1. Advanced Magic or Tech
If you’ve ever tried to run a campaign in the Star Trek or Harry Potter universes, you know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s magic or technology, the more advanced it is, the greater the potential for abuse. This can be a problem in prose stories too, but it’s so much worse with roleplaying games.
You see, PCs are rational actors, usually looking to solve their problems by the most efficient means possible. So if there’s a way to make better use of magic or tech, you can be damned sure they’ll find it. In Star Trek, this can manifest as the PCs inventing self-replicating torpedoes or using ultra-accurate sensors to target and destroy their enemies with orbital phaser strikes. In Harry Potter, the PCs will spend all their time brewing liquid luck potions.
Even settings made specifically for roleplaying aren’t immune. Mage* is infamous for giving PCs access to such a dazzling array of abilities that it’s difficult for the GM to challenge them. With some time to prepare, even a mid-level mage can craft horrors to shatter any campaign, like remotely accessing the villain’s mind and dumping them into a terrifying monster dream dimension. In the past.
How to Handle it
If you’re planning to run a setting with advanced magic or tech, the first step is to do a lot of reading to find as many game-breaking elements as possible. This will be a lot easier if you’re already familiar with the setting in question, so consider putting your Harry Potter campaign on hold until you’ve read all seven books.
If you’re very lucky, the setting will already have rules constraining its magic or tech. Avatar and Battlestar Galactica are good examples. While their speculative-fiction elements are wondrous and plentiful, it’s well established what they can and can’t do.
For most other settings, any game-breaking elements should either be removed from the setting, reduced in power, or given a very steep cost until it’s something that PCs will only want to use in desperate circumstances. Star Trek’s replicators could be changed into advanced 3D printers. They can fabricate a wide variety of tools and materials, but they must be provided with the resources to do so. They’re no longer a bottomless bucket of torpedoes. Harry Potter’s liquid luck might be changed so it requires a reagent so rare that getting it requires an epic quest. If your PCs want some, they’ll have to earn it.
2. Effective Authority Figures
In the vast majority of roleplaying campaigns, the PCs solve problems. There might be a dragon rampaging across the land or a famine sweeping the colony of Omicron Persei 8. Whatever the problem’s specific nature, the PCs must go on some kind of adventure to solve it.
But if a setting has effective authority figures, there’s nothing for the PCs to do. In an ideal society, dragons would be stopped by the military, or the parks service would make sure there was enough wilderness to keep the beast from conflicting with humans. A competent government would do everything in its power to keep famines from arising at all and swiftly send in food shipments if disaster struck anyway.
Any time there’s a problem in a well-run society, you’ll have to explain why the proper authorities aren’t dealing with it. If the PCs are the proper authorities, you’ll have to explain why they can’t call in backup when things get tough. You might be able to tap dance around this problem for a while, but the moment players get frustrated, they’ll go straight to the nearest police officer.
This problem can pop up anywhere, but I’ve found it to be most common in homebrew settings, where the GM really wants to showcase how cool their city/country/space empire is. I’ve been guilty of it myself, because who doesn’t want to imagine a world where the government clearly works for our best interests?
How to Handle It
The easiest solution to this problem is to set your campaign on the outskirts of civilization. Sure, the Republic might be a powerful force for good in the central provinces, but out in the boonies things are a lot rougher. Alternatively, if you’re set on running your campaign in the heart of effective authority, you can hit your civilization with a calamity beyond what anyone was prepared for. Your philosopher queen may have ruled wisely for decades, but she could never had been ready for the hell portals that spilled demons into every city of the realm.
A more difficult option is to put your players into opposition with your effective authority. If the authorities are even moderately just, this campaign will get dark fast, as rebellions and insurgencies in real life do. Even if the authority is obviously evil, fighting to upend society will have dark implications indeed for your merry band of rebels.
3. Time Travel
Okay, technically time travel falls under the umbrella of advanced tech or magic, but it’s so game breaking it deserves its own section. Even in prose stories, time travel is incredibly difficult to get right. Authors need to line everything up perfectly to avoid paradoxes,* and very often they don’t succeed.
This is immeasurably more difficult with PCs. For example, let’s say you have a story where a PC sees a future vision of themself locked in a sword fight with the king. The PC and his majesty are mortal enemies, so this seems reasonable. But when the moment for the duel arrives, the PC decides a pistol would be more advantageous. Or that they’d rather kill the king in his sleep. Or that they’re skipping town to attend a ball. Now you’re only options to avoid a paradox are to plead with the player to go along with things or teleport the PC where they need to be by GM fiat. Neither option is satisfactory.
Beyond the difficulty of keeping your timelines straight, the potential for abuse is enormous. Even if you impose strict limits on what can be changed, time travel is an incredibly powerful tool. Just being able to look back in time can solve most mystery plots, because the murderer’s identity is easy to guess when you can wind the clock back and check.
If your PCs ever gain the ability to actually travel in time, the results for your game will likely be catastrophic. If they can go back and change events, trying to determine all the rippling changes will tax your mental resources to the breaking point. If they start skipping back on a regular basis, you’ll need a supercomputer to keep track of the timeline.
How to Handle It
In roleplaying games, time travel works much better as a set piece than a tool. That is, time travel can exist in the setting, but it should be out of the PCs’ control. If your campaign takes place in a far future space station, they might have a temporal gate that sends travelers to a set point in the distant past. Alternatively, you might run in the Doctor Who universe and have a sentient Tardis fly the PCs to different time periods on some mysterious quest.
If the PCs must have control of timey-wimey powers, strictly limit them to temporal viewing and perhaps skipping back a few seconds. That’s enough to dodge a bullet, but not enough to change the results of last week’s session. Any jumps longer than that should represent the climax of a major story arc.
4. Complex Social Rules
We storytellers, GMs or otherwise, like to build our worlds as realistically as possible. Since realistic cultures are very complex, it’s natural that we would make our fictional cultures complex as well. The fictional nation of Plotopia doesn’t feel real until it has at least five distinct forms of coffee-drinking etiquette.
The problem is that learning social rules is difficult and frustrating. Many of us don’t ever notice this because we’ve grown up with our native social rules all around us; they just seem like the default. But when we consider fictional worlds with rules different than our own, the difficulties become apparent.
If you’ve ever visited another country, you know what I mean. Even if you can speak the language, everything is done differently, and it’s easy to get lost. Table manners that made you the talk of the town at home come across as rude. Your culture might have trained you to be too modest when people pay you a compliment, or not modest enough. This new land might have a strange tradition where customers are expected to pay a worker’s wages instead of the employer.*
When a setting’s social rules are too complex, every session is like visiting a foreign country, except your PCs don’t get the benefit of the doubt usually given to tourists.* This can get incredibly frustrating, as your players just want to get started with their quest, and aren’t interested in remembering all five of President Mentorman’s secret handshakes. The problem is even worse if your campaign is socially focused. Then your players will need to take etiquette lessons every time they want to engage with the plot.
How to Handle It
If your players are new to the setting, one solution is to start them off in a small village and let them ease into things. As a rule, social rules are less complex in less developed areas. Rich nobility have a lot more time to create rules of etiquette than subsistence farmers do. Playing a small town militia will let your group learn the basics at their own speed. Once they have a decent grounding, you can transfer them to the capital.
Another option is for your PCs to be foreigners in a strange land, at which point their lack of knowledge about social rules can make the roleplaying more immersive. While this approach has great potential for drama and comedy, it must be used cautiously as it’s easy for your party to come off like privileged white folk telling people of color how they should do things in their own country.
Any setting can have humor in it, but some are clearly built around making jokes and cracking wise. These include such venerable genre entries as Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide, classics that we would be worse off without. But as much as we love these chuckle-inducing settings, they don’t make for easy roleplaying.
How’s that, you ask? After all, everyone likes a good joke. That’s true, but the problem is that most roleplaying games already pull toward comedy, without any extra help from the setting. We’ve all had sessions when it was a struggle to keep the group focused on the boss because one player had a seemingly endless supply of dragon puns to impart.*
Most of the time, humorous table talk is harmless and keeps people from getting bored. But it only works because the game itself acts as a sort of “straight man.” Without a serious narrative to contrast with, jokes get stale fast. If the setting is designed to be humorous in it’s own right, then the two sources of comedy will collide and nullify, leading to a dull night indeed.
At the same time, most roleplaying systems are not set up to accommodate the needs of a humorous setting. In Discworld, almost every major problem is resolved in some unusual or subversive way. Commander Vimes never solves a problem by beheading the villain. He concocts a bizarre plan involving several fireworks, a river, and some sticks. If your players are fans of a comedic setting, they’ll be disappointed when the mechanics give them only the traditional, stabby methods of solving problems.
How to Handle It
If you’re determined to use a humorous setting, one shots are much easier than full campaigns. In a one shot, you don’t have to worry about the jokes getting old, or the consequences of playing out extremely zany plans. Nor is long term consistency a problem. You can make whatever jokes come to mind, without concerns about what implications they’ll have down the road.
Using an abstract system also helps. With a system like Fate or Primetime Adventures, you’re free to let your players concoct humorous solutions to problems, rather than being bound by initiative and attack rolls. Alternatively, you can use a system like 3.5 D&D and play its bizarre physics interactions literally. A game where high-level PCs can fall hundreds of feet without injury while commoners are murdered by cats will be a hilarious one indeed.
6. NPC Overpopulation
Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Benjamin Sisko. What do these characters have in common? They’re all badass characters who would completely steal the PCs’ thunder. When a setting has lots of these established NPCs running around, it gets harder and harder to find anything for your party to do.
This problem escalates whenever the conflict in your story escalates. You can explain why General Organa isn’t interested in a Tatooine smuggling ring, but once you raise the stakes to include an invasion of Kashyyyk, it’ll be difficult to explain why she doesn’t come riding to the rescue with a fleet at her back.
In addition to stealing the PCs’ thunder, established NPCs present a performance problem. If the NPC is well known to the players, through screen or page, playing them will be extremely difficult. No matter how good you are at saying “make it so,” it’s unlikely that your refrain will match Sir Patrick Stewart’s. This creates an awkward disconnect at the table, because well-loved characters have appeared in your game but aren’t acting correctly.
The more established NPCs your setting has, the harder it is to avoid this problem. The difficulties also get worse in settings with high speeds of information and travel. Superhero settings are the absolute worst, because they are usually full to bursting with established characters, and most of those characters can react to problems anywhere in the world. The Justice League literally has a space station full of teleportation platforms, so Superman can show up to ruin your story without even needing to fly there.
How to Handle It
If possible, set your game in a time period before the established NPCs existed. This is easier to do in some settings than others. The Star Wars universe is essentially empty of characters for thousands of years, while everything else will be nearly identical to what players expect from the films. Seriously, technology and social strata remain unchanged for millennia.
For more dynamic settings, that solution won’t work. Running your Star Trek game in 2180 would avoid meeting Picard, but it would also be completely different than the experience your players were expecting.* Instead, you can run your game in an isolated corner of the setting where established NPCs are unlikely to venture. Picard and company spend most their time exploring the final frontier, so a quiet base on the Gorn border is the perfect place to avoid them.
When planning for your next campaign, it’s vital to consider how the setting will impact play. None of these elements make it impossible to run your game, but they present serious difficulties that you must prepare for. If you’re not sure you’re ready to for such a challenge, there’s no shame in choosing an easier setting.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)