Monday, November 13, 2006

What is Setting? part 1


This was inspired by a great thread on revising the Dark Sun Setting.

Today I’m going to start a multi-part series of articles on Setting. I don’t know how many parts it will have, but I fully expect by the end of it to have my views on Setting change significantly, and at the same time I expect my views to change those of others’. But to make sure this happens without a lot of arguing and sniping, I’m going to set some ground rules. I want to invite feedback and debate, but I don’t want it to get out of hand. First, as always I expect responses to be meted out with common sense and common courtesy. Debate and learning break down in a hostile environment. So no attacking, and back up your statements with actual play or actual designs. Second, I won’t go back and change anything in the original articles. Don’t expect me to. I will, however, post a revised article sometime distant and down the road or make a note in the next article. Third, I am very open to your ideas. I hope you will be open to mine and others’. Fourth, expect me to play the Devil’s advocate and challenge you to prove anything you assert. I want to agree with you, but I won’t until I feel completely convinced. Fifth, I may add more ground rules at any time.

Alright, enough of that crap. Let me really begin by saying first that I’m not a big fan of Setting Exploration, especially if I already know a lot about the Setting. However, I am VERY interested in Setting as one of the major elements of an RPG. The sad thing is though, that the methods and tools for Setting Design have (IMHO) lagged waaaaay behind those for System and Character design. So what I want to do with this series of articles is create some tools for Setting-generation for myself and anyone who finds this blog useful.

The Provisional Glossary defines setting as: “Elements described about a fictitious game world including period, locations, cultures, historical events, and characters, usually at a large scale relative to the presence of the player-characters. A Component of Exploration.” That’s helpful to some degree. It gives us a starting point for components of a Setting and its purpose in-game. One thing it doesn’t mention, that I feel is important, is that every game has a Setting. Even so called setting-agnostic games like GURPS, Universalis, or Rolemaster have Settings. Sometimes those settings are created by the players in-game (Universalis) or sometimes those settings are implicit based on genre tropes like elves, swords, and magic (Rolemaster). But to really get any use out of a definition of Setting, we must understand what makes up Setting.

At the moment, I have identified nine aspects of Setting. They are:

-Authority (as in Government/Rulers/etc.)
-Social Situation
-Where the PCs Fit In
-Dynamic Forces
-The Mutables

ALL of these are important to a Setting, but not all of them are always present. The first five aspects I call Lesser Aspects. Not because they are unimportant (remember I said all aspects have importance) but because if they are absent, the game can still be quite functional. If you never read the reams of history that comes with Forgotten Realms, you could still quite easily play in the setting. Not knowing the exact geography of New York City does not necessarily stop you from playing Vampire in that local. Knowing what form of government Ptolus has will probably not be essential to a dungeon crawl in that city. Skipping reading the mythology or religion section of Middle-earth (while it is really cool) doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy playing in that setting. These five are important but are not necessary for a design.

The bottom four aspects I call Greater Aspects of Setting. Not because they are more important than the others, but because they are requisites for a Setting to be functional. A Setting must have inhabitants (Characters) in order for it to be useful in an RPG. Who lives in the world? What’s the diversity like? Knowing where the PCs fit in is vital. What is their place in the world? How does the world see them? Dynamic Forces are forces that directly impact the characters. It can be anything from orcs to secret police to a terrorist organization. Where does the conflict in the Setting come from? What do the players play against? Finally, the mutables. These are things the PCs can change in the world. What can the player-characters impact? How do their actions matter in the context of the Setting?

In the next part of this series, I’ll go into greater detail for each aspect. This article is merely to get my ideas down and get some feedback. Hopefully, by the end of this I’ll have something akin to the Power 19 for Setting Design.