Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What I Want in a Setting

So, Chad made a comment in my post about Secrets of Zir'an and as I started to respond further, I realized this was going to be a big one, so I'm breaking it out a bit to chew on.

So, for those who want to skip the length of it, one of my issues with Secrets of Zir'an is that the setting, despite great promise, never quite gels. That and the discussion that follows lead to me giving a bit of thought to what I want out of a setting, and how that's changed over time.

If you were to ask me a few years ago what I wanted in a setting, I would have said that I want enough coherence to not show the seams and enough richness to give me plenty of campaign ideas. Implicit in this was a very D&D-inspired mode of thinking that the setting would be the backdrop for many adventures, so variety was essential so that I could keep the setting fresh, interesting and dynamic. I still think these are admirable goals, and when a setting can hit them, it can be an enjoyable and interesting read, but this is no longer what I want from a setting.

Nowadays, I am much less attached to persistence in a setting because I look at every element of the setting in terms of how my game will change it. Now, it's always been assumed that players could change elements of a setting, but the pace - at least in the realm of D&D - was that making a profound change was something that could be a suitable outcome of an entire campaign. I no longer have that patience.

What led me here
To illustrate why my expectations have changed, I would really point to three products: Console RPGs (Final Fantasy, Suikoden etc), Exalted and 50 Fathoms.

In Console RPGs, there are certain discontinuities that are just the way things work. When you come to a new town there is something cool and meaningful to do, and you do it, and something changes. After that if you go back, things have changed but there's not much (except bonus secret content!) to do there. That's a programmatic limitation, and I accept it like I do three inch high grass that stops my movement, as something suitable for the game but which i go to the tabletop to overcome. When I go to a place in tabletop, I want that same engagement and change, and in tabletop I can hope to come back to it and see the _extrapolation_ from that change.

Exalted has one of the best fantasy settings any RPG has ever produced, and I like it very much for that, but what I like even more is its sensibility that it is a snapshot of a moment in time. All of these beautiful and interesting things are being set up with the assumption that you are going to smash the heck out of them as you pass through. It is assumed that you will break the setting, so the setting is designed to just have as much cool stuff as possible so you can keep breaking it for as long as possible.

50 Fathoms is perhaps the purest example of this idea. It is a campaign setting and a campaign rolled into one. Every part of the setting is designed with the idea that you may pass through it on your adventures, and it is incredibly open ended, but at the same time offers up the big central heroic plotline if that's where your players decide to go. It is not without warts, but it is a fantastic example of really putting a setting to use rather than creating it for its own sake.

These three ideas combined with some very successful campaigns I played in or ran which really tore up the landscape, notably Fred's Born to be Kings and my own Deus ex Magica. The success of those campaigns really highlighted a role for setting as servant to the game (rather than framework for it) that I enjoyed a lot.

These and other factors have really changed my sense of ownership of settings to the point where I pretty much view them as disposable. I will take a setting and I will play the _hell_ out of it, and then I'll be done. If I want to return to the setting, then I can start again from scratch (as we tend to do with Amber) or I can move the timeline forward or back a ways and pick up from there. I used to be afraid of "using up" a setting, but nowadays I view that as a goal to strive _for_.

So What Do I Need?
All of which means that the things I need out of a setting have changed a lot. What I need are things that I can turn into play as quickly and as interestingly as possible. I accept a certain amount of foundational information about history and culture, just to create context, but not a lot. if it's not something that can come up directly in my game in a way that makes for an interesting plot, then it's not contributing much.

More than anything, when an element is introduced, I am looking for its default narrative. That's a kind of fancy way to say the story that this place was designed to tell. To put it simply, think about any episode of Star Trek. When they went to a planet, they always ran smack into the one story that planet existed to tell. Does the planet have unfair laws? Expect a member of the away team to violate them. Does the planet have some great social inequality? Expect it to come to a boil while the team is there. This is not realistic, but it is a function of fiction that things boil to the surface on screen, and that changes that can occur will occur when the heroes are there. I expect the same from my games.

So, if there's a city state that keeps gladiator slaves to fight at the whim of it's mage princes, then the default narrative of that city is the inevitable rebellion of the gladiators and some awesome gladiator vs. mage fight scenes, with my players caught in the middle. Sometimes the person writing the setting gets this, and gives me the tools I need to make that happen. Sometimes the writer doesn't, and I get annoyed. But worst of all, sometimes the writer totally gets it, but files it away as great material for an expansion down the line.

I have no patience for the slow reveal. By the time you get around to releasing the guidebook for the Empire of Dulan, there is a good chance that Dulan is already a smoking hole in the ground in my game. That's inconvenient, but if your guidebook has elements that are central to Dulan and its default narrative, then you have ripped me off.

Two Brief Asides
Now, in case it sounds like I'm railing against setting supplements in general, I am absolutely not. They are often an opportunity to drill into an area and find more potential narratives. Adding new narratives is a powerful and useful things, and when a supplement does that, I heartily welcome it. My concern is that when the story of a place is very clear, it is exasperating to have that story set up but unsupported until supplemental material comes out.

Now, all of this is tempered by scale. While I've been talking about vast, world-changing play, that is far from the only way to go about it. The setting might be a town or a city or a nation, and the principle is still the same. It will be changed by my game. On a world-scale game, then the events in one city might be iconic for a whole nation, but they will be dramatic, and they will bring about change. On a city scale, the events of a single city block might can be similarly dramatic, and they will also bring about change.

Three F's
When I pick up a setting, there are a few things I look for. I want focus, faces and flashpoints.

Focus means that I want the setting to pick a level of focus that is in keeping with how much space it has to work with and what the game is about. I dig hypothetical currency systems as much as the next guy, but I can take them as a given without the history of banking, unless the history of banking is full of adventure hooks (and it should be, but it almost never is). Is the setting so big that you can't do more than sketch in the elements? Is it so small that you're drilling into the minutiae for no reason other than page count? Is this a gritty street game, but you're dwelling extensively on the epic sweep of things? Or maybe the other way around? There is no one correct formula for writing setting, and when settings get formulaic, they get boring. Focus the setting on the way you envision it being played. Even if someone uses it differently, they will benefit from your greater clarity.

Faces are what they sound like - NPCs. I am not proposing a need for stat blocks or detailed backgrounds, and most of my needs can be satisfied with a sentence or two of background. The NPCs I'm talking about are not important for who they are but rather for the purpose they serve. I cannot meaningfully interact with a government, nation, ideology or conspiracy, but I can meaningfully interact with a person who represents that group. Maybe they're a person of authority for the group they represent, maybe they're just an iconic member of that group, but that character _is_ that organization so far as my game is concerned. If I can put a face on the important ideas of the game, then they will mean more to my players.

(This is one of those areas where I am bothered by the tendency to make representative NPCs the way one would make a PC, since it tends to result in representatives who are not actually representative of their group. They are rebellious one offs or quirky exceptions, and they drive me nuts. Their purpose is to be useful for my game, not for the writer to show off, and that's just half of it. Just as many of these groups have a default narrative, they tend to have default exceptions - roles for rebels and individualists that jump out as you read them. These exceptions are great niches for PCs, which is all the more reason that the writers should not be inserting their pet NPCs into them.)

Lastly, flashpoints are clear pointers to stuff that's begging to happen. Conflicts that are coming to the surface, changes that are about to happen. In short, things that make adventures happen. There is usually a flashpoint at the center of the default narrative, so I want at least one per setting element. However, the more potential flashpoints there are, the more plot hooks there are for me to pick up and run with, so when they're thick on the ground, I'm a happy man.

Writing setting is fun. It really, really is. It's an almost purely creative process unhindered by a lot of the limitations of fiction like plot and characterization. It can pretty much be a non-stop stream of cool stuff, and that is liberating to write and can be an absolute joy to read. And if a setting is brilliant and creative, I will still enjoy it for reading and for inspiration, but unless that brilliant creativity is coupled with a focus on making this something I can actually play with, it's not necessarily going to be a lot of use for me.

Not every game needs to have a setting, and not every game needs to be about its setting. There are other potential purposes for setting than the ones I mention here. I am, for the most part, talking about big setting, where it's a central element of the game.

I'm off at Origins this week, os I'm auto-posting some old articles. This one is from 2008 and can be found, along with some discussion, here.


  1. In a related vein, one of the things that mightily intrigued me about the adventure for the Savage Worlds Retro Space Opera Slipstream contained in the rule book was that it effectively unwrote most of the campaign setting. Not in the form of a premise threat, in that all the pieces remain in play and the "world" still exists, but rather that it smashes the campaign into individual pieces. How those pieces reconnect afterwards is going to be highly dependant upon the actions of the player characters.

    I think it is an excellent example of the difference between a setting designed for play, and one which is a "tourist guide" of the setting.

  2. I really like you breakdown here - i try desperately to do this with every setting i gin up for the games i GM, but it is easy to lose focus.

    I imagine it's doubly important when publishing!

    I've actually become more and more in favour of pre-published settings recently - part of that is, i think, that more publishers are taking this kind of advice to heart when putting their material together. Hopefully that's a real trend!

  3. "Now, it's always been assumed that players could change elements of a setting, but the pace - at least in the realm of D&D - was that making a profound change was something that could be a suitable outcome of an entire campaign. I no longer have that patience."
    A million times yes. While I am hopeful that the legacy of OD&D will fade with time, I worry that the MMO craze might not be helping. After all, nothing the player does REALLY changes things that much when every quest is repeated by every player.


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