Using an Open-World Video Game as a Campaign Setting

Dwarven Hunter Overlooking Ironforge with his Bear. Original World of Warcraft Trailer.
A screenshot of a Dwarven Hunter overlooking Ironforge from the original World of Warcraft trailer

I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for awhile now. It’s stupidly simple, but it’s one that I want to share, and get some feedback on. Often when I don’t have any strong ideas about what I’d like to write, I think I’ll just write about this. But I can never quite figure out how I want to express the idea, and so I just come up with something else instead. That’s been going on for almost a year, and it’s about time I got this down on digital paper, so it can stop rattling around in my brain. Forgive me if this isn’t my most elegant or interesting post. More than anything, it just needs to be out of my brain.

As you no doubt have gleaned from my frequent mentions of it, I used to play World of Warcraft. When I type ‘/played’ on my main character, the accumulated time I’ve spent in that game comes to about half of a year of my life. I loved, and still do love that game. I noticed yesterday when I was spending time with a friend that despite the fact that neither of us have played the game seriously in years, we still start arguing about patch notes and design philosophies for WoW anytime we spend more than a few hours together. And every few months, I spend a few weeks listening to the game’s numerous soundtracks, reliving the emotional highs and lows.

For a long while, I’ve wondered if I could run a game in the world of Azeroth, relying on my memory alone to recreate the setting as a persistent world. There’s no reason this idea needs to be limited to Azeroth, mind you. The worlds of the Elder Scrolls games would work as well, as would perhaps another world like those featured in the Fable or Fallout games. I think the only real criterion would be that the world needs to be large enough and have enough going on in it that you could drop a party of adventurers into it and let them run wild without needing to add additional content. For example, the world of Hyrule from the Zelda series wouldn’t work, because it’s extremely small, and there’s really only one thing that ever needs to be done in that world: defeat the arch-villain.

Open world video games seem to be unique in this possible application. With a movie or a book, you may get a very good sense of what the setting is. With a particularly long series of books, you could even start to develop a complete picture of how a world worked and what it looked like. But if you wanted to turn it into a campaign setting, there would still be a lot of work to do. A traditional story is told with a focus on the various characters. The narrative is about them, and their problems, rather than what is going on in the world itself. Whereas an open-world video game attempts to create an entire setting which functions without characters, but is none the less geared towards a player’s involvement. For example, in a book you might read about the far-off threat of an encroaching empire, but if that empire is not central to the plot beyond explaining food shortages, you’ll never learn anything more about it. Whereas in an open world game, there’s almost never any place or group of people which you can’t eventually interact with.

Having spent so much time in World of Warcraft, I have a mental map of thousands of acres of landscape. I know the names of towns and important NPCs. I know that Fargodeep mine has been infested by Kobolds. I know that the town of Lakeshire is trying to fend of Gnoll bandits in the hills, and Orc invaders from Blackrock mountain. I know that Ogres have established a stronghold in the high elven ruins of Dire Maul, and I know that the Grimtotem tribe hold many of the plateaus in 1000 Needles. I have an entire world nearly memorized inside of my head*, and at present I’m not doing anything with that knowledge. So why couldn’t I run Azeroth as a campaign setting?

The best part about the idea is that it would fulfill a long time fantasy of mine. Any time I fall in love with a world, I never really want to leave it. I want to stay there and continue having adventures. Many of my early projects when I first tried working on tabletop games were clumsy attempts to find a way to return to a fictional setting that I didn’t want to leave. The LOZAS system which I’ve been working on is an (I hope) more sophisticated attempt to do the same thing.

Returning to those fictional world in tabletop a  game has another marvelous benefit as well. The players can change it in any way they want. WoW is understandably static in many ways–the quest needs to be there for the next character to complete. But in a tabletop game, you can see the world grow and evolve based on player input in a way which isn’t possible when you’re sharing that world with 11 million other people. You can solve problems in more interesting ways as well, using your wits to develop new tactics which simply woulnd’t possible in a video game. Perhaps in the tabletop version, players could recruit the noble red dragonflight to render aide in the battle against Nalfarion. Or maybe A noble Orc could lead a successful charge against Stormwind, capturing the city and reducing the belligerent humans to a species of refugees, begging for scraps from their allies.

That would really be the extent of the idea. As GM, I would ask the players to choose their races and their starting city, and I’d start them off as level 1 characters in Vanilla WoW at the start of the game’s story. Through their play they might develop the story along a similar path, or they might change everything completely. Though certain events, such as the opening of the dark portal or the scourge invasion would probably be far outside of the player’s control. Doubtless a few details would change based on the holes in my memory, but it shouldn’t be difficult to improvise based on what I do remember.

I know a lot of tabletop players have some inexplicable animosity towards WoW, but what do you think of this idea? Would you be willing to play in a game world like this one?

*Except for Stonetalon Mountains. Don’t ask me why. I’ve got several loremaster achievements, but in all of my years playing, I never once spent more than a few minutes in Stonetalon Mountains. Maybe the fucking drop rate on Basilisk Brains the first time I went there left a bad taste in my mouth. (I don’t care what anybody else says, that drop rate was below 5%).

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5 thoughts on “Using an Open-World Video Game as a Campaign Setting”

  1. I like the idea of it, and I’ve never played WoW so haven’t really any kind of animosity towards it. I can tell you that it hasn’t killed the hobby, in spite of what a lot of people seem to think.

    You should totally give this a shot. I’m having great fun at the moment taking a comic book setting and turning it into an RPG world. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=206

  2. Was thinking of using Azeroth as my setting for pathfinder when I found this link. I have lots of great ideas for this and your thoughts on the subject have pretty much made up my mind to do it.
    I work 2 jobs and have little time, this would help me with established areas, npcs, history and such.

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