One of the big questions that I had to ask myself while developing Reclamation was what the backdrop setting for the RPG should be… or if there should be one at all. On the one hand, you have games like Vampire: The Masquerade and the Warhammer 40K games (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, etc.). At the same time, I am seeing more and more RPGs delving into the “no setting” motif. Instead, the rules are designed to be loose and able to adapt to any given style of game. Especially in the Indie community, this seems to be increasingly popular.
As an aspiring developer, I am curious to know what preferences gamers find themselves shifting towards. In Reclamation, I opted to create a specific setting to coincide with the rules of the game. I added a chronological history that generally tracked the events leading up to the fall of humanity and after. I included a wide assortment of groups and locations; I detailed the mortis-horde (the primary enemies of humankind), and provided explanations as to how certain individuals gained their powers and how they manifest in the Dystopia. There is flavor-text galore and a couple hundred pictures to help paint the picture of a SPECIFIC world. But the question remains . . . the question I keep asking myself . . . is would it have been better to offer a rules template and no setting so that players were empowered/required to make a world setting that interested them most?
From a gamer standpoint, I’m sure it just depends on the individual. However, I wanted to share my rationale for why I spent so many years developing the Dystopia (the setting of Reclamation), and I hope to get some feedback or hear some opinions from all of you out there. In all of my gaming experience, I have found that THE BEST adventures that I told as a storyteller were the ones where the setting and the history of that setting became a character in itself. I think back to an old D&D campaign where each place my players traveled to, I had planned everything that had happened in that location for the past 100 years and I had decided how those events would impact that region and the people living there today. Each city had its own culture, myths, taboos, etc. Each player had a backstory and his or her backstory was entrenched into the pre-existing history. It made everything feel more real. In that same game, the party had fought in a massive battle on the plains with significant casualties. A few years later (in the real world), I ran another adventure in that same setting but ten years into the future. They traveled to that same place, now re-named “The Plains of Sorrow.” It consisted of graves and mausoleums as far as the eye could see. And the players ate it up. It was like they had taken part in the history of the world.
My own experience is that I often get so caught up in planning out the present and future, what the players are going to encounter that night or over the next several sessions, that I often get lazy and forget about the past. But I think the history and setting is what makes the foundation of a good RPG, what makes it come to life, so to speak. If you have read any of the George RR Martin books, I think you’d agree that what makes those books so incredible is that even though it is all fantasy, the immense historical detail poured into that “pretend” world makes it feel all too real, and that’s what really draws you in.
Now I am not necessarily making a pitch for why RPGs today should include a specific backstory as opposed to generic rules and a blank canvas. I absolutely think even these more flexible RPGs out there can slam home an epic history. In those RPGs, players are typically asked to participate in the world creation process. If you have the right group and if you ask enough questions and you are willing to devote enough time, I think it still can be done. I just think perhaps it is easier if the world is already provided to the group. For example, I love Warhammer 40K because I love its dark, space opera setting. At Origins my wife and I sat down to play Deathwatch. I had never played it before, but because the world is so well-painted, I had no problem acclimating myself to the game and the adventure because it is so set in stone.
I got to thinking about this because of the current home game that I am running. Right now we have so many people that there are basically two groups on near parallel paths. If they all join up, we will have like 14 people playing (which would be a bit difficult to manage, lol). I will go into more detail with this adventure in the next post (I want to wrap it up here), but basically, the group is being asked to simultaneously face the challenges that currently exist in the ruins of a town they recently discovered while simultaneously discovering the events that took place some 40 years ago that caused the town to be destroyed by The Sickness originally. Only by unearthing those truths will they be able to figure out where they need to go to succeed at their current objective. In this way, the history of this town is more than just flavor text, more than just “neat to know,” and more than just a storyteller waxing poetic about the setting in a vain attempt to show off his level of detail and preparation, it ACTUALLY MATTERS. And because the setting of the Dystopia is fundamentally Earth, it is easy for the players to latch onto historical events because this world is part of their personal experience.
So, what do you think? What kind of games do you like to play? How important is setting and history to you as a players? A storyteller?