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.

Friday, August 26, 2005

What is a setting?

The Forge's Provisional Glossary says of Setting:

Elements described about a fictitious game world including period, locations, cultures, historical events, and characters, usually at a large scale relative to the presence of the player-characters. A Component of Exploration.

I am not going to dispute that at all. In the context of Exploration, that definition is absolutely correct.
However, for today (and future discussion about the topic) I mean setting in the sense of guidance for play within a particular setting.
The way I see it, a setting has the following purposes:
  • Provide boundaries for character creation (what races, roles, etc. are appropriate? What abilities are available, encouraged, or forbidden?)
  • Provide in-game social context (e.g. the Empire is bad, the rebellion is good, the force is mysterious and powerful)
  • Assist in guiding expectations (e.g. no giant robots will show up in Middle Earth)
  • Provide a shared point of reference for players
Obviously there is some overlap. Am I missing anything? Is there some other important function of pre-exploratory setting?
Anyway, I'll take a close look at each of these purposes in upcoming posts.


Blogger Bankuei said...

Probably the most important function of Setting is helping set up Situations and conflicts.

The whole Empire-bad Rebellion-good thing is most important in the sense that it helps the group figure out how to establish situations based on that overarching conflict and create specific situations in play with specific conflicts they can work with.

Or, to oversimplify, the function of the Empire & Rebellion as setting pieces is to create laser fights, space ship battles, and Jedi duels.

Which is why Dogs in the Vineyard spends a lot of time setting up the social structure- because all the conflicts are about breaking it (by either the Townspeople or the Dogs themselves).

Friday, August 26, 2005 7:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Settings in a roleplaying game are like any other tool. A kitchen knife used to cut bread works just fine and usually doesn’t cause a problem. A kitchen knife used as a wood chisel is a danger to both the user, those around the user, and the success of the project itself.

However, settings can occasionally be a quirky tool to use properly. The strengths of using a pre-established setting can quickly turn into weakness, if one isn’t conscientious about the whys and hows. A key consideration in using any setting is how developed is the setting is at the time you start using it. All settings are definitely not built alike, in that regard. A setting that has two or three sourcebooks and a novel or two is a much different tool then a setting that already has 6 movies, dozens of novels, and a veritable library of sourcebooks.

The easiest settings for everyone to use are the ones with little published development. Research is a fairly quick process, encompassing an “expert” knowledge of the setting is not difficult for either GMs or players, the knowledge gap between the experts and the ignorants among players is not particularly large, and summarizing information for one’s players is a fairly straightforward process. Downsides include getting players unfamiliar with the setting interested in the setting (oft times, there is a reason why a given setting has not been developed much already, particularly among older settings). Frankly, using a published setting with little published backing is not too much different then using a setting of your own creation. It has essentially the same challenges and advantages associated with it. Consequently, I’m not going to address that set of circumstances too much further in this post.

It is my impression that Mr. Loomis is primarily addressing published RPG settings with a relatively large and/or ever-growing body of development. In other words, fantasy/sci fi settings such as Star Wars (yes, yes, I realize Star Wars is not sci fi; let’s not lose sight of this topic over unrelated semantics), Legend of the Five Rings, Forgotten Realms, or Dragonlance; or pseudo-real-world settings like Call of Cthuhlu, Spycraft, or Vampire the Masquerade. The advantages have already been cited well by Mr. Loomis: no need to do ones own development and easy availability of resources and story ideas. So the rest of this will deal with the challenges that have to be overcome in order to make published settings useful in an actual RPG.

The primary challenge a GM has to overcome when using a published setting is a diversity of knowledge (both among your players as well as between you and each of your players). It is almost guaranteed that, in every gaming group, you will have player knowledge ranging from almost complete ignorance of the setting (or, even more dramatically, complete misconception) all the way to players who know considerably more about the setting then you do.

Unfortunately, there are no universal ways to deal with this challenge; a GM pretty much needs to address individual solutions tailored to each player independently. Addressing this first challenge requires a GM to adhere to what is, for me and my own GMing style anyway, Rule Numero Uno: Know Your Players. All too often, a GM fails to consider what he or she knows about the people they are running a game for, and the game almost inevitably lacks enjoyment for one or more people at the table as a direct consequence of that oversight. By knowing the players at your table, you will also have a sense for what they already know and don’t know, how they might structure their roleplaying (especially for setting-specific elements!), and how much and what you will have to convey to each of those players person to mesh their knowledge with your game’s story. Here are ten rules that have worked in the past for me to address this challenge (offered in no particular order):

1. Always start small when using published settings. Think about the better novels and movies based on those settings; they almost always start small and build, in order to pull in audiences initially unfamiliar with the setting. Lower-level (translate as appropriate for the game system) characters do not require their players to know as much about the setting as higher-level characters. Another advantage of this is a GM has to spend much less time at the front end of the new ongoing game doing advance research. There is a related issue that comes up in this however, and I address it in rule number 6 below. Related to this, initially avoid game themes that run contrary to the “start small” concept. Games that require a large amount of setting knowledge and character interaction, such as intrigue, mystery, or politics, are not good starting points. You can move there eventually, of course, but only after the group has settled into the setting. Now that isn’t to say that you have to limit yourself to mindless hack-n’-slash action, starting out (among other factors, you may not have player characters suited to that). But the first few games should have small scope, with consequences that are not going to carry forward too far in the game. For more cerebral player character groups, exploration or courier adventures are almost always good compromises that can be rolled into more player-proactive games down the road.

2. Encourage players who are not previously familiar with the setting to play character concepts that do not require an in-depth knowledge of the setting. Leave those concepts for the players that are experts of that setting, and encourage said experts to pursue those characters.

3. Write up one-page “your character will know this” essays for each of your players. Keep them focused (it’s tempting to offer broad information on the setting that a lowly member of that setting would not necessarily know as “background”; a temptation that must be avoided). Ideally, about two-thirds to three-quarters of the essay should be the same for every player, with the last bit specific to each character. Edit yourself strictly on this. If this essay goes over 1 page typed in length, you are probably not adhering well enough to rule number 1 and need to reconsider the scope of your game starting out.

4. Avoid the temptation to allow people to play anything they want available to the setting (instances of this tend to manifest themselves primarily from the players who know a lot about the setting). The effect of differences in player knowledge (as well as your knowledge with them) will be exaggerated greatly. You don’t have to have thought of every concept forbidden for your game from the get-go. If a player is making a character that you fear is not going to work in your game, stop them wasting both their time and yours, and help them find a more compatible direction. There is no reason for allowing everything.

5. Avoid the temptation of “contrived” meetings. Honestly, established settings provide so many possible mechanisms for assembling player character groups, a GM really has no excuse, other then simple laziness, for resorting to that tire old “you all meet in a tavern and decide you like each other” cliché. The most successful novels and movies largely do not do this…neither should you in your stories (remember that, if a setting has been developed by either novels, comics, and/or movies, those are going to be the benchmarks a GM will be measured against, in terms of success and enjoyment of the game, especially by the players that know about the setting). In keeping with the start small rule, it is usually best to start a group out knowing each other (grew up in the same small town, etc.). Too many a player out there seems to think it good to “force” other players to justify why their characters are “acceptable” to that player’s character in a “meetings”-type scenario. Unless you don’t have one of those players in your group (and that is quite rare), “contrived meetings” start points are rarely worthwhile in an established setting.

6. Talk to your more “expert” players in advance about your game and their role in it. These are the people who are going to have certain knowledge and expectations from you, as a storyteller, that will break your game if you chose ignorance (willfully or otherwise). Find out what they want to play. Discuss what they already know about both the setting in general, and the concepts they want to play in particular.

Rule 6 is of critical importance and gains a GM several benefits that would otherwise become substantial flaws. First of all, it’s a point of respect in polite society to acknowledge someone else’s knowledge, particularly if that knowledge is likely greater then your own. As a culture, gamers have a real hard time respecting one another, as many online forums demonstrate, and that’s a serious flaw in the culture that really needs changing anyway. The “expert” will appreciate the opportunity to “show off” the knowledge that, in truth, the expert has probably put a bunch of time, effort, and money into gaining (and that appreciation will likely translate into goodwill if and when your game gets rocky later on). And, frankly, your pride as a GM should not be so delicate as to exclude you from learning a little something from your peers into the bargain (or else you have much bigger and more immediate problems then the challenges of implementing an established setting in your games). The other gain, and possibly the much more critical one, is that you will find out what expectations the player has of you, as the GM. Don’t disregard the value of this out of hand; one has only to read the outcry against George Lucas in the last six or so years over a certain two or three movies to guess at the potentially serious consequences of disappointing fans of an established settings.

A common mistake made with rule number 6 is to listen to your players, take what the players have to say “under advisement”, and fail to tell them where your story will be deviating or departing from some of that players expectations. Don’t be an ass. Unless you are thoroughly stupid (and the vast majority of successful GMs out there aren’t) you are not likely to give away any big and glorious secrets about your campaign by indicating some of the directions you are planning and talking with your player experts about some of the directions they expect to see. So don’t play coy. Rule number 6 is about discussion, not just about listening.

8. Remember that settings have to grow. And eventually, characters in that setting may develop to the point where they become “too big” for the setting. At that point in time, it might be best to consider restarting a game, rather then push a game forward long after the charm of playing in that setting has been lost. As a related point to this rule, be careful not to get too chained down to a setting that is still growing in the publishing world. Too many GMs online have reported “not being able to do anything meaningful” in their games set in settings being published for fear of contradicting future product. This is an empty fear, in my view. If a GM continues to just keep up with rules 6 and 10, her or she shouldn’t have any problems with this.

9. Do not…I repeat…Do not allow players to make “the exception to the rule” characters. Trust me, there is almost no long-term value to allowing such character concepts. The novelty wears off too quickly, and there comes little to replace the novelty soon enough because the character is not connected in a well-established fashion with the setting. It just isn’t worth it. Along the same lines, enforce your own edicts against certain character types. No matter how much your player might wheedle or negotiate with you on a “compromise exception”, it’s probably not going to be worth it in the long run. Moreover, you will have to deal with confusion from the players unfamiliar with the setting, as they hear that a certain character concept is “rare” or “impossible”, and then see one every day in their own player character group. Player characters in an RPG should become exceptional and influential in the setting (that is one of the key points of any RPG). However, that should not be thought to come from playing “exception to the rule” characters.

10. My final rule for using established settings relates to rule 6. Remember that you will always have players who, while they might not start out setting experts, are going to go out and do lots of research when you get your game moving. Its important to note that the most enthusiastic about this are quite often the people who start out thoroughly ignorant about the setting. This is something to be encouraged, and used to your advantage, of course. And, if you Know Your Players, like you should, you should know exactly which players are the ones most likely to do this research. Consequently, apply rule number 6 more then just at the beginning of your campaign. Find out what your enthusiastically-researching players are reading. Find out what they are learning. Help them prioritize read the sources that you want them to read, encourage them to avoid the stuff you don’t want to read (and tell them why; forbidding someone to do something without telling them why is an invitation to disaster for your game). If you adhered to my rule number 1, then the growth of that player can be translated directly into the growth of that player’s character in the setting. This is the kind of organic growth process between player and character is often described by the more successful published authors when talking about their own characters as one novel becomes two and two become a trilogy. These authors often talk about learning more about their characters, and how those characters connect with the world around. This translates directly into success in writing. Use this fact to your game’s advantage.

Using an established setting requires you take advantage of its strengths. And not let those strengths become weaknesses.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 12:03:00 PM  
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