I remember playing a few sessions of Talislanta when I was much younger, and feeling confused and underwhelmed for most of it. I think this was largely because the Talislanta setting is so alien and rich with new ideas that unless one has done some kind of pre-development work of some kind it’s impossible to feel like you know the place. In Talislanta, there are 20 or 30 character classes, each essentially a different (often completely alien-seeming) race. All the animals are different to earth, the geography is different, and the history is a kind of magic-science mishmash. From memory it seemed like a great place to role-play but when one actually did join the game, it was confusing and felt remote and story-like, because there was nothing familiar to hook onto.
I was reminded of this, compared to the alternative of setting an adventure in a world known intimately to all the players, when I read recently one of the Dresden Files stories, in which Harry Dresden animates himself an undead T-Rex from a Chicago Museum. This event, pivotal in the story, came from out of the blue when I was reading it, and I was struck at the time by how this is exactly the sort of thing my players would do if they were adventuring in a modern city whose museums they themselves knew; and it is exactly the sort of thing they don’t do when playing, because they don’t know where the graveyards, museums, zoos, etc. are.
I think this is why a lot of groups settle for role-playing in elf- and dwarf-rich Lord of the Rings style campaigns. There are a lot of things they’re familiar with, and with that familiarity comes the ability to use the environment, the flaws of the enemy, etc. to ones’ own advantage. One can’t do that in fantasy worlds that are either very unusual (like Talislanta) or straight from the DMs own imagination. I have got around this in the past by setting campaigns in fantastic versions of our earth, so for example in the most recent Compromise and Conceit campaign, players quickly started to have their own ideas about what to do next based on their knowledge of the existing history and geography of the Earth. One, for example, suggested a spirit walk to investigate the history of a certain problem – he made this suggestion based on his own understanding of Native American myths. This is much harder to do if one doesn’t know the world.
I was struck when reading the Dresden Files by how rich in role-playing opportunities the world Jim Butcher has created is. Not only does it have magic and all the monsters we know and love, but it is in a setting completely familiar to all of us – like Buffy too, I suppose – so if one plays around in that kind of world, it will be easy for the players to think about where to go and what to do to solve problems. Even if, like me, your DMing style is very story-focussed, the setting is automatically a type of sandbox, and people can have a lot of fun disrupting the plot. The real challenge – and one I don’t think can be pulled off easily given modern players’ time constraints – is for a DM to make players feel that comfortable and familiar with a world of his or her own creation. This is difficult to do in anything except the longest campaigns, I think.
So for my next face-to-face campaign I may try this, playing in a world everyone is intimately familiar with – possibly even the town where we all live – and see where that takes us. Maybe a Cthulhu-style rural Japan could be fun…