Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Makes a Good Setting?

I've been thinking a lot about games and their settings lately. I found myself last night trying to figure out how The Commons could be a good roleplaying game, mostly as a thought exercise. I don't sleep well at night, what with the insomnia, so this is how I occupy my time -- considering all kinds of intellectual questions. Counting sheep never worked for me. This led me to wonder about what makes a good setting  for a roleplaying game; how do I define a "good setting?"

I can't tell you the number of times I walked the aisles at GenCon, and met some fresh-faced designer standing in a booth with his pride-and-joy who could not tell me what his game was about. This is just about the most central question a designer should be able to answer, because this tells me (the prospective player and customer) just what my character will do in the game. Sometimes, I'd get a blank stare, as though it should be obvious what my character would do. Sometimes, I'd get some vague, uninteresting description ("Uh, you play supernatural mobsters fighting over turf"). Okay. But what if I don't want to play a supernatural mobster? What if I want to play a supernatural cop fighting the mobsters? What else can I do?

See, oftentimes, the setting is limited to what the designer had in mind as to your character's goals. He wants you to tell his story, using your characters. I blame Vampire: the Masquerade for this phenomenon. In that game, you play a vampire engaged in all manner of politics and back-stabbing. This was new and revolutionary when the game came out. Most games up to that point had you playing some version of Dungeons & Dragons. That is to say, the setting encouraged you to explore ruins, fight monsters, found kingdoms... But what made V:tM revolutionary wasn't that you got to play the monsters, it was that you were encouraged to do different stuff, political stuff. Quickly, other games started aping this model.

What makes a good game setting, in my opinion, is one that exists in conflict with itself. Certainly, you can have fictional settings where everything is honky-dorey, and main thrust of the conflict arises out of character interaction. I would call this the drawing room roleplaying game. Sherlock Holmes contends with Moriarty, but the danger level never approaches the level of threatening the existence of the British Empire. You can have a perfectly fine setting where the conflict arises out of societal norms, but I believe, however, that this is sub-par.

A good fictional setting exists in conflict with itself. We learn this from fiction writing, particularly from the Hero's Journey. In myth, everything is fine until Evil enters the world. This Evil begins to corrupt the landscape (typically figuratively, sometimes literally), until the danger becomes so great that the Hero notices it and cannot avoid it. For example, in Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-hearted goes off to the Crusades, leaving behind John. John raises taxes and is generally a jerk; he's also illegitimate king. Eventually, things get so bad that Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men must rise up and oppose King John. Another example would be Lord of the Rings. Sauron musters his forces, and Evil spreads out across the land until it touches a remote corner of Middle Earth -- a little place called The Shire.

Time for an example: Vampire: the Masquerade would have been a better game if the central conflict revolved around Cain. Cain is the father of all vampires. Cain returns from self-imposed exile, and lays claim to his "throne" among vampires. How do you react? There's a central conflict that reaches right out and grabs you by the throat.

So in a fictional setting, there must be conflict, and it must be rooted in the setting itself. It must be a part of it. It isn't a coincidence that the Robin Hood stories involve an illegitimate king. It's a common tenet of myth that the king and his land are one. They are inextricably bound. An illegitimate king literally makes the land sick. That's why Aragorn's return to Gondor's throne is so important to the Lord of the Rings. The story isn't over, indeed the setting isn't "healed" until the proper and rightful king of Gondor sits upon the throne. Just as a story begins by presenting a problem for the protagonists to answer, a good game setting asks a dramatic question.

The broader this dramatic question, the better. Because it provides the players with more to do. The Cain idea for V:tM is nice, it's an attention grabber, but then the game would revolve around this central political question; there would be no way to avoid it. But with a broad dramatic question, a player's character has the choice of confronting the central conflict, working tangentially within it, or ignoring it altogether.

For example, Critical Failure is a game set in a post-apocalyptic future where a calamity destroys interstellar trade. Worlds that depend on supplies from elsewhere begin to die off. Whole sectors descend into darkness. This gives players tons to do! I could play a merchant struggling to keep my colony alive (confronting the conflict); or I could play a scoundrel salvaging technology for money (a tangent); or I could play a mercenary who's only interested in the next fight (ignore the conflict). In other words, the characters have to have something to respond to in the setting. They have to have something they either implicitly or explicitly react to. There are space hulks to salvage, ruins to explore, factional politics in which to engage...

Note, also, how this setting in conflict still allows the player to create a character with the freedom to respond as he sees fit. The merchant might want to explore the derelict space ship looking for parts so the colony's fleet can find the supplies they need. The scoundrel in the group might want to explore the same derelict for salvage to sell. The mercenary is just along for the ride, hoping there's something to shoot. Same central conflict -- how do you surive an interstellar collapse? -- but with the freedom to respond as the player sees fit. (Even better if all three characters are in the same group, providing a mix of tensions between protagonists).

Thus, a good game setting provides a broad central conflict that arises out of the nature of the setting itself. In a sense, the setting is at war with itself. It should provide the players with various motivations for adventuring, as well as giving them loads of different things to do.

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