I'm interested in creating my own setting, but my players want to use published, old-school deities, more or less types of Greyhawk planes, and have not expressed interest in anything but a Greyhawk/Faerun/ye olde medieval type setting. I don't want to get bored here. What can I do?
Just like the ice cream, the interest in vanilla is in the details and qualify of crafting it. Pick up a tub of store-brand vanilla, then compare it to a small-batch local gelateria's vaniglia — there's a huge difference.
So too, in campaign settings. Making the big, broad strokes of the setting "weird" or unusual is the easy, superficial way of making the setting interesting to the GM (much like novelty flavours of ice cream), but hardly the only way. And just like "interesting" flavours of ice cream are only so-so without paying attention to their details and craft, even unusual settings thrive or die on the quality of their details.
Focus on the details
Bog-standard fantasy settings can be quite interesting, if you start looking at the details. Zoom in. Focus on cultural details, the familial relationships of powerful clans (because familial = political at that scale). Toy with border conflicts, dig into the ideologies of religions, investigate the motivations of the poor and the rich. Ask questions about the economic relationships.
Look for where there is vulnerability, imbalance, or cracks. Push there. See what insights you can derive from them. Add more stresses and fractures. See where power blocs lie, where stability resides at large scales. See where there are alliances and enmities. Investigate the internal stresses and balances of them. Ask yourself how they might change.
Then show the details, don't tell
Bog-standard fantasy is a convenient canvas, which you can leverage to quickly get on the same page with your players. They immediately have a grasp of how the world works. As they explore, present something in the world that reveals the details that you find interesting, get them entangled more in the parts that they respond to. Reveal the vulnerabilities and strengths of the world and its inhabitants, and observe what your players do with those. Do they ally with the powerful and stable? Do they exploit the vulnerabilities? Do they leverage cracks for good, for evil — or just for their own neutral gain? Do they become playmakers, or are they satisfied to be playing pieces in larger events?
Zoom in. The interest is always in the details. That's even true of stranger settings, but it's never so starkly obvious where the real work of a GM is, than when you're running vanilla fantasy.
Using a premade campaign world has various advantages:
- When the background material is known and published, you can assume that all players are familiar with the setting. Character knowledge which should be known to anyone living in that world (like basic geography, major factions and deities) doesn't have to be infodumped. This also avoids any misconceptions between you and your players about the setting. When there is any confusion, you can just read it up in the book.
- The campaign world is written and proof-read by professional authors and playtested by countless people. This ensures that the campaign setting works and has no major logical errors.
- It saves you a lot of work. Sure, maybe you enjoy designing your own campaign world from the ground up. But this is an activity only for your own benefit. Your players just want to play the game already. The time you spend on designing the big picture of the campaign setting is time you could spend preparing the more detailed material for the session itself (or playing).
Also, just because you are placing your campaign in an existing setting doesn't mean that there isn't room for your own creativity:
- Factions: The campaign setting might describe the major factions with world-wide influence, but that doesn't mean that there aren't any local factions which aren't powerful enough to influence world politics but are very important for what happens in a city or smaller region. So you can make up your own tribes, cults, warbands, guilds, secret societies or other small but interesting groups of people.
- Locations: Most campaign settings only describe a few major locations and leave large parts of the world only vaguely described. That leaves you a lot of room for coming up with interesting locations to populate these areas with.
- Deities: This might vary from setting to setting, but the cosmology of some of them allows lesser deities to coexist with the major pantheon of gods. They might not be as powerful and might not have as many followers, but they can still be important enough for a plot or two.
- NPCs: Most campaign settings only describe a few celebrity characters. Sometimes they even provide detailed character sheets for them. But be honest: It isn't very likely that your party of adventurers will only interact with these people. There are millions of people in the world for your players to meet, and it is your job to come up with unique personalities, backgrounds and (if necessary) character stats for them.
But remember that your players said that they want to play a specific campaign world and they expect you to deliver. Make sure your own creations do not completely overshadow the material from the setting. When you promise them Greyhawk and then give them nothing from the setting and only feed them your own stuff instead, they will feel cheated. So make sure you find a healthy mix of the official material and your own material.
You can't host a game that doesn't motivate you
As a GM, you're the player that invests the most work in the campaign, as you are the one generating content for it. If you can't find motivation in a campaign, it is doomed to die.
So, try first to see if you can be motivated by those settings. If not, there are two clear choices:
- You host the campaign that really motivates you, be it a custom setting or whatever.
- Someone else takes the GM role and prepares that game that the majority want.
These two option can be expressed as a whole: "Sorry, mates, but I am not motivated to prepare that game. So, if any of you feel like it, you can host the game. Otherwise, these are the settings I can provide".