Posted by: NiTessine | May 14, 2008

On Setting

This is probably going to be a bit rambling. I’m lightly medicated, heavily caffeinated, and quite drowsy. This has been circling around my noggin for a few days now, and wants out.

Of all the elements of a roleplaying game, I consider setting the most important.

For me, it’s the foremost concern when crafting a new campaign or running a game. The setting must be coherent, consistent, and interesting. It’s also a major concern for me as a player and I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate if our characters, however compelling and deep they be, are adventuring in what amounts to a generic matter painting of a background and two cardboard trees. There must be depth.

I use “setting” in its broadest sense, encompassing the world of the game, its possible metaplot and NPCs.

Rules are completely secondary to this. They’re the mechanical side of the game, the skeletons of the characters and the tool for managing for conflicts and uncertain situations work out. Most of them perform the job well, once they’re learned, and there’s nothing else to it. I like to have a certain level of crunchiness in the numbers and D&D’s character development, practically a mini-game unto itself, is very cool, but these aren’t what I enjoy the most.

Then there’s the plot and story of the game itself, be it from the box or the game master’s brain. The best plots, I feel, spring forth organically from the setting and feel like they belong. For example, in the Principality of Naerie, our module NAE6-05 Sharafon is a veiled political allegory, but it is expertly woven into the warp and weft of the setting and keeps to the regional atmosphere.

As a counterexample, there’s the Forgotten Realms accessory Maztica, which has a very typical conquest of the New World story, where conquistadors led by Captain Cordell from Amn travel across the sea to a new continent filled with almost-Aztecs, whom they proceed to subjugate. The history of Maztica’s conquest wasn’t so much written as copied and pasted from a history book, with Cordell replacing Cortés. There’s even the Noche Triste. While it fits Forgotten Realms’ style as a kitchen sink to have counterparts for Aztecs, as it already does for Scots, Egyptians and most of the different Asian cultures, directly lifting from real-world history does not work (besides being lazy writing) and to have things play out nearly identically (with concessions made for political correctness) disregards the fact that Amn is not 16th-century Spain either politically, militarily, technologically or economically. Also, if one has even a rudimentary understanding of history, it’s very jarring.

It Is… Alive!

I may put an unusual amount of emphasis on the setting it reflects where I come from in terms of gaming history. One of my earliest significant roleplaying game experiences was FaerunMUD (which I spoke about last month), a large community that essentially formed a living world. You played, you logged off, and the rest of the player base would go on playing while you weren’t around. The game didn’t revolve around you, and you were only one of many characters in the world.

The illusion was strengthened by the fact player characters could attain positions of power in the game world. The Open Lord and at least some of the secret ones were all player characters, as was the Lord of Shadowdale. There were Harpers, who either never did jack shit or were seriously good at maintaining secrecy, because I only ever heard that they even existed precisely once, and even that was OOC discussion. Most of the plot content sprung from the actions of player characters. There were GM-run quests as well, but those were rarer.

FaerunMUD taught me that the story revolves around the characters; the world does not. Even in a tabletop campaign, there should be a suggestion of stuff happening in the background and the world moving on. Stuff that affects the PCs in some way, or does not. Local politics, events of the neighbourhood, a faraway war and the ensuing influx of refugees. Not everything has to be about the current plots they are pursuing – but of course, some things may be, even if it is not evident at first glance. Of course, these may also serve as plot hooks for side quests.

Some game lines try to accomplish this via metaplots. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If used in moderation by a smart DM, though, it can be nifty. The alternate history of Godlike, for example, works well for this. The old World of Darkness game line Orpheus was developed entirely around its metaplot as a self-contained thing. The D&D settings of Dragonlance and, especially during Third Edition, Forgotten Realms have what I’d call bad metaplots. They’re intrusive and use a lot of explosives. Cities and nations are destroyed. This is troublesome, because stuff like that doesn’t stay in the background if it’s brought into the game, unless it’s set very far away indeed from whatever is exploding. Dragonlance has turned into essentially four different settings because of the drastic scale of metaplot changes, and the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms will suffer a similar fate.

But I digress. Anyway, FaerunMUD went under, returned as Rauvyon and died again. It happens. I played this and that for a few years and ran, among other things, a short an excessively bloody Forgotten Realms campaign where some 16 characters died. The campaign ended at 6th level. That one mainly taught me that low-level D&D characters are fragile things and fun to break. It is not relevant to the topic at hand.

Then, in 2004, I got into Living Greyhawk. I found… something. It had that certain je ne sais quoi. There was that magical sense of a living, breathing world again. It wasn’t quite like FaerunMUD, but it was close. While characters couldn’t assume political positions in the world – without retiring, that is – the adventure format makes it so that the world itself interacts with the player characters. There are consequences to their actions and there’s a web of interconnected plotlines that player characters have the option to affect.

This works best on the regional and metaregional level, I feel, where there are enough players to make the region really live, but few enough that even one player group’s results can affect outcomes.

Living Greyhawk taught me that the actions of characters must have consequences in the setting. They kill the local sheriff, a new one must be appointed. They wipe out the bandits plaguing the roads and the local general store will lower its prices and have better selection. People express their gratitude for acts of heroism. As an aside, I think Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path handles this and other things related to immersion in the setting exceptionally well.

It also handled very well the integration of player characters into the setting, with the regional/metaregional/core adventure classifications, the metaorganisations, the favour system and regional feats. There was flavour.

The above, I feel, are the keys to making the world feel real from behind the screen. They’re tricks I should keep in mind better than I have. Living Greyhawk has been doing the job for me for a long time, but it’s ending and soon I have to flex those muscles on my own.

Not Having Your Setting Laughed At 101

Then there are the things to consider when crafting a setting. For a start, it must be interesting and compelling, and there must be potential for adventure. You’d think this was obvious, but then, the new edition of D&D is defaulting to this thing they call Points of Light, which is a limiting and dull concept designed to facilitate single-minded hack and slash with minimal concern for how the world actually works. Fortunately, the examples of how not to do it are fewer than the examples of well-made settings. Indeed, there’s a wealth of finely crafted and interesting settings out there – Forgotten Realms is the quintessential fantasy kitchen sink, Greyhawk is the cradle of D&D, Godlike’s superpowered WW2 is the coolest alternate history I’ve ever read, Rokugan of Legend of the Five Rings is the coolest americanised sorta-Japan ever, Spelljammer has giant space hamsters… the list goes on.

Then there’s consistency and verisimilitude (a fancy word used by Monte Cook in the D&D 3E Dungeon Master’s Guide to denote the aesthetic appearance of realism). While realism, as such, is not required and would be actually inimical to the atmosphere and style of, say, Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted, you still need to consider how the level of technology is maintained and what people eat. Well, unless you’re making a parody. Detail doesn’t need to be excessive here if it’s unnecessary to the plot, but no village flourishes in isolation for long.

Also, it’s really bad to have setting description contradict itself before the game is even out.

As an aside, you could do worse than read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, especially if the intention is to craft a setting for something more realistic. Also, they’re good reads.

There should also be consistency in style and atmosphere of the setting.

Alderac Entertainment Group’s roleplaying game The 7th Sea is notorious for failing spectacularly at both of these. The game itself is fun swashbuckling in the spirit of, but the setting of Theahis an interesting hodgepodge of thinly-veiled references to real-world European nations during different historical periods. You’ve got 18th century France, 17-century Spain, Viking Scandinavia, 16th-century Italy, and a medieval Britain. No particular explanation as to why, and it looks like a terrible patchwork quilt and jars me right out of it.

In the metaplot area, it failed to keep consistent. One moment, you have flashing blades and feats of derring-do and the next, there’s aliens and X-Files, completely changing the tone of the game. It felt tacked-on. While it can work, it should be the focus of a single campaign. Most of the weird material is simply unusable if one wishes to keep to the style.

Small thematic shifts are always appropriate, though. Every fantasy campaign can sustain at least one Halloween horror session, and for Living Greyhawk, there were plans for a big pulpy adventure with a lost island of dinosaurs, and a white man living wild with the apes, with great white (Ahlissan) hunters, and a secret Nazi (Scarlet Brotherhood) in a volcano, where they received orders from Hitler’s (Maranafel Toktot, the Butcher of Scant) brain in a jar. There would be sharks and zombies and a giant ape, too.

Well, I think that is it. I hope someone gets something out of it. I may cover a few settings I think are especially cool, interesting, or otherwise noteworthy in the future, but for now, this will be the last major update until I’ve got my university entrance exams done, which is in early June.


  1. Greetings, Jukka. Good post.

    Personally I prefer implied or evocative settings; that is, something where the details are not written down anywhere, but where there is sufficient theme and references to other works and so forth to allow easy and preferably consistent generation of detail when actually playing.

    On the importance of setting and rules and characters and whatever: I don’t think it is actually possible to put them in any order of importance, as the interaction of the different elements is what matters. Saying that setting is more important than everything else actually tells that are assumptions in place that make setting more important than other stuff. Personally, I am more interested in the assumptions than the conclusion, but I am something of a theorist.

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