Friday, December 31, 2010

A Question of Setting

I floated another question on twitter, since it tends to be an interesting sounding board for idea seeds, and this one's sticking. That this is profoundly connected to my previous thinking on structure will either be incredibly clear or incredibly oblique - not sure which yet.

I asked whether any RPG settings had revealed all their secrets in the initial book, and then used supplements to respond to those secrets and reveals (rather than introduce new ones). This is not quite the same thing as asking which games have no metaplot - rather, it's a structural question about how information is handled.

It is easy to find examples of RPGs that don't do this. 7th Sea, for example, has placeholders for secrets in the core book (The White Plague or Die Kreuzritter for example) which are explained in later supplements. It also has non-flagged secrets scattered across its books.

While I'm not fond of this model, I acknowledge it's practical advantages as a publisher. In short: it drives sales. People like being in the know, and this is a great way to tap that. But, thankfully, I see it a little bit less frequently these days. This is not to say we see no supplement cascades, but they're often structured a bit differently. The new World of Darkness stuff, for example, is still supplementastic, but it's more modular in its design. If you skip a book, you have a decent sense of what you're skipping.

But the question of games that have turned the model of secrets on its ear, elicited some interesting responses, as well as some surprises, and I want to flag a few that came up.

Torg - This one got mentioned a lot, and I'm going to have to ask Fred how much was revealed in the boxed set because I have no idea. I have a great conceptual love of Torg, but it's based entirely on people telling me about the game. I have never had a chance to play or read it.

Conspiracy X
- Another one I haven't read, so I have no idea. Any thoughts?

Feng Shui
- This is probably the single best example of what I was thinking of. The supplements for the factions introduce ideas and plot hooks, but nothing that essentially changes things as presented in the core game.[1] Some of this was enabled by the fantastic flexibility of the setting and the general tone of the game, but there was also a decision to go in this directions which deserves credit.

Vampire: The Masquerade
- My first response to this was surprise. Vampire is, after all, the poster child for the triumph of Metaplot. But thinking about it a bit, I realized that mostly came later. The core book is actually pretty open about things and there was no _necessity_ that things go in that direction. That they did was probably a good commercial decision, but it's an interesting illustration of where these things happen. To see why consider...

- This is pretty much a placeholder for most of the games out there which came in one book with no real expectation of supplements. The setting's meaty enough that there COULD be supplements, but everything's pretty much laid out on the table from square one.

Call of Cthulhu
- This is an interesting one for reasons that are very relevant to the Dresden Files - how does external source material work into the equation? CoC could be said to be complete because all the material is out there[2], but that might also be viewed as a bit of a cheat.

In the end, there were more good answers than I anticipated, and I'm going to have to keep them in mind as I consider how one produces a setting today.

1 - At least until Friends of the Dragon (EDIT: Whups, meant Golden Comeback), where the need to introduce cooler-than-thou NPCs started messing with things. RPG writers - your NPCs will never be cool for the things they did to the setting. You take opportunities and focus away from the people who are actually playing your game.

2 - And I never noticed this until now, but the Cthulhu crowd does not seem to vigorously reimagine cosmology the way the Amber crowd does. Curious.


  1. " RPG writers - your NPCs will never be cool for the things they did to the setting. You take opportunities and focus away from the people who are actually playing your game."


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  4. As to footnote 2, I wonder if it's because it's so much easier to add new cults and critters to the Mythos without disrupting it's basic structure -- Unlike Amber, where you can only have so many credible Amber-level threats come out of the woodwork without crowding the multiverse.

    But on your main point, I think that Everway might have fit in, if it had survived. The framework was complete. Setting books would just detail new Spheres or stat up the families of Everway.

  5. Hey. Not really relevant to this post in particular, but:

    Big, BIG fan here -- Always excited to see your new rules hacks and thoughts. Also, I'm a beginning gaming blogger, and I thought you might consider taking a look at my site ( and perhaps giving it a nod. It's an ongoing campaign-creation blog, following my efforts to put together a cross-dimensional fantasy setting based on the Fate ruleset.


  6. As to Friends of the Dragon, I don't recall the NPCs you're talking about. (It's been a while since I went back to that book.) I can tell you for sure, though, that "cooler-than-thou" NPCs were not in the design doc for that book.

    I can also tell you that, based on forum posts and notes I got as the Vampire developer, that NPCs who don't do things to the setting can be deemed feckless by the audience, at least when compared to the setting-shaking NPCs of the previous WoD. The sig characters of Requiem weren't hot because they didn't shake or define the setting. That is, yes, NPCs can be cool for things they do to the setting when you take in the property as a whole (novels, etc.). I agree that it's gross when it could be subtle or classy.

    Can they be abused? Sure.

    The trick, I think, is to have NPCs that define the setting the PCs are introduced to, not NPCs who defy the setting to demonstrate their own badassery. NPCs should allow PCs to debate, seduce, argue with, or fist fight the setting directly.

    I had a DM last year who had a more-powerful-than-us NPC who was a real jerk. We wanted to take him down a peg, but we were afraid he was out of our reach (this being D&D and us being merely Paragons). He was a great foil for us, when used correctly—an immovable object around which we sometimes flowed. Now, what RPG writers do and what DMs do are not the same thing, but I bring it up because you used the word "never," which is a hell of a word.

    The problem, I say, is that grandiose (not necessarily "cooler-than-thou") NPCs can be abused and that RPG writers and fellow GMs do not share their education on how to use them well for specific purposes. Taking focus away is often not good, but taking opportunities away is part of restricting choices, which is part of game design.

    Anyway, I don't know which NPCs you're talking about in Friends, but I can tell you that they weren't designed to be "cooler-than-thou."

  7. @Will In fairness, it's only one of the FoD NPCs, but tellingly, it is the single NPC that sticks in my brain all these years later without my even cracking open the book.

    That said, you're right, never is a hell of a word, and I concede some necessary wiggle room. Your point about NPCs defining the setting is a good one, and I think the real rub is in the nature of the activity: I'm not asserting that NPCs should not be proactive or important, but I think they need to contend with two things. The first is that there are KINDS of actions better suited to players and second (as you note) that there's a difference between what happens on the page and on the table. A multitude of sins become forgivable when they're performed by the GM in pursuit of play when contrasted with when they occur in print, in pre-emption of play.

  8. On Twitter you said the NPC is The Dragon. I don't recall him at all and flipping through the book just now I don't see him statted in there. Did I miss him?

  9. Well, crap, I hit the bookself and realized I meant Golden Comeback.

  10. Ah ha. Golden Comeback wasn't one of mine and my recall of it isn't so great. There are a few "cooler-than-thou" NPCs in the Feng Shui history, but I tried not to add to that stack.


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