Giant Detailed Settings And Story-Gaming!

Okay! So for Over One Hundred Years on story-games I've said I was going to explain to everyone how to make a great campaign out of a really complex and detailed setting.

Setting books are often disparaged around these parts. "Who wants a list of imports and exports? What story significance could that have?" they sniff. Or "If the players want setting details so bad why don't they make it up themselves HUH, answer me that JDCorley, you cannot." Well sit right down little Billy because Uncle JDCorley is going to explain how those big giant campaign books are not only awesome...but good for story gaming too. So forget all about the supposed commercial motivation for the so-called "supplement treadmill", (which actually contains the refutation to the jargon inside the jargon itself), I don't know anything about business or commerce and have no clue about money and even if the game companies have some sinister or pathetic reason for coming out with super detailed setting books, it's not of any consequence to me as a story gamer, and when this thread is over, it won't be of any consequence to you either!

And guess what, we are going to actually design a campaign (or several dozen) together with a giant detailed setting and you will then see how right I am about everything!

This whole enterprise assumes there's a GM who is in charge of designing a campaign, though really the techniques can be used just as well by players of games where that responsibility is distributed.

Here is the main principle we will use:

It is impossible to put everything in a highly detailed setting into the game, and unadvisable to try.

If you think about the modern world as a setting for a game, the benefit of this approach becomes obvious. If we're playing a game of Texas-based Border Patrol officers fighting supernatural evil summoned by drug cartels, the travails of Czech single mothers may be really interesting, and even exist in the same reality, should the GM decide so, but the relevance to each other is minimal at best (but as you will see, sometimes it will benefit you to look further afield than you might immediately think!)

The "giant detailed seting" I will use for my example is, TA DA, the Kingdoms of Kalamar, the d20 version. This came out in 2001 as one of the first "big setting books" that came out in the d20 boom, and it shows a bit. I'm not picking one of my favorite big detailed settings, intentionally, because I don't want the reaction to be "oh, JDCorley, detailed settings supplements are still terrible, it's just that YOU'RE SO TALENTED AND GREAT and you love this game so much that you made it terrific". I don't really love KoK. I haven't even read it in over 5 years.

Kingdoms of Kalamar is a setting for D&D Third Edition, which is a pulp action fantasy game, in case you hadn't heard of it. Now, I may or may not end up using this system - that's a decision you make a little ways down the road. First, I sit down and read the book! I'll be back when I have something to say about that.
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Comments

  • Oh man...giant detailed settings. I'm so done with them. But I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of the conversation! Stuff that comes to the surface when I think about giant detailed settings:

    * Very hard to convince the players to educate themselves on the finer details of what they should be aware of.

    * Canon can impinge on creative exploratory freedom.

    * Setting detail (setting fidelity is probably more to the point) can be an unwelcome distraction when what you really want to delve into is baseline human truths (ie Premise).

    * Most giant detailed settings I've ever read/learned did a fairly good job of setting up baked-in conflict. In fact that's probably the best definition of a giant detailed setting! But I can't tell you how many times I've seen GMs and players artfully dodge those conflicts for all the usual risk-aversion (or to be kinder, taste/preference) reasons.

    * Last thought: when the game system interferes with the baked-in conflicts of the giant detailed setting, it makes me want to throw the books out the window. I'm looking at you, fucking Birthright. You too, Vampire: the Masquerade.

    Anyway, my US$0.02. Carry on, please.
  • Hey Paul,
    Posted By: Paul B* Very hard to convince the players to educate themselves on the finer details of what they should be aware of.
    This is a marketing challenge, right, at the level of the GM? In the trad paradigm, setting and situation details are created by a game designer or by a GM. Yet I've not seen a trad game address how a prospective GM might sell prospective players on playing the game with enough power that they're compelled to dig into the fine details necessary for playing well within the rules and setting. (And story games where players create setting just make an end run around the issue.) The argument could be made that trad games typically give a GM some stuff that might be leveraged for selling the game to prospective players. I'm thinking of fictiony bits in White Wolf games, and Continuum, and lavish, inspiring artwork. But why doesn't it work? Why is GMing a bigtastic setting so often plagued by GM sales frustration and low player energy?

    Paul
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeThis is a marketing challenge, right, at the level of the GM? In the trad paradigm, setting and situation details are created by a game designer or by a GM. Yet I've not seen a trad game address how a prospective GM might sell prospective players on playing the game with enough power that they're compelled to dig into the fine details necessary for playing well within the rules and setting.
    Yes! I would love some secret weapons for this.

    Maybe JD will reveal them in his forthcoming post.
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeBut why doesn't it work? Why is GMing a bigtastic setting so often plagued by GM sales frustration and low player energy?
    Well, not to give away the thread, but much depends on how long you play the game. Let's say you play for 10 sessions, and introduce 5-8 new setting elements per session. That's 80 setting elements max before the game is over. (And you really shouldn't be still introducing new setting elements in the last few sessions, but whatever.) You can easily pull 80 setting elements out of 30 setting description pages. Compare this to a 3,000 page pile of sourcebooks and you see that it is not to the players' advantage to really learn the setting. There's no point to it - they won't gain any benefit from it - it won't impact the game.

    Compare this to, for example, a 300 session game. If you expect or desire such a long game, it benefits you to know the setting because it will actually matter.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyCompare this to, for example, a 300 session game. If you expect or desire such a long game, it benefits you to know the setting because it will actually matter.
    That's like a ten-year game. I know those happen (I know of one personally), but they're crazy rare. (Right?)

    Now ... tell us the secrets.
  • It seems like the main case of the Giant Detailed Setting working occurs when you already have a pre-existing group of people who love the Giant Detailed Setting, as is the case with Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, The Song of Ice and Fire, etc.

    As far as I can tell, games set within those settings with people who love them don't seem at any particular disadvantage with regards to Story gaming.

    So... yeah, I'm not sure what the problem to be solved here is.



    Cheers,
    Roger
  • Posted By: RogerSo... yeah, I'm not sure what the problem to be solved here is.
    Well, I have tons of old setting books, some of which are pretty awesome (Forgotten Realms 3rd edition, Planescape, etc). I'd love to use those settings in a game sometime, but what if the people I play with don't know anything about them?

    Or check out the Houses of the Blooded thread elsewhere on the forum. Everyone seems to like the rules, but the massive setting info-dump makes people not want to run the game (myself included).
  • For me, two of the main "big settings" that I've played in are the real world and Harn. The former tends not to be considered a "big setting" - but it fits with most of Paul B's complaints. There are a huge number of canonical details, and indeed there are many who complain about sticking to real-world details in historical or modern games. I've also played in three campaigns set in Harn. I've also played in a number of games set in canonical worlds that aren't as directly detailed - like Amber, Star Trek, or the Buffyverse.

    In my experience, player buy-in for detailed settings has been pretty good. This seems to match with what I see more broadly. Traditional tabletop RPGs include both high-detail big settings and low-detail settings - and both seem to have firm niches with neither end dominant. Harn is one of the few 1980s games / settings that still has an active fan base.

    I think the main key for player buy-in is just the same as for any game. Don't try to push a game that players don't want on them, but rather agree with them about what you all are interested in. As Roger notes, this may occur when players are already fans of a given setting. However, it's also possible for people to become fans of a given setting - after all, setting fans come from somewhere. So if there's a setting and players are interested, then they may get into it.
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: Paul CzegeI'm thinking of fictiony bits in White Wolf games, and Continuum, and lavish, inspiring artwork. But why doesn't it work? Why is GMing a bigtastic setting so often plagued by GM sales frustration and low player energy?
    Actually, WW did sorta manage to capitalize on it by way of their oWoD splatbooks. I've never been under the impression that WW set out with a great sneaky plan in place to do so, but they did accomplish it nonetheless.

    Certainly the oVamp players I was playing with were collecting first their own clanbooks, then other clanbooks and using info from them in-game to their advantage. This then encouraged the GMs to buy/borrow/steal those books too.

    Of course, oVamp didn't start off as a bigtastic setting.

    But, hey, what I'm most interested in, JD, is breaking things out of a info-dump into usable chunks.

    Heck, I'm not just interested in that in terms of setting, but mechanics as well. I remember reading a copy of the S1889 Soldiers' Companion and wanting desperately to take a hatchet to that and break it down into small bits of "Yeah these things usually happen. Once in a while, under the right circumstances, that other thing happens, and man does it get suddenly "exciting" when it does."
  • Posted By: komradebobusing info from them in-game to their advantage
    I have a feeling that this will turn out to be a key factor in this discussion.
  • Hey Roger,
    Posted By: RogerSo... yeah, I'm not sure what the problem to be solved here is.
    If players come to a setting like Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, The Song of Ice and Fire, Amber, Mouse Guard, etc, already excited because of novels or films or comics, that's one thing. But what about Jorune, Harn, Tekumel, Glorantha, Blue Planet, Earthdawn, Planescape, etc.? Prospective GMs who're enthused about those settings aren't facing a marketing challenge?

    Paul
  • It's a challenge, sure. Is it the same challenge that any prospective GM faces when trying to pitch a game to players who don't know anything about it? I'd suggest it is. I'm not sure it makes a big difference if the 300 page manual is 80% setting or 80% rules.

    What does the equation look like? I think it looks like this:

    "I want you guys to invest X amount of time for the reward of Y amount of fun, at Z risk."

    How can we mangle that equation?

    1. Reduce X. The logical extreme: the zero-prep, pickup-and-play game. Harper's work in this end of the pool comes to mind.

    2. Increase Y. I think this is the usual tactic. Play this game and you'll have so much fun your head will explode.

    3. Reduce Z. Marketing really comes to the fore with this, I'd say. Another game by that genius designer Professor McFunStuff.


    I've simplified out a lot of things with this; maybe too much. I don't consider the case that X time is inherently fun, for example. Y fun is perhaps better expressed as fun-per-hour. Etc. But it seems like a starting point.

    (Do we have a unit for fun-per-hour yet? We should.)
  • Hey Roger,
    Posted By: RogerIt's a challenge, sure. Is it the same challenge that any prospective GM faces when trying to pitch a game to players who don't know anything about it? I'd suggest it is.
    Yes, if you eliminate the need for the player to educate themselves by producing a Lady Blackbird, or a game like PtA where the players collaboratively create a setting, you avoid the problem. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about bigtastic settings that GM's are enthused about (keywords in thread title: giant, detailed, settings). Have you ever seen an RPG text step up to this specific marketing challenge?

    Paul
  • I think Roger is saying that learning a Big Pile o' Setting Info is the same thing as learning a Big Pile o' Rules.

    But I think they are different kinds of things. I could teach Burning Wheel's rules to someone, even though they are complex. But if that person didn't have any knowledge of the setting*, it would be a different teaching task altogether.

    I like Paul's description of it as marketing.

    * Burning Wheel doesn't quite have a default setting aside from "Sort of Like Middle Earth", but you get the drift.
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeWe're talking about bigtastic settings that GM's are enthused about (keywords in thread title: giant, detailed, settings). Have you ever seen an RPG text step up to this specific marketing challenge?
    Well, what I personally tried to do as a designer with Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies -- I think it's fair to call it a pretty big setting -- was to rely on two things: an elevator pitch for the setting and a freely available setting handout.

    Elevator pitch: Pirates, musketeers, floating islands, flying sailing ships.

    Setting handout: http://www.7skies.net/World-Of-S7S.pdf

    It's up to others to decide if that was stepping up/successful. (I think it's been, but I'm biased.)
  • I think Eberron could pull it off, provided you make everybody buy into the setting at character creation, and directly engage the meta-plot with the scenarios you run. You know, that thing that never seems to happen? :)

    I also think Hero Wars does a sweet job of it, as well - it demands that you get interested in Glorantha if you're going to get interested in your character. All three major keywords - culture, profession, and magic - tie you into something in-setting, in-culture, *right away*. Especially the magic keyword - it positions you all the more tightly in a specific niche in Glorantha, but still in relation to everything else.

    And Paul, I don't think there are really all that many non-giant, non-detailed settings, at least not that I've seen - games tend to emphatically say "make up your own, but in this general direction" or they say "here's a pocket universe, in book form!" Sorcerer and Sword is a good example of the former - in fact, Edwards made a point of saying that's what you should do with it. He's a big hater on some meta-plot.

    I think the big obstacles to getting people more excited about GDS's (yeah, it's been TLA'd, now) are a) the number of physical copies of the core book/setting book, for doling out to everybody and giving them, say, a fortnight to digest it all and come back burning with ideas and b) the amount of time and assumed commitment this takes, especially if we're talking about playing a shorter or a longer game.

    Now me, if I like a setting, I'll read up on it for its own sake, to a point, whether the upcoming game will be just a few sessions or as long as some months. I can't say the same for a lot of people out there, though, and my experience with Story-games.com folks here in DC has been a general tendency towards pick-up games, one-shots, and the like, given the sheer logistical nightmare it can be to get the same 3-6 people to show up at the same place on a routine, if not scheduled, basis.
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeIf players come to a setting like Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, The Song of Ice and Fire, Amber, Mouse Guard, etc, already excited because of novels or films or comics, that's one thing. But what about Jorune, Harn, Tekumel, Glorantha, Blue Planet, Earthdawn, Planescape, etc.? Prospective GMs who're enthused about those settings aren't facing a marketing challenge?
    Not in my case, no. For me, Harn was a market draw rather than a marketing challenge. I met my good friend Jim because he advertised looking for players for a Harn game, and I responded. What was a marketing challenge was for our third Harn campaign together, when Jim wanted to try using the Burning Wheel rules for a game set in Harn. The other players were profoundly skeptical, while I was neutral.

    I don't think I'm alone in this. From a bit of hanging out in Harn communities, it seems like there are a fair number of players who actively look for a Harn game - probably more so than players who look for a Dogs in the Vineyard game. (Though to be fair, most of those are people I wouldn't want to play with.)

    I think a difference in view is that you see learning about a fantasy world as being an un-fun chore that one has to get through to get to play. Such people are indeed a marketing challenge for giant detailed settings, but I don't think they're the core audience. I think people like me who are into Harn aren't like that - we have fun learning about a fantasy world in much the same way as we have fun reading a fantasy novel. For marketing to this core, I think the most important strategy is to make the setting interesting in its own right, rather than just a thin excuse for adventures.
  • I may have gone off the rails a bit with my earlier post(s); sorry about that, folks. I'll fork off another thread for the issues that I think are related but perhaps not core to this topic.

    So, to wit: Have you ever seen an RPG text step up to this specific marketing challenge?

    I'll suggest two settings I'm aware of that I think have succeeded: Dragonlance, and Forgotten Realms.

    Each have (literally) hundreds of novels that delve into their respective settings, with several reaching the New York Times top 10 bestsellers list.

    If some people out there don't want to accept those as "RPG texts", that's fine. In my opinion, they are.

    Does this imply that the original LotR books are RPG texts with respect to role-playing set in Middle Earth? I would say so.


    To coerce that into an actual workflow process for the beleaguered GM: If I wanted to run a game set in Middle Earth and the players didn't know what I was talking about and didn't want to leap into it, I'd say: here, read these books by this guy named Tolkien. If they didn't care for the setting after that, I'd know that there would be little point in browbeating them into playing my game. If they loved it, we'd be ready to go play.
  • I have actually run a giant, twenty-year, God-alone-knows-how-many-sessions game set in Glorantha; in which over the years we became a tiny subculture of our own. I will never do that again in this lifetime. Once is enough.
  • Good call on the Tolkien's-books example, Roger.
    In the sense that the LotR series informs play in LotR-based RPGs, I'd agree with you that they are RPG texts. But I would advise caution - as a good little sociologist, I can't abide cart-before-horse arguments. Other than that? Yes, I think that's fair to say - it informs what kind of Exploration will be happening, and thus directly prepares players for play.
  • Posted By: RogerI've simplified out a lot of things with this; maybe too much. I don't consider the case that X time is inherently fun, for example.
    It is fun, though. I love reading about settings. Reading Paranoia setting books is hilarious. Reading Cthulhu historical settings is fascinating.

    I think Call of Cthulhu has stepped up to the challenge: the Mythos is a giant, insanely-detailed setting and Keepers love it. Moreover, they have long conversations about it. Cthulhu settings books are huge sellers.

    I'm ready to be schooled by J. D. Corley now.

    Graham
  • I'm gonna take a quick nap. Wake me up when Jason gets back.
  • Wow, people are really interested in this. I will accelerate my reading. But even accelerated, it's a big damn book! I'm finding some things in it I hadn't remembered. Feel free to hijack the thread until I return. Or after. It may be some time!
  • I tend to use giant detailed settings the same way I use...well, a lot of gaming books, really. I break them up into little bits, decide which bits I want to use, figure out how those bits hang together, and focus the game itself around that. What a giant detailed setting gives to me is a bunch of ideas, and a place I can turn to for a quick answer/idea fix when I realize that I need another couple of bits to round things out. In practical terms, this generally means focusing the actual game on a specific group of regions, a particular set of political/social/whatever organizations, and so on. As mentioned above, this is basically the same no matter what we're playing, giant detailed setting or not -- we focus our attention on the things that relate to the game most directly, and downplay or ignore the things that don't.

    I've never tried using all of a giant detailed setting in a single game. I doubt that I ever would -- I don't want to run one campaign long enough to use everything in a 300-page tome, for one thing. I have, on the other hand, run games where I let people refer to the giant detailed setting and steer the game with it ("I really want to go to the polar regions and bring back trophies of all of the gargantuan evil monsters who live there" or whatever). If someone wants to poke at a part of the setting I had not originally intended to focus on, having a giant detailed setting book means they can do that and I can easily oblige them.

    I've also never plunked down a 300-page giant detailed setting on the table and said "Okay, this is what I want to run, so all of you are going to have to read it before we can start." I'll type up a 1-2 page reference for the things that everyone should know, I'll point out particular features they should know and answer any questions when we do the character creation session, but I'm not going to assign homework. If someone wants to read all 300 pages, yay for them, but my primary goal is to make the setting entertaining and satisfying for the person who doesn't.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyWow, people are really interested in this. I will accelerate my reading. But even accelerated, it's a big damn book! I'm finding some things in it I hadn't remembered. Feel free to hijack the thread until I return. Or after. It may be some time!
    Why didn't you read the book *before* starting the thread? Now you've ruined EVERYTHING.
  • Posted By: Paul CzegeHey Roger,

    Posted By: RogerIt's a challenge, sure. Is it the same challenge that any prospective GM faces when trying to pitch a game to players who don't know anything about it? I'd suggest it is.
    Yes, if you eliminate the need for the player to educate themselves by producing a Lady Blackbird, or a game like PtA where the players collaboratively create a setting, you avoid the problem. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about bigtastic settings that GM's are enthused about (keywords in thread title: giant, detailed, settings). Have you ever seen an RPG text step up to this specific marketing challenge?

    Paul

    I am not sure I have seen an RPG text, with a big setting behind it, step up to it.

    When I played Midnight, it was easy to just say, "99 years after a Sauron-clone won," and the players just got it.

    After that, we carved out a piece of the setting for ourselves, mostly around the main PC's father, Vildar Esben. JJ read about him and was interested in him. I suggested that his character was Vildar's son and we were off to the races. That drove the entire campaign and all from a paragraph about an NPC.

    I like big settings that have lots of campaign hooks per paragraph, things to inspire and draw in the players but that have lots of room for us to make shit up.

    In Dictionary of Mu, one of the main things I was testing for was to see if after reading two or three short dictionary entries and their descriptors, if the players were all bought in to the same setting and it seemed to work at con after con. That was when I knew it was ready, when I saw several different groups make up characters together, away from me and away from online communities and come up with really dark fantasy shit.

    Some of this is technical too. I have seen people use setting as an excuse to say, "NO!" when what was being described by the players was very much in line with what was in the books and the setting oculd have just as easily been used to say, "Yes, but..."
  • Posted By: JDCorleyFeel free to hijack the thread until I return.
    Brian and I are interested in ideas about how bigtastic setting games (that aren't derived from books, comics, or film) might better enable a GM to market the game to prospective players and create enthusiasm.

    Ideas we've seen already, like "publish novels" (unless you're going to tell me why it works for Dragonlance and didn't for Earthdawn, that is, how to do it right), "make sure everyone has a copy of the core book," and "do a one-sheet for the setting" aren't particularly interesting, because yeah, they don't really work that well.

    Paul
  • But why doesn't it work? Why is GMing a bigtastic setting so often plagued by GM sales frustration and low player energy?

    So what does a setting do? It exists to get the group on the same page (and inspire situations, characters, conflicts, color, etc.)

    What GMs need to do, is be able to make a quick sale on a) what the setting is about, and b) how that's actually going to apply to their game. Note that a lot of bigtastic settings are set up shotgun style- the bigtasticness is set up to give GMs a wide range to pick from both A & B.

    In other words, now the GM has both the issue of picking what they want and then communicating that effectively to the group.

    After that? If the players familiarize themselves with the setting (or are already familiar) then you have the problem of whether players actually take the same idea(s) from the setting or get caught up in something else.

    This is where canon moves from putting people on the same page instead to moving onto different pages. I've encountered it several, several times with stuff like Legend of the Five Rings, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Mage, where different takes on the setting info served as wedges into "what this game is about" rather than unifiers. (Could a more solid system help? Maybe!)

    Chris
  • Paul,

    I wonder if marketing is a word that will cause problems too, when it is used in relation to getting your friends to buy in to playing a game.

    There is a disconnect between developing an IP and making a setting for a game that is very playable. There is cross-over but there are also ideas that either do not help at the table or actively get in the way.

    Yes, if everyone is devouring the novels for the setting of Biggiepolois Epicland, it will help to get them on the same page but how often are gaming groups also reading groups, where everyone reads at the same pace, with the same amount of time to devour the same books. It'd be a neat idea, though. For settings I would play it, the most I would ever want would be a book of short stories. That might be fun.
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: Paul CzegeBrian and I are interested in ideas about how bigtastic setting games (that aren't derived from books, comics, or film) might better enable a GM to market the game to prospective players and create enthusiasm.
    You know, I'm not sure how small- or no-setting games enable GMs to market their game to prospective players, either. I get that one of the fundamental assumptions of no-setting games is that everyone creates the setting together and therefore everyone is enthusiastic and loves it -- but as a practical matter, I find it's easier to get one person who is enthusiastic about and loves a setting and five people who are open to loving a setting than it is to get six people all jazzed up simultaneously.

    So I find it hard to think beyond my actual day-to-day experience here: in every successful new setting I've ever played in or run a game using, one person enthusiastically pitched the setting to everyone else...not to make them fall in love with it completely, but just to get them interested in it and willing to play. And then we played the game, and if the game was good and showed off the things that made that first person fall in love with the setting, I saw everyone else fall in love (or at least "like") with it, too. Is there actually any other way for a GM to market a game to prospective players and create enthusiasm?


    (Or were you actually asking whether there was a way for game designers to write giant detailed settings that essentially market themselves to prospective players? Because that's a totally different thing.)
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: Accounting for Taste...as a practical matter, I find it's easier to get one person who is enthusiastic about and loves a setting and five people who areopen to lovinga setting than it is to get six people all jazzed up simultaneously.
    Agreed. But that's the thing I want to know how to do.

    Me: Hey guys, for our new D&D campaign, let's play in Waterdeep!
    Gamer A: I love Waterdeep! I drew my own map! I have all the supplements! My character is Blackstaff's nephew!
    Gamer B: Is that the big city where shit always happens? Sounds tight. I'm in.
    Gamer C: City games rule. Let's do this.
    Gamer D: As long as I can play the orphaned vengeful rogue who throws knives, I don't care where we are.

    See, my group is totally open to it. But most of them don't want to read the 300-page book, and no one wants to hear an info-dump.

    So how do I, as a GM, make the setting - which is already cool on its own - cool for my game and my players? How do I market it to them so that all the cool Waterdeep stuff comes out in play and is part of everyone's game, instead of just setting details I throw at them?

    The Forgotten Realms books are chock-full of awesome stuff and great maps, but they don't tell me how to use them in a game.
  • Posted By: BWAWhy didn't you read the book *before* starting the thread? Now you've ruined EVERYTHING.
    Well, I'm not going to read the whole thing before I post again, but I want to have solid examples of what I'm talking about and what I'm reading for.
  • I think an easily graspable pitch is important. You can get players excited to play ''WW2 with gritty superheroes!'' (Wild Talents) or ''X-files with Cthulhu!'' (Delta Green) a lot easier than ''Generic fantasy setting #232''.
    Not saying that's enough to make big settings work though.
  • Posted By: northerainI think an easily graspable pitch is important. You can get players excited to play ''WW2 with gritty superheroes!'' (Wild Talents) or ''X-files with Cthulhu!'' (Delta Green) a lot easier than ''Generic fantasy setting #232''.
    Not saying that's enough to make big settings work though.
    You could say, "Civilized land recovering from magic god death." (New Forgotten Realms)
    "Harsh exotic desert fantasy meets cradle of civilization." (Dark Sun)

    If you present it as, "[generic setting]. It's cool, you'll like it." You won't get much positive feedback.
  • Maybe it's just me, but those don't grab me at all. What I was trying to say is having a good elevator pitch is important. If you can find one in FR, that's great!
  • Many of the Giant Detailed Settings(tm) start out small. Star Wars Episode IV is about a farmboy rescuing a princess. As the hero doesn't know much about the world, the audience learns about it at the same pace as the story unfolds. The same goes for Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer and all other settings that have existed for 20+ years and have generated a ton of books and supplements.

    I think that if you want to sell a GDS to you players you should have a look at how Unknown Armies presents the world. You have Street Level, Global Level and Cosmic Level. Beginners can start of at Street Level and learn about the world as they go. Experienced players can start at Global Level and immediately emerge themselves in the politics of the world. And advanced players can start of at Cosmic Level and try to become the movers and shakers of the world. This way you spoonfeed the players with exactly the amount of information they need and want.

    It would be great if games designers integrate these three levels in their rules system. Street Level gives the basic rules (mostly combat), Global Level gives advance rules (leading a company, social mechanics) and Cosmic Level gives advanced rules (leading a country, epic sorcery, attaining godhood).
  • I think there are two different issues with getting players to invest in giant, detailed settings.

    One, which has been discussed a lot so far, is how to get everyone to know enough facts about the fictional world to make a contribution. I think the general the tactics for dealing with this are well-known: start playing with low-level characters in a small area, to limit the amount players need to know. As the players become more experienced, their characters gain levels (so they learn the extra mechanics) and expand their horizons (so they learn more setting details). In this case, the key skill of the GM is to pick the one small facet of the world that will entice players into the game; after that, they can drip-feed th rest.

    Another issue, which I don't think has been touched on yet, is how to deal with PCs being from a different culture from the players. For instance, I've got shedloads of Tekumel and Glorantha gaming material. The main thing that interests me about those settings isn't so much the kewl p0werz the PCs get, or even the setting bling, but it's the different mindset of the people in them. For instance, the default Tekumel setting has family and clan considerations far more important than is the norm in Western culture. Tekumel people will do all sorts of unpleasant things, and make terrible sacrifices, for the good of their group rather than for personal gain. If I run a Tekumel game, that's the kind of thing I'm interested in exploring. I don't really want to play 'people with Western mindsets get dumped into an alien culture', I want to play 'Tekumel people deal with problems that can only exist in this kind of culture'.

    Getting that cultural buy-in is something that, I think, takes a conscious effort in the part of the players. If they take that step, the play can be very rewarding. But how to convince them to take that step?
  • Heya,

    The biggest hindrance to players engaging the Bigtastic Setting IMO is the utter lack of mechanical tie-ins to what the players are interested in doing. Of the five areas of exploration, Setting is the least integrated into Character. We know how to make Situation matter to characters. We know that System matters. Color always matters. But Setting and Character seem to have been kept nearly exclusive of each other.

    Players will care about the Big Setting if there is a reason to care. If the mechanics of character creation or the reward system is directly tied to setting elements, then the players will care. If trade is important to the Setting, it must be important to the characters. There should be a character element or reward mechanic that involves trade and encourages the players to exploit that tie-in. This goes way beyond the token Lore skill many games have. It has to matter to what the characters are and what the players want to do.

    Think also about how under-developed race (species, really) is when it comes to game mechanics. There is no incentive in most games to learn about one’s racial heritage. In the Lord of the Rings, racial heritage is what is driving every single character. From the Uruk-hai to the Noldor to the Istari Wizards. In the run-of-the-mill Fantasy or Sci-fi game, where is that? Where’s the incentive to do that?

    I like what Paul’s getting at with the marketing thing. He’s right; games don’t do that every well. I believe that’s partly because they don’t provide the GM with anything to market with nor provide the players any reason to care about the marketing in the first place.

    Peace,

    -Troy
  • Posted By: northerainMaybe it's just me, but those don't grab me at all.
    Budweiser beer commercials don't make me want to drink Budweiser either, but they work on some people. There's a huge matter-of-taste here. It doesn't matter how great my fantasy world one-sheet is, it doesn't matter if the game is jam-packed full of eager people after reading just one sentence, my wife will hate it, she does not like fantasy gaming.
  • Posted By: mordheimMany of the Giant Detailed Settings(tm) start out small. Star Wars Episode IV is about a farmboy rescuing a princess. As the hero doesn't know much about the world, the audience learns about it at the same pace as the story unfolds.
    I agree with this basic premise. I think the problem comes in when you have a disparity of knowledge amongst the players. Imagine this: one guy spends hours with all of the core books and learns all sorts of details about a particular setting because it grabs him. The other players, on the other hand, haven't spent the same amount of time with the source material. Now you have a disparity, and one player will always be hoping that the others will catch up and derive the same amount of enjoyment from the setting as he has.

    The other problem comes when the player with all the knowledge wants to inject back-story material into the game. The other players will misunderstand the context, and the back-story contribution will fall flat.

    This isn't just a problem with big fictional settings either. Look at a game like Spione. If you're playing with one or two people who are major spy buffs, and others with only passing knowledge of spy history, then you're going to get an unsatisfying play experience.

    To solve this problem, the players have to start at the same level and learn the backstory together -- or the designer has to provide a game text or system that allows the more invested player to have patience while the less experienced get hooked and learn.
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: Paul Czege
    Brian and I are interested in ideas about how bigtastic setting games (that aren't derived from books, comics, or film) might better enable a GM to market the game to prospective players and create enthusiasm.
    Paul,

    This is a different issue from what I was talking about in my previous post. Your question assumes that one player is already heavily invested in a particular setting. Now, how does that player sell new players on the setting? And how can a game designer help facilitate this sale?

    Everyone learning together is obviously not an option anymore. Putting aside the issue of, "Will it be rewarding for an experienced player to game with a less experienced player when the setting material is vast," I think you are right to characterize this problem as one of marketing. Essentially, the experienced player has to effectively communicate his enthusiasm and, and the same time, not scare off potential players.

    So how can the designer help? Provide easy entrance points. If you overwhelm new players, I think they're more likely to look for another game that doesn't seem so difficult. I do think that lush, evocative illustrations help because they are easy and quick to take in. Beyond that, I think a designer should provide the experienced players with two or three setting "starting points": short, almost self-contained, sub-settings that can be quickly described. If these little bits plus the illustrations from a game aren't enough to grab a potential player, then maybe it's just time to try a different game.

    Can I think of any games that actually do this well? Not off hand, but I'd be excited to see someone try.
  • Another issue I'd like to hear more about is the issue of all that *stuff* that's been set in stone before you start playing--it can easily come into conflict with the needs of the story.

    I can't count how many times I've played some game in a detailed setting where it became clear that some X would really make the game cool, a fantastic plot twist, a great story, or maybe just necessary for consistency. Like if you're running a game and you realize it would be really, really cool if you could have the villain tell the hero, "I am your father." Cool twist, right? And sometimes a story is just begging for a twist like that. Well, how much would it suck if a player at the table, at that point, stands up and explains why good old Darth is from a different subspecies of human that actually could NOT possibly have impregnated Luke's mother?

    If you're playing in a more open field, that sort of thing doesn't happen.

    This sort of thing comes up in "realistic" games, too, like when someone wants to play a strong, empowered female character in some really misogynistic society or period of history.

    It also applies in the "real world". Like all those Hollywood movies where they really have to twist around realistic expectations (such as physics or science, or economic forces!) to make the story work out. But that tends to work, because everyone except the total geeks are there to enjoy the story and are willing to suspend their disbelief.

    With a table full of geeks who have come together with the prime purpose of celebrating all those technicalities and details, though, it's a serious challenge.
  • Posted By: Paul T.
    This sort of thing comes up in "realistic" games, too, like when someone wants to play a strong, empowered female character in some really misogynistic society or period of history.
    Sadly I've found that prodcuing examples of real women in said settings doing exactly the sorts of things they supposedly cannot do in them satisfies no one.
  • Posted By: Paul T.This sort of thing comes up in "realistic" games, too, like when someone wants to play a strong, empowered female character in some really misogynistic society or period of history.

    It also applies in the "real world". Like all those Hollywood movies where they really have to twist around realistic expectations (such as physics or science, or economic forces!) to make the story work out. But that tends to work, because everyone except the total geeks are there to enjoy the story and are willing to suspend their disbelief.

    With a table full of geeks who have come together with the prime purpose of celebrating all those technicalities and details, though, it's a serious challenge.
    I think I'm a total geek in this scenario. I tend to like historical movies or even documentaries at least as much as Hollywood blockbusters, though there are a number of Hollywood blockbusters that I enjoy.

    I think that the real world has an enormous amount of interesting material to offer, that goes beyond "technicalities and details." I think that research can greatly enrich a film of almost any type, adding not just technicalities, but by providing new insights. Documentaries in particular are extremely limited by both the real world and practicalities of filming, yet I think there is still room for an enormous amount of creativity in what a documentary tells. Say, if there is a documentary about some real-world subject, and a Hollywood drama that is loosely based on it, I don't think it is at all a given that the documentary is about technicalities whereas the Hollywood drama has interesting story. Really, it depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for what some scriptwriter sitting in his basement thinks of as cool, then pesky things like real people, real lives, real cultures, and real phenomena are a distraction from that. However, there are some people who find those real world things themselves as cool, and are looking to the film not to produce something in spite of the real world, but to convey and illuminate what they find in the real world.

    I think this applies to fictional sources as well, in my opinion. For example, in a film based on an original book, I think there is a lot to be gotten from close reading and thoughtful analysis of the text. It can work to just tell a cool story and see the text as something that gets in the way of that, but I think it can also work to use the text as a direct source - to tell stories from it just as a documentary tells stories from the real world.
  • Posted By: mordheimMany of the Giant Detailed Settings(tm) start out small. Star Wars Episode IV is about a farmboy rescuing a princess. As the hero doesn't know much about the world, the audience learns about it at the same pace as the story unfolds.
    Some settings allow this better than others. Earthdawn, for example, can start at the level of "after thousands of years, your cave-dwelling society has opened the secure doors of your world and sent you out to explore". Players don't need to know much about that setting ahead of time other than why their society was in the cave.
  • Posted By: WordmanPosted By: mordheimMany of the Giant Detailed Settings(tm) start out small. Star Wars Episode IV is about a farmboy rescuing a princess. As the hero doesn't know much about the world, the audience learns about it at the same pace as the story unfolds.
    Some settings allow this better than others. Earthdawn, for example,canstart at the level of "after thousands of years, your cave-dwelling society has opened the secure doors of your world and sent you out to explore". Players don't need to know much about that setting ahead of time other than why their society was in the cave.
    Nearly all settings can allow you to have naive characters who know little about the world around them, but mostly only about the home and small area they grew up in. My first Harn campaign was set in a small village in Rethem, and we had many local adventures before we started to move further afield.

    I think that is a good option, too, if you have a mix of players who know a lot about the setting and those who are new to it. The expert players can make expert characters who know a lot, while the new players can make characters like Luke Skywalker who may be talented and/or destined for greatness, but know little about the wider world at the beginning. It's important that the new characters are still important and powerful in ways that compensate for their being unsure of themselves. This is generally not handled mechanically, so it's something you might want to negotiate.
  • Posted By: JDCorley
    And guess what, we are going to actually design a campaign (or several dozen) together with a giant detailed setting and you will then see how right I am about everything!
    I'm really curious to see what will come of this, JD! Bookmark'd from post one.

    When I first heard of Kingdoms of Kalamar I thought it sounded like just my thing. Once I got to take a closer look, it wasn't quite what I'd hoped. It's always been a setting I've wanted to like though so I'm looking forward to see what you're going to find in there.
  • Posted By: jhkim
    I think this applies to fictional sources as well, in my opinion. For example, in a film based on an original book, I think there is a lot to be gotten from close reading and thoughtful analysis of the text. It can work to just tell a cool story and see the text as something that gets in the way of that, but I think it can also work to use the text as a direct source - to tell storiesfromit just as a documentary tells stories from the real world.
    Very interesting, John!

    I'd love to hear more about how one makes something like a documentary in a game situation. Please do tell.
  • Posted By: Paul T.Posted By: jhkim
    I think this applies to fictional sources as well, in my opinion. For example, in a film based on an original book, I think there is a lot to be gotten from close reading and thoughtful analysis of the text. It can work to just tell a cool story and see the text as something that gets in the way of that, but I think it can also work to use the text as a direct source - to tell storiesfromit just as a documentary tells stories from the real world.
    Very interesting, John!

    I'd love to hear more about how one makes something like a documentary in a game situation. Please do tell.
    My "documentary" comment was more a parallel about making the film version of a book without changing it - like, say, Lord of the Rings. You're taking almost the exact story as written, but by what you choose to put in foreground and background, by what you show and don't show, and so forth - you are engaged in a deeply creative act and telling a story.

    But getting to gaming...

    You can't use a documentary-like process in RPGs because they are fundamentally original fiction (at least in their current form). However, you can do some vaguely parallel things like creating new takes on the same situation. For example, I ran a Star Trek campaign that was set in the years following the original Star Trek series. Several of the episodes in that were what my players referred to as "cleaning up Kirk's messes." So they would visit a planet that had appeared in the original series, and those events had happened, but they had to deal with further consequences to the situation. This was more-or-less sticking to canon, as I kept things as they were. However, by fleshing out the situation and the sides, and potentially looking at other views - these "clean-up" episodes were often thoughtful commentary on the original series, rather than simple pastiche.

    For example, there was an episode about the the planet Eminiar VII (from "A Taste of Armageddon") who had engaged in a virtual war with their planetary neighbor, killing real people as a consequence. An emissary of that culture wanted to re-instate the protocols that allowed the war, because to he felt that the respect for virtual worlds as real was an important part of their culture. Eventually, the PCs decided to allow them that - the captain disagreed, but decided that it wasn't her place to interfere in a local war between parties that were not part of the Federation. (More specifically, she said "Hey, we're the (annoying) Organians here.") Whether to interfere in another people's civil war is a very tricky question, and I thought that episode dealt with it well.

    I'm saying that's a case where I was drawing from canon. That is, it wasn't that I had a story to tell and that Star Trek canon could potentially interfere with what I wanted to say. Instead, that was a story that came about because I watched a Star Trek episode and was intrigued by what further potential there was in that exact situation.
  • Okay! I have now gotten sufficiently into Kingdoms of Kalamar that I am absolutely confident I picked the right setting book for this exercise/example. The organization of the book, while quite clear, is exactly the opposite of what would make for a great setting in a story. First you talk about races and species. Then each geographic area gets coverage. Then there's a "notable organizations" section. Then there is a section on languages. Then gods. And it provides a great challenge for GMs (which I will use here as a shorthand for "content generator", remember the same thoughts can be applied to players who generate content as well) who are trying to get things across to the characters. I don't think I could possibly have picked a book that was more "catalog of random facts" to for this demonstration.

    Let's take a few pages at random and see how we read them when we're designing an effective setting.

    But before we do that we need to do something else: establish our goals. As I mentioned above, a 10-session game is different from a 300-session game (I don't agree that that is necessarily a 10 year game. It's barely a 1 year game when you're in high school!) Both of those are different from a convention game.

    Sometimes there is a particular game system that you're committed to using. You're not necessarily locked into using the game system that the designer thought would be a good idea. (Sometimes, as when using the real world for a game, there is no such game system. Other times the designer is just dumb or got hit by a bus or whatever, who cares.)

    You'll want to know something about your gaming group's preferences and/or set parameters if you are setting up a gaming group. If you know someone likes political stuff, you will want to be looking for political hooks. If you pick something with a lot of political hooks, you will want to recruit players interested in that kind of thing.

    So for the purposes of this exercise, here's what I've got for my goals.

    My players are...A bunch of really creative story-oriented hippies. They may not be hardcore more-macho-than-thou who don't care about anything if it doesn't address a theme and will blurt out "who cares" in the middle of combats, but they want to have some kind of character development beyond their abilities and handle dramatically charged situations. Though they're okay with the GM-and-players responsibility divide, they will want their instrument for affecting the setting, namely, their character, to have sufficient impact on the setting that they feel like they're shaping the story significantly. But they are pretty open-minded as far as going along with what I'm interested in.

    The campaign will be around 5-7 months of weekly play, my usual length of time for a campaign. Around 25-35 sessions depending on if there are some weeks we're bored and meet twice or some weeks where I'm sick or out of town or whatever.

    All right, now we go to a random place in the book and see what we get.

    p.87: This is a description of The City-State of P'Bapar, Independent. Economically strong, due to the great variety of wealth provided by dwarf clan and gnomes in nearby mountains, though they have scarce farmlands. It's at the top of a major river trade route. Militarily, the biggest threat is monsters in the mountains. Mercenaries supplement a small mounted and footsoldier military, along with a citizen militia in times of dire need. The biggest temples are those of the Prolific Coin, the Church of Chance and the House of Laughter, which has a wine cellar that is possibly the best in the world.

    Ah, this is great. Virtually generic, of course, but perfect, in fact, for a 30 session game.

    Here are the factors in the environment this description gives us:

    * Libertine temples
    * Monsters as a threat to civilization (rather than rival civilizations)
    * Counts on the support of nearby organizations to get the food to survive
    * Major trade route and lots of traffic

    And four things happen to be the exact number of narrative forces that are needed for a solid 30 sessions. (It may even be a little much.)

    So here are some campaign ideas I mull over for this page:

    * There's a crisis! The characters are mustered into the militia as first level jerkoffs, still above their fellow farmers and dweebs, but thrust into a dangerous situation against MONSTARS. There's conflict between the authorities and the dwarf clans on the best way to handle the situation and the stakes are the survival of the city and surrounding areas.

    This is good because there's lots of adventure and the characters are able to deal themselves into the political situation by virtue of being thrust into the middle of the conflict. AND, haha, you can have someone be the "reluctant hero", which is great. There's someone in your group that thinks Wolverine isn't terrible, right? There's always one. And war and combat is always a good backdrop or way to spice up the campaign.

    * The characters are libertines and layabouts at one of the Temples when one of the puritanical dwarven clans begins to push out their relaxed layaboutness and yelling at them to get a haircut. The authorities are helpless - they have the food supply, after all. Nevertheless the characters must become missionaries and emissaries to convince the other side to at least leave them alone. Ooh, no, half the characters are from the Temple and the other half are stoic dwarven twerps who learn the true meaning of Christmas, I mean making it with hot hippie chicks.

    This is good because the characters have a built-in arc, and - huge plus - there's a good reason to banter. It's also nice because I can send them together to all parts of this bit of the setting, having them fight monstars, or go deal with traders, or mercenaries, or whatever problem their various patrons might have an opinion on. The patrons, when I make them, should be open to the characters changing their minds about things. If the temple characters come back and say "Duuude, those little dudes have some good ideas about keeping everyone safe and relaxed, bro, maybe we should cut them a break and turn the music down like they ask" their patron should take it seriously, even if they don't eventually go for it, we should avoid the emissary-game problem of constantly having to check back with a boss who won't listen. Finally, this is a funny campaign idea. People will laugh and have a good time.

    Now, how did I come up with these campaign ideas? It's pretty simple. I picked two factions that I could steer against each other, used a third for the "environment" of the story, and ignored the fourth. The fourth is in the "dugout" for if things start to drag, or the players wrap things up faster than I expect them to. I then worked out a way for the characters to be aligned partly, but not inextricably, with one or another of the factions.

    First Level Jerkoff Militia Story
    Two sides: Authorities/Mercenaries and the Dwarf Clans
    Environment: Monstars
    Dugout: Traders and Temple

    Cheech & Gimli Story
    Two Sides: Temples and Dwarves
    Environment: Authorities/Traders
    Dugout: Monstars

    This is also why lists of imports/exports and "faction lists" are good, by the by. Let's say we do Cheech & Gimli. Knowing that the "paka birds that live near the northern edge of DuKem'p Swamp are sought for their soft feathers" might be important because the paka birds are being hunted to a dangerously low level by a need for softer feather beds and pillows in the city, or maybe elven jackoffs begin to demand a "paka tax" from hunters and maybe that's a good idea or a bad idea, let's send our heroes out to check out the situation. By applying what is or isn't produced to the situation we can develop specific plot elements.

    I'll do this for a few other pages in the book, then we'll talk about what you do next.
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