Clomping Feet, Part 3: Settings and the 3rd Wave
Someone on the internet voiced this opinion last week:
Rpg settings not only solve problems that I don’t have, they create problems that I don’t need
…which was summarily trampled by the great clomping feet of worldbuilders everywhere. For context, links curated here.
I’m picking it up because
- I resemble that remark (here, here and here)
- I want to talk about what it means to have “no use” for a setting
- Some interesting discussion about “3rd Wave OSR” products.
I fail to understand people who claim they have no use for published settings. It’s like a musician saying he doesn’t need to listen to any records other than his own.
That analogy would work if people lived in a vacuum with no access to other sources. But anyway, here are some reasons:
- Lack of utility on the table, for any number of reasons (presentation, gaps, lack of tools, etc.)
- Effort in engaging is greater than the reward I get from it (especially if I have to wade through 90% of dross to get the useful 10%). Prep should be proportional to play. I prefer material I can read in one sitting.
- I already have plenty of primary source material and this thing doesn’t tell me anything new.
My expectations are low, my confidence in my ability to DIY is high.
(Plus my philosophical objections to worldbuilding; I am a Harrison fan, and never loved Tolkien. Other people have already written rebuttals to Harrison, e.g. rebuttal here, no need to hash that out here)
Mostly I don’t feel the need for new setting material because I’ve already got a bookcase of textbooks and manuals. So with limited shelf space, what would it take to sell me on a new setting?
These are the regulars of the setting book format:
- History of past events that justify the current climate (including myths, metaphysical incidents, and possibly future milestones)
- Things that can happen: events, triggers, and adventures
- Geography (with maps and locations)
- Individual NPCs
- Organised factions
- New degrees of freedom for characters, including classes, powers, etc.
- Setting-relevent technical bits e.g. how to construct a castle
Sometimes these things are clumped together in chapters, sometimes they’re scattered or crammed into appendices or sidebars, sometimes they’re only implied.
I propose looking at those elements by functionality. I have three categories:
- Things that state or justify the status quo. This includes history, myth, people and factions, geography, culture, and so forth.
- Things that serve to upset the status quo. This includes tools to manage changes in factions, potential events (triggers or “bangs”, etc.) and tools for dynamic expansion of the play area (e.g. sandbox generation in Sine Nomine’s games).
- Subsystems for specific circumstances (if we meet this monster, if we build a castle, if I pick this character class, etc.)
My beef with setting books is they are preoccupied with #1 and leave the GM to muddle through #2, which is where the game actually happens. Much as I love Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor it fails in this regard — it implies a status quo that the PCs should be upsetting, but it leaves the mechanism for causing that upset entirely to the GM (hooks and links sheets are not enough).
Category 2 is where the GM and players take ownership of the campaign — which should be the design goal of all published settings. Settings should be written from a GM-player perspective; too many are written from an author-reader perspective, and do not acknowledge the need for these mechanisms, and are incomplete products as a consequence.
The “Third Wave” of the OSR
3rd Wave OSR: Innovation of Setting. Games where the interesting part was less about what rules were being changed as how the D&D-type rules were being applied to fit radically different settings. Vornheim. Arrows of Indra. Yoon-Suin. Dark Albion.
Which would mean that Third Wave products refocus the brand identity from the game system (DCC, LotFP) to the actual adventure/environment (Deep Carbon Observatory, Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon Suin).
The setting sourcebook is well-trodden ground. Systems are diverging within their broad categories (whether it’s OSR/OGL, FATE, BRP/Openquest) and more and more it’s the setting that forms the brand identity. So if the OSR is doing this, it’s not new; and if copying this model represents the height of OSR innovation, I’m a bit disappointed.
The “innovation of setting” that I see in OSR product is this: providing dynamic tools to grow the setting with the expanding perceptions of the characters — faction management (Silent Legions and other Sine Nomine games), growing sandbox boundaries (Sine Nomine, Further Afield), dynamic city generation (Vornheim). Basically, paying attention to category 2 (q.v.).
Without that dynamic it’s the same old same old — a monolithic textbook as a vehicle for pretty art and prose and a static collection of facts. That’s been a staple for the last 30 years (I’m going back to Titan for Fighting Fantasy) and it’s thoroughly respectable — a well written and researched sourcebook is just that — but the market is saturated and my bookshelf is groaning.
Two. The Adventure, The Brand
From this interview with James Raggi IV (Contessa; warning, wee bit of nudity):
I don’t consider myself a game designer, really. More like a terraformer. I would have been happy just doing adventures and supplements except you can’t really get a lot of coverage and market penetration just doing 3rd party supplements for small-press games, so I was sort of obligated to create my own game…
Arguably LotFP has always been Third Wave (and therefore remarkably prescient). It’s the modules that people talk about; the system just helps hold the brand together.
This is also not a new thing. Call of Cthulhu’s identity as a game has always been in supplemental campaigns (Masks of Nyarlathotep, etc.) that largely stood alone (i.e. consumer not obliged to get on the supplement treadmill or subscribe to metaplot).
Setting Evaluation Sheet
Here’s a sheet to go through and work out what the setting offers in terms of Category 2. Still a work in progress with spaces for more questions. The goal is to evaluate the product as a useful object. The general process:
- Fill in Part One. This is what you would need to get your head around to pitch it to your group.
- Fill in Part Two. This gives you an idea of how much reading you have to do to tackle the whole thing, and where the bulk of the reading effort lies (also, which bits you can skip).
- Go through some questions in Part Three. The goal is to tease out the actual stuff you might use during play.
- Since the questions in Part Three can’t anticipate all of the useful features, use Part Four to write down the mechanical bits that really stand out and would add something to the game. Random tables, location tagging, fronts, countdown clocks.
Note that History is all the stuff you can’t change. If this part dominates the book, that should be a flag. If the history sounds more interesting than what the PCs will get up to, that should be another flag. Mentioning it here as it’s a common complaint.