Talking with a friend today while I’m home sick, the subject of setting transmission came up. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the games that feel like they have the most traction with people are the ones that work to imply their setting in other parts of the game, rather than get into detailed bits about setting up-front.
Take Dungeons & Dragons. What’s the setting? “Fantasy dudes go into far-off places to kick ass and bring stuff back.” But there’s more to it. The classes and races tell you something about the world you’re playing in — that there are these high-elves from a culture of wisdom and beauty. That tieflings are from a cursed race. That humans and wood elves can interbreed, as can humans and half-orcs. And there are paladins and clerics that take power from a god, wizards and warlocks that wield magic, etc.
There’s a lot of setting there. Then look at the Monster Manual. That book is nothing but setting. What sort of world has kobolds or gelatinous cubes or, you know, dragons. Setting, setting, setting.
And because it’s mostly implied, you can change the dials on the setting. You can say “my world doesn’t have Clerics or Paladins” like the Midnight d20 game did some years ago. There’s a lot of mojo there. Apocalypse World does the same thing with the playbooks. Gamma World does with the character class combinations.
Mythender will as well, with the Hearts & Histories at character creation, and a chapter filled with myths rather than rules for making them. (I can also rely on some advice I constantly tell others: “Your readers are smart enough to hack this without you telling them how. And they’ll surprise you in ways you didn’t expect.”)
I played in a game recently where the GM spent roughly the first hour conveying the stated setting of a game — the timeline of events that lead up to the current day, material written by characters in the fiction, things like that. It was not a fun experience. Between that, explaining the mechanics of the game pre-play, and a very boring “let’s research stuff” scene between two characters, I didn’t actually start engaging in the game until around two hours in (and the game took four hours). Now, I can’t fault the game for how the GM presented it, but it did remind that that a game that relies more on implied setting gives the GM and players tools for engaging in a game sooner.
It occurs to me that one of the ways that implied setting works is if the past is not given primacy in the text. In D&D, there isn’t a lot of conversation about how the dungeons and dragons got there. In Apocalypse World, there’s a sentence devoted to the past. Gamma World is similar, and rather irreverent about it. That means the current moment is what needs to be fleshed out in the minds of players, and that’s easier to imply. It also gives you something to explore in the fiction.
Makes me think about how to present setting-rich games. I have some in the works — very distant works — and don’t want to run into the pitfalls of having games like the one I played happen. And how to give a stated setting some of the magic implied settings have, if that’s even possible (or the right thing for the product). No answers for that now, just questions and thoughts.
(Of course, then you have games where setting canon is really important, but there’s a difference between stated setting wholly invented and stated setting that people already have investment with. Very different topic.)