Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A bit about setting

I used to really enjoy my roleplaying. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, when games were a bit different. For a while I thought that it was the systems that I missed. Then I tried playing in the Hero System again and it kind of hurt. No, it wasn't the systems I missed--it was the settings.

When I was a free-wheeling RPG geek in high school I never (and I mean *never*) used an established setting. If I used a module (and this was extra-rare) I adapted it to fit my own setting. So when I (or someone in my group) wanted to run a new game, a campaign write-up was created. This was usually a document ranging from 1 to 10 pages in length that described the set-up for the game in terms of uber-plot and provided house rule and character limitation information (I was playing GURPS and Hero, so you needed to know how many points and what was and wasn't allowed).

After I left home and went to the Air Force, my gaming changed a bit. It was the early nineties and RPGs were morphing into thick tomes of fiction with some rules thrown in. I started to look at all of the detailed setting information published by the game designers with excitement. I mean, here was a wealth of detail and I didn't have to do any work for it. Joy!

After a while, I got into published setting material. But I found that, when I started a game, nobody else had read the books. So I had to start explaining the setting to people (I thought). I got to the point where I thought everyone needed a firm grounding in the campaign setting before we played. In practice, as I'm sure you can imagine, this blew for me. People want to play the game, not read books. I got frustrated.

Now I'm back to where I started, and more. I want to play with loosely defined setting. During play, the group as a whole can focus the lens on anything that is interesting to them. Whole aspects of the setting can be completely ignored and, since nobody has done a lot of work or research, nobody is pissed at its absence.

The problem with detailed published settings is that players invest in them. They buy books, they read the books, they play the tie-in card games. Then they form expectations. Those expectations are rarely even close to the same as the expectations that another player in the group formed about the exact same stuff. No matter how you slice it, someone isn't happy.

I want to talk about how to make a good setting. But what do you folks reading want to focus on? Do you have strong opinions about what a setting should or should not be? Have others gone through a similar arc of loose through detailed back to loose settings? Has anyone gotten really into a detailed setting and had luck making it work with your group?

29 Comments:

Blogger Shreyas said...

I really think that the reason we oscillate between levels of detail is because we want detail, but it ha to be relevant detail to work for us, and most often, that means that we either have to surrender creative control to some faceless alien who's not part of our game group (a risky proposition 'cause we might not align with prewritten stuff well), or make crap up (a risky proposition because we aren't necessarily good judges of what makes setting relevant and useful).

So we're stuck between two things that basically suck.

My strong opinion is that a good setting starts with a loose-looking frame, but has strong, tight tools that allow you to fill in pieces as they become relevant, while still retaining whatever elements constitute that setting's identity. This is a kind of neat trick, and I'm not sure I've seen it pulled off yet. I'm looking forward to it, though!

Thursday, August 25, 2005 9:59:00 PM  
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Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Not sure what's with the spam. :(

Shreyas, who if not the players is qualified to determine what makes setting material relevant and useful? Not being bitchy, just asking what you think.

Thursday, August 25, 2005 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi,

Having just finished an L5R campaign, I can totally identify with that concern. The benefit to a personalized setting is that no one is coming in with expectations- it's a blank sheet and what you choose to share becomes the understanding. With pre-established settings, you might have to go through the effort of undoing long standing preconceptions that other folks have gathered by investing in the setting.

For instance, in my L5R game, 3 of the players were intimately familiar with the CCG & the metaplot, neither of which I gave 2 damns about. I'd much rather drop all that crud and focus on the players.

On the flip side, a common setting is usually what jazzes people and makes them want to play.

Friday, August 26, 2005 9:01:00 AM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

Jay, um, I had to think a while before I figured out what I meant my that statement. I guess I was being opaque yesterday.

My opinion is that players don't tend to be good judges of relevancy and usefulness, not because they're not good at judging, but because they don't consider those factors all the time.

Given unconstrained ability to create setting, it's very easy to make far-flung, disconnected things that end up being ignored or treated as wholly different environs, and I'm not sure that's good.

It's pretty easy to have some disconnected idea and then, like, want to use it anyway, and avoid rendering the "useless/irrelevant" judgement on it; people get attached to their ideas.

So the point of setting tools is to head off that distraction, or, even better, make it easier for players to take something that could have been distracting, and make it into a harmonious and relevant part of the whole.

Friday, August 26, 2005 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

OK, Shreyas, I see what you're talking about now. You want something to stop random inclusion of disconnected stuff into the setting. Like you're playing a gritty, high-medieval semi-historical game and a player wants to bring in giant talking squid or something. Is that the idea?

So here's a question: is the following enough?
If a player doesn't like something that another player introduces, he can call a veto vote. Then all the players vote yea or nay on the new thing.

Friday, August 26, 2005 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Shreyas said...

Yeah, you've got it.

I think your suggestion is a half-correction; something slightly better would require the vetoer to supply an alternative, and something better still would constrain the possible alternatives.

But, even as a half-correction, it's a pretty good one.

Saturday, August 27, 2005 12:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Sydney Freedberg said...

I'm a bit late to the party, but let me strongly recommend

(a) this discussion on Vincent Baker's blog "Anyway": http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=73

(b) this series of posts I wrote using Star Wars as an example: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=16425.msg175442#msg175442

(No, I don't know how to do tags. I am sad.)

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