Monday, September 20, 2010

How Important Is A Defined Setting?

Forgive the break from the usual stuff here about Game Mastering and playing, instead I want to talk about settings and how important they are to come with an RPG. Now, this is an idea I balked at at first, especially as it just seemed like a whole lot more work to do for the game I am making. However, after thinking about it from a distance, I quickly came around to agree with the people telling me that setting is important, especially for an otherwise unestablished game. Why? Read on to find out.

A Good Starting Point
The first way that a setting is a good thing to have with a new game is that it gives a good starting point. Sure, when dealing with basic genres (i.e. "modern adventure", "superhero", or "high Tolkien-esque fantasy") it may seem like one isn't needed, but it can still be a big help. Not everyone has the time, or inclination, to go about and make a whole fantasy world for the game they are running, and by providing a setting you are giving those GMs a way to play your game. Which really is the whole point right? You want people playing your game.

Above and beyond that, the setting will also, or should also, come with pre-made characters. These characters help to show how a finished character, made by someone who understands the rules, can come out looking. This gives a reference point for those people to make their own characters.

They're Quicker
Now, I mentioned this above in it being a good starting point, but a provided setting is also just quicker - and thus more appealing - for a group of people looking to play. Most people can read faster than they can write, and it is even faster to read than design a setting. Do you really want to let something like needing a location for your game to stop someone from playing, or buying, what you made?

They Can Take A Life of their Own
Think of some of the settings that you really like. Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Warhammer 40k, and so on down the line. Now in some of these cases the setting was there before the games, in others it was made for the games. But the settings took on a life of their own in all cases. All those settings have an ability to make something more epic, more fun, give the players a sense of being a part of something huge, just by being that setting. Do you want proof of this effect? It wasn't an accident that the first reveal of the third edition for Mutants and Masterminds was DC Adventures, or that Green Ronin advertised that acquisition so heavily. Then there are the other games by Green Ronin, as well as the Cortex systems games. Dragon Age, Supernatural, Leverage, and so on down the line. Games that, while being solid game, also make their claim by adapting existing settings to draw people in.

Do it right, and your setting could give the game a life of its own, or pull people it from the power of a few good ideas alone.

A Staging Ground For Ideas
The final reason I'm going to go into is that a provided setting gives a good staging ground for custom built settings. Ideas have a way of being contagious, but more than that, they have a way of giving birth to hundreds of related ideas for other people. These ideas however need something to set them off, and what better way to set off ideas for using your game than a setting built to go with it? How many fantasy worlds would we not have if Tolkien hadn't wrote Lord of the Rings? What if TSR had never come up with Fae Run of Forgotten Realms fame, Greyhawk, or Ravenloft?

What about you?
So what about you? Got anything to add to the strengths settings can offer? How important is a provided setting to you in buying a game? Let me know.


  1. I've experimented with various levels of detail for settings, whether self-created or published, and here are my conclusions:

    First, I LOVE settings. I like reading about them, they fire the imagination, and are for me the main "art" of RPG design. However, as the GM can read all that stuff and the players either can't (so that there is no spoilage) or don't (don't have the books or the time), much of that detail won't become relevant. The stranger (but more captivating) settings will be harder for players to get into (examples include GURPS Fantasy II, Tekumel, Jorune, Transhuman Space, and The Day after Ragnarok).

    I found my personal sweet spot lately when running the Savage Worlds Evernight campaign. SW uses Common Knowledge rolls to provide information on the setting as you go. I used this to leak information about the history and customs of the world, also including Common Common Knowledge (no rolls) in early descriptions. This became important because the campaign hinges on the players discovering the true and shocking history of the setting, so they must be able to relate those revelations to "what was previously believed". The revelation was last night, and without any reminders on my part, the revelations worked. In other words, I (or the campaign as written) laid in the history of the setting efficiently. It's a lesson I'll take with me to other games.

  2. Sounds like a very good way to handle it with the players. Though also sounds like something you'd need to be careful with. Too much detail, and you could lose some of the good stuff in the noise of all the other details.

    Settings are, it seems, primarily a GM tool, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing either. Since that is the person who needs the most help getting ready for a game, if only due to the amount of work that needs to be done.

  3. I love settings. From the skeletal sketch of a Known World first presented to me in "The Isle of Dread" to the pages of the Guides to Greyhawk. As Siskoid aid above, they "fire the imagination". At least, the good ones do. They are a jumping off point for the GM to put his own spin and get things in motion. Too much detail (at least if it is presented to the players) can be a bad thing. They may not share the GM's own preoccupation with the ancient history of the gaming world. But I personally like having that depth if I ever need it- and to introduce it little by little as the players explore the world and actually SEEK OUT information on it that is relevant to them.

    But as a GM I also reserve the right (even in "someone else's" setting) to completely change anything I want on the fly if it suits my campaign. In short, any setting that I run becomes my setting. Of course this has to be within SOME limits. If your Lord of the Rings Style campaign suddenly starts including Aliens and flying saucers...well, you're going to turn off those people who wanted a LotR setting.

    In my particular genre, Star Wars, I've altered lots of little details about this or that— especially the Expanded Universe stuff, but apart from a few minor things (stupid midicholorians) I have remained true to what we see in the movies. I've found this still leaves me with a hell of a lot of room of my own- to make the setting my own.

  4. I think the amount of detail the players know should be dosed realistically. Like real people, they know a lot about their immediate town, a good deal on their region, and nothing much about the world beyond, especially if the world is pre-communications revolution or huge (like a space opera).

    I would be very free with info for the immediate environment, leaving everything "out there" to be explored.

  5. Agreed with Siskoid. Characters should learn about the world mostly in play, the more they travel and research, the more they know.

  6. I like the points that you make about the pre-definied characters and how premade settings can actually fire creativity. I feel that boxed settings also offer a common ground for discussing games, say online or with friends who are part of a different gaming group. It gives everyone a good frame of reference and helps eliminate unneccessary time spent explaining.