Setting does matter

24 November, 2007 at 10:44 pm (game design, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , )

Most people accept that system does matter. But so does setting, at least as much (it must be true because Troy Costisick has said it before). Setting is tenously defined as the diegetic (in-game) context of the actual play.

How does setting matter? Well, I’d start with players often having preferences to some direction, and away from some other directions. I am a dark fantasy junkie, for example, but dislike running Cyberpunk. A friend has an unexplained dislike towards guns in gaming. These tastes are overwhelmingly subjective. Conclusion: Don’t play in setting someone hates. Do play in settings people are ambivalent about, because trying new things is useful.

On more technical note, setting is a large contributor in the sort of events that can take place and, hence, stories that can be told. Rarely do they completely rule out genres, but they often suggest and facilitate certain broad ways to play. If vampires are a major theme in the game, most likely possibilities are horror of them chasing you, horror of being them, high-action or gritty vampire hunting, or the political etc. ramifications of supernatural beings. Comedy, for example, is not ruled out, but neither is it particularly made easier by the vampires.

Setting design

I am assuming that the reader is a GM designing a setting for gaming purposes. If publication is in mind, this article is probably useful. If world-building in and of itself is the goal, with a distinct possibility of someday gaming in the setting, the Campaign Builders’ Guide is a useful resource (it is good if you intend to game, too).

The most important thing is not to overdesign. Nobody but you is really interested in the fine details of the kingdom’s dressing habits during the summer solstice, unless they are somehow very interesting. And if everything is full of interesting detail, the setting is utterly overwhelming to anyone trying to learn it. Further, such a setting will feel cluttered.

The other most important thing is to not under-design. It is very possible to start with freeform or very light system and more detail as play goes on, but starting with next to no setting is hard. The first reason is that players need something to inspire their characters. “You can play anything!” is far from useful. Second reason is that improvisation and keeping the game consistent are hard without a baseline.

So, one requires a suitable level of detail to create the optimal setting. The actual amount is, of course, a factor of group’s playstyle. GM, if any, needs to know enough to set up the game. Depending on play style, this may be a situation (the orcs are attacking the village where you have lived your entire lives; D&D-esque fantasy) or a location (the city is large, approximately medieval, and limited by two rivers and the ocean; create shady characters; little if any magic). This needs to be communicated to players. Again, depending on play style, GM may need enough material to prepare an adventure, or to build a relationship map, or map a dungeon, or whatever. When player characters are created, again depending on group style, additional material such as NPCs (contacts and relationships of the PCs), houses, organisations, cities, monsters, and so forth, may be required or created.

That’s all well and good for starting the game, but to keep it running smoothly, further information may be necessary or at least useful. One option is to be creative and create more-or-less original and new material. A second, far more economic, method has been adequately explained by Chris Chinn over Deeper in the Game, but I can do a summary of the piece: Apply real world stuff, or other known material (Star Wars, Tolkien, D&D, Cthulhu mythos, …). A culture that is “like ancient Romans” or a religion that is “Christianity with different symbols” are both very easy to use in play. Another powerful method is taking or making up an arbitrary game element and creating an intuitive explanation for it. For geography, “archipelago”, “great plains”, “huge delta with rainforests” or an overall map are likely sufficient for quite some time.

Some of the most important roles of setting simply snuck in: The role of PCs, the things they can change, and the things that can affect them. These are often emergent qualities, but sometimes part of the concept. They should be thought about, either way. Simply saying “You can play anything!” is, again, not useful. Some examples are either necessary or damn useful. A setting inspired by vikings might have the coming of Ragnarök as an immutable factor (there is no way to prevent it) that pushes the PCs around by threatening that which they hold in value. Or it may be something that needs to be stopped, NOW. The game will have a different feel in both cases.

For more detail on elements that compromise a setting, see Troy Costisick’s relevant article. And for good list of things to think true and potentially write down, see another article by the same author. Both are highly recommended.

How much detail should one create? For me, the sweet spot is in just enough to improvise all sorts of fun details, but not so much that I have to reference anything or fear making big mistakes. Your mileage may vary.

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The purpose of rules

24 November, 2007 at 12:00 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , , , )

I have dabbled in freeform. It works. This begs the question; why use rules at all?

There have, naturally, been several good answers to the question. One famous comes from the Forge and is called Lumpley principle: “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules‘) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” In essence: System, including the rules, tells who can say what and when (“what” regarding the fiction). So, what are the implications? First, all games with one GM and number of players who only decide things about the behaviour of their characters are fundamentally the same. Second, there are alternatives to that model. Third, there is always a system; rules just make it explicit.

Another, more recently surfaced, theory says that rules share spotlight (originally from Ben Robbins, further elaborated by Fang Langford here, here and here). The implications include that rules which create separate subgames (hacking in Cyberpunk) not accessible to all players are bad. In turn-based environment, such as many combat systems, rules that give extra actions should be considered carefully. Critical hits and fumbles are actually meaningful rules; they give random bursts of spotlight to players. The purpose of rules is to regulate spotlight away from those who would have it in freeform gaming.

Rules also create shared expectations with regards to the fiction and player behaviour generally, which is probably more important. The Mountain Witch (Vuoren velho in Finnish) has rules for betrayal and every player knows that every other player has a dark secret. This creates the atmosphere where betrayal is assumed to happen, at some point, and hence reduces the potential for damage that may happen with unexpected interparty conflict (see also: this RPGsite thread). Game art and such also contribute in similar manner. Under this point of view rules make the gameplay smoother; less need for negotiation, fewer mistakes that need fixing.

“The rules are the physics of the game world.” is often heard. I am going to extend it a bit: Rules define setting. The effect is not necessarily straightforward, but it is there. D&D dwarves are harder to hit by giants. There might be several reasons for this, or none at all, but it will be reflected in the setting somehow. What does this imply? Well, first, the more rules, the more defined the setting will be. This may be a perk or a flaw. Second; setting andrules interact. Choosing one will or should affect the other. Third, if you want a setting that does make sense internally, take a good look at the rules and how to translate them into in-game (diegetic) information.

Rules create tactical and strategic sub-games. Some are very explicit about this, some far less so, but at least the combat or generic conflict resolution systems tend to be minigames. Implications: Make them meaningful and fun, given that they are there.

In summary, there are several ways of looking at the purpose of rules. When selecting a ruleset, or designing one, it is useful to look at it from several perspectives.

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Go Play

24 November, 2007 at 11:06 am (roleplaying) (, )


A meme that started in Story-Games and spread through and other forums. It is basically a symbol for identifying other gamers. It is also a reminder to, no matter how engrossed one is at writing theory or reviewing games or whatever, go and play. Know it. Use it.

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