September Blog Carnival: Running Games In Established Settings

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This post is submitted as part of the September Blog Carnival, hosted by Dicemonkey, who asks:

Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

I’m going to digress a bit.

On the recent foray to the states we hooked up with friends, and discussed the literary merits of Fifty Shades of Grey. The central argument is whether it’s a work in isolation; if it is, then it deserves to be compared to classic erotica such as Delta of Venus.

But FSoG is arguably not an isolated work: it originated as Twilight fanfic. Even thought the serial numbers have been filed off it should be judged by the measure of fanfiction, not literature; it’s consciously derivative.

From the Wikipedia page on fan fiction:

Fan fiction, therefore, is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe.

This is exactly what we do when we use someone elses’ setting in a game: a fairly obvious statement when we’re talking about gaming in fictional properties like the Buffyverse or Dresden Files, but could equally apply to RPG-originated worlds like Greyhawk or the World of Darkness.

Motivators

I can think of three reasons I would use someone else’s setting:

Familiarity: the world includes tropes and customs that enable quick integration of players into the world – both for setting and system. For example, D&D or CoC modules usually deliver a consistent experience (though not one I always care for).

Utility: using a commercial setting means less work defining the world (and system) and more time to focus on plot and characters.

Resonance: the gaming group has a connection with the setting; they all “get it”. If it’s a commercial property like the Buffyverse then they are fans of the original work; otherwise they “get” settings that are similar to established settings they already know and enjoy. The GM may “sell” their game on this premise (“It’s like The Naked Lunch mashed up with Sesame Street“).

Familiarity and Utility are convenience factors: they speak to the head. But Resonance speaks to the heart, and will trump the other two every time. Resonance is the keenness of feeling a fan fiction writer has for the characters and environment of their chosen fic; it’s a powerful motivating force.

Besides, I don’t think the other two are all they’re cracked up to be. Candlewick has taught me that no matter how many NPCs and hooks a setting provides, the GM needs to invest time to untangle the mess. Products that can be picked up and “just run” are rare.

Canon

Resonance motivates GMs and fanfic authors alike to create within a particular body of fiction. But since fan fiction authors consciously work outside canon, you could argue that resonance also encourages us to go beyond the boundaries of the canon as much as remain within them.

Let’s consider the components of RPG canon:

1. Environment

This is the atmosphere of the world and the boundaries imposed on the players. This can include geography, religion and politics, boundaries on what the players can do, and so forth. This is the mainstay of simulationist, free-roaming or sandbox games. Environment also includes people. It’s the potential for the game to exert pressure on the players. 

2. Backstory

A rich backstory is prized by some; I value quality over quantity. If you can write the salient points on a postcard and let the players mentally join the dots, that works for me. Besides, I lack the patience to wade through screeds of “fluff”, something which is stopping me getting to grips with Eclipse Phase right now. I find many over-developed commercial settings too restrictive; too much definition is as bad as not enough for game planning.

3. Formula

This is what makes a setting worth playing: it is the modus operandi of the players. Buffy doesn’t just have a great party unit (heroes and white hats in high school), it has the excellent detective/martial arts monster of the week formula. I regard this as the single most important element of a game, because it gives the players purpose.

4. System

A game isn’t just a setting, it’s a toolkit; and like it or not, the system is canon to some players (especially munchkins). The more energy a GM has to expend on understanding and ruling on the system, the less time they have to do plot. Ron Edwards tells us that system does matter, and it resonates too.

5. The Answers

So, you want to create a gaming franchise with a loyal fanbase. Once you’ve written your core book, how do you convince your fans that they should buy the player’s guide, modules, weapons handbook, guide to Meanwhile City? One way to do this is to deliberately leave out crucial information in the core book. A/State features a backstory event known as The Shift, a mystery not only to the players but to the GM. Some GMs and players will consider this a challenge, others a betrayal. The availability of Answers (capital “A”) makes or breaks a TV show (hello, Lost).

I challenge anyone to name a game that resonates on all 5 levels at once – I can’t. But once you’re aware of those elements you’re free to choose which parts of the canon you stay within, and which you go outside.

What resonates for me? Foremost, it’s Formula. It used to be Environment; two decades ago when I was running Vampire it was all about style and ambiance. (Although since I have no tolerance for fluff, I never got around to reading the Vampire metaplot.) In fact the whole WoD game suite is about Environment; it’s what attracted a generation of goths to the hobby.

But Formula is what drives player characters to do what they do. A good formula provides everything you need to run the game; it tells the players what sort of characters to play, and what risks they can expect. It gives the GM a framework for sessions.

I don’t put a high value on back story and I don’t much care about The Answer–that’s something I will always manipulate to make the setting my own. As for System, I will pick the best tool for the job. Every time I have been inclined to run a game because of a system, I have had to make compromises; one day I will learn that system does not come first.

So, to answer the questions: I play games set in a particular world because they resonate; I am drawn back to a world because of this resonance, be it nostalgia, or an affinity for the fiction, or just the people I happened to be with when I first played.

I am not a brand loyal game consumer1. My loyalty is to the genre–and if I were forced to pin that down I’d say modern fantasy and magical realism. So I dig the Dresden Files and Mage and the formulaic shows like Grimm and Lost Girl, but I wouldn’t use those settings verbatim.

Distance 

Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

Always.

When a setting resonates with players, it makes everything easier: the GM can do a bare minimum of window-dressing and the players will colour everything in.

But an established setting is a double-edged sword: a player’s interpretation will never be the same as your own before the game starts. I ran Mallville a few years ago, which I touted as something between Smallville and Mallrats. But since I lack both Kevin Smith’s sense of humour and the ability to run a four-colour superhero game, it became something entirely different. The game worked, but it went against the players’ expectations.

I’m happy to rip off settings but I wouldn’t use established characters or locations, because I know I wouldn’t do them justice. So before the game starts I need to be clear on what tropes will be identifiable, and where the game will depart from expectations. Doing so lets the GM establish some control while still benefitting from resonance. Here are some ideas: 

1. Take an established setting with a Formula, and move the PCs far away from the original Environment. At some point I’ll run a Buffyverse game in the UK, which (aside from the Watcher’s Council and Willow’s post-apocalypse convalescence) is pretty much outside the canon. The formula of white-hats, heroes and mentors remains.

2. Take a familiar Environment and change the Formula. This was Department V: old-WoD supernatural hunting with a UK government mandate, so they could run around London doing this:  

That also worked because none of us had grown up with The Sweeney (I would have been around 3 at the time) but we knew the tropes, thanks to Nissan. Since Regan and Carter were just caricatures we were free to imprint their idiosyncratic behaviour on what was otherwise just a supernatural conspiracy game.

3. Take a known Backstory and break it. You have to break something obvious, of course. Everything else stays the same – don’t break too much or you’ll end up rewriting the whole setting:

  • Break history: Queen Elizabeth I is the Faerie Queen and has held court in the UK for five centuries
  • Break setting element: the Masquerade failed, and Vampires are now integrated into society (I know, I know)
  • Flip sides: Hogwarts is a Technocrat military academy for training fascist shock troops in the Ascension War

And so on. Placing an incongruous system in a familiar setting is also a valid tactic (if I run Vampire again, I may use the One Roll Engine) although I don’t think it’s disruptive enough on its own.

Final Words

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p>I have a lot of respect for All Flesh Must Be Eaten because it encourages mashing up genres, and that’s what I like to do.

The nature of resonance is that we all have safe, familiar places we go to with fiction. For me, it’s contemporary fantasy–I get the benefit of cool spells and metaphysics without needing to design social customs or national borders. Is it a crutch? Maybe. It’s a starting point, and it’s somewhere I can go back to when I get unstuck.


1. But I am a game consumer with OCD, which is probably worse. I collect titles based on how cool I think the title is at the time. At least I’m learning to spot quality; I’m no longer buying Mongoose stuff and I’m really liking the Unisystem. On the other hand my disposable income is greater now. I guess that’s RPG consumerist karma, or something.

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