Why Earth: The importance of setting

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?

5 responses to “Why Earth: The importance of setting

  1. I feel the best games are the ones that intertwine their mechanics with the setting. For example, in D&D, when players are interacting, they usually say what level their character is; ”I’m a sixth level fighter.” But there is really no basis for this statement in the game. In AD&D 1st edition, they tried to mitigate this by giving each level its own title so you would say ”I’m a myrmidon!”. There were way too many titles given all the classes and this was largely ignored. In contrast, Earthdawn incorporated this mechanic into the world. Characters are awarded their next ’circle’ when they proved to a trainer that they are ready for it. So saying ”I’m a 6th Circle Warrior” is correct both in and out of character.

    To use another example, the best game I have seen to use playing cards is Deadlands. Much of the games mechanics revolve around poker hands which is appropriate for a Western. The concept that Hoyle was one of the first people to re-discover magic and hid is spells in his book of card games is brilliant and the choice of naming spell-slingers ”Hucksters” lend more to the setting then a lot of other games.

    I don’t mind generic rule-set, but I don’t find them as engaging. I’ve also found that generic rule-set suffer from inconsistency as players try to use advantages from different genres and it becomes harder to mitigate the rule system.

    In regards to using Earth or another world. I find that the use of Earth to be more relatable to many players. In reference to Earthdawn previously, we played for nearly two years before we found out that the setting is based in the Ukraine/Russia. It was a startling discovery for us. I think that Earth is preferable for contemporary or near-future settings. These settings will loose a lot of interest if people can’t relate to the world, not only will they have to learn the system, but they have to learn the nuances of the world which their character would already be familiar with. This isn’t a must, but the designer will need to make a good reason why the setting is so alien.

    • I like your point about the character title meaning something within the game. When the game mechanics themselves are immersed in the setting, that is a powerful combination.

      Let me ask you something, in the campaign where you discovered you were in Russia… I am unfamiliar with Earthdawn. Were you aware that the overall setting was Earth, or were you completely oblivious that it was Earth at all? Years ago when I was in high school, I tried to run an adventure where it was a future, post-apocalyptic earth, but we were playing D&D rules and I didn’t want them to know at all that it was Earth. I found it exceedingly difficult to NOT describe roads, broken down cars, etc. in a way that wouldn’t give it away. I ended up blowing the surprise early because I couldn’t seem to tell the story right.

      • In Earthdawn, the main setting is a province called Barsaive. It consists of a number of city-states that have emerged from hiding after a apocalyptic event called ‘The Scourge’. Now the Province is claimed by the human empire of Thera, but largely consists of Dwarfs. The dwarf nation of Throal has claimed Sovereignty from the Theran Empire and is trying to unite the other city states to defend Barsaive.

        That being said, there is a lot ‘fluff’ poured into the game. The map is between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, but hey are named different you only see the corner so you don’t know if it is a bigger ocean. Not being terribly familiar with Russian geography, we had no clue about the location and assumed it was just another fantasy world.

        I agree, not giving away an Apocalyptic setting is difficult if you cannot describe the old world. I would resign myself to allowing them to know and try to keep the location more of a mystery. Are they in the US, Brazil, Europe? or advance it in the future to such a point that you don’t have the old world items… until of course you discover the Statue of Liberty half buried on the beach.

  2. First of all, let me just say that I look forward getting my mittens on Reclamation (ordering it on Tuesday from Drivethrough).
    After some thought, I’ve come to realize that all my favourite RPG’s are what I would dub “setting heavy” (WHFRP 2nd Ed, Eclipse Phase, Degenesis, Unhallowed Metropolis, Shadowrun, Blue Planet, Tribe 8 etc etc), and that’s the way I like it. Yes it’s more demanding for both the players and the GM (I prefer being a GM myself), but my over 25 year experience of RPGs tells me those games are the most immersive (if that makes sense) and rewarding.

    History is a great way to make the setting “alive”, and i.m.o. it helps the experience that the characters isn’t acting in a vacuum.

    Generic rule sets aren’t my thing at all. With all the “distractions” that comes with being a grown up, I haven’t really got the time to spend THAT much time creating a setting from scratch.

    Greetings from Sweden…

    • Thanks for the response! I certainly hope you enjoy the game! I too prefer to GM (though on occasion it is nice to shirk the responsibility of making sure every player has a good time and just playing my own dude doing my own thing).

      The guidebook contains a lot of different groups, factions, and organizations that you can use as a foundation for a story. In my current game, the “Iron Angels” are going to be key: these are essentially post-apocalyptic weapons-dealers that often come across their wares in nefarious circumstances). My hope is to eventually create a few supplemental guides that really solidify the Dystopia. Right now I am working on a few sample campaigns. When I’m finished, I’ll probably throw them up on this site for anyone interested in downloading them and trying them out.

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