There are five main elements of an RPG as defined by Ron Edwards for exploration in a game: System, Character, Setting, Situation, and Color. Sometimes I think Player might be a sixth, but that’s another article for another time. When you’re designing your game, you must address ALL of these elements at some point in some way. While the rest of this article focuses on Situation, I want you to keep that in your mind at all times- a good design address all of these.
Situation gets tossed around a lot when it comes to designs, especially by newer guys like me, because it is something that is very noticeable when it is absent and something that is taken for granted when it is present. Let’s start with something that’s both a game and literature.
-What’s the Situation in Middle-earth? Well, there’s a darklord in Mordor looking for a ring that is in the possession of a hobbit in The Shire. Keep the terms Dark Lord, Mordor, Hobbit, Shire, and “is looking for” in your mind.
-Now something perhaps a little more familiar: What’s the Situation in Vampire: the Masquerade? Well, you’re a modern-day vampire who deals with politics and killing innocent people to sustain him/her self. Keep Modern-Day, Vampire, and “deals with” in your mind.
-And to use an Indie Game: What is the Situation in Dogs in the Vineyard? Well, you have these holy guys called Dogs who go from town to town to make just what was unjust. Keep Dogs, Town, and “Make Just” in your mind.
Okay, got all that? Let’s put it all together to see what we get. Let’s group Dark Lord, Hobbit, Vampire, and Dogs together in group A. Lets put Mordor, Shire, Modern-Day, and Towns in group B. Finally, lets put Is Looking For, Deals With, and Makes Just in group C. Group A is full of Characters. Group B is full of Settings. Group C is full of action. So what is Situation? It’s Characters acting in the Setting. (note the capital letters)
Uh, okay Troy, we’re not here for theory how does that mean anything? It’s like this. Think how boring Middle-earth would be if there was no darklord. Or how lame Vampire would have been without all the vampiric political intrigue. Or what a snoozefest Dogs would be if the Dogs never went to a town. They are all related, all connect- and in your game they should be too.
Character and Setting are components of Situation (all you radical theorists out there, this is a loose association). This means that every aspect of your character creation rules should directly relate that character to the Situation, or (in my opinion) it needs to be junked. Every portion of the Setting that doesn’t contribute to the Situation is unnecessary filler. My recommendation is to trash it or keep it very brief. Don’t distract the players with stuff that won’t ever come into play.
This is where we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Start with character creation. Do you need 7 stats or will 3 do? Or will characters even need stats at all? Skills? Do you need a five page list of skills or perhaps just a few categories that the players fill in as the need arises? Do you need stuff like classes, equipment lists, and feats? And even better are questions like: How can I make Stats, Skills, Equipment, and so on enhance the Situation?
On to the Setting. Do you need a lot of techno-mumbo-jumbo that explains faster than light travel? Do you need to name every king in every country? How do all the nifty NPCs and magic artifacts relate to what the characters will actually do in the game?
If it’s not part of play, why is it part of your game? To address the Situation in your design, it helps to gear your Characters and your Setting to enhance what the characters and players will actually be doing in your game. You’ll find that your game will be a LOT more focused and the players are more likely to follow the rules as written.
For a followup on this idea, see Josh’s post "Sitch and Scene" on his blog.
I’ll close with a metaphor. Think of the elements of an RPG like this. Situation is what the players work with. Characters are the tools they use to do the work. The Setting is the workbench on which the players manipulate the Situation. Color is the decals that you add to the situation to make it cooler. And System is the blueprints you follow to engage working on the Situation.