Living Greyhawk vs. Living Forgotten Realms: Where’s the debate?

I am willing to face the truth: I am way too late to the “D&D 3.5 vs. 4.0.” debate to be relevant.  Plenty has been said, and I certainly don’t feel as though I can add any original perspective, especially two years in.

It’s interesting to me that, while plenty of people have compared the two versions at length, there aren’t many (if any) side by side comparisons of the two living campaigns that were played in each edition.  Living Greyhawk (LG) in version 3.5, and Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) in 4.0.  Yes, I realize there were, and are, other supported living campaigns, but these have been the heavyweights.

After a good bit of play time on both sides of the screen, in both campaigns, I’d like to offer a side by side comparison.

Regional Flavor

This is a big one for me, and I suspect others as well.  The structure of the Living Greyhawk campaign demanded that, in order to play a module (adventure) from a specific region, you had to actually go to the area of the real world that corresponded to that region of Greyhawk.  So, for example, if you wanted your PC to adventure in Bissel (a region in Greyhawk), you, the player, had to physically travel to New England to play those modules.  This resulted in players who played modules mostly based in one area of the game world because you mostly played near home.  Since the people you played with most often and the modules you played most often were from the same area of the game world, there was a very tangible and widely understood local regional culture, history, and government that DMs and players alike bought into.  Each region had its own traditions, laws, and believe it or not, inside jokes. 

The upsides to this are twofold.  First, it fostered a vibrant convention community.  If you desired to play a module in Geoff, you would go to a convention in the Virginia/Maryland/DC area.  That was the only way to play Geoff modules.  As a result, you get very well attended cons.  Second, there was greater immersion in the game world.  Just like you innately understand your local culture, but find foreign cultures, well, foreign, traveling to different areas of the game world produced very different play experiences.  Why? As mentioned before, all the local people (in the physical world) understood the local culture (in the game world) and played accordingly.  Travelling to a convention and adventuring in Keoland actually felt very different from adventuring in your home area of the Bandit Kingdoms.  And that’s how it should be.

Living Forgotten Realms made a lame attempt at this type of organization by assigning regions of Faerun to the real world.  However, there are no consequences for travelling, and access to modules is restricted in no way.  Result?  Everyone plays everywhere equally, and in theory, for a DM to bring regional flavor of any kind to a module, he will have to be well versed in every single region of the Forgotten Realms.  Not only is that not realistic, but I’ve never seen it in actual play.  All the regions, in my play experience, feel the same.  And that’s a shame.

There is a downside to the Greyhawk style of living campaign organization though, which is discussed in the next section.

Advantage: Living Greyhawk

PC Access to the Campaign World

As discussed in the regional flavor section above, players who wanted their PC to travel within the game world had to physically travel in the real world to accomplish that.  While the upsides were a vibrant convention community and tangible local flavor, the downside was restricted access to a majority of the campaign, especially if you didn’t have the time, money, or inclination to travel.  There were literally hundreds of modules produced in the Living Greyhawk campaign that I never got to play, not because I didn’t want to, but because I wasn’t allowed to.  Well, I guess I was allowed to, technically, if I wanted to become a world traveler.  There was also a wide swath of the game world that I knew almost nothing about.  That can be a pro or a con, depending upon your personal opinion, but it certainly would have been nice to be given a choice.

Advantage: Living Forgotten Realms

Treasure

It’s difficult to adjudicate treasure in a living campaign.  I get that.  There’s no DM to hand out items that fit perfectly to each character.  There’s even a really good chance that at any given table, there’s more than one person who wants a found magic item.  That results in arguments and hard feelings on a more frequent basis than you would encounter in a home game.  To avoid this, neither campaign used the “there’s only one magic sword to go around” technique found in home games, which I think everyone appreciated.  LG used an “access” system.  You never got a found magic item for “free,” but rather gained “access” to buy it.  While this did solve the problem of player fights, it wasn’t a lot of fun to find boots of speed, and realize you couldn’t have them for another 10 mods until you saved up enough cash.  I think the bundle system in LFR is not only ingenious, but solves both of the above problems.  Not only can more than one person have the same item, but you get the item to use right away. 

Advantage: Living Forgotten Realms

Module Play Restrictions

This one’s easy.  LG only allowed players to play each module once.  LFR allows characters to play each module once.  If a group didn’t have anyone local to run a new module for them, someone had to “eat” the mod by running it without playing it, thereby disqualifying himself from playing it in the future.  LFR has no such restriction.  The relaxing of this rule was like a breath of fresh air.

Advantage: Living Forgotten Realms

Bookkeeping

Being that I am an accountant by trade, one might think I enjoy the bookkeeping aspect of a Living Campaign.  I will admit that I do enjoy it to a certain extent.  However, when I have to subtract upkeep at the end of every mod, it begins to feel a bit like monkey work, especially since the upkeep costs didn’t scale.  At 15th level, you were still paying the same 12 gold for upkeep that you were at level 1.  Then, on top of that, keeping track of TUs (time units), favors, and any curses that might be in effect… well, bookkeeping in Living Greyhawk got to be a bit onerous.  Add to that the fact that each module you played was tracked on a full sheet, and you had players who walked around with two inch binders (or bigger) per character.  Just for paperwork.

In Living Forgotten Realms, each character’s career can be tracked on a few spreadsheet-style sheets of paper, and maybe a short stack of favors, if you’re so inclined to cash in on those types of things.  (Favors can also be tracked on the same spreadsheet paper by simply writing down the favor name, thus eliminating the need to keep your slips).  For my 6th level character, I keep a character sheet, and one other sheet of paper to track mods played.  That’s it.  No binder. 

With LFR’s item rarity rules coming out any day now, I anticipate maybe one more sheet of paper to keep track of my magic items, and when/where I got them.  While the bookkeeping for that may add another straw to the proverbial camel’s back, it still won’t measure up to the bookkeeping demanded by Living Greyhawk.

Advantage: Living Forgotten Realms

It’s certainly apparent that the LFR campaign really looked at what was broken about LG, and worked to fix it.  Overall, I feel that those efforts were successful.  They really loosened up the onerous rules that were aimed at simulation without really adding anything fun, and cut a lot of the fat out.  Its real failing, in my opinion, has been in the lack of regional flavor.  Unfortunately, for me, this is a biggie.  As stated above, LG had distinct regions, each with a distinct feel.  In Living Forgotten Realms, all the modules could be set in the same city and surrounding countryside, and I wouldn’t notice.  I realize that there is a catch 22 here; to gain regional flavor, you have to restrict PC access to other regions, or at least entice them to adventure primarily in their own region in some way.  That’s what fosters the regional flavor.  But by doing this, you’re also restricting play opportunities and failing to showcase the campaign world as a whole.  To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer to that problem is, if there is one at all.  But then, that’s not really my job.  Now that we’re several years into the campaign, I am interested to see if the campaign admins propose a solution.

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