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Setting is Key

The other day, Ogre Whiteside said the following on Twitter:

A setting is not a game. Good or bad setting wank does not make a good or bad game.

To which I stated a simple disagreement. Judd Karlman asked me to unpack that, so here’s a bit more.

I must start by saying that I’m probably assuming something incorrect about Ogre’s 140-character inflectionless tweet. It being Twitter and all, it’s pretty fucking easy to misread someone. With that caveat out of the way…

Setting is key to an RPG.

Mechanics do not alone make an RPG. These style of games, where we tell stories and strive for drama and the like require inspiration to succeed. And that’s what setting is meant to do — inspire. Now, for the purposes of this I don’t care if the setting is material in the book or material the GM makes or stuff the group comes up with collaboratively. Regardless of where it comes from, it is the thing that’ll inspire someone to passion.

Passion is what makes collaborative storytelling work. We riff on each other’s excitement as much as we are impacted by each other’s obvious boredom. That’s a different part of the brain than the one we use when we’re being competitive or analytical — things we are when we’re playing board games, war games, etc. In those things, setting is just a theme to drape over some mechanics, but that’s the core of an RPG.

This is something I see as an axiom of RPG design, so let’s turn our eye to focusing on setting in design. It isn’t simply “that first chapter of an RPG where they tell a history.” No, it’s the thing you sprinkle throughout your game to make it interesting and inspiring. I’m working on Mythender right now, and that’s the thing that I’m spending a lot of time on as I write — putting setting into the very voice I use for the text. My job is not to inject passion into just one part of my book, but in the whole — setting is my tool for that.

(Unknown Armies, particularly 2nd ed., is the high water mark for me in this regard. It is setting rich everywhere. Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies is pretty good in this regard as well, though different in execution.)

That said, setting can be overdone too the point where it crushes passion. Passion is a flame that can be snuffed out by too much wind just as it can starve with not enough oxygen. Too much setting too soon can turn off some players. People can be inspired with an idea after reading two pages, only to find out that twenty pages in their idea can’t happen in that world. And that’s to say nothing of badly written setting fiction, which just takes up page count and reader time with failure. So, I’m not saying setting is without fault or flaw, but bad setting doesn’t invalidate the merits of setting.

I would also say that games like Primetime Adventures or GURPS, games that don’t have a prescribed setting, still require setting to work. In PTA, you come up with your setting as the pitch for your TV series. In GURPS, typically I’ve seen the GM pitch an idea for a game that’s wrapped around setting. Setting inspires, it’s what makes us want to play RPGs. Doubt that, and I’ll ask you why else licensed games tend to sell so well. Looks at how many indie games don’t supply setting per se, but give you a focal point and the tools to go from there. (Fiasco comes to mind here, with its started point of “play a Coen Brothers flick!” and its situation creation engine. In a Wicked Age… does similar.)

Setting, in addition to sparking passion, is also context. It’s what tells us what we’re making collaboratively. Setting is the thing we think about when we’re confronted by something that we don’t think can or should happen. “Dude, he’s throwing fireballs one after another? I thought that couldn’t happen.” That’s setting — possibly mechanically-enforced setting, but it’s setting. And when that context (or shared imagined space) is violated, we get that feeling like nails on a chalkboard. If you’re dealing with low or no context, then this feeling of “uh, I think that’s off” isn’t universal, leading to arguments or merely disinterested play. (Early games of A Penny For My Thoughts had this happen before we started enforcing setting with the Facts & Reassurances document.)

All said, I’m not discounting good mechanics. Mechanics are also key, but they are just a part of the game (along with setting), not the whole. Setting inspires you to play. Mechanics drive the way you play. Crap mechanics will frustrate, squashing the passion the setting provided. But without that passion, mechanics just feel like playing a board game. And it’s rare the RPG that actually still feels entertaining if treated like a passionless board game. So good mechanics support your play, but they don’t create passion in and of themselves.

Now, maybe setting is an interchangeable piece with some games. I won’t argue that. But that very idea of swapping a setting that doesn’t inspire you out for one that does, well, I feel like that proves my point. I did that with Beast Hunters a few years back. I didn’t care for the setting, but I felt like the mechanics could support playing a Final Fantasy VII game. Passion was bestowed by setting. Support was given by mechanics. And we had a good fuckin’ game.

To actually answer Ogre’s bit: If “game” means “an instance of play,” I can’t disagree more. Setting is key to that inspiration. If “game” means “the RPG book I’m reading,” well, bad setting might not make it a bad instance of play, but then it requires more work (which can sap passion). Either way, setting *is* the game every bit as much as mechanics are.

Hopefully that answers what you were looking for, Judd. And apologies to Ogre if I totally misunderstood (and thus misrepresented) what he meant by his tweet.

– Ryan

P.S. Ken Hite has some smart things to say on his blog about setting’s role in design, and will have some more smart things to say once I get the next Master Plan out.

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9 Responses to Setting is Key

  1. Sean Nittner says:

    I think the passion you’re talking about, the spark of what we want to do in this setting is situation. Situation is what takes the vast landscape of an engaging setting and focuses it down to the very specific “so what are we, as a gaming group going to do in this setting.”

    The thing I love about the S7S setting is that it is not just rich, but also ripe with potential situations. The Dread Pirate is missing! A Koldun is collecting artifacts from Kroy! The barathi empress is peeved one noble to many! Each of these are seeds that a campaign can be created from.

    So while I love setting, I don’t think it becomes a game players can dig into until you establish the situation. Then you’re on fire.

  2. Ryan Macklin says:

    Sean,

    Good point. Situation is defined by setting. Like I said above, setting is context, which is where you’re going to get a sense of shared situation.

    But situation isn’t the whole. You (and I) might be inspired by situation, but people also get inspired and passionate about a number of things — character concepts are another classic one that inspires (and I would even say typically trumps situation outside of indieland). I have seen people read about a character type and feel totally charged to play before the game’s situation was presented — in Unknown Armies, in D&D, in 7th Sea, etc.

    To say that situation is the only form of that passion is to assume too small an audience. In this case, perhaps the lens is more from someone who GMs often, and thus situation is the heart of that side of play. So while “The Dread Pirate is missing!” is a fine situation to get the GM ready to go and put his passionate energy into the game, what part of the setting is getting the players to be passionate as well?

    (The question is rhetorical, because it varies from one player to the next.)

    – Ryan

  3. Ron “System Matters” Edwards has long insisted that the indie movement became too obsessed with mechanics that it missed what he thought was the most important part of roleplaying: the color of the setting. In other words, the “look-and-feel” or *how* stuff gets done. That corresponds to your use of setting as a limiter on throwing masses of fireballs in (say) a gritty urban fantasy. It doesn’t fit the color of the game.

  4. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    Ryan,

    I think you are misappropriating the word “setting,” which is far smaller and more specific than the way you’re using it here. “Setting” is the time and place where the game takes place. I think you are grasping for another word, one that encompasses “setting,” “situation,” “tone,” and “whatever makes you passionate to play.” I don’t have a good word for what you’re talking about, but you’ve got me thinking about it. I think we need a word, a good, strong word, for exactly what you’re talking about, because what you’re talking about here is serious mojo.

  5. Ryan Macklin says:

    Matt,

    I feel like limiting “setting” to “that fictional history and setup thing” is to see setting in a diminished light. I just finished reading Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and the tone that John Perry (the protagonist) uses to talk about the world is, to me, every bit as much of setting as the facts and stories of the Colonial Defense Forces. That’s why I use “setting” to convey feel as much as fact, because it serves largely the same purpose: inspiration & engagement.

    But, that’s a semantics thing. Until there truly is a better word, I’ll continue to use “setting” to encompass all the things that I see setting as needing to do. I don’t intend to say that dismissively — it’s a serious tool that has recently improved my rules writing, and I wouldn’t want to give that tool up because the word might not be quite right.

    Also, after posting the original bit I realized that “idiom” is also a part of setting, be it “television show” like Primetime Adventures or “dungeon adventure” of D&D. Idiom is another place where context, expectation and inspiration occur. Another thing for your list of stuff.

    – Ryan

  6. Ryan Macklin says:

    Seth,

    Funny. I think that it takes spending some time being obsessed with mechanics to see their limitations. Ron’s just ahead of the curve on most of us. I know that it’s taken actually attempting to write Mythender’s final text and working with other very colorful games to truly see that.

    – Ryan

  7. Yeah, and lest it be unclear, I was agreeing with you.

    My time with mechanics was spent playing Eurogames, where I’ve seen a similar evolution occur. The switchover for me was a statement I made at GenCon 2008: “Players are more than just emitters of moves”.

    Because, yeah, System Matters. But System isn’t the *only* thing that matters. System is the tool in the toolkit to help players do something that they *already* want to do. And Setting and Color are ways that a game inspires its players to play.

    Wow, there’s an entire “mechanics vs. theme” discussion hidden here, too, but I don’t have the time to crack that one open.

  8. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    I’ve been thinking about this further. Here’s the shotgun:

    “milieu” – bigger than just “setting”
    “context” – too general, I think
    “background” – encompasses more than setting, but it suggests other -grounds, like foreground (PCs?).
    “enthusiasm” – anything that gets you jonesed about the game, including setting or mechanical elements
    “inspiration” – like enthusiasm, but inspiration is also what fueled the author(s) of the game, so, less useful

    When in doubt, fall back on film terms, since film is gaming’s closest cousin. “Mise en scene” is:
    1. the process of setting a stage, with regard to placement of actors, scenery, properties, etc.
    2. the stage setting or scenery of a play.
    3. surroundings; environment.
    I’ve always seen it translated as “setting the scene” and incorporating anything relevant to the scene.

    I suggest “mise en game,” but I understand this is too obscure.

    I’m not done thinking, but that’s where I am now.

  9. I, for one, would love a Master Plan episode on this, because I think it’s phenomenally important.

    Hope that wasn’t a guilt trip.