It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?
The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”
First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.
I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.
But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?
What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.
This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.
To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.