Friday, December 01, 2006

What is Setting? part 2


This is the second part of a running series on Setting. If you have not read Part One, it might be a good idea to go back and do that.

Okay, since my last post on Setting I have learned a few things. First, I learned (or really, re-learned) that each Aspect has two dials (say from 1 to 10). When the first dial (call it Strength of Emphasis) dial is turned to zero, it means that the Aspect in question is probably not mentioned in the game text. When turned to 10, it receives a great deal of text devoted to it. If the second dial, call it Strength of Relevance, is turned to zero, that means that Aspect is just not critical to playing the game. If it is turned up to 10, then that Aspect is the focus of play. And of course, there is all sorts of settings in between.

The second thing I learned was that I had left out a couple Aspects that could be potentially important. The first covers things like technology, infrastructure, and magic/psionics in a setting. I have decided to call that Aspect category “Resources.” The second Aspect I feel I left out was aids to players and GM who are using a Setting. Things like maps, illustrations, graphics, hints, and so on would fall into the Enhancement category. I’ll elaborate on these more later in this article. But I anticipate more adding and combining these aspects as we continue on. So, provisionally, here is the list of Setting Aspects:

Setting Aspect List:

(Lesser Aspects)
-Authority (as in Government/Rulers/etc.)
-Social Situation

(Greater Aspects)
-Where the PCs Fit In
-Dynamic Forces
-The Mutables

With today’s article, I only want to explain how I define each aspect. You may use a different definition, and that’s fine. Please share it! I do not claim to be any expert on this. At the end of this article, I plan on talking about Short Cuts designers can use to get around using these Aspects the way I describe.

Lesser Aspects:

History: History, simply, is the accurate or inaccurate account of major events in a world’s, city’s, local’s past and potentially future. I say both accurate and inaccurate because misinformation is a tool designers can use to create mystery in their Setting. For instance, if the official history of Terra in 2259 is that humans first made contact with aliens in 2150 but in truth, the governments were in contact with them much earlier, this would be an instance of inaccurate History and a potential point of exploration for the characters. If the elves claim they once ruled the world, but in truth it was the orcs, then the origin of the false belief and its ramification are up for grabs as campaign hooks. I also suggest that History can include the future. I think Hero Wars is an excellent example. The world is going to end in the Hero Wars. That much is certain. But what do you do to preserve what you have for now? Another potential example of a History including the future could be a game based on Norse mythology that made a big deal about Ragnarok.

Geography: Geography is the physical make up of the world/city/local. If it is a city, then Geography is buildings, streets, sewers, alleys, and so forth. If it is a planet, then Geography include mountains, oceans, rivers, cities, swamps, etc. I’m going to call Geography different from the *map* because a map is a tool that can be used by the players. Geography can be described with a map or without a map. The two are not dependant upon each other.

Authority: Authority in a Setting does not refer to who gets the right to say what about what among the participants. For this Aspect, I am referring to governmental authority. What person or groups are in charge of the laws, enforcement of the laws, and keeping the peace? This also covers their motivation for making and keeping these laws as it might affect the player-characters. Authority can include anything from an intricately detailed account of elections, voting procedures, representations, and judicial recourse. Or it could be something as simple as, “There’s a king!”

Social Situation: Social Situation can be called “The daily living conditions of the people.” This may include impending social upheaval such as a war, plague, invasion, election, etc. It may include economic status of the world/city/local or the interpersonal relationships impacting that local. The Social Situation is an intersection of the characters in the game (PC and NPC) and “What’s happening right now?”

Mythology/Religion: In some games, the way the world was created, the god or gods of the heavens, the role of faith and belief is just not important. In other games, the role of religion is central to the theme of play. Myth and religion can cover everything from the cosmology of the world to the spirituality of the world to the great heroic legends of yore. It almost always involves the supernatural, and its role in affecting the natural world. It is important to focus on how the myths and religions of a Setting impact the common person. How does it affect what they do, how they react, and how they think the world works?

Resources: For the purposes for this article series, “resources” refers to the advancements and discoveries that the world has made so far. This includes things like technology, architecture, science, magic, psionics, etc. For some games, this is totally a moot point (Cutthroat for example) for others it is central to the game’s Setting (Ars Magica for example). I’m open to a different name for this component. I don’t feel Resources fits it very well.

Enhancements: Enhancements are not really part of the Setting per se, but they may be part of the text. Enhancements include things like maps, character sketches, symbols, handouts, cards, graphs, and tables that help add detail and imagery to the other aspects of Setting. Think of Enhancements as the seasoning for Setting, but not the meal itself. Whatever you, as the designer, can add in a physical way to the game’s text to improve your communication to the reader about various aspects of the Setting can be considered an Enhancement.

Greater Aspects:

Inhabitants: These are the people, creatures, and plants that dwell in your Setting. This component is necessary in every sense. However, that doesn’t mean it is the most important aspect of a Setting. Think of the Inhabitants as the pool from which player-character can be drawn. Are there heroes? Villains? Various species? Mutants? The Inhabitants aspect covers not only what lives but also where it all lives. Are certain Inhabitants limited to one geographical area? Why? All of this goes together to make up the Inhabitants of a world/city/local.

Where the PCs Fit In: Okay, you have who and what lives in your Setting all sorted out. Great. Now how do the PCs fit into all of this? What is their role in society and how does society look at them? The PCs are special…in some way, shape or form. Whatever makes them special gives them a unique place in the world. This isn’t always a good thing. Their uniqueness may make them outcasts. It could be harmful to those around them. Or conversely, it could turn them into idols. Their “something special” makes them the wonder and envy of the world. Or anything in between. Part of deciding a Setting is deciding how the PCs fit into everything. They aren’t just shoehorned in at the last minute or glued to the side somehow. A good Setting will have their “specialness” integrated right into this aspect and all the others as well.

Dynamic Forces: Okay, you got who lives in Setting and what makes those PCs so darn special, now what about conflict? Oh yeah, every game needs conflict. Dynamic Forces are elements in the Setting that directly or indirectly oppose the player-characters. Dynamic forces could be anything from an army, to an invasion fleet, to a dragon, to orcs, to secret police, etc. It could also be things like inclement weather, a plague, a natural disaster, radiation, and so on. Dynamic Forces includes both Inhabitants that can oppose the characters and Environments that can oppose the characters. Some games will define these explicitly (Middle-earth Roleplaying for example) and some won’t (Prime Time Adventures).

The Mutables: Okay, Mutables are aspects of your Setting that the player-characters (and players) can change. Can they overthrow Sauron in Middle-earth or is he untouchable? Can they bring water to Arrakis or does it have to stay a desert? Stating what is mutable and what isn’t is often tacit. That means, a designer doesn’t come right out and say, “Nope, the Dark Lord is off limits!” It requires more finesse than that. First look at the Dynamic Forces. If they are world-spanning mega coalitions, then it’s probably not something the PCs can change. If, however, it is something local (say a band of thieves outside a village) then it’s quite probable the PCs can change it. It is good to have both mutable and non-mutable things in a Setting. The Mutables give PCs directions to go. The Immutables give them helpful constraints that prevent the game from spinning out of control.

Okay, this has gotten pretty long, but there is one more thing I want to talk about: Shortcuts. There are a lot of ways to get around having to address each one of these aspects in your game. One is to have your game set in a real-world time and location. For instance: “New York City, 2007” or “London in the 1870’s.” That right there will knock out most of the aspects of setting for you. Another way some people do it is to (legally) use some other intellectual property or license. Middle-earth, Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft, Dragonball, etc. all draw on prior knowledge for a Setting. If you can draw on that prior knowledge, then creating a Setting is simplified. Not everyone needs to do it that way, but people can.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. It’s a lot to absorb all at once. Thanks for reading!!!




Stefan / 1of3 said...

Some games call this ressource thing the tech level. If you don't like that, you might try 'arts' or stick to your own word: discoveries.

Frank said...

For resources, I would suggest Technology/Magic. If people were more open minded, you could just call it technology, but you want to include the possibility of fantastic technology (which would include magic).

Some may want to quibble about including magic with technology because they want magic to be mystical and, well, magical. But the game text still has to address the technology of magic, even if it makes an attempt to create mystery (which I'm not convinced can actually be done).


Eric Schwenke said...

Hey, I'm new to this game design stuff.
I'm not sure if you care, but I've got some thoughts on the whole "Resources" bit as it pertains to what I'm working on.
What you call "Resources" is what I'm calling "Civilization Advancement" and Magic Permissiveness for the Purity-of-System design I'm creating. "Magic Permissiveness" relates to the limits to magical power as defined by the environment of the setting, and "Civilization Advancement " is further divided into different types of cultural advancement including communication, metalurgy, power-sources, medicine, energy transfer, scientific knowledge, magical refinement, etc.
The difference between Magic Permissiveness and magic refinement can be summed up with the difference between compressing tectonic plates through force of will to create a mountain, and using your will to carve a statue out of said mountain.
I think that this is an important distinction between what is deemed possible due to the natural/supernatural laws of the setting and what is possible due to the developments of society.
I hope I'm not splitting hairs 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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