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Thoughts on Implied Setting vs Stated Setting

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.

– Ryan

(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.)

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8 Responses to Thoughts on Implied Setting vs Stated Setting

  1. You left me hanging there at the end. :-\
    Are you wondering out loud how best to present a stated setting that’s in the present but doesn’t take 2 hours to establish?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Daniel,

      You left me hanging there at the end. :-\

      It’s almost like my blog is where I think aloud, and thoughts are rarely complete. :)

      But to answer your question, yes and no. I’m more starting to think about the myriad of roles setting takes and how different roles require, suggest, or lend themselves to different transmission vectors. Which is to say: I’m thinking about something much bigger, and this post is just a tip of the iceberg.

      – Ryan

  2. Ewen says:

    The thing about settings for RPGs is that you have to communicate enough of it to be useful to the entire gaming group, so unless you have a group made up of nothing but bookworms who have nothing better to do (which I definitely do not) there’s a distinct upper limit on how much setting info you can expect people to absorb. And above a certain threshold there’s more than you can ever use even in a long-term campaign.

    I think someone realizing that is one of the key differences in the design approaches between the 3e and 4e Forgotten Realms books. One (IIRC) begins with a timeline of the cosmos, while the other has a quick introduction followed by a Level 1 encounter. The X Things You Should Know sections WotC has been putting into campaign setting books, distilling the really essential stuff down to a page or so, are awesome too.

    I like any outright explanation of a setting to be something like 10 pages or less, with the rest communicated indirectly, and I love stuff that gives players good seeds to come up with their own stuff. That isn’t to say that more detailed settings are bad, but they definitely do call for more sophisticated and subtle methods for teaching the players what’s what than we’ve seen in the past.

  3. JDCorley says:

    Here’s a link to a thread where I discuss the story implications of BigGiant settings and break setting facts down into categories for priority of communication:

    http://story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=11368

    Hope it helps. I think highly detailed and setting-tied games get a bit of a bad rap because the high hurdle of communicating what you need to start the game is seen as inherently bad. It isn’t. It’s a barrier to entry, just like figuring out that checkmate is a state different from regular old chess, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Sometimes barriers to entry can create a richer experience.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      JD-

      Sure. But there’s a difference between “this barrier to entry is actually a crafted experience” and “this barrier to entry is because the writers are shit at information flow” or even “this barrier to entry is because the tools for running a one-shot didn’t exist.”

      Which is to say I find most barriers to entry a result of ineptness rather than intent. The fact that some are (and in fact Mythender’s large dice poll is one) doesn’t excuse barriers in general.

      – Ryan

    • JDCorley says:

      Right, as I mention in the thread, I was somewhat shocked to discover that the Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign book contained absolutely no instructions – not one line, not one word – about how to use this 200+ page collection of material, some of it quite great, in the construction of a campaign. No clear procedures for how to communicate it, or what might be gained by such communication.

      Playing in a highly detailed setting with enthusiasts who have all read 300 pages of background material and absorbed it has a pleasure to it that you can’t get from learn-in-play type of setups. (All those World of Darkness book collectors!) Of course those learn-in-play setups have their own unique pleasures too. Playing a historical RPG with history buffs who have extensive knowledge about the setting is both educational and helps believability. But you need a different attitude towards that game than you do to the first two.

  4. Rob Donoghue says:

    There’s definitely some payoff in talking out foundations before play begins. I’ve had games really suffer under the weight of a failure to do so, but at the same time, it’s definitely a function of diminishing returns. 0 is too short, but an hour? I think about an hour of explanation, and I boggle. Think about the number of things that can be discussed, pitched, explained or taught in an hour, and it starts feeling like a HUGE amount of time.

    All of which is to say, I think the problem (and the solution) lie outside of the games themselves and more in the realm of teaching good presentation skills. Sight unseen, I suspect the GM felt he could talk for as long as he felt was necessary, so nothing forced him to focus or sharpen his pitch. Imposing some sort of limitations on this, even as simple as a time limit, forces the presented/GM to figure out what really needs to be said. Hell, force em to try PechaKucha – 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, hard limit. GO.

    Not to say any specific limits or methodology will be the best choice, but just some basic focus on presentation skills (because what is an infodump/briefing but a presentation?) could go a long way.

    -Rob D.

  5. Chris Alatorre says:

    After reading your post I realize I’ve been guilty a few times of throwing a lot of information at my players all at once. As a GM it’s easy to get overly excited with an idea/concept that you go to far into the details or even just take to many broad strokes with your description that you start boring your characters. Implied settings have the advantage of using a players preconceived thoughts and knowledge to understand the setting. People playing D&D know what their getting into even if the GM has decided to differ from the base setting a little bit.

    I think the goal is turn your setting into an implied setting with as few words as possible. Create / find a baseline that you can convey to your players that will give them a general understanding. Sentences like, “it’s like the modern world but”, or “think feudal Japan” can convey a lot of information very quickly. Aspects in Fate games are always hard for me to come up with on the spot because in a way that’s what they do, create a few words or a sentence that gets at the essence of the thing.

    Once you’ve established a baseline from which your world will differ you need to talk about the differences. Books usually have a baseline even if it’s something as broad as Science Fiction / Fantasy. They rarely have a ten page preface that explains the world and it’s histories. Instead your eased into the world with short explanations for things, that aren’t obvious, as the story line progresses. You read a sentence and begin to wonder “what’s that?” but before the ideas fully out the book has already started explaining the particular nuance of it’s world. My thought would be to leave a lot of intriguing questions unanswered with your broad strokes so that your player’s ask for the information instead of the GM just spouting it off in one long rambling. Also to be okay not answering everything that’s different and allowing it to come up natural in play.

    I have to say I like games like Diaspora or Dresden because the group as a whole creates the setting together. Each member spends a good amount of time creating an idea and a back-story but when it’s presented to the group smaller amounts of information are given, a few aspects and a paragraph summery. Then when questions arise the person that came up with the idea can fill in the gaps. It basically takes the first session to create that baseline and then allows the players to fill in the gaps as play happens keeping them all invested and listening.

    Don’t usually post, I’m mostly just a reader so sorry for bad grammar and sentence structure. Also really like the blog.