Thursday, May 18, 2006

Does Setting Still Matter?


The quick answer is Yes, of course Setting still matters. I won’t deny for a moment that when I’m working on a design, I feel the System > the Setting, but they are both necessary for good play and good design. Okay, so why does Setting matter?

Well, first off the PCs need to BE somewhere. So in the very basic sense, there must be a Setting in which they exist. But that’s a non-helpful answer. Setting matters because it is the material the participants build conflict out of. Yes, the resolution systems detail how you resolve those conflicts, but the mechanics themselves don’t spell out where the conflicts come from. The Setting provides the context for the conflicts. It helps the conflicts make sense.

For instance, my game Cutthroat is VERY light on Setting. I barely mention it at all (basically I can sum it all up with “Biker gangs in the 1970’s”). But even though I just barely touch on it, that is enough to give the players all the context they need to create hilarious stories and rivalries among the characters. Take that small bit of Setting away, and everything from the Challenge to the Status Rolls to the Top Dog stop making any kind of sense. Dogs in the Vineyard’s setting focuses heavily on religion. And it is out of the religion that the characters follow that the conflicts in each town arise. Strip out the setting, and you just have a nifty way to roll dice, IMO.

So what about Setting Agnostic/Generic RPGs? Good question. I’m going to divide these two kinds of games into two camps for the purposes of this essay. The first kind is the type of game that gives you procedures for creating your own Setting. Universalis and Prime Time Adventures are examples of this sort of game. The games do not contain an exact Setting, but provide explicit rules for making your own. In fact, it’s part of the fun! The other kind of game is where Setting is implicit. For instance, the core books of ADnD2e had no official “setting”, yet it was very clear that you would be playing in some kind of fantasy world. People often point to GURPS as a game with no Setting. But I would in turn point to the insane amount of supplemental books that’s come out of SJG that deal directly with Setting elements. To say GURPS as a whole doesn’t deal with setting is absurd. It most certainly does. And each group that plays GURPS will have to deal with it in some way also.

So what’s the best use for Setting? That’s another long essay. The main thing to keep in mind when creating the Setting for your game is to make the setting elements drive the conflicts. If your Setting isn’t involved in what the characters are fighting for, then it’s time to redesign it.



PS: On the topic of Settings, the grandaddy of all settings is coming out soon: Ptolus! I've seen a few previews and from what I read and seen, I give it a preliminary thumbs up! If you're into D20, you really should check this thing out.


Frank said...

On implied setting:

D&D actually gives lots of setting in it's implied setting. The character classes and spells are full of setting. The magic items in the DMG are full of setting. The monster manual is full of setting. Of course all of this supports the implied setting of dungeon crawls to kill monsters and gain treasure and experience.

I have been frustrated before by setting agnostic games that don't give you tools or implied setting. One of my biggest problems with Fudge was the lack of tools to create setting (but running the Fudge module Another Fine Mess was loads of fun, because it came with enough setting to run the module - and one could imagine creating new adventures for the same set of PCs, or new PCs of a similar cast).

I've also been horribly frustrated in the past in trying to use settings in games that don't inherently support them. Harn didn't work with Cold Iron. Tekumel didn't work with Cold Iron. Talislanta didn't work with GURPS or Cold Iron. Blackmoor, especially in the guise of The First Fantasy Campaign worked great for Cold Iron (because Cold Iron's implied setting didn't conflict with the few details provided for Blackmoor).

The only GURPS I've played for more than one session was GURPS Supers (two separate campaigns). Reasonable amount of setting (though I felt it didn't really work well).

I definitely appreciate games with strong setting. In this context, Dogs in the Vinyard which probably has fewer words spent on setting than the original 3-book D&D box, has a strong setting, totally supported by the rules. D&D has a strong implied setting.

I've yet to really play a game with setting creation procedures, so I can't say anything about that.


Ricky Donato said...

Setting is one of those game elements that trips people up (including me) because it seems like it isn't necessary, just a nice add-on. "This game doesn't need a setting! It's generic!" I think that if that's true, then you don't actually have a game. In fact, what actually happens is that the players create a setting (with or without realizing it) to play this "setting-less" game in. So in fact the game does need a setting - it just doesn't provide one.

Frank said...

Here's a question: Is situation separate from setting? I think so, in fact, I think setting is the building blocks you use to create situation, and system is the mechanism you use to resolve situation. Oh, and I think PCs are just player created situation.

So looking at Universalis (and this may apply to PTA also, but I'm not at all familiar with PTA), I think the reason it doesn't have a setting is not that it has procedure to create setting, but that it has procedure to create situation using only the player's shared experiences as building blocks, with at most the declaration "let's do a wild west story" as establishing setting. One that's established and coins start being spent, the players are creating situation, and resolving it.

This is very different than Fudge which (generally) requires the GM to spend time creating setting before the players can engage the game.


Tim said...

I've played Primetime Adventures once, and found the whole concept of creating the setting as part of the actual game to be very powerful.

As a player I generally prefer rich detailed settings such as Glorantha, especially for an extended campaign; they give me a lot of context to create a meaningful character. The problem for a game designer is how to present that sort of setting in a digestable form.

Then there's the whole quesion of how much setting a game should include. How much detail is too much? Or two little?

I have a gut feeling the best sort of setting is one described in broad brush strokes, leaving indivdual GMs and groups to fill in the details. No exhaustive lists of canon NPCs, and definitely no metaplots.

Darcy said...

To answer the titular question:
"Hell, yeah!"

And to add my own spin on one topic and debunk another:

- Games like Cutthroat are not light on setting. In fact, they're swimming in it. As designer, you're relying on the fact that your target audience are familiar with the setting. Since the (in this case, rich) setting is ingrained in the collective memory bank, you use economy in describing it. But you're still using it.

- Setting is system. The common purpose of any game (regardless of locale on the GNS spectrum) is to engage the players. Setting is great at engaging (or alienating - depending on tastes) players.

Ergo, if you're going to go truly "setting-less" (Fudge or the Window are good examples), then you need to really squeeze the rest of the system for the engagement that setting readily provides.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey Troy,

I mostly agree with you, though I think that system is actually one of the most important elements of setting.

For instance, in Dogs in the Vineyard, buttes and snowy mountains are pretty easy to forget about when playing, but the fact that life is never more than a few words away from the greasy smoke of black powder is in your face at all times through the escalation mechanics. The fact that these people are your kin is in your face at all times through the spent (and unspent) relationship dice. Your authority and stature as a Dog is in your face every time you call on your Coat's dice in a conflict. That stuff is potent setting.

Check out my thoughts on the subject here.

checking said...

Setting is one of those game elements that trips people up (including me) because it seems like it isn't necessary, just a nice add-on. "This game doesn't need a setting! It's generic!" I think that if that's true, then you don't actually have a game. In fact, what actually happens is that the players create a setting (with or without realizing it) to play this "setting-less" game in. So in fact the game does need a setting - it just doesn't provide one.bohyme

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