Monday, October 24, 2011

Playability in Settings

Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.


Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.


If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Social Context

This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces - people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group - you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

  • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
  • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
  • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

Mobility or Position

This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots - if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.

I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.


  1. The default first question is: can you give some examples of existing (playable) settings and how they fulfill these criteria?

    I've been thinking about setting a lot lately as I've been playing a Forgotten Realms-set game but using Burning Wheel instead of D&D, and I've been contrasting (and amazed by the results) how the world behaves differently due to the system we're using rather than the system it was published for. Some of those differences address the above in part, which is what I found most interesting about your post vis-a-vis my thoughts of late.

  2. Good points. I think these things are going to inform the type of games you can have (and what sort of rules you ought of have as well), and then there's feedback from the rules as Daniel suggests.

  3. Following on from Daniel, you mentioned in the preamble settings where these things are missing or muted. Do you have any examples? I can think of a few that mute part, but you seemed to cover that with talk of Amber.

  4. An interesting, insightful post.
    I have myself mentioned looking at setting design in a similar way to system design in a column on (, but I admit that I'm still to actually try and design a setting from that perspective.

  5. I'm not sure that easy communication and travel are *necessary* for a good setting. They strongly enable a number of play styles (particularly sand-boxy ones), and eliminate a number of issues. They also strongly enable good campaign elements such as recurring NPCs without either stretching credibility or forcing the characters to stay put.

    There are a number of settings, though, in which the difficulty of communication/travel is essential. A Wild West or pulp setting needs the location to be isolated so that the heroes are the only ones available to solve the problem. If the cavalry is only a phone call away, the tension becomes radically different. Similarly, it becomes hard to drive something like homesickness as a character attribute when home is a quick plane flight away.

    I've been pondering the social context issue for a bit as I create a couple new settings. I'm not sure I like the contexts to be baked into the setting design, a la clans in Vampire or L5R. It always feels artificial and clunky to me.

    One important aspect to the mobility issue is that it needs to be true for the characters, but not necessarily for anyone else in the society. You can have a rigid, hidebound group of traditionalists, so long as it is clear that the characters can buck that system and rise to the top at unprecedented speed.

  6. None of these are strictly necessary for a playable (which is distinct from 'good') setting - there are numerous settings that are excellent that do without one or more, but they help. I will also suggest that many settings that don't have them end up having coping mechanisms to deal with the gaps. One classic example is the need to keep the party together.

    What's more, the presence of these elements need not mean their ubiquity. You are correct that there are situations where the ability to call in the cavalry can undermine tone, but I would counter that the inability to contact allies is equally undermining. The difference is that it's easier to remove the capability (bad cel signal, enemy jamming) than it is to add it (when it must be taken away later). Put more simply, having an isolated location is less interesting when EVERY location is isolated.

    In a similar vein, implementation is as important as the idea. Context is helpful, but a lame context is still going to be lame, I doubt anyone will argue differently (though I think you will find many people who are more comfortable with clans of Vampire or L5R than you are). In wrestling with it, I suggest that life is full of context, and if anything, we simplify that for the purposes of gaming. Family, friends, trainers, schools, churches, political parties - all of these are contexts, you simply must decide what's important to your play.

    As to mobility, yes, mostly. It is totally cool for the PCs to have the only airship, but if so, you must either make your peace with play being entirely serial (town/planet-of-the-week), or you must make accommodation for recurring elements (such as an enemy who has the _other_ airship)


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