Saturday, February 12, 2011

Setting at War

Well, it appears I've picked up a seventh follower. Welcome, new follower. If I continue on at this rate, I'll have enough followers to found my own religion sometime in the mid-24th century. But, as I've stated before, those of you who join early shall be part of my inner circle, where we will enjoy Mubarak-sized riches, as well as hottie nuzzling. I hope you can wait it out.

Since my earlier post, I've been giving some thought to honing my thesis, that good settings are those that have a central conflict built into it. First, I want to clarify what it is I mean. I believe there's a fundamental difference between a story conflict and a setting conflict. In the former, the characters are involved in a conflict. In the typical detective story, for example, the private investigator is on a case. Maybe his partner's been killed, or the case involves some point of personal honor. The detective wants to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. The criminal mastermind might even make life for the detective very hard indeed, so that it seems as though his world is in danger. And it might well be. But it's his life, his world, that's in danger. The rest of the world, the setting, goes on.

This is an important matter, because if I'm not interested in the game's premise, then I'm not playing the game. For example, I didn't like Assassin's Creed. I really wasn't interested in playing an assassin, though I really liked trying to kill Templars. I would have been perfectly happy wandering around searching out Templars and assassinating them. That's a really fatuous example, by the way, but I think it gets my point across. I don't like playing Vampire: the Masquerade because I don't care about Vampire politics. That's all that game seems to be about. (And the two times I've tried to run the type of game that interested me, everyone ended up wanted to dabble in vampire politics.) I think a game that has the broadest central conflict is the one that provides the most play value.

You don't get much more broad than a setting that is somehow at odds with itself. A setting in conflict means just that -- a world at war, a world coping with the aftermath of a disaster, some fundamental law of nature changes. So what I mean is that the setting itself is in some kind of turmoil. There is a disonance or discord built into the fictional landscape itself. It is something that the characters, the protagonists, must either address or ignore according to their nature. For example:

1) In All Flesh Must Be Eaten, the discord built into the game's setting is the existence of zombies. A fundamental law of nature, that the dead stay dead, has changed (if you want to be academic about it). The protagonists of this setting can either address the situation, by fighting the zombies. Or they can try to avoid the situation altogether, in which case the zombies are treated as a fact of life. Or they can try to ignore the zombies and go about their business. Simply put, they can liberate the town of zombies, try to scavenge for ammo and food and avoid being noticed, or simply hide in an attic and hope for the best.

2) In Dark Sun, the disonance in the setting stems from the origins of magic. Using magic kills off surrounding plantlife, and the wizards have used so much magic over the years that they've turned their world into a desert. The protagonists can attempt to oppose the wizards, get them to stop using magic, and restore the world. Or they can simply accept the situation as a fact of life and go about their business. Or they can ignore the whole thing and sell lizard pelts in the marketplace.

Notice how the protagonists don't necessarily have to solve the setting's central conflict; it could simply be playing in the background. The player characters don't have to locate and fix the source of the zombies in order to have a good time. In fact, it's better they don't, so they can continue to adventure in a zombie-filled world. Similarly, they can't stop every wizard from using magic in Dark Sun; it may simply be enough that they defeat one wizard (to strike back at the forces of oppression). If you are going to make the setting's conflict the central conflict of your story, realize that you're telling a very big story, indeed. And also removing the dramatic tension from the setting itself. Once you defeat whatever it is that's making zombies, you can't necessarily bring them back for a sequel (and boy do I wish Hollywood would learn that lesson).

Another thing I notice: the two examples I cited preclude you from one character option -- joining the forces of dissonance. AFMBE doesn't let you play the zombies, which I think would be pretty cool. I suppose you could play an evil, life-destroying wizard in Dark Sun, but I've never heard of it being done.

I think that in the best games, the dramatic conflict comes from the nature of the setting itself. The land is in some way wounded, and it's up to the main characters to decide how they respond. I think that gives players much more to do with their games.


  1. you consider Trek a good setting or not? I ask because everyone seems to approach Trek differently, both in fiction and in roleplaying, and I'm curious as to your take.

  2. I was thinking about that very question after posting. I think Trek is a horrible setting. There is no central conflict. The closest they came to that was Deep Space 9, which was arguably the best of the shows.

    If Trek had as its background some terrible war they were fighting, or they struggled against a black hole, then it would be interesting. Unfortunately, they'd come up with a technobabble solution to the problem and be done with it. Imagine Trek with a central conflict like X-Files, or Battlestar Galactica. Or even Babylon 5. That would have been a much better series.

    Let's face it, we all wanted to see a series like the one depicted in Yesterday's Enterprise. You saw that episode, with the war with the Klingons, and you said "hell yes!" Imagine a series like that.

  3. I find that if the central conflict is too large, it may dominate the gameplay. EVERYTHING is about the Rebellion vs the Empire. EVERYTHING is about the Alliance vs the Independents. EVERYTHING is about wars between the vampire clans. etc etc etc

    As such, I tend to enjoy settings like Forgotten Realms where there is a lot of white space between data points.

  4. While true, you can play Star Wars and have nothing to do with the Rebellion. You can play smugglers having to deal with increased Imperial patrols and supervision. What do you do when you're smuggling something for Jabba, and a Rebellion agent tells you that you're carrying something the Rebellion really, really needs? Or when it's a Rebel blockade runner that tries to stop your smuggling run?

    You don't have to be involved in the central struggle. In fact, what I'm trying to get at is that setting dischord actually gives your player characters something to hold on to. Either in support of or negation to the central conflict.

    Cascade Failure has the perfect Setting in Distress I'm talking about. There isn't really a "central conflict", but there is. Or rather, there can be. That central conflict can be any number of things that lead out of the Setting in Distress. See what I mean?