Thoughts on What Makes a Good RPG Setting

In role-playing games on August 17th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

One of the many topics that gamers find to divide themselves over is RPG settings. Not only are the settings themselves the topic of “love it”-“hate it” holy wars, but how settings should be presented and makes up a “complete” setting sourcebook also cause divisions. My own opinions on these subjects have changed several times over the years, aligning with almost every major fashion as it came along.

A few days ago, I made an offhand comment on Twitter about how exposure to Forge-influenced RPGs and theory prompted the most recent change in my views. This led Seth Ben Ezra to ask me how they did so, and this post is my response. Hopefully, it’s of some broader interest.

Treadmill Settings

Until recently, I loved, for lack of a better term, “supplement treadmill” settings. This is the current dominant model, but for readers that aren’t familiar with it, “treadmill” settings present the broad brush strokes of the setting in a core book – either an RPG’s core rulebook or a core setting book. For the lifespan of the product line, subsequent supplements are published that add more detail to the setting. These extra supplements mostly flesh out a specific area or organization, which future supplements can then dive into even deeper, covering major cities or factions within major organizations. Adventures can become a part of this, too, since they let groups tour a popular setting without putting the strain of preparation on the GM. Before long, there is an enormous amount of detail that players can immerse themselves in. If a line is especially successful, it could run to several thousands of pages and an accompanying line of novels.

I was a fan of treadmill settings during the early and mid-90s, especially Mage: the Ascension’s modern Earth with a “secret” history setting. There was a huge stream of sourcebooks that detailed that history as well as a huge number of organizations and conspiracies. This detail was a lot of fun to read, but I was the only one fascinated enough by it to spend hours reading about it. My game group liked the premise of the game, but trying to get them up to speed on the basic setting information, let alone everything found in the supplements.
I was spending a lot of money on books, acquiring a wealth of detail that was never going to appear at my game table. The story of the First Covenant (don’t worry about it) was unlikely to play a role in any game I ran as was the much-ballyhooed fact that Copernicus launched the Technocratic revolution. In fact, I had enough of these bits of trivia to last me the rest of my gaming life in the core book and the first couple sourcebooks. Of course, if I had a group that wanted to immerse itself as deeply as I did in the setting I could make casual references to all of that detail and history if I wanted without having to explain every single one, let alone all of the other detail necessary to make that explanation even make sense.

I finally gave up on Mage: the Ascension when the game’s third edition subverted many of my favourite setting tropes with a setting-wide cataclysm. This was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, however. The frustration of playing in a setting as complex as Mage’s had already doomed a few stabs at setting up a campaign. By that point, I doubt I would have done anything more than read supplements anyway.

By the way, I believe that this kind of “metaplot” – advancing a settings storyline and changing major elements of the setting in the process – is bad for gaming. Metaplots can be incredibly disruptive to groups that are committed to using the entire published canon for a setting when changes conflict obtrusively with what the group has established in their own play. Metaplot is not something that has to go hand in hand with the supplement treadmill model, however. Hârn , for example, has been slowly fleshed out for almost 30 years, but the setting’s timeline has not been advanced even a single second.

I have been on the player side of the treadmill setting equation, too. When I played D&D 3.5, the campaigns were set in Grayhawk and the Forgotten Realms. Both of these settings have thick libraries of established detail and history. The Realms, in particular, have spawned an ungodly number of gamebooks and, yes, novels. My DM and a couple of the players were familiar with the Realms, but, even now, I’ve barely read a page about them since Ed Greenwood’s old AD&D1 crunch articles in Dragon magazine. I recognize many of the names, but I have almost no context.

Seed Settings

The biggest difference between when I thought treadmill settings were the bomb and now is what I don’t need in a setting. Instead of page after page of detail, what I now want is material that helps me to build interesting situations (scenarios, adventures) that I can use in my games. Treadmill settings include this, but they bury it in holy days, demographics and the personal history of the basket merchant. I’m not even terribly interested in combat stats for every major NPC. That is the sort of information I can create myself when it comes up, customizing it to suit my group’s sensibilities. More importantly, I don’t want this stuff getting in the way when I don’t care about it.

I don’t just mean the phenomenon (which I’ve never experienced as a GM) of a setting fanboy contradicting something the GM says because it’s not what obscure supplement15 says. That can be dealt with by Crucifying Elminster. Rather, I don’t want to wade through all that stuff when what I really need is inspiration for my next game or campaign. I don’t want to have to pay for that stuff, either.

What I want in a setting is conflicts that PCs can get in the middle of, locations that stimulate a sense of wonder, and NPCs in broad outline that I’ll want my players to meet. There’s nothing wrong with touching on the fundamentals, either: lost temples are a dime a dozen, but I may want to use one that offers an interesting twist, and it may also give me a spinoff idea of my own.

I actually prefer help with coming up with my own material, including what I can spin off from another source of inspiration. Old school random charts get a lot of stick from treadmill setting fans, but they are a highly efficient method of stimulating a DM’s creativity. The problem with the old games is that they didn’t give the instructions – even minimal ones – on how to pull the results together into a coherent narrative, or at least a coherent picaresque. Traveller may have had the advantage of being pretty self-explanatory, but wandering monster tables and random dungeon dressing could create chaos in the hands of the wrong DM.

Many of the most interesting “new new school” games use the random charts or similar methods for generating situation. GM prep in Inspectres consists of rolling 2d6 four times, once for each of the situation generation charts, and that’s it. This gives the GM broad strokes describing a client and a mission that can then be filled out in play. The level of player authourship in Inspectres makes this kind of sketchy prep is a necessity, but it is important – and not at all typical – that the rules provide adequate tools for situation generation.

Setting random charts aside, I would point to Legends of Allyria and the world of Near from The Shadow of Yesterday as good examples of settings that I am fond of. Seth Ben Ezra devotes a mere handful of paragraphs to each of Allyria’s major setting elements, but the major landmarks, organizations and phenomena come alive. Characters that you want to play practically fly at you as you read. The Digger Paladins – from the ranks of anthropomorphic aardvarks that are mostly content to live alone in their burrows, the Paladins have visions of fighting evils in a city of steel and are drawn into the world to become heroes – are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Clinton R. Nixon presents each of the nations and races of Near with a page or so of text, plus a handful of crunch that roots this information in the mechanics of the game. The decadent Maldorians are one side of half a dozen conflicts, while the Qek are trying to protect the remnants of a world-shattering asteroid from those that would use its power for evil. Take element 1, throw it at element 2 and you have the basis for a short campaign. Just add PCs.

While Forge-related games showed me the light when it comes to seed-based settings, the did not invent them, and do not have a monopoly on quality setting design. The most recent version of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting (the same setting material is presented in the D&D3.x and the D&D4 books; only the crunch is different) has excellent setting material that presents an old fashioned D&D setting that is ready for play. Colour is limited to a few key details that set each town or village apart, and the rest is a litany of adventures that are waiting to happen. If anything, I would criticize the book for not offering enough on the city of Blackmoor itself and the castle/megadungeon that shares its name. I suspect they will be fleshed out in future products (sigh), but I’d have been happier getting rid of half of the book’s crunch for a full chapter on each.

I also think the approach Wizards of the Coast took to the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms books was laudable in principle. Again, they present the different areas of the Realms concisely, focusing on events and personalities that promise adventure. The only problem is that they tied this approach to a major metaplot event that practically destroyed the established Realms to recast it in the image of Fourth Edition. I am not a Realmsophile, so it didn’t bother me much personally, but I can see why fans were upset about this. Fortunately, WotC seem to have learned their lesson, and are not doing the same thing with Eberron. In fact, I don’t think Eberron has had a major metaplot event yet.

Different Strokes

I realize that many roleplayers feed on all of the detail that I have rejected. They like the sense of verisimilitude it provides; the sense that they are playing in a “real” world. For these players, settings work best when all of the players in the group read all of the setting material they can get their hands on, so exposition at the table isn’t necessary.

This approach is never going to fly with the group I play with now, though, as much as a couple of players might like it to. Some of my friends just don’t want to immerse themselves in all that detail. They just want to play when the gang gets together, and leave the game behind when they leave the table. That is why the focused (in cases like Forgotten Realms 4e and Blackmoor, minimalist isn’t quite right) approach works for me, whether pre-established settings or the tools to produce situations of my own. While a bit of colour is important to bring a game to life, it’s also easy to produce in play, as long as the other players do not need to immerse themselves in it before they start to play.

  1. I agree with your thoughts on settings. Over the years the only thing those books have provided me is sometimes interesting reading material. If everyone at the table doesn’t have a good understanding of the setting, most of that material is completely wasted, and I have never played with people willing to do that much homework for a game.

    One of the setting types that I am completely in love with is shared creation with the group. My most successful example of this is with FATE based games, and specifically Starblazer Adventures. Using your character’s aspects to flesh out the game world just works so well for my group and I.

  2. I enjoy collaborative setting creation, too, although I’ve only really tried it once. It seemed a little outside the bailiwick of this discussion though. Since it’s come up, I’ll mention that groups should focus on the same sort of stuff you’d see in a seed setting book when they do this. They can flesh out the colour in play much more easily than they can seed conflicts that they want to play out (depending on the game’s mechanics, of course).

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