What Should A Setting Book Be?

I spend a lot of mental bandwidth on the question of what should be in an RPG book.

When you’re talking about core rules, that’s a fairly known set of issues. Finding a balance between teaching vs referencing vs being interesting is tricky, but it’s a known problem. And while I wouldn’t call it a solved problem, it’s a problem with a number of solutions.

Beyond core rules, it gets a little more interesting. The nature of books gets more diverse. Adventures, GM advice, setting bibles, rules expansion and lots of other core ideas kind of float around in that space. It makes the question of what makes for good supplemental material pretty complicated, because there are so many things that supplemental material might be.

For the moment, I zoom in on setting and chew on it a bit. This is on my mind since someone did a wonderful New York City Setting Book based on Vornheim. If you’re unfamiliar, Vornheim is one of the more interesting setting books of recent memory. It’s not a matter of content, but rather, one of style and presentation – it’s a book focused on very dynamically helping a GM fake a city in an interesting way.

Full transparency – it’s not entirely to my taste[1], but that doesn’t stop me from recognizing that it’s a great book and a great idea. Specifically, I strongly applaud the idea of creating setting material with a focus on what’s going to be most directly useful in play. I think there’s room for disagreement regarding what exactly is most useful while still acknowledging the utility of that approach.

But Vornheim also raises the very reasonable challenge – it works, so if it’s not for me, then it’s very reasonable to ask what would be for me. If I were to write setting material for myself, what would I do?

To this end, it’s worth looking at what problems I need to solve. Paradoxically, as a GM, I want material that excites players more than myself. That’s a tough row to hoe, because I can’t really expect players to read the same crap I do as a GM, so presentation and share-ability become much more essential elements to me than inspiration. Worse, I also want to leave lots of room for players to create content, which is almost like I don’t want setting at all, but I do. Setting provides a common frame of reference. The trick is discovering which pieces are small enough to be digestable, yet are strong enough to be load bearing.

I think there’s an answer, and as with many things, I think it can be found in the Amber DRPG – characters. The faces, to use our Evil Hat speak. But how do you express a setting as characters?

That’s the next question.


  1. Of all things, I think Vornheim has a lot in common with Apocalypse world and its ilk. They all are designed with a very thin membrane between product and players at the table, and that’s admirable in many ways.  ↩

2 thoughts on “What Should A Setting Book Be?

  1. Declan Feeney

    I don’t know how applicable it is to a settings book, but when I think about settings for my table I don’t have time to flesh things out in detail. I can do that at the table and only have to flesh out the things the players ask about, or investigate.
    Hence I start any setting with the conflicts, then put faces to those conflicts and set motivations. If I’ve got that I’m half way there. I then work out what I need to add to the setting to drive the players straight into the middle of those conflicts.
    Amber as a setting is all about conflicts:- Corwin and Eric are at each others throats, the Red heads are all devious, Benedict wants to protect Amber, in fact he’s the only non-self motivated character (possibly Llewella, but she was never really a strong character),, but because of this none of the others really trust him. Chaos (the obvious enemy) is never really the threat. The threat is the harm the Amberites do each other in their race to get ahead.
    Hence, for me the conflict has to be the start.

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  2. wrathofzombie

    Thanks for the praise on the Shadowrun NYC kit:) It was fun today and I have to say I’m really pleased at people’s reactions to it thus far.

    When I think of setting books I’m not opposed to fluff, as it is needed to really cement the setting… However I find that many setting books are too steeped in fluff and don’t give much material that is usable at the table without heavy referencing or notes on the part of the GM.

    Vornheim, to me, is a breath of fresh air as a setting book. When it was released I just got done reading through the Freeport setting book, which had enjoyable parts and things that certainly would be cool in a game. However it’s 240+ pages of text. The tables and charts (what little there is) are scattered throughout the book. Names are sometimes bolded, but lost in a sea of text that is describing a bar, a street, a plot, etc. None of which are easily scannable or memorable.

    In my experience (which can be totally different from any other GM- and that’s awesome/ok) is that largely player(s) don’t give a toss about anything in the game world until it affects them. I can describe the epic Thousand Year War of the Hammer Toe in loving detail (whether a creation of my own or of the setting book) and watch the players nod off because it’s not something that really affects them.

    However you put in a mysterious stranger that kidnaps one of the player’s beloved NPC’s and kills them in a ritual to resurrect a war hero from the Thousand Year War of the Hammer Toe and they’ll be all over it. They’ll research it, retain more information, etc.

    However most setting books are not constructed in a way to facilitate that style of use at the table, and while Vornheim is only about Vornhim, it does show how that sort of mantra/play-style can be used at the game table.

    What I’ve found gets players excited about a setting book is picture… Lots and lots of pictures. They don’t want to read (sadly), but you show them an epic picture of a battle or action scene and they’ll say, “Shit I wanna do that!” Show them a grotesque monster, “I wanna fight that.”

    In one regard that is why I dig the class pictures in books like Pathfinder and 3.x D&D. It gives the player(s) a clear view of the essence of the character and helps them (if they know nothing about classes or the setting) make a decision on what they want to play.

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