Category Archives: setting

Can You Playtest a Setting?

My gold standard for setting driven play is Amber, a fact which should come as a surprise to no one.

But what’s interesting is that there’s actually very little setting in Amber. This is the function of a few elements.

  • Zelazny’s writing style is very sparse – colorful, but with a minimum of detail. He paints people and places with a few bold strokes, then just leaves it as that. As such, Amber has some geography – a castle, dungeons, a few place names – but it’s very loose.
  • Because the core conceit of the series is multi-dimensional, much of fiction (and play) takes place in an infinite range of other places. What’s more, the very nature of the character’s power mean that details just aren’t that important, because they’re subject to change. A strong core idea is all you need for an entire world.
  • At the center of everything is a large family, and the main drivers of play are tied to those characters. Importantly, the players are also tied to those characters – usually as their children – and the result is that everyone enters play connected along multiple vectors. And Zelazny’s sparse style paid off hugely in this regard, as each family member is pretty memorable with only a few details.

The last one is probably the trickiest and the most potent. “You’re all family” is the relationship equivalent of setting a game in the modern day. It sets up a whole array of dynamics and opinions right from the outset, in a way that most of us are familiar with to one extent or another. However, actual extended families can be tricky to put into play, so it’s often necessary to use a family substitute.[1]

But even if you can come up with another structure, and there are many, then the question becomes how you can convey those characters without huge hassle. And this is one of those horrible bugbears where the answer seems to be “really good writing and art”. The reality is that it’s possible to craft a really striking character in a paragraph or two, but it’s hard, and doing it well would probably require more rounds of revision and testing than most RPGs ever consider.

In fact, the very idea of playtesting a setting seems like a total goofball idea, but I wonder if it might actually be something of a necessity. It’s a weird thought in a lot of ways – I’m not even 100% sure how it would be done, but if you could set up a solid feedback loop (and, nontrivially, arrange enough testers) you might be able to gauge who people respond to and, importantly, write less material.

And that’s even more counterintuitive. Page could turns into prices, so it’s hard to justify writing less for a product. Hell, Setting books are usually bursting at the seams. But I definitely feel like we’ve done as much “more” as we can possibly handle, so now I’m wondering how we can do “less”.


  1. Vampire provides an interesting example of how this changes. In theory, you have a decent family analog with the vampire that turned you as a parent, and other vampires with the same sire as siblings. In practice, it usually seems that the strength of the clans overrides that family model, which is a great illustration of how sticky the clan model is.  ↩

What’s in the Box?

While I have specific demands for maps in games, the issue if more muddled in pure-setting products, most famously defined by the boxed sets for things like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. These are well-loved products, and their design sensibilities have influenced many setting products that followed, but they merit some examination. The questions that intrigues me is what the purpose of these products really is – are they designed to be played in, or are they just bookshelves, waiting to be filled?

To understand the distinction, let’s look at Greyhawk vs. the Realms. Greyhawk was designed to be played in if only because there wasn’t much choice otherwise. It was such an early product that it’s design as almost pure map plus gazetteer made a lot of sense. You could take it, pick a spot, and play your game. Yet even bearing that in mind, one of the interesting things about Greyhawk was that it provided a context for the locations of published adventures. I know that sent a little thrill down my spine the first time I discovered a note indicating which hex a particular adventure was taking place in. That was, I think, an inidcation of things to come.
The Forgotten Realms was subtly different. Not so much in content; there were some changes, but not enough to really change the type of product. It was, however, a different beast from a commercial perspective. The Realms were a container, one able to hold any number of smaller supplements, novels, video-games and lord-knows what else. In that sense, the initial boxed set was a skeleton to be steadily fleshed out, and TSR delivered on that promise. The realms might have been thin and disconnected at the outset, but they filled it in admirably.

(At this point there’s a requirement for an obligatory nod to the GMs of old whose insane notes provided the basis for these settings, and I hereby provide it, but only grudgingly. I applaud their creativity while I bemoan the fact that they convinced generations that binders full of data no one gives a crap about were going to be the next big thing.)

This kitchen-sink model has had a huge impact on setting design, but it’s fascinating to me because it’s so much at odds with the realities of play as I’ve seen them. By and large, I have seen games either drill down into a specific are or, if covering a broad area, touch upon the setting very lightly. That is to say, real games tend to be narrow and deep or broad and shallow, but the average boxed set aims to be broad and medium-deep, thereby serving neither need.

Now, product do exist to support these actual approaches. Many settings have “Gazeteers” or similar books – very slim (maybe 32 pages) volumes providing a very high level view of the setting, and almost all setting that produce subsequent books produce more detailed region books, those that zoom in on a specific area. Those products are much closer to the actual usage patterns of play, but they are secondary products.

This suggests a fairly cynical purpose for the main boxed set, which I alluded to above. It’s the stake in the ground that allows a publisher to tether those more-useful document to. The big setting with its big map is not necessarily there to be used on its own, rather, it’s a menu of sorts. It’s a resource that lets you find the glittering object that catches your eye and choose which area you want to zoom in on. At that point, perhaps you will flesh it out yourself, but ideally (from the publisher’s POV, at least) you’ll buy the book that deals with the part that caught your eye. Better still, you’ll be curious about a few areas, and pick up several books!

Does this sound like I’m asserting that the default model of presenting a setting is tooled more towards selling books than use in play? Well, yes, I suppose I am. Not to say that you can’t do both – I can think of several great examples where those two ideas have dovetailed awesomely (Birthright being the absolute best, in this regard). Plus, the people writing these things are almost always doing it out of genuine love, and that tends to muck with more cynical goals.

In some ways, it’s been very fortunate for the hobby that we’re so bad at business.

Playability in Settings

Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.

Communication

Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.

Recovery

If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Social Context

This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces – people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group – you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

  • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
  • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
  • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

Mobility or Position

This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots – if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.


I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.

Three Tricks for Setting

I did not expect to get to Dreamation this year, but My wonderful wife surprised me with a window of time that allowed me to day-trip up for the last day of the convention. Didn’t play anything, and didn’t get to see everyone, but still very much enjoyed myself.

Part of my fun was sitting down to talk with Brennan Taylor. Nominally, it was for a podcast, and he’s got 10 minutes of me talking about hacking games that will no doubt be unleashed on an unsuspecting world at some point down the line, but after that, we got to talking about setting. This was a little bit catalyzed by talking about his forthcoming game, Bulldogs, which I’m pretty excited for, but it was also kind of general. From this conversation came three points that I’d like to share with anyone looking to write setting material, mostly out of a selfish desire to make it all interesting to read.

First: Write Around The Holes

As a tribe, we’re smart people who like to show off how smart we are, and that lends itself to a completust streak. We also like our books, and we have an instinctive understanding that world building is something which should usually yield to the necessities of story. These elements combine to create complete, cohesive settings with satisfying narrative arcs and it’s terrible.

If you’re writing a setting for play, you are not telling a story – you are creating an opportunity for someone else. This doesn’t mean that nothing should be going on – quite the contrary, things should be hopping – but they should not be resolved. It is ok to set things up and then just stop. Our instincts may want to resist, but by doing so we create the opportunity for people to fill those holes with play, which seems rather the point.

Settings that fail to do this may be interesting and colorful, and they may be entirely satisfying as a pure backdrop of play (that is to say, interchangeable dungeon storage) but if you want the setting to matter, leave the holes in place and trust someone else to fill them.

Second: Playable Is Better Than Clever

In jokes, word play and other setting elements that have nothing to do with play and everything with the author squeezing in something cunning need to be used with the utmost caution. This is not to say text needs to be all serious – jokes which include the reader or the occasional easter egg can be fine, but if you’re just showing off, knock it off.

Short point, I know, but there it is.

Third: The Three Sentence Rules

Virtually any setting element can be fruitfully described in three sentences: a description, a distinction and a hook (they don’t literally need to be three sentences, but you get the idea). For example: Varn Kasi is an Ethari crime lord (description) based out of a gentlemen’s club overseeing the Alverado harbor (distinction). He’s making preparations for war against the Dwarf gangs horning in on his silver dust trade (hook).

That is not a lot of information, but it’s enough to play with. A GM can absorb that from a book and very quickly plug it into actual play. You really don’t want to use less information than those three sentences – doing so can cause the reader to wonder why you’re bothering to mention it at all. But on the other hand, you want to have a very good reason to provide any more information than that. Obviously, you will want to do so for the central elements of your setting, but it is worth challenging yourself to determine what more you really need to add. See, the three sentences is a sweet spot. Every additional piece of information you add takes longer to absorb and – almost paradoxically – often puts more limits on the element in question.

This need not be so. If the extra information is kept sharp and focused on how it will come out at the table, it will probably work out. And the best way to make that happen is to really ask yourself how you’re improving on those three sentence.

So, three guidelines. They’re not hard and fast rules, and they are probably a bad match when you are talking about worldbuilding in fiction, but gaming has different priorities, and it’s important to remember that a game’s setting should not be a reformatted novel. If you want to write a novel, then write a novel. Heck, it might even make for a great setting to game in once your done. But if you’re writing setting, then write for play.

A Question of Setting

I floated another question on twitter, since it tends to be an interesting sounding board for idea seeds, and this one’s sticking. That this is profoundly connected to my previous thinking on structure will either be incredibly clear or incredibly oblique – not sure which yet.

I asked whether any RPG settings had revealed all their secrets in the initial book, and then used supplements to respond to those secrets and reveals (rather than introduce new ones). This is not quite the same thing as asking which games have no metaplot – rather, it’s a structural question about how information is handled.

It is easy to find examples of RPGs that don’t do this. 7th Sea, for example, has placeholders for secrets in the core book (The White Plague or Die Kreuzritter for example) which are explained in later supplements. It also has non-flagged secrets scattered across its books.

While I’m not fond of this model, I acknowledge it’s practical advantages as a publisher. In short: it drives sales. People like being in the know, and this is a great way to tap that. But, thankfully, I see it a little bit less frequently these days. This is not to say we see no supplement cascades, but they’re often structured a bit differently. The new World of Darkness stuff, for example, is still supplementastic, but it’s more modular in its design. If you skip a book, you have a decent sense of what you’re skipping.

But the question of games that have turned the model of secrets on its ear, elicited some interesting responses, as well as some surprises, and I want to flag a few that came up.

Torg – This one got mentioned a lot, and I’m going to have to ask Fred how much was revealed in the boxed set because I have no idea. I have a great conceptual love of Torg, but it’s based entirely on people telling me about the game. I have never had a chance to play or read it.

Conspiracy X – Another one I haven’t read, so I have no idea. Any thoughts?

Feng Shui – This is probably the single best example of what I was thinking of. The supplements for the factions introduce ideas and plot hooks, but nothing that essentially changes things as presented in the core game.[1] Some of this was enabled by the fantastic flexibility of the setting and the general tone of the game, but there was also a decision to go in this directions which deserves credit.

Vampire: The Masquerade – My first response to this was surprise. Vampire is, after all, the poster child for the triumph of Metaplot. But thinking about it a bit, I realized that mostly came later. The core book is actually pretty open about things and there was no _necessity_ that things go in that direction. That they did was probably a good commercial decision, but it’s an interesting illustration of where these things happen. To see why consider…

Armageddon – This is pretty much a placeholder for most of the games out there which came in one book with no real expectation of supplements. The setting’s meaty enough that there COULD be supplements, but everything’s pretty much laid out on the table from square one.

Call of Cthulhu – This is an interesting one for reasons that are very relevant to the Dresden Files – how does external source material work into the equation? CoC could be said to be complete because all the material is out there[2], but that might also be viewed as a bit of a cheat.

In the end, there were more good answers than I anticipated, and I’m going to have to keep them in mind as I consider how one produces a setting today.

1 – At least until Friends of the Dragon (EDIT: Whups, meant Golden Comeback), where the need to introduce cooler-than-thou NPCs started messing with things. RPG writers – your NPCs will never be cool for the things they did to the setting. You take opportunities and focus away from the people who are actually playing your game.

2 – And I never noticed this until now, but the Cthulhu crowd does not seem to vigorously reimagine cosmology the way the Amber crowd does. Curious.

Dangerous Equilibrium

Equilibrium is a very tempting state in setting design. I has lots of fun trappings like a balance of power and broad opportunities for commerce and travel, and more importantly it lets the author really drill down into the things that make the setting interesting (at least in his eyes) without them getting all broken or overly complicated. The problem is that while this is very compelling from a perspective of creation, it’s a bad approach from the perspective of play.

Interesting things when systems fall out of equilibrium. Change, wars, revolutions, reformations and pretty much everything else, and all of these things are fertile grounds for play. When a game takes place someplace out of equilibrium, it has a sense of inertia and movement that is what many railroading games are trying to capture without realizing it. It’s a sense that the world if a moving, and you better keep up. By leaving things in equilibrium, that energy goes to waste.

As with many failings in setting design, I tend to pin this one on the terrible nature of social studies textbooks, which are the only model that many people have when it comes time to write up a setting. Having history presented in clean, digestible chunks warps the mind into thinking that’s how things should be, and overlooks both the narrative (which moves) and the reality (which is messy) in favor of simplicity and the least common denominator.

The trouble with equilibrium is, of course, that it has no trouble at all. If there was no game, things would proceed pretty much as they have, and even if there is a game, it’s likely to have a small impact as things play out. Now, a low-impact game may be desirable. Many styles of play emulate fiction where the main characters mostly drink and fight and while they may do hugely heroic things or even save the world, they’re likely to do it in ways no one particularly notices. Thinks like the earlier stories of Fafhrd an the Grey Mouser. But in such games, setting is usually designed very loosely, in broad strokes, with whole swaths of territory easily summed up in a sentence or two. Adventure is found in the exceptions and anomalies. Such a setting may well be at equilibrium, but it would also be almost silly for it to be more than a collection of notes, and maybe a really cool map.[1]

It is also possible to bring change to a system in equilibrium through the agency of the characters, especially if they’re the chosen ones or whatnot, but it’s a very brute force solution. It’s very nice and empowering, but it’s also not much of an improvement – unless the world responds to the change in a way that creates tension and problems, it’s just a kind of showpiece.

There’s been one interesting trend in setting design to address this, something I’ll call aftermath design. The idea is that in the setting, something big has just happened, such as the emperor being killed or whatnot, and the setting is going through changes as it sorts this out. This is a promising idea, but it bumps up against old habits. Too often, that change occurs (before play begins, natch) and it is then the ONLY change that’s going to ever happen. It’s just a push towards a new equilibrium.

And that, there, reveals the true rub. There is absolutely a tendency of system to move towards equilibrium, but even if they reach it, they don’t sustain it. Change is ongoing. For a GM, this is intensely liberating. For a setting designer, this creates a challenge of how to express that dynamic in a useful. Which is the thing I now find myself chewing on.

1 – Not to say this stops people from getting encyclopedic about it, but it’s a different beast.

Using Monsters

I talked a bit yesterday about how pleased I was with the Dark Sun monster book because it had the tools of play baked right in. That got me thinking a bit about monster books in general and how well (or poorly) they line up with how they actually get used. (This is all pretty 4e centric, but theoretically applies to any game with a bestiary.)

For me, monsters fall into two categories – reliable and stunt. Reliable monsters are ones that I’ll use a lot in any given game. Kobolds. Skeletons. Orcs. Creatures which I imagine existing in the setting as “monster races” or otherwise having a reason to exist in large, interchangeable numbers. 4e proved an absolute delight for these guys since it embraced the idea that there might be lots of creatures of that type representing a range of threats. That made them a lot more useful to me.[1]

Reliable monsters also have a substantial impact on the setting of the game because they don’t come from nowhere. The goblins live somewhere, and the undead were once not quite so dead. They become part of the fingerprint of the setting.

Stunt monsters are pretty much everything else. I pick them up to jazz up fights or to build fights around. They’re one-offs, and while some of them fit into the setting in a high level sense, there’s not necessarily a huge need to put a lot of effort into it. Ultimately, nobody really cares where that gibbering mouther comes from once it’s been looted and the party has moved onto the next room.[2]

Now, it’s possible this is entirely idiosyncratic on my part, but I think not. Consider the way adventures make use of new monsters – it is a rare adventure which does not have at least a few unique monsters which are unlikely to ever bee seen outside of the bounds of that adventure (and maybe DDI). These monsters serve some particular purpose in the adventure, and that’s much of the fun of them.

All of which is to say that this speaks to the importance of putting plot hooks right into the monsters. With reliable monsters it might be important to give some amount of background and social context, but for the bulk of monsters, it seems the thing to provide is guidance for how to _make_ it that interesting one-off.

Curiously, one of the most interesting examples of how to do this can probably be found in people’s write ups for their own version of New Crobuzon.[3] Since the basis of the writeup was (effectively) pick three reliable and three stunt monsters for your city, you get to see some really fascinating ways to handle both types. Because the stunt monsters are explicitly designed as one-offs, they get writeups that are all about play, not about bad biology essays.

1 – Birthright did this quite cleverly with their “Orogs” which basically were a single bucket into which a number of evil humanoid races were tossed, with the idea that you could run into small runty ones or huge, ogre sized one, but they were still Orogs. Given that they had a national presence in the game, this worked surprisingly well, though it only came up every so often – Birthright was usually about people and Big M Monsters. Handling Orogs this way felt suitably Tolkeinesque.

2 – There’s an exception to this in the form of Big-M-Monsters, monsters that are big enough that as individuals that they are elements of the setting. Named dragons are probably the best example of this, but things like the Beholder crime boss of Waterdeep count too.

3 – If you haven’t read these you absolutely should. They’re some of the best examples of how to take a small set of 4e elements and make something fantastic. I admit, I’m totally proud of mine, Vicidia.

The Sun is Dark

The new 4e Dark Sun setting books are pretty good. They’ve changed up their format a little bit, and rather than doing a GM’s book and a Player’s book, they just did one setting book and one monster book[1]. I was a little bit skeptical of this approach, but as it turns out, I like it very much. It made Dark Sun pop in a way that the previous settings hadn’t quite managed to.

Now, some of this may be all about legacy. The first two settings are both thoroughly documented beasts from previous editions which had to get distilled down into some manner of workable version for the much more minimalist 4e presentation. Dark Sun had different parentage.

For those unfamiliar with it, Dark Sun was one of the Boxed Set setting released in support of second edition D&D, along with Planescape, Birthright and Spelljammer.[2] Like Planescape, it was in large part defined by its art style (courtesy of Brom) and it was well-loved and mechanically interesting, trying to express ideas like tougher PCs, ubiquitous psionics and bone weapons without he fairly crude tools 2e provided. It wasn’t always a great match, but it more than made up for its shortcomings with its clear, brutal style and creativity in presentation.[3]

Dark Sun suffered a bad fate at the hands of a revised edition that showcased all the worst parts of novelization. Basically, the setting had been changed over the course of the books as a troupe of heroes had gone around and killed all the big bad guys who had a large role in defining the setting. Revised Dark Sun kind of hinged on how awesome those guys were and how much you were getting their sloppy seconds.

The 4e version kind of rolls back the clock on that, picking a moment of change (just after the death of one of the Dragon Kings) and taking a snapshot there. It’s a good choice because it puts a nice level of tension and potential change into things without mandating anything. Players could be at the center of changing the world, or they could just go off in their own direction without things changing drastically. That’s good design.

The art is…well, it’s maybe unfair to pick on the art. It’s ok – too clean in places but excellent in others. The problem is that in my mind it’s being compared to some truly iconic art, and much of it suffers by comparison. Still, the good is quite good, and some of the monsters really shine.

And monsters bring me to the part that I found most impressive. The monster book _is_ the GMs book. A lot of the hooks in the main book are fleshed out in one monster entry or another. There’s no easy way to document these connections, which is perhaps a bit frustrating, but at the same time the fact that the reader can make the connection as they go draws him in a little more, so I think it’s a net positive.

I’m not sure I can state strongly enough how good an idea this is. Putting the material in the monsters book basically imbeds the setting elements right into the tools. There’s no abstract layer between them required to bring them together – it just happens. These monsters are associated with this setting feature. Done.

I really like this direction for setting books. Where Eberron and the Forgotten Realms were well enough put together, they are not setting that lend themselves well to overview. There’s just too much stuff. Dark Sun, on the other hand, is actually a fairly small setting, for all that it contains bigness within. It’s a limited geographic area on a world that might otherwise be dead, with civilization clustered in only a few places. The volume of text in these books really feels like it’s just about the right amount.

Now, no books are going to be completely flawless, and a few weaknesses pop up in the main book. The bulk of the book is setting information, usually 2 or 4 page spreads on each area of interest, with a larger spread for Tyr, the theoretical hub of any campaign. Sadly, Tyr is probably the least interesting part of the setting. In and of itself that’s no problem – something has to be least interesting – but why it (and a few other entries) fall flat struck me as very interesting.

See, the dullest entries in the book are the most normal. The ones that fill in names of locations with a line or two of detail. They’re very clearly written in accordance with a specific format which hearkens back to older adventure design, and the weakness of it ends up standing out more strongly in a book that mostly eludes it. The pattern is this: where a writer assigns two lines apiece to outline five “normal” parts of a setting (shops, NPCs, stuff like that) it feels like filler. But when that same writer[4] takes 10 lines to talk about, well, almost anything, the setting comes alive with hooks and interesting elements.

It’s very curious to me, since it seems to be no shortage of talent on the writer’s part. Rather, I think the bullet-point location format proves to be a bit of a lead weight because things like the name of a cheese shop are the parts the GM can most easily fill in on her own. Giving the same writers a little more breathing room produces much better results.

So I’m filing that one away as potentially useful down the line. I don’t think it’s a blanket condemnation of short summaries – there’s plenty of evidence that you can put a compelling hook in a single sentence – but it definitely warns against small details purely for the sake of small details (at least for me).

All in all, I’m pleased I picked it up, and a little worried that just as WOTC hits their stride on a setting book, the entire idea of setting books is tossed up in the air by the emergence of the Essentials line. But such are the vagaries of the hobby.

1 – I believe there may also be a mega-adventure for it as well but I, er, kind of don’t care.

2 – Of these four settings, three of them were brilliant and evocative. One was very stupid, but evocative.

3 – Many of the Dark Sun adventures were physically unlike any other published adventures, including folders of flip-top books with information for players on one side and the GM on the other. Even if they weren’t great adventures they were bold experiments.

4 – And I mean that literally, some entries go from flat to snappy at the drop of a hat.

A Good Setting

I have occasionally remarked that for all the incredibly clever and interesting ideas we have managed to develop in the realm of RPG rules, we have let setting be something of the poor cousin in our pursuit of excellence. There are a lot of reasons why this is so, but one in particular keeps bubbling to the surface. We can say with reasonable accuracy whether a set of rules works. It’s testable. You consider the goal, run some scenes, and assess it. Maybe you hate it, but it still may do what it’s designed to do quite well.

It’s much, much harder to assess a setting. Part of that is a problem right on the face of it – setting is going to be even more a function of taste than rules are, and there’s no way to get around that. It’s easy to like or dislike a particular setting. But more than that, it is much harder to _test_ a setting.

Certainly, there are some rough benchmarks. “Do I get an idea for a game hook on every page of the book?” is a common one, but it’s pretty loosey goosey in terms of pinning things down. How well the setting suggests ideas can hinge on a lot of factors, including taste.

Hell, it’s hard to even settle on an idea of how setting should be presented. On one end of the spectrum you have entire volumes dedicated to a given setting like the Forgotten Realms or Glorantha, while on the other hand you may have nothing but a roughly sketched out set of ideas and maybe a map. And what’s utterly baffling on some level is that both of these models work equally well.

And that, right there, may be the trick of it. For a minute let’s set aside the people who buy setting books out of a desire to know more about the setting or a completist urge.[1] What are we left with?

The answer is: play. Play is the eye of the needle which the camel of setting needs to pass through. In any given game the players will see only so much of the world, encounter only so many people, and otherwise explore only so much setting. That amount is often small enough that it’s possible to build from scratch, but it’s equally easy to shave that portion off a larger block (as in the case of a large setting) for use.[2]

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t have any relationship to the size of the setting. If the game is world-spanning, players may see many locations, but they will see them very shallowly. The published setting may have an advantage in terms of already having names for those places, and cool maps, but the bulk of the information in that setting is simply not going to ever be seen.

Now, how we arrive at this unit of setting definitely impacts its composition. If it’s shaved off a larger whole, there is probably a stronger sense of a “world beyond the horizon”. If it’s built from the ground up, there’s probably a stronger tie between the actions of the PCs and the details of the setting. Both of these are cool, and you can strike differing points of balance between them, but ultimately they’re fairly small differences.

With that in mind, I find myself wondering if the trick of setting is not to try to make better or more compelling settings. Neither is it to make more clever rules for generating setting. Rather, I think the trick may be providing more guidelines for how to turn a setting of any size (from a page of notes to the Forgotten Realms[3]) into a game-sized piece.

Obviously, I’m a little late to my own party. In some ways this is one of the purposes of collaborative character creation, especially when it has an explicit setting building element to it (as in the DFRPG). Sitting down and doing this can either build up the elements you want for a game, or pull out the interesting bits from a larger setting based on the interests of the group. This is potent kung fu, but it comes from the rules end of things. What I’m wondering is what we can do with the design of settings to make tools like this more viable.

1 – They’re a non-trivial segment of the populace, so I would suggest against ignoring them from a publishing perspective, but that’s a whole other discussion.

2 – I feel like there’s a soup metaphor here just waiting to be put to use, but I’ll resist.

3 – Initially typed that as “Forgotten Reams” and was sorely tempted to leave it as such.

Metaplot

Is there such a thing as a good metaplot?

Tough question, and to answer it, let’s first figure out what we’re talking about. In the broadest possible terms, metaplot encompasses all elements of a setting which are important to the setting, yet not known (or knowable) to people who buy the products, but which may or may not be revealed with the purchase of additional products.

Even as I write that, I realize it’s not the definition I thought it would be. I was thinking about secret history and events unfolding, and while those are definitely types of metaplots, I really came to realize that the unifying factor is much simpler. There are three important elements that make that up:

First, it’s knowledge we don’t have but the developers (hopefully) do. Now, by the nature of fiction, this is something of a necessity. The author almost always knows more about the setting than the reader, and that’s entirely normal. It’s not unfair for game developers to be protected by the same umbrella. Hell, in many ways, this is desirable. Ed Greenwood may know what brand of tobacco Elminster likes, but I will be entirely comfortable never finding out. In large part, this lack of knowledge protects us from trivia, and that’s a good thing (except to the most enthusiastic of completists), so that seems a promising start, were it not for the second point.

Second, the knowledge is important and interesting. Now, both of these are a little subjective, so I’ll concede some fuzz around the edges, but by and large they’re easy to spot and agree on. Important information is information which changes the setting or game in an impactful way. If, for example, the metaplot is going to depower all wizards when the god of magic dies, that’s kind of important, especially if you have wizards in your game. Interesting is trickier. Interesting things are what capture our mind and make us want to know more. We’re given a set of events which are intriguing or exciting, but the last act is blacked out. This seems like an ungrateful complaint – interesting material is interesting because the writer has done his job well; does that really create an obligation to complete the story? But the reality is this interesting stuff is what makes sales. Money is changing hands, and I’ll say that yes, that does create an obligation. And that leads to the third point.

Third, you have to pay for the knowledge. Most often this means you need to buy more books, but it’s possible the knowledge may require jumping through different hoops[1]. Whatever the structure, the lack of knowledge is being intentionally exploited to entice you, the reader, to get more into it. That enticement is what separates most game splats from, say, novels where the interest in further information may be unanticipated, but admittedly most authors make use of the teaser effect to hook you into the next book. [2]

Looking at these three things, I don’’ think you can make a good metaplot. The tactics behind it are just too gamer unfriendly.

BUT, I suspect you can make something like a metaplot by knocking out elements that make it problematic.

The easiest and most obvious thing you can change is to stop making people dance for the reveal. Put the answers somewhere and let people see them, and be prepared. The reality is an explained metaplot is always lamer than an imagined one. People get excited about metaplots because filling in the gaps inspires them. The good news is that by offering the reveal up front, you don’t have time for the reader to get invested in their version and thus more angry and disappointed. Rip off the band aid and just get it out there.

If you must have a release cycle, then make sure it’s something inessential. A subplot or a story that might keep the reader’s interest from book to book is ideal, especially if it deals with matters that are peripheral to the game, if it turns out people get very invested in the sidebar, then fine, roll with that, but treat it as the stroke of good luck it is.

Now, all that said, if you feel you Absolutely must have a metaplot, consider using the following guidelines:

  1. Remember Tone – the metaplot should have the same general tone and flavor of the rest of your game. That is, don’t go adding Chthulhu in places he’s not needed. [3]
  2. Wrap it up – stick to short arcs. A single metaplot puts all your eggs in one basket, and the longer it takes, the more likely it is to go horribly wrong.
  3. Don’t Undercut the Reasons to Play – Look, if magic has been lost in your setting, but a prophecy says it will be found again, do not have it found again through your metaplot. That’s a job for your players. Too much metaplot gets written as the campaign the designer _wishes_ he could play, thus depriving anyone else of ever getting the chance to do so.
  4. Clever Sucks – Very often, the need to introduce an idea because it is clever overrides the voice that suggests that it’s not actually any fun at all. This includes hidden wordplay, shaggy dog jokes, and obscure cameo appearances.

They may not save you, but they may at least lessen the blow.

1 – At this point, “metaplot” may make the jump to becoming “transmedia” if the answers are out there and freely available, but scattered across multiple sources that you must engage with. This is less bad than charging money, but it’s still a tricky line to walk.

2- And I’m ok with that, which lead to me questioning my own perception. I’m opposed to the practice in RPGs but forgiving in novels and movies: why? I think it comes back to #2, importance. When an author teases us, it’s part of the implicit agreement. In contrast, when I buy an RPG, the implicit agreement is that I have what I need to play the game. By excluding things that are key to my playing (important) or which are part of the reason I’m excited about the game (interesting), it feels like the agreement has been broken.

3 – Like swashbuckling. But, really, anywhere. Chthulhu is pretty much the least interesting ingredient you can add to any game at this point. It’s done to death. Exception made if, of course, you’re actually playing Chthulhu.