Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does Setting Still Matter? part 5


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 vacuum.

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 true (roleplaying).  

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 place.