This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
When Players Know Too Much
The topic for this installment of Save My Game is players who know the campaign setting better than the DM does. When you use a premade setting, especially a popular one backed by numerous products, some players may know it inside and out. What's a DM to do?
Problem: Know-It-All Players
I'm running a campaign using the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, but that's pretty much the only resource available to me. Unfortunately, my players read all the books and often know more about any specific location than I do. How, as a DM, do I maintain authority over my own campaign without invoking Rule Zero every time my PCs walk into any town on the map? -- Gnome Dragon Disciple, from the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website
Problems such as this one are common when you use a premade campaign world, especially one that has had so many gaming products, novels, computer games, and even comic books devoted to it. Keeping up with all the "official" goings-on in such a world can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Of these factors, time is perhaps the toughest one that most DMs face. After all, choosing to run your campaign in a premade world indicates that you have a certain degree of interest in it, and you may very well want to collect novels and game materials for it. But preparing to run a game takes a lot of time, and that means you have less time to read about the world or play in it yourself.
Your players, on the other hand, may have become interested in D&D largely because of those novels or computer games -- perhaps long before they ever picked up a set of dice. Thus, it's perfectly logical for them to want to maintain the sense of "realism" that the material from those other products provides.
The obvious solution is to create a campaign world of your own so that your players won't know what lies around the next corner. But world-building is a lot of work, and you may not have time to do it. Besides, the players who want to play in the premade world because of a personal interest in it may not want to play in your homebrew world. So let's take a look at your options when your players know more about your world than you do.
Solution 1: Problem? What Problem?
Maybe the problem you perceive is only a matter of perspective. Rather than being frustrated because your players know so much, be happy that they are interested in the setting and enthusiastic about playing there! Some players couldn't care less about the small, day-to-day details of a campaign world, but yours really enjoy that sort of in-depth immersion. That's not a problem; it's a bonus from a roleplaying point of view! So enjoy the fact that your players want to do more than just go to town and rest before heading back to the dungeon.
Solution 2: Use Your Players as Resources
Even if you perceive your players' interest in a positive light, you may feel pressured to make the world as realistic as they expect it to be. But doing so is not easy with limited resources, as many DMs have already discovered. So take the opportunity to involve your players in the creation of the campaign storyline. As DM, you're ultimately responsible for the design of your campaign world, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself. If your players have a tremendous fund of knowledge, tap into it! Instead of telling them what they find when they enter a given city, ask them where they want to go and whom they wish to see. Such open-ended questions give them the opportunity to tell you about the spots they've been longing to visit in Baldur's Gate, Waterdeep, or another city. Let them wax lyrical about the details of these places and people, and work as many of them as you can into the storyline. Then improvise on the theme to make sure a few surprises await the PCs.
Solution 3: How Much Do They Really Know?
Faerûn is a big place, and your players probably know only a few sections of the continent well. Once you have a good idea which areas they know inside and out, you have two choices.
The first option is to avoid those areas altogether. If your players know all about Cormyr and Myth Drannor, don't send the PCs there. Set your adventures in areas about which you know more than they do. This option puts you firmly in control, though your players may be disappointed if their characters can't ever experience the places they've read about or explored on the computer.
Alternatively, you can make a point of sending the PCs to places that the players know and love, using their knowledge as a resource. Have them write down some favorite places and characters from their reading and reasons why their characters might like to visit these people and places. Once you determine what's appealing to your players, you do some research on those specific places.
Solution 4: Educate Yourself
If you feel that you're shortchanging your players on fun by knowing less than you should about Faerûn, make an effort to learn. You can find a ton of small-scale detail about various parts of Faerûn in the Volo's Guides and other publications. Always check the current Forgotten Realms books first, but don't neglect additional resources (such as the original 1st and 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms products) that may be available as free (or cheap) downloads, or in used book websites and stores. You can also borrow your players' books or computer games to read up on the aspects of the campaign world that interest them most. Besides putting you on a more even footing with your players, a fuller knowledge of Faerûn can make DMing there a more enjoyable experience for you.
Solution 5: Do It Your Way
Solution 4 is all well and good if you have the time and resources to devote to an in-depth study. Ultimately, however, you have to remind your players that your campaign is not the book, novel, game supplement, computer game, or other product that represents the sum total of their knowledge of the world. Your campaign is your interpretation of Ed Greenwood's original idea and the work of many subsequent authors. To really enjoy your game, therefore, your players must let go of some of their preconceived notions about the world. Your campaign might take place at any point in Faerûn's history (or future) relative to the "official" timeline. Events may happen there that never have and never will occur in any published material, and some of the published events may never happen in your campaign. So don't be ashamed if your campaign is different from the vision of the publishers. Basic familiarity with the world is important for the sake of consistency, but don't feel that you must be a slave the official materials to run a real campaign in this world.
Player knowledge of a premade campaign world can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, players' interest in the setting and enthusiasm for playing there can add to your own enjoyment of the game. On the other hand, players who know more about the setting than you do can make your DMing experience frustrating with constant complaints about differences between your world and the published version. If your players know the setting well, take advantage of their expertise by asking where they want to explore and who they want to see. Glean details about their areas of particular interest and bone up on those sections of the world. Don't be afraid to take the PCs into sections of the world with which the players are unfamiliar, but try to cater to their interests at least some of the time. Finally, make it clear that your version of the world will deviate in some ways from the published version.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.