop the necessary sense of ownership is to collaborate closely with another committee member who can help you through any continuity issues that you need. Alternately, write up an adventure or storyline idea with the serial numbers of villain and organization filed off, and then discuss which villain or groups it best fits. Once you’ve implemented one adventure or storyline with a villain (even better if the villain survives!) or organization, you’re in a much better position to figure out What Happens Next. There are almost always unresolved threads or consequences. For your next trick, see if you can get the villain or organization of your first story to collide with another villain or organization, with collateral damage that splashes all over the PCs, because that gives you a good reason to read up on both villain groups and get comfortable with the new status quo that you’re helping to establish. (Also, incidentally, monolithic evil is boring and the villains should have even more strife than the PCs inevitably do.)

Sharing Your Toys with Someone Else

As the Creative Director, or any other senior content-creation position, you need to be ready and able to assist other staff members in getting up to speed and comfortable with your storylines and groups. Ideally, you’ll get them comfortable enough with the tone and style you have already imparted to that group that the collaboration looks seamless to the PCs.

The hard truth is that I’m more of an authority on how hard this can be than I am on how to do it well. (I say this as a sidelong apology to anyone who has worked with me.) As the initial creator, it’s hard to let go of control and watch the storyline develop in a way other than what I consciously or subconsciously had in mind. This is even true if you focus heavily on emergent story, as I do – you still want to see those divergences come from player choice rather than implementation. It’s overwhelming to rehash all of the continuity that hooks into a plot element and make it second-nature to another person as it is to me. It’s also vital: setting aside questions of pure workload, the whole reason this person is on staff for this game is that I value his or her creative input. If I’ve put up barriers to that input (hell, if I am the barrier to that input), I am doing everyone in the room a disservice.

So how can I make this easier? Well, if I had piles of spare time, I could type up a Guide for the Perplexed for each major plot element. This is a really good idea! Except for the “piles of spare time” part, which means it will always be lower-priority than something. I could probably prioritize one plot element getting the full rundown, if I had a specific request on the table.

The good news for Content Departments is that there’s a paycheck on the line, and a department head is completely within rights to simply say, “Okay, go read this and come back with some ideas. That’s your task for the day.” That’s a sledgehammer solution, but Content Departments also have more ability to iterate their implementation than LARP committees do, if the result doesn’t match what the stakeholder hopes to see.

It’s tough to give good feedback on someone else’s efforts, too. As a director, you want to sustain continuity and tone without discouraging someone who has put a lot of effort into… whatever it is. If it’s not working, even the gentlest and most well-intentioned feedback can be hurtful. It’s for situations like this that I learned (again, from Louis) the excellent phrase “What is it that you particularly like about this idea?” That is, what part of this is the beating heart of the idea that needs to be preserved for you to be happy? (Also, implicitly: what parts of the idea did you bolt on without fully understanding that they might not work?)


When trying to break through your own barriers of unfamiliarity to establish a sense of ownership, it’s okay to start small and build up from there. As a game-runner or content developer, you are experiencing the same process of exposition and growing engagement that the audience will be undertaking, or already have if you’re joining a presentation already in progress. There are going to be missteps; if you have the opportunity, iterate on them or resolve them through later reveals.

Players will be happy with stories that start out as small-scale or meat-and-potatoes action – honestly, there can never be enough of this kind of content. Keep track of your loose ends, and build more of them in where possible. Even when the villain dies, there might still be interesting stories to tell about how her background led her into conflict with the PCs – a journal fragment with a new name to follow up on can go a long way.

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2 thoughts on “How to Play With Someone Else’s Toys

  • Scott

    Are you ever going to explore or release that Wildlands Story and Module Guidelines document? I run a larp (and played Wildlands North Harkenwood many years ago) and would love to get my hands on that indeed 🙂

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Wow, there’s a post I haven’t thought about in years.

      I’ve always meant to do that – let me see if I can dig it back up, and check with Trace to make sure she’s okay with that.

      Especially in this plague year of no LARPing, I’d love to hear about the game you’re running! Drop a link?