Monday, November 13, 2006

What is Setting? part 1

Heya,

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:

-History
-Geography
-Authority (as in Government/Rulers/etc.)
-Social Situation
-Mythology/Religion
-Inhabitants
-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.

Peace,

-Troy

20 comments:

Frank said...

Hmm, are the first five elements optional because they really are details of the last four elements? Hmm, color probably needs to be an element, and that's where all the bits of the first five elements that don't apply to the last four belong.

For example, social situation might clarify the inhabitants, define how the PCs fit in, be a source of dynamic forces, or be one of the mutables.

Authority and mythology/relgion can certainly fit in those also. Geography and history may not be so applicable, though they can still set a foundation for the inhabitants, clue the PCs in as to how they fit in, be the jumping off point for dynamic forces, and geography certainly could be a mutable, and certainly the mutables generally have an initial state supported by history (and probably geography).

Frank

Tim said...

My feeling is that 'game world' and 'campaign frame' are two different things, and the word 'setting' is sometimes abiguously used to cover both. To give an example of sorts, The World of Darkness is a game world, Vampire is a campaign frame.

In a lot of games, either gameworld and campaign frame are one and the same, or the emphasis is on the campaign frame with the gameworld sketchily defined. But that's not universally true for all settings.

A game with a strong gameworld but sketchy campaign frame(s) can run into problems; IMO this is the central weakness of GURPS:Transhuman Space.

To my mind, the first five elements are attrbutes of the game world. The bottom four are elements of the campaign frame.

Does this make any sense?

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

Very interesting, Tim... Do you believe the "campaign frame" is something that is constructed by the game's designer, the players, or both depending on the type of game it is?

Peace,

-Troy

Troy_Costisick said...

Frank,

If Color is a larger catagory on the level of Mutables, Dynamic Forces, and Inhabitants, what makes up Color? Is it just the aspects I listed, or are there more aspects that make it up that are routinely seen in RPG Settings?

If you had to break up Color into siginicant subgroups, what would they be?

Peace,

-Troy

Frank said...

Hmm, if we break it into two layers, I'd add to the layer that includes history, etc.:

Tone (dark/light/etc.)

Genre fits in somewhere, I'm inclined to think that it goes alongside tone, history, etc.

In addition to color at the new level, I think scope is another factor (city, region, nation, continent, world, galaxy, etc.). In a sense, this is related to geography, but I think it's a higher level category. But maybe not. And maybe it really is geography, and only maters to the extent that it fits into color, inhabitants, where the PCs fit in, dynamic forces, or the mutables.

Hmm, I guess I see the color/inhabitants/where the PCs fit in/dynamic forces/mutables as the skeleton, and history/geography/myth/government etc. as the flesh.

And I'm wondering if inhabitants really is flesh and not bones (with the bones part of that which probably was why you came up with the idea being "where the PCs fit in").

This idea definitely needs more thought.

And it seems like Tim is seeing the same distinction I am seeing - though I'm not quite sure I'd use the same terms.

Frank

Troy_Costisick said...

Frank,

Here's my perspective on what you're saying about Color. Color can amplify anything. Not just the Lesser Aspects but also the Greater Aspects.

When a designer goes from saying, "My world has inhabitants" to "My world has elves, dwarves, and lizardmen..." he's just added Color. When he goes from "My world has an active force opposing the PCs" to "There is a Dark Lord trying to conquer the planet" he's just added Color.

I don't see Color as a component of Setting, but as an additive that makes all aspects of a game bigger and better. I would'nt list it in my aspects of setting, because Color goes with each and every one of them. So really, you can look at the aspect list like this:

-History + Color
-Geography + Color
-Authority + Color
-Social Situation + Color
-Mythology/Religion + Color
-Inhabitants + Color
-Where the PCs Fit In + Color
-Dynamic Forces + Color
-The Mutables + Color

But now we're getting off topic a bit. Color deserves its own article which it will get in the future. I definately appreciate you bringing up the topic. In my eyes Color enhances the components of Setting but is not itself a component.

Peace,

-Troy

Tim said...

Troy,

Depends on the game. Both Gameworld and Campaign Frame (for want of better terms) can equally well be created by either designer or player.

There have been a lot of games where the designers create the gameworld, and leave it to the players to define the campaign frame; some of those have worked, and some haven't.

I can't think of any published game with a strong campaign frame where the players create the setting around it.

Frank said...

Troy,

Ok, I'll buy color as separate.
Hmm, are the greater aspects just aspects of situation?

Tim,

What about Traveler (as originally published, excluding suplements)? Now I wouldn't call it strong campaign frame, but what setting details it had largely fall into campaign frame (details on creating worlds, ships, and characters, plus rules for trade that provide at least a minimal framework for dynamic forces and mutables).

What about implied settings?

Frank

Tim said...

Frank,

You're going right back to the primordial dawn of RPGs with '3 Black Books' Traveller. But you're absolutely right about it specifying campaign frames without much of an overall game universe.

And it's even more true when you get to 1st Edition AD&D, when they're really wasn't anything other than The Inn, and Ye Olde Magic Shoppe outside of the dungeon. Amazing how we forget the ancient past :)

Can you give me an example of what you mean by implied settings?

Stefan / 1of3 said...

Nearly all of you did throw around some additional words: color, genre, situation. That is not useful, unless you say exactly what you think the terms mean.


tim wrote:
"My feeling is that 'game world' and 'campaign frame' are two different things, and the word 'setting' is sometimes ambiguously used to cover both."

Indeed. What you call campaign frame, I usually call core story, but I agree that it is absolutely essential to keep that seperate from the game world.

In fact this campaign frame is the think asked for in Big 3: "What do the characters do?"


troy wrote:
"When a designer goes from saying, "My world has inhabitants" to "My world has elves, dwarves, and lizardmen..." he's just added Color. When he goes from "My world has an active force opposing the PCs" to "There is a Dark Lord trying to conquer the planet" he's just added Color.

I don't see Color as a component of Setting, but as an additive that makes all aspects of a game bigger and better. I would'nt list it in my aspects of setting, because Color goes with each and every one of them. So really, you can look at the aspect list like this:"

This, I think, strange take on the matter. But it's somewhat similar to my - and apparently tim's position. This active force is again something to answer "What do the players do?" and the Evil Lord is part of the game world.

Frank said...

Continuing the trend of going back to the dawn, when D&D first came out, all it had was an implied setting (oh, well, actually, it did provide a hint of geography, and as a result, I still have a copy of Avalon Hill's Wilderness Survival...).

I guess where I see implied setting fitting into this picture is that it's something even less than a campaign frame. Traveller at least gave you some rules from which you could create a universe and a framework of trade. D&D provided a lot less (I don't have my copy handy here at work... did it even show a sample dungeon?).

Implied setting may not provide much more than inhabitants (and even then it may be very slim - when I started running Cold Iron, I didn't even have a monster manual, I had a chart that showed how size, strength, and constitution worked together, plus the default human ability score range, plus a few hints I could gather from other GM's games). The equipment and character abilities add to that implied setting (by reading D&D, we can easily determine that it's medieval-ish, with magic, that fighting is a big thing, etc.).

I guess in a sense, I see campaign frame being very rules based where gameworld is much more descriptive (though it may still reference rules).

Frank

Tim said...

Frank - I understand what you mean now.

More general question - what about the physical environment? (such as Dark Sun's desert) Is that either part of Geography if it's mostly colour, or part of Dynamic Forces if it's such a harsh environment that it has a major impact on the game?

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

I see where you are coming from, Tim. The campaign frame is an interesting thought and I definately see how it's been used in the past. Harnworld would be an excelent example, IMO, of a wold that has been statically presented and left to the players to decide the Greater Aspects.

I would consider your campaign frame concept to be part of the "Setting." Setting is a combo of what is presented in the game's text and what is introduced into the shared imagined fiction of the players.

In design terms, think of it as a slide rule. On one end you have a Setting where all of the aspects are clearly laid out in the book and extensively detailed. The players are expected to use them as written without much if any modifcation. On the other end you have just a hint about a few of the aspects and then expect the players to create almost all of it during play or during prep.

There are all sorts of games in between those two extremes. And I'm sure everyone has an oppinion about which way is best. They're all right, and they're all wrong. It depends a lot on the designer's agenda for the game and players' agenda for playing it.

Does any of that make sense to ya? :)

Peace,

-Troy

Tim said...

Yep, makes perfect sense.

I do see both Gameworld and Campaign Frame as components of setting.

The reason I see them as two distinct things comes from experience of running FtF games using the science fantasy setting I've been using for a 10+ year ongoing PBeM.

The PBeM was very much all gameworld and no campaign frame. I threw the gameworld at the players, let them create characters that interested them, then built the game around what they'd come up with. The fact that the game is still running ten years later implies that I must have been doing something right.

The more recent tabletop games using the same setting have all been one-shot convention scenarios, and that approach simply won't work. The world background is also too much for players to absorb for a 4 hour convention slot, and a convention game has to be far more focussed. So I've been forced to come up with more restictive campaign frames within the setting.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

Sidenote: Tim, a 10 year PBeM?!?! Have you ever considered writing a game with mechanics specifically intended for play by email? You've got 10 years of experience doing it. I imagine you've come up with all sorts of cheats, short cuts, and enhancements for that style of play. Have you ever thought about it?

Peace,

-Troy

Bob the Paladin said...

Troy liked the blog. Just wanted to say keep up the good work.

Chris(Bob the Paladin

Bob the Paladin said...

Look forward to the series.

Bob the Paladin

Willow said...

Darn, I wish I'd seen this post earlier!

And here I was thinking I'd come into the comments, all smug, and be all like, "where's the Color?" And Frank has beaten me to the punch.

Ok, so: As you are re-examining Setting, we have to consider what that means in comparison to other things. You start with the Provisional Glossary definition, so I'll do the same:

"Color: Imagined details about any or all of System, Character, Setting, or Situation, added in such a way that does not change aspects of action or resolution in the imagined scene. One of the Components of Exploration."

In this context, it's a completely useless definition, because it references several other terms. Let's cut it down to size for this discussion:

"Color: Imagined little details about stuff."

We can consider History, Geography, Authority, and Social Situation to be BIG details, in which case they are above the scope of color, or they're little details, and they fall within it.

Two parting shots:

If some aspect of your elements of setting is equal to the sum of two other aspects of setting, does it stop being an element of setting?
(Example: If we assume that Social Situation is really just a combination of Inhabitants and Color, does that mean Social Situation isn't a true Setting element?)

Less theoretical parting shot:

In your original post, you mention 'genre tropes' as part of setting. I argue, what are 'genre tropes,' if not color?

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya,

Wow, you guys are really getting hung up on Color. I have written separate article for it, so you can check out what I have to say about it there.

Another problem you seem to be grappling with is that, at least from my view, you see each aspect as exclusive to the other aspetcts. They aren't. Every aspect could fall under Mutables - and none of them can. Every aspect can pertain to the Social Situation - and none of them can. Each Setting will have its own unique method of interweaving each aspect. Sometimes they will be exclusive to each other, and sometimes they'll be congruent.

I probably should have put that little diddy in the post somwhere. So, I'm glad it will at least appear in the comments section :)

Peace,

-Troy

checking said...

) Ed Cha is no longer running IPR. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press bought out his shares.

2) I've never had a relationship with Key20 of any sort. (Actually, can you please redact that statement from your post?)

As for Lulu, I should say upfront that I work for them. With that said - their prices aren't printing costs alone, but also providing a storefront and fulfillment. I use them for printing in bulk to send to IPR, and my prices end up about the same once I hit that bulk level.bohyme