I Tried Your Setting, It Was Awful

On Saturday night at Nine Worlds I plodded off to the Gaming Across The Streams panel, thinking about heckling James Wallis over Alas Vegas. As it happened James himself beat everyone to it in the pre-session banter:

James is the Stephen Fry of gaming.
Well, I’ve not had my nose broken yet… but maybe I should get on with the Paranoia kickstarter


This was a cross-gaming panel with the rough brief of unpicking what was the same and different across gaming media. TT RPGs got short shrift in favour of LARP; Grant Howitt made clear his contempt for tabletop RPGs as “a puzzle that only exists in your friends head” which is just a teensy bit reductive (yeah, we get that you’re keen on Huizinga, what about Rousseau?)

Anyway… two equally interesting points were (1) Huizinga’s magic circle and (2) the game as written vs. the game everyone thinks they’re playing. In the latter case you have house rules, misunderstood rules, etc.

This made me think about group decision making as it applies to games. Everyone thinks they have a perfect appreciation of the rules/fiction/imagined space, but that setting is coloured by bias:

  • being asleep when the rules were read out
  • having read LotR assuming that Merry and Pippin are female
  • having read more of the setting material or rules than the rest of the players or GM
  • preference based on genre, premise, high concept, etc.

Which brings me to

Day 21 of #RPGaDay2015.

Today’s question is “Your Favourite Setting”. For sake of argument, let’s say a setting provides these things:

  • a High Concept
  • related to Genre
  • Premise or Core Behaviour of protagonists
  • static Furniture such as history, back plot, geography, social customs, technology and magic, etc.
  • dynamic Events
  • …which give rise to Adventures
  • Boundaries

You may think that’s a bit much to ask, but I say that these are the things you need for a functional setting. And if your commercial setting isn’t providing all of these, you will have to make up the shortfall. And the furniture — all the details that hang around like hairstyles and pointy ears and who-killed-who-back-then — tend to make up a lot of the setting content in commercial lines. But they’re also the bits I find easy to do for myself. A dynamic relationship structure where you know who the factions will push back if poked is harder to write, but more useful.

“Woah!” you’re probably thinking. “Those NPCs you glossed over there, they weren’t just window dressing. There were some juicy plot hooks in there.” Right. This is what I got from Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor; love that atmosphere and premise, but most of the juicy ideas for dynamic action are buried in the NPC descriptions, everything is static, waiting for the GM to poke it to life.

Bear in mind that these books are manuals for dipping into. Scattering plot hooks throughout a book supposes an author-reader mode, not a GM-player mode. If the GM has to go through an interpretive step of extracting the details, that’s almost as bad as them not being in there in the first place. And don’t get me started at game authors who subtly hint at things. That is not what this book is for. Leave that shit to Gene Wolfe.

Now, concerning boundaries. Your high-concept may be Glorantha, but your bounded play area is Griffin Island. The areas where we play and do not play are as much of the setting as the overall world. Who cares of ducks are marching on Pavis? They are outside your world. Those slarges on the other hand…

Going back to game as written vs. game in people’s heads, the less a setting caters for the above elements — and especially adventure, premise, core activity — the greater the divergence between the game in our heads and the one in the text. Characters playing as a group requires group decision making and a social mechanism to fix that, and that mechanism has always been the GM; and a setting should be facilitating that with words and examples (and art, natch).

This is why I find fault with every setting I’ve come across. How much fault depends on the effort to understand someone else’s setting and make the intuitive connections they’ve already made, against the effort in writing something from scratch. Maybe my audit is a bit harsh. Settings make great closet drama, but they should be challenged on functionality.