Built to Use

The conversation continues. Discussion yesterday has me thinking a bit more about the role of setting in making a game friendly to a novice player.

When people talk about novice-friendly settings, they usually talk about familiarity. Something that the player already knows, something like Star Wars or some other licensed setting. The idea is that if the players ia already familiar witht he material, the it will be easier for them to settle into.

I think there’s some merit to this, but I think it’s only part of the equation. The familiar setting is absolutely a good thing for comfort, but it does not necessarily help direct things towards something suitable to play. Star Trek is a great example for this – it’s easy enough to imagine writing yourself into an episode of the show, with the cast you know, but it’s less easy to clearly envision your own adventures that are not just a knock off of the original adventures. It’s not impossible, but just saying “it’s Star Trek” is not particular helpful to that end.[1]

With that in mind, I don’t think novelty is a drawback for a novice, provided it can be presented clearly. This means avoiding the temptation towards completeness, and zeroing in on the elements of the setting that will catch the player’s interest.[2] The trick is that the pitch for the setting should also clearly suggest something to do, specifically something exciting.

This is pretty easy to do for a particular game at a particular table, but harder to do when designing a setting for play. But the interesting thing is that the part of a setting that can grab a player and interest them is often pretty brief: a page or two of material is usually more than enough. The very best published settings tend to be collections of these snippets all tied together, so that you can’t go more than a few pages while reading without thinking of a game you’d like to run or play.[3]

It may be counterintuitive to think of a setting as a collection of pitches.[4] We’re habituated to the idea that setting should be something out of a very bad history textbook, but if we can break away from the idea of creating something complete and focus more on something built to play, then we can go a long way towards making our games friendlier to newbies. Setting can carry a lot of weight, as much or more than setting if used the right way.

Then, once we’ve gotten titanically successful, we cna use the profits to fill the second book with all the useless details we could possibly want.

1- If you’re a huge fan, Star trek offers more options, but for the average fan, the appeal of the series is mostly the idea of interacting with the characters.

2- This is one of the real benefits of using the real world as a baseline, a fact well exploited by the World of Darkness. It even works at a bit of a remove – one of the benefits of post-apocalypse is the common touchpoints of the pre-apocalypse world.

3- Some recent-ish examples that I feel make this cut are Exalted’s creation and the original Eberron hardback.

4- Curiously, this mirrors something that’s been very successful in popular non-fiction. Where a large treatise tends to be impenetrable, a collection of anecdotes that all serve an end is much more readable and, more importantly, easy for people to talk about.

8 thoughts on “Built to Use

  1. Seth Clayton

    I once read somewhere that when writing setting, if there isn’t a plot hook in there somewhere, it’s not worth writing. I think that really holds true for RPGs. The coolest parts of any history, NPC, or region are the parts where you think, “I can totally do an adventure based on that!”. If you can’t get at least 1 instance of that in every moment, NPC, magic item, etc., does it really need to be written at all?
    Granted, everyone’s opinion is different, but I still use this as a yard stick to measure my writing.

  2. Helmsman

    Some of this never worked for me.

    I’ve always struggled with settings based in the modern world because I get caught up in the mundanity of it all. Sure its easy to understand the cosmology… but that’s a double edged sword because it breaks immersion that much faster when you create a situation where the world doesn’t go the way it should. It’s why I generally gravitate to blowing the world up as a GM so I don’t have to perscribe to the rules of our world anymore. It’s too restrictive. Do bad stuff, the police show up… you get caught on camera, fingerprints are on-file… gameplay becomes that much more restrictive… and not in a good way because ultimately it means more work for me as the GM. I have to consider how close the cops are to catching the PC’s because of all their antics as well as manage a plot and consider what the bad-guys are up-to. I’m honestly not that diligent a book-keeper which is why I hate long-term consequences of stupid actions. Especially when stupid actions are usually the most fun.

    Exalted on the other-hand I love for their little inspiring snippits and my players love it for the freedom the game allows to let them do what they want as over the top as they can imagine it. Plus the cosmology is loose enough that as a GM I can pick and choose what consequence-stick I want to smack them with.

    The thing I find about Exalted that intimidates new potential GM’s is the alienness of the setting combined with how thorough they detail the cosmology. I love this personally, but I graduated from 1st edition and bought all the books as the came out so my frog was boiled the correct way. Throw most would be GM’s at Exalted and they’ll hop away faster than you can say “Jack be quick” because it’s overwhelming.

    I think the sweet spot is a world that you can pick and choose what you want to be familiar and what you want to be fantasy… though I’m not going to say there aren’t other methods… going to think on this more, my Top Gear game idea could benefit from some of that thinking.

  3. Uncle Dark

    Helmsman: This is why I tend to think, not in terms of the Real World as I see it when I’m in it, but rather of the “Real” World, as it’s portrayed in contemporary drama. My game only has to be as “realistic” as Burn Notice or Law & Order, it doesn’t have to faithfully recreate the world the players live in.

    And, really, what would be the point of that? I don’t game to simulate real life… I have real life for that!

  4. Helmsman

    @Uncle Dark – Overall I think a clever story structure mechanic integrated into the game system would help keep consequence book-keeping down. They could be themed like an assassin showing up in Burn Notice, or general like wanted status in Grand Theft Auto.

  5. buddha

    Sorry for chiming in late, but what you’re talking about here seems to me to be the back cover blurb of a novel, right? Just enough info, setting and character to hook you into buying the book!

    I guess, I’m saying I completely agree with you, with one caveat… The person running or guiding the game needs to be on that same page, and only on that page… if the GM has a firm idea of where they want the setting to go, and that’s not what the players expect from the pitch, then that can lead to quickly deflated interest. So, yeah, as long as everybody buys into a pitch but stays flexible, I think that helps a lot!

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @buddha Pretty much, and that interestingly illustrates a key distinction. The Gm might have a lot more _information_ than he conveys to the player, but she should not have more _intent_ (or direction) than he communicates.

  7. semioticity

    Rob, I would love a blog post about your last comment, about GMs having more information than they convey but never having more intent than they convey. I’ve had big problems with this in some of my games, and I think it warrants unpacking.


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