Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.