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Make Your Setting Welcoming

Got a cool RPG setting? Sweet! Many people buy and try new systems because of setting hooks, or even just enjoy reading cool settings for fun. When we design games, the setting fires off ideas in our minds that lead to tailored rules, better GMing directives, and overall voice of the text.

But so many setting are written in a way that hinders them.

What We Do Wrong

When we write about our game’s settings, we frequently miss out on hooking others into what we’re truly excited about. We can get caught up in the history of the setting—not necessarily because it’s cool, but because we feel like we’re on trial as creators and have to justify why our setting works as it does. That’s especially true for alternate history or Earth-based science fiction.

Now, that can be really neat to read, but only once the interesting setting stuff is laid out. Your setting’s history is an origin story. It’s your Issue #0. And those aren’t all that interesting by themselves. Instead, classic comic stories start with the hero already a hero, with the setting already in play. We need to do the same as RPG setting writers.

And we need to do it without forcing a novel’s worth of text to get across the overarching vibe.

“But It Worked For Me!”

One rebuttal I see to ideas of slimming down initial setting details is that the settings they’ve read have worked for them. I especially see this in fans of vast, baroque settings, who have absorbed minutiae about it over the years. Here’s the problem: it’s hard to introduce new people to a setting when you can’t coherently explain what’s awesome about it and when reading the books feels like an unwelcome history lesson. Once your friends get why it’s worth being excited about, the history lesson becomes welcomed, so let’s get to that point sooner.

We shouldn’t rely on gamer Stockholm Syndrome to get our friends to play with us or to get fans to check out our games.

Faster is Better

On the setting’s first page, bullet point what’s awesome about the setting: what characters will do or encounter, what conflicts are in play, what catchy chrome bits will excite people. This isn’t quite about adventure hooks, but a cognitive step before that. If you list a bullet point that solely has to so with the past, burn it—no one cares about history yet. And avoid in-game jargon at this point[1].

I don’t care if you’re the Forgotten Realms—you can put a page of tone-setting details on the table. This slots ideas into the reader’s head faster, and gives several promises that you’ll commit to addressing as they read the rest of your setting material.

Hell, this is a great exercise for anyone who is just trying to figure out what’s cool about their setting or a setting they love. What are the twenty things that excite you about the setting? If I was gonna do this for Eclipse Phase, here are ten off the top of my head:

  • Being able to back yourself up and download yourself into other bodies—flesh, metal, or informational
  • Philosophical questions about the self and identity
  • Octopi-bodied assassins
  • Currency is (mostly) done, the reputation economy is here to stay
  • Earth is effectively destroyed, and the rest of us are diaspora
  • Alien super-virus that rewrites DNA and mind patterns, creating psychic powers and horrors
  • A transhumanist conspiracy created to defend the rest of us from said horrors
  • Rewriting elements of the mind—”psychosurgery”—for good or ill
  • In a flesh body today, controlling a hovercraft with guns tomorrow—your mind is just software and data
  • Everything is connect to wireless networks, so everything’s hackable… including you

Is this edited? No, it’s a haphazard first-draft list. But it’s a start to something that could be refined for that first page and built upon in following pages. For instance, the ninth point is a colorful focus of the first one, and that makes me realize I should organize all the body-oriented ones together under a subheader. Then I wonder what other subheaders I could do to better curate the experience of reading them.

Or maybe I shouldn’t subhead these, and let them feel haphazard. That approach worked really well for the rumors in Unknown Armies Second Edition.

Layering Setting

Speaking of the Forgotten Realms, I really liked the way Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition handled trying to introduce it to new people. If I remember right, the campaign guide started with an adventure in a small or moderate city, introducing people to a dot on the map. Then it zoomed out to show a larger portion of the setting, and zoomed out one more time to show the entire setting. It was the opposite of “here’s a big map, let’s show you things you can point at” approach that is daunting to so many people.

– Ryan

Some great discussion happening on the G+ post.

Photo: Sign for the Dingo Fence, which makes me think about how that is a layered bullet point for a setting in and of itself: there are inhuman hunters in the wasteland, and we’ve built a fence to keep them at bay. It also seems like a good metaphor for how settings feel when we don’t do our job of setting presentation well.

[1] Admittedly, I love lexicon sections in games that know how to convey other information about the setting. I’m really proud of what the team came up with in the revised Convention Book: Void Engineers lexicon, because we got to slide in attitudes and prejudices by describing what pejoratives were used.

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