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.  ↩

2 thoughts on “Can You Playtest a Setting?

  1. Kevin Danahy

    It never occurred to me that one wouldn’t playtest a setting. Sure, you’d have fact-checkers to make sure that X Avenue crossed Y Street if you were using a real city, but it surprises me that a company that makes RPGs wouldn’t insist on someone throwing some dice and seeing what nails are still sticking up.

    How did you like what Over the Edge did with the Al Amarja supplement? I remember it being very detailled, but also somehow wide-open so one could pick and choose what to use.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Weirdness is a very liberating thing – OTE did a good job of conveying things well and colorfully, but it had the advantage of not really needing to worry about any kind fo internal consistency. It was SUPPOSED to be a crazy hodge podge of stuff, so it totally worked to just throw everything at it an see what stuck.

      Need to chew on it a bit, but I think this is really reinforcing the idea that there are certain things (notably, flexibility) that seem to really help make a setting gameable.


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