How do Setting Elements Inspire?

edited January 2010 in Game Design Help
Whenever I discuss putting a setting in a game I always run into those who say that it restricts their freedom. Indeed, having a setting may be a narrower range of options than a blank page, but there's something that doesn't feel right about this argument. Let me start exploring what I want to discuss with an example:

Game 1: has a monster called Dwarven Warrior

Game 2: has 2 monsters, Dwarven Warrior and Dwarven Miner

Game 1 has less setting, but it suggests only one type of action, to fight. Meanwhile, game 2, with more setting, suggests some additional activities, such as freeing miners, or perhaps trade for metals. It seems to have more adventure possibilities.

There also seems to be a way to write games that limit adventure possibilities. White Wolf's World of Darkness and various games from Dream Pod 9 (Tribe 8 and Heavy Gear) seemed awful for this. For example:

Game 1: you worship the avatar of your god, who is the inspiration for your society and its ideological battle against the enemy

Game 2: you worship the avatar of your god, who awaits you on the other side of the enemy forces, so that together you may fight the final, war-ending battle

In this case game 2 is forcing the story in a particular direction more than in game 1, and doing so through providing more details.

I ask this because I am currently working on a game design for which I want to provide a lot of detail to the setting so that gamemasters can, in a moment of hurried need, open up the book and find something helpful. At the same time, I don't want to make the gamemaster feel forced into a corner, story-wise. So, now I pose a question to you, what is the difference between the two examples? Why do some setting details seem to open up possibilities, while others seem to close them?

Comments

  • Having setting elements that limit choices is a fine thing, nothing wrong with it.

    But these setting elements have to be somehow mechanically backed up.

    If you have a game with the Dwarven Warrior, it had better be a fun game to dwarf-up and fight in.

    If your game allows for both Dwarven Warriors and Dwarven Miners, it had better support the trade negotiations and such right along with the orc-splitting axe-play.

    A whole lot of this comes down to what people prefer and no setting nor game is going to please everyone.

    So, I dunno, I feel like I just said a whole lotta nothin'.

    Do you want to get more specific with what you are working on?
  • Additionally, if the game has: Dwarf. Then I can play a Dwarven fighter, miner, jeweler, smith, accountant, king etc.
    If it has Dwarven Warrior + Dwarven Miner, then I can play: A warrior or a miner.
  • Setting elements inspire by being thinly veiled questions. My favorite example is the sky squid from Lady Blackbird. It's basically just a silhouette for scale, but it suggests more gameplay to me then a more detailed description.

    Burning Wheel traits and lifepaths do a very good job of this. They suggest something that has to be filled in a bit more during play.

    Actually, maybe 'thinly veiled' is a bit off. I hate those elements of a setting that are practically surrounded with blinking lights saying "nobody knows this!" I remember some bad guys in a Mustants a Masterminds supplement that all got their powers from some mysterious incident in the Middle East. Didn't do much for me.

    Not to be unhelpful, but as I GM I tend to find that the game is better when in those moments of hurried need I turn to the players, not a book. I think John's response the first time someone asked about a Sky Squid was along the lines of "I don't know, what do you think?"
  • edited January 2010
    There's an interesting combination here:
    Posted By: JuddIf you have a game with the Dwarven Warrior, it had better be a fun game to dwarf-up and fight in.

    If your game allows for both Dwarven Warriors and Dwarven Miners, it had better support the trade negotiations and such right along with the orc-splitting axe-play
    Posted By: Ben LehmanAdditionally, if the game has: Dwarf. Then I can play a Dwarven fighter, miner, jeweler, smith, accountant, king etc.
    If it has Dwarven Warrior + Dwarven Miner, then I can play: A warrior or a miner.
    Looking at the two, Ben's argument could take a new twist. If the game has only "Dwarf," then he can play fighter, miner, jeweler, smith, accountant, king, etc., but only if the game supports fighter, miner, jeweler, smith, accountant, king, etc. Only having only "Dwarf" hasn't really increased the possibilities when compared to Dwarf Warrior and Dwarf Miner, because it's still reliant on other parts of the game. Without the mechanical element, Ben's argument drifts close to the old argument that the best way to support roleplaying is by doing nothing to support roleplaying. The failure of that argument is likely one of the main reasons narrative gaming developed. It would be a shame to fall back into the same trap, only with the word "setting" replacing the word "roleplaying."

    To address another aspect of that trap, having Dwarven Warrior and Dwarven Miner doesn't prevent you from creating Dwarven Jeweler. I'm not sure how being given possibilities turns off your imagination. To pick up the metaphor, there are still blank areas on the sheet.
  • Maybe it depends what you mean by "having a setting". To me, games without settings are bare systems like GURPs, Universalis, Risus, The Pool, or Mortal Coil. Maybe that's what the word means to the people who say "setting restricts freedom", too.

    Games like this are undoubtedly less constraining, but they're also harder to work with because there's more to invent, and you can have the dreaded blank-piece-of-paper effect.

    In your "Dwarven Warrior vs. Dwarven Warrior & Miner" example, I would describe the latter as having a richer setting. It's possible to have more setting without it being richer, just as you complain about White Wolf. I think the keys are to have orthogonal elements that can be combined in different ways, and not to dictate actual events (like the "final war-ending battle".)

    Finally I just want to plug Chad Underkoffler's awesome, awesome "Swashbucklers Of The 7 Skies" which does the best job of creating a setting of any RPG I've read. It's based on fun tropes (musketeers, sky-islands, pirates...) but the details are all really original and interesting (like the socioeconomic system of Sha Ka Ruq, which is based on momentary reputation, with magical talismans that track it.) Half the book is devoted purely to describing the setting, and I couldn't put it down.
  • Posted By: snejIn your "Dwarven Warrior vs. Dwarven Warrior & Miner" example, I would describe the latter as having arichersetting. It's possible to have more setting without it being richer, just as you complain about White Wolf. I think the keys are to have orthogonal elements that can be combined in different ways, and not to dictate actual events (like the "final war-ending battle".)
    I think you're onto something here. The term "richer" setting is a good one, and what I'm aiming for in my design work. The question is, how do you deliberately design elements that combine well in many ways?
  • All the deepest, richest settings appear to be the outcome of an obsessive urge to write about something,sometimes for decades. Tolkien, for example. In RPGs, Glorantha or Tsolyanu.
  • Well, here's what I like in a setting; I think many of these go to making it "rich" in some sense.

    (1) Lots of orthogonal elements, i.e. ones that can be combined together in a multitude of ways.
    (2) Uses some familiar tropes, which trigger existing imagery in the reader/player, but in innovative ways. (I praised S7S for this above.)
    (3) Describes everyday details. Not just who the military and nobility are, but what the everyday people do. What they do for food. What different places produce and consume. Regional variations in culture, and what the regions think of each other. You get the idea that if you asked the author anything at all about the setting, he'd have an answer.
    (4) Presents trends, not events. Instead of "Nation A is going to war against Nation B", more like "Nation A and Nation B both claim Minor Island C, and observers in the Court report that diplomatic negotiations seem to be breaking down."
    (5) A variety of story hooks that guide your imagination without clubbing you over the head.

    But that's just me :)
  • edited January 2010
    Have recently returned to the World of Darkness via Vampire: The Requiem after spending a long time on indie games, and it is nice to have my freedom limited. It is interesting to put together Clans and Covenants in intriguing ways and figure out how they interact. It's satisfying to pick through supplements and find elements I would like to incorporate into my game. I think a rich setting can be great, but it needs to be open to player participation and group customization. Like, Old World of Darkness and Tribe 8 I found problematic because they told you what was going to happen and how to make the players witnesses rather than participants.

    I think you're right, though, saying that it's limiting you isn't right. The World of Darkness presents me with choices and ideas that I wouldn't otherwise have if I had been given a vampire ruleset and told to make my own setting. So how is that limiting me?
  • Posted By: Bret Gillan ...because they told you what was going to happen and how to make the playerswitnessesrather thanparticipants.
    That is interesting.
  • We've got some good what-not-to-do developing, so how about I try some to-do?

    In the past I've written about how Legend of the Five Rings (World of Darkness and other games do it too) creates connections through themes shared by different factions, but using differing perspectives on those themes to create opportunity for adventure to arise.

    I've had another idea, mutual support. For example, in D&D the different classes have different functions, particularly in combat. A party with a spread of classes usually works better because each supports the others. Still, there is no rule demanding which class each player chooses, so the group can be built in many different ways.

    There have to be other techniques out there, or perhaps variants on these that will better detail how they can work best.
Sign In or Register to comment.