I haven’t written about Setting since2006, and that entry wasn’t very good.
I’m going to update my thoughts on Setting very briefly here today.
Why is Setting important? Yes, it’s an integral part of design. Yes, it’s one of the five areas (according to
Forge Theory) of exploration. Yes, it
sells lots of supplements. But that’s
not what I’m talking about.
Setting is important because it serves
two primary functions: (1) it gives the players some creative restraints with
which they can build their stories and (2) it keeps out useless, conflicting,
and often counter-productive Setting elements that creep in when there’s a
Let’s break down #1. Creative constraints (i.e. hard boundaries
for play) actually breed creativity, not quash it. People need some sort of hand-holds, or
“hooks” as the term is commonly used in RPGs, to give them a foundation. There have to be certain things that everyone
agrees are true before we can start making up stuff that might or might not be
Creating a rich setting sparks the
readers’ imaginations. If the Setting is
designed well and communicated clearly, the players can instantly see where
their characters should fit in and have a myriad of ideas about what their
characters can do. A good example of
this is Hero Wars. Set in Glorantha, the
setting is this game is all about the oncoming apocalypse. The PCs know the world is doomed, but they
are to be heroes none-the-less. Anyone
familiar with Norse mythology should easily be able to relate to that
scenario. It’s easy to image what a hero
fighting for a doomed cause might look like, act like, and die like. It’s beautiful. And it makes the games memorable.
As mentioned, the second purpose of
Setting in an RPG is to keep out counter-productive Setting elements. By this, I mean unfocussed, player-created
Setting elements. If no Setting is
provided in the rules, the players will start adding their own. If five people start trying to guide the
exploration of the Setting in five different directions all at once, you’re
going to get a pretty incoherent story.
Even worse, people will fall back on crappy entertainment tropes they’ve
learned from watching TV, movies, or reading Twilight novels (shudder).
Let’s look at GURPS. GURPS prides itself on being totally Setting
agnostic. “You can play anything
anywhere!” it likes to brag. The problem
with this is everyone might not be on the same page. We might have a mystery campaign on our hands
and one person has Sherlock Holmes in his mind, while another is channeling Dr.
Who, and another is introducing plot elements from MacGyver, and still another
thought that this was a caper campaign like Leverage. These things are not compatible and will very
likely lead to arguments, wasted moments of play, unfulfilled expectations, and
big ‘ole dose of the 20:4 ratio.
So, okay, we should at least state that
the game is a fantasy, science fiction, gothic horror, or some other sort of
genre, right? That’s enough of a Setting
to get play rolling, isn’t it?
Let’s look at D&D. Since 1978-or thereabouts-D&D has had
three core books: The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the
Monster Manual. From these games it’s
clear we’re playing fantasy. But what kind
of fantasy? Are we playing a lower-power
fantasy like the Lord of Rings? High
powered like the Silmarilion? Same
author. Totally different themes. Do animals talk and do whimsical things like
in Lewis? Is it a high-powered
magic-filled campaign like Vance? Just
saying something is “fantasy” or “horror” doesn’t help. It certainly doesn’t establish what conflicts
might exist between the NPCs and whether or not they’ll be relevant to the
players. It doesn’t establish group
expectations as to what type of play is in-bounds or out-of-bounds. It doesn’t give the GM much to go on other
than all the books, comics, and movies he’s familiar with. In short, it doesn’t help keep out all the
crappy motifs Hollywood and New York have pushed on us their various media over
the last century.
I’m not saying that you need to produce
a Setting on the scale of Forgotten Realms or Ptolus. In fact, my personal feelings on massive
settings like that is they reduce creative freedom rather than support it.
What I am saying is that your game needs
a setting. If only to keep out
disruptive content that you never intended to be part of play. Mass media is not the friend of RPG
designers. Often, it is the enemy. And giving your players something to work
with will when it comes to your Setting will increase enjoyment of your designs.
Addendum: There are exceptions of course. Prime Time Adventures and Universalis do not
have default Settings. However, Setting
is an integral part of play in those games, so by the time the story starts,
everyone actually is on the same page WRT when and where the action will take