Equilibrium is a very tempting state in setting design. I has lots of fun trappings like a balance of power and broad opportunities for commerce and travel, and more importantly it lets the author really drill down into the things that make the setting interesting (at least in his eyes) without them getting all broken or overly complicated. The problem is that while this is very compelling from a perspective of creation, it’s a bad approach from the perspective of play.
Interesting things when systems fall out of equilibrium. Change, wars, revolutions, reformations and pretty much everything else, and all of these things are fertile grounds for play. When a game takes place someplace out of equilibrium, it has a sense of inertia and movement that is what many railroading games are trying to capture without realizing it. It’s a sense that the world if a moving, and you better keep up. By leaving things in equilibrium, that energy goes to waste.
As with many failings in setting design, I tend to pin this one on the terrible nature of social studies textbooks, which are the only model that many people have when it comes time to write up a setting. Having history presented in clean, digestible chunks warps the mind into thinking that’s how things should be, and overlooks both the narrative (which moves) and the reality (which is messy) in favor of simplicity and the least common denominator.
The trouble with equilibrium is, of course, that it has no trouble at all. If there was no game, things would proceed pretty much as they have, and even if there is a game, it’s likely to have a small impact as things play out. Now, a low-impact game may be desirable. Many styles of play emulate fiction where the main characters mostly drink and fight and while they may do hugely heroic things or even save the world, they’re likely to do it in ways no one particularly notices. Thinks like the earlier stories of Fafhrd an the Grey Mouser. But in such games, setting is usually designed very loosely, in broad strokes, with whole swaths of territory easily summed up in a sentence or two. Adventure is found in the exceptions and anomalies. Such a setting may well be at equilibrium, but it would also be almost silly for it to be more than a collection of notes, and maybe a really cool map.
It is also possible to bring change to a system in equilibrium through the agency of the characters, especially if they’re the chosen ones or whatnot, but it’s a very brute force solution. It’s very nice and empowering, but it’s also not much of an improvement - unless the world responds to the change in a way that creates tension and problems, it’s just a kind of showpiece.
There’s been one interesting trend in setting design to address this, something I’ll call aftermath design. The idea is that in the setting, something big has just happened, such as the emperor being killed or whatnot, and the setting is going through changes as it sorts this out. This is a promising idea, but it bumps up against old habits. Too often, that change occurs (before play begins, natch) and it is then the ONLY change that’s going to ever happen. It’s just a push towards a new equilibrium.
And that, there, reveals the true rub. There is absolutely a tendency of system to move towards equilibrium, but even if they reach it, they don’t sustain it. Change is ongoing. For a GM, this is intensely liberating. For a setting designer, this creates a challenge of how to express that dynamic in a useful. Which is the thing I now find myself chewing on.
1 - Not to say this stops people from getting encyclopedic about it, but it’s a different beast.