Thursday, April 30, 2009

Points of Light

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is, by default, embedded in a campaign setting known as "Points of Light".

Points of Light is a significant departure from previous campaign worlds. It does not offer a fully-realised geopolitical landscape in the style of Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms. In instead offers an unmapped wilderness into which individual adventure locations can be freely inserted.

There's several reasons for the change. One is that larger published campaign worlds come with baggage. In a setting like Dragonlance or the Realms, it's easy for player characters to be overshadowed by high level NPCs and have their stories pale beneath sweeping global events and epic international conflicts. Players can come to the table with unhelpful pre-conceptions based on earlier experiences with the world. DMs can feel pressured to absorb fantastic amounts of information in order to present a canonical "real" version of the setting to their players.

More importantly, though, the change highlights the core assumptions underlying D&D. The D&D universe is one where civilisation is scattered and fragile. Small "Points of Light" are divided by miles of wilderness teeming with lawlessness and horror. It's a world in which armies and constabularies are either absent entirely or deeply unable to clear back the darkness.

Points of Light is a world that needs heroes. It has problems that can only be solved with swords and spells, and those problems are so numerous that a nation of heroes could strive for a hundred lifetimes without stamping out the last of the evil. The gods are not active, the kings are not brave, and such elder wizards as exist are provincial and un-charitable. There are no higher forces making the players redundant - their characters are literally the last line of defence.

You can see the problem of canonical settings in Marvel or DC comics. Before any new hero can get a shot at defeating Dr Doom's evil plans, the writer first has to establish that the Avengers are off-world, the X-Men are busy, and S.H.I.E.L.D. have their hands full. Before an up-and-comer can go toe-to-toe with Darkseid, we need to know why the Justice League, Justice Society, Green Lantern Corps, Teen Titans, Outsiders, Doom Patrol and, in a pinch, Batman, have not already dealt with the problem. It's no fun feeling like the night-shift janitor who only gets called in when all the competent people want the day off.

Points of Light is modular. If you have five adventures describing aspects of the setting, you can use three and ignore two without leaving suspicious blank spots on the world map. There's no global cartography and the relationship of one location to another need never be better defined than "to the north and east". Moreover, if you pick up a Forgotten Realms product and like the sound of Shadowdale, you can insert it wholesale into Points of Light without worrying about its larger context.

This will all sound familiar to the experienced player. It's the way many of us have built up D&D campaign worlds since the earliest editions. Points of Light gives official sanction to this kind of simple patchwork design, and directly offers it as a design model to the beginning DMs who will get the most use out of it.

The theme of Points of Light is something that Thunderspire Labyrinth takes to heart. Thunderspire's quest hub is the Seven-Pillared Hall, a small community of traders presided over by the mysterious Mages of Saruun. The Hall lies within the underground ruins of the long-abandoned minotaur city of Saruun Khel, better known today as the Thunderspire Labyrinth. While the Hall may be a safe haven, the remainder of the Labyrinth is haunted by lawless humanoids and horrific below-ground predators.

The Hall itself plays home not only to humans, halflings, and the usual array of civilised races, but also to drow and duergar, emissaries of the malevolent Underdark races sent to the hall on semi-peaceful missions of trade. The Seven-Pillared Hall is a genuine frontier town, eking out a profitable existence in a place where an organised community should not be viable.


Points of Light may be well-designed for encouraging beginning players, but it's far less useful for selling a series of novels, something that has traditionally been a profitable sideline for Wizards of the Coast. This approach is reflected in the D&D product line as well, with a much greater emphasis on core rulebooks and far fewer setting-specific products. What has changed in WoTC's market position to prompt this shift away from setting-based merchandising?


Maelora said...

Hmpf. You know what I think of 'Points of Light'. I can see your reasoning, but I think it's a dull, hollow setting that exists mostly to provide huge tracts of wilderness with innumerable dungeons, so the PCs can spend 99% of their lives in combat. The PCs in 4E feel completely disconnected from any aspect of their campaign world. And we've seen what happens when WotC try to hammer this 'square peg' into the 'round hole' of an established world like the Realms. The results aren't pretty.

I do take your point that established worlds like the Realms have munchkinised, cash-cow characters like Drizzt and Elminster that overshadow most PCs. But PoL is the opposite extreme, and for me, it's no better alternative.

Maelora said...

Interesting also you raised the question about novels. Sometimes, I agree, you can get too much information... We loved the Dragonlance setting when the modules first came out, but disliked the treatment given to the characters and world in the books. We preferred to make these characters our own, and develop them the way we saw fit. It was annoying to see the novels take on a 'canon' status in this regard, as events played out differently to how we did things.

On the other hand, the detail of the Dragonlance world was what inspired us in the first place, and DL5 in particular changed our entire outlook on what D&D could - and should - be about. A vague, bland 'PoL' setting would never have inspired us to embrace storytelling the way we did.

And I'm baffled as to how you could even write novels set in 4E. Stories without plot and without characters; endless descriptions of nearly identical combats? Nobody would want to read that. Which is why I can barely want to play it.

Greg Tannahill said...

I imagine a 4th Edition novel would look a lot like the Magic the Gathering novels; each a potentially good or potentially awful story but with no strong setting or continuity to tie them to each other.

There's nothing to stop someone writing good D&D novels with a "Points of Light" setting, it's just that the setting is adding nothing to the novel, either in terms of novel content or attracting consumers.

TSR/Wizards have a long history of profitably selling rubbish by wrapping it in the label of one of their settings. (In amongst a fair number of genuinely excellent books.) That's just not something they can do with Points of Light.

You could also consider Points of Light a step towards stronger player-made content. The more flexible world means it's easier to take the creations of other players and dump them into your world, and by extension that gives players a greater incentive to make and share adventures and settings. I think it's a fairly clumsy way of approaching player-driven content but if it improves the adventure-creation skills of the community at large it'll be worthwhile.

Maelora said...

I suppose that's a vaid point. Most people prefer 'generic' adventures that can be slotted into their homebrew, rather than ones that rely heavily on a setting. 'Dungeon' magazine has had surveys on this after all. I still find the 4E version of it bland and uninspiring, though.

Perhaps the real question here is how much will the established campaign worlds be neutered to cram this into their settings? For example, there are no orcs or drow in Dragonlance, no gnomes in DarkSun. Will these now be canon? Will they be forced to have warforged, tieflings and dragonborn, even in a setting in which they don't make sense? What is even the point of having a campaign world if it includes everything the other settings have? I think 4E Forgotten Realms set a nasty precident and it's interesting to see what WotC will do with the other ones.

Kelly said...

PoL is one of the aspects I love about 4E. I don't want my world fleshed out, for a number of reasons.

In a game world of strong kingdoms, structure and order, you typically have 'points of darkness'. Remote locations where people 'go in but never come out' - except for our heroes who mop the place up. These kingdoms wouldn't put up with too much trouble coming from these dark places, although a certain level of adventurer traffic would be a boost to the economy.

Secondly, I don't want my world entirely mapped and spelled out for me, PoL basically "isn't" a campaign world at all, and that suits me fine.

Lastly, I don't play with the frequency I did in high school and college, my group isn't saving the world and staking claim to territories like 'back in the day'. It's more about the moment, which seems to be the direction of PoL anyway.

If DMs want to build a detailed world, they can, if they have the time. If not, there is FR and Eberron, as well.

Vaurien said...

I was reading up on the demise of TSR recently, and found a fascinating article at GameSpy in which Bill Slavicsek suggests that a major component of their undoing was actually competition between the numerous settings they put out. Right away, I saw this as a likely rationale behind the generic PoL setting of 4e. Will there be a 'Monsters of Faerun' this time around, or will anything from the multitudes of Monster Manuals be fair game for any setting? I myself have never been a big fan of published settings (except for the really weird ones like Ravenloft and Dark Sun) but I agree that the major canonical rewrites taking place in FR and, on the horizon, Eberron, are rather dismaying. It seems to indicate a major milestone in the continued shift in focus from storytelling to marketing. On the other hand, by itself, the lack of detail and accessible nature of PoL has advantages, both to players new to the hobby and veterans who, as Kelly points out, just don't have time for all the minutiae.

Greg Tannahill said...

The plan is for each setting to get two source books and an adventure, and that's it. Supposedly there'll be "ongoing support in Dragon and Dungeon Magazines" but that's yet to materialise. So yes, pretty heavily neutered.

If the Draconomicon is any indication, Wizards are doing a bunch of core books that cover key concepts generically, and then maybe have sidebars talking about specifics for individual campaign worlds.

I'm not much of a fan of the Realms or Eberron but I'm vaguely interested in Dark Sun (rumoured to be next year's setting) and I've said many times I'd pay good money for them to reset Dragonlance back to the War of the Lance and give us a setting book plus 4E versions of the original modules.

Maelora said...

I used to love Dragonlance (before they removed everything that made the setting unique) but I honestly cannot see how you could do it with 4E's limitations. Many of the adventures simply couldn't fit into the game's strict format of combat and skill challenges (I'm thinking the exodus in DL3 and the High Clerist Tower battle off the top of my head). It would take a HUGE shift in design philosophy from WotC to do any justice to Dragonlance.

Plus, I'm really certain I don't want to see 4E's baggage (dragonborn, tieflings, Feywild etc) in a Krynn setting.

And finally, part of the charm of the prerolled characters was that they had statistics that were not always 'optimal'. You had fighters with high charisma or wisdom, for instance. I would hate to see the Heroes of the Lance reduced to the '18, 14, 10, 10, 10, 8' stats that are now hardwired into 4E.

Likewise, Dark Sun would need a complete paradigm shift to be useable in 4E. Player deprivation, a killer environment, tough moral choices? My fear is that the 4E version will be a 'reskinned' Keep on the Shadowfell. You'll just be killing psionic bugs in the desert rather than kobolds in a ruin.

I really think 4E should play to its strengths, not impose them on previous settings that do not fit the system.

By The Sword said...

I for one and quite happy with the 'Points of Light" idea because it allows me to take one of their adventures and plop it down into my own campaign world. You could for example use Keep on the Border...err Shadowfell in any of the official settings. of course in places like Greyhawk or Faerun, it would be a race against time for the adventurers to get to the keep and kill the bad guy before other adventurers did so.

I have taken a look at the "new" Forgotten Realms books. One would be better off buying the 3rd edtion FR campaign setting or even downloading one of the free gameworlds online. Lots of the FR stuff is now free so what would be the point of buying this new-improved version anyway?

Todd said...

I love the Points of Light setting specifically because it isn't a setting. It's one mark on an otherwise blank canvas that the players are expected to fill in without suddenly discovering they can't do something because Elminster has already done it.

I'm also a fan of how they handled the Realms, but that's a discussion for another time.

Matt said...

This thread is so dead that it's past smelling bad, but, for folks like me who just stumbled upon this site (which seems to be likewise sadly dead) I'll throw in my $.02.

When 4 was released, my buddies and I took the opportunity to reboot our own dnd universe, which had been shaped by almost 10 years of playing together and apart across various campaign settings: still living (although npc-ified) uber-epic characters, all the items, trappings, armies (literally), and fancy clothes we had collected over the years, all the char sheets and tokens and rulebooks from our time playing together were gone. We would approach 4e like a blank page to be filled in with newer adventures. Points of light seemed like a "meh" kinda place to do this though, after we'd been playing in a world with more than a decades worth of invented history.

Until someone came up with the perfect hook, not just for an adventure or a campaign but for the next 10 years of playing together: civilizing the wilderness. Not just as an "epic destiny" (still hate that concept) but as an overall goal that would unite the party and future parties and let us collectively build the world we were, lets face it, going to spend a good bit of free time in. And so, even now, maps are drawn and cataloged, overlong backstories are written, and, most importantly, real honest to god roleplaying and storytelling are taking place, even in 4e.