A Colourful Background

Playing an RPG with an established setting is quite common, but how much background is too much?

I recently started running Legend of 5 Rings 4th edition, and I found myself completely overwhelmed by the raw amount of history that is available in the setting. This is not a setting I had ever been in contact with before, having never played the RPG before and never touched the CCG. There was so much history that it was just too much. I had to stop reading and just disregard huge chunks of the martial.

It was going to be hard enough just getting used to running (or playing) in this world, where the social rules are so different from the normal western fantasy world, without trying to keep in mind that the current Emperor is involved with a deadly blood feud, with the man that killed his grandfather because of a skirmish 500 years ago against a clan the had betrayed their brothers and sided with with an enemy clan who are now allies against the rising darkness that seduced the last emperor and started an rebellion that has now retreated across the plains to enlist the aid of the blah blah blah blah.

I like background, and really prefer to play in established settings, but I think it’s the feel of the setting that is important, not the individual documented events.
It reminded me of the first time I tried to play a D&D campaign in The Forgotten Realms. Everybody was talking aboutĀ Elminster and Drizzt and Waterdeep and The Time of Troubles like I was supposed to know who and what they were. At the time, playing Baldurs Gate was the limit of my FR exposure so I knew a little of what they were talking about, but soon every place we went had centuries of history that we were supposed to know.

And that’s just being a player. How is a new GM supposed to be able to effectively run this game if there is the prerequisite of reading 40 novels? In L5R is was not so bad for me, since my player did not have any experience with the setting either. But if I had been running for anybody else with some familiarity with the world, there would have been constant corrections of “No! He can’t do that because that family is sworn to protect the…… etc.”. How is a GM supposed to create a a story when the world is already so full of story that you can’t make your own without stepping on someones toes? How are you supposed to run a compelling game for somebody that knows ten times more about the setting that you do?

Flavour in background is good. But to much established story stifles a GM’s creativity. So if you are one of those players that knows more about a setting that your GM does, please heed this advice:

Don’t be a dick. They are running a game for you, so cut them some slack. Don’t nitpick and don’t metagame every situation you find yourself in.

Never Stop Gaming.