People who love and play setting-heavy games are a whole ‘nother culture to me. It’s not for me, I don’t get it, and of course I acknowledge that they exist and that they are having fun and that’s awesome. I don’t like football but I don’t think you’re stupid if you like it.
But what kinds of setting are there? I can only talk about what I’ve seen and what I’ve made, but I think it covers the gamut. Shout out in the comments if you’ve seen something else.
There are games that present a full history. There’s a timeline of events that have happened and there are places and people (specific people) defined. The world is well detailed (though necessarily not remotely as well detailed as the actual world so there is still room to create though personally I have trouble finding it). Many licensed properties fit into this category.
This kind of game suffers if the players are not at least a little invested in understanding at least their corner of this world. And the ref of course needs to have an even greater understanding. This is essentially why I can’t game like this: I have a no homework policy* and this kind of setting demands homework. Like right off the starting line: you need a certain amount of information to create a credible character.
If you don’t do the homework or (worse, you’re like me) don’t care about the setting details you can still have some fun — lots of people are thick about their surroundings and current events, so there’s no reason your character will have to get everything right — but the other players will carry you. And they need to be prepared for that and willing to tolerate it.
This sort of game is perfectly inaccessible to me but when it works it creates wonderful rich narratives because of all the built-in touchstones to grab on to. It does not suffer a lot of player-created input. You pretty much have to be in love with the fiction.
shitloads of maps
There are settings that are well elaborated with lots of fiction and essays but are nonetheless deliberately incomplete. There are places, perhaps, but not people. There are past events but not an explicit timeline (though look out: one may develop over time as the property develops). These games provide you with a lot of rich material that you can pull together to make your own variant on the writer’s intended world. There’s lots of creative work that can be done by you and yet there are also solid touchstones to lean on.
These are fun. Often you can throw out the setting if you like since it’s rarely integral to the system. You can do only as much homework as you want and fill in blanks for yourself. And maybe most importantly, since there’s not much of a timeline, the other players (the not ref players) don’t need to do a ton of homework. Sure, it’s probably a good idea to read up on the dwarves if you’re playing a dwarf, but it won’t be critical. You’re unlikely to make some horrid social gaffe because there’s just not a lot of detail to get wrong.
These give you a lot: they give you a map. A sense of place. Without that gift being a burden. This kind of setting is a great place to start, in my opinion: a lot of hard work is done for you and in enough detail to get you excited about play. A good map is worth real money. They often come with a burden of fiction — usually bad fiction — but you don’t have to read it. It’s atmospheric, illustrative.
Ah, my personal preference. There are games that imply a place — whose system generates or is just perfectly consistent with some sort of platonic ideal of the setting. You don’t need to read a lot of essays about how the universe works nor do you need to understand your place in a timeline: the system, used as directed, ensures that anything you do is consistent with the setting.
While I think for sure that Dungeons & Dragons fits in here, I think the first game to really score a direct hit in this category was Traveller. In its first incarnation it was settingless — you were encouraged to play Starship Troopers inspired games or Star Wars inspired games. Anything with lasers and shit. But there really was a core setting hidden in there — the character generation made middle-aged people with careers. The starship creation system created very specific kinds of space ships. And the world and subsector generation system established a specific kind of place — but not a specific place. My own ideas about what the Traveller universe should be are consistent with the rules and to some degree generated by them.
You can pick up the game, play according to the rulers, and the implied setting is delivered to you. For the players this is a zero-homework game. For the ref there may or may not be some preparation required. In the best examples the prep is mechanically directed to some degree. This is where Soft Horizon games sit.
And then there are games with no place, with no implied setting. These are games that, rather than try to give you a place to live, give you a playstyle to play. Anywhere you want to enjoy that play style will work. Since the burden is on you to build these places, these games often have substantial support in the form of supplied settings. The two richest lines have to be GURPS and Fate.
These games are usually described as “universal” but they aren’t. Yes, the setting space is infinite but the play style isn’t — each has a very specific style of play delivered by the system as these things must be. Certainly there is some flexibility — there are often ways to manipulate the system to vary somewhat from the expected norms of play — but if you play the system you get the game, and these systems deliver particular kinds of play.
But not setting.
So if you play a game set in Middle Earth using GURPS, I guarantee you will get a very different experience of play (and a very different narrative) than if you play it with Fate.
As with any categorization scheme, this one is bullshit. These aren’t strict categories so much as they are modes in a distribution curve — there’s plenty of fuzzy space, gray areas, and overlap. But they do help me identify what I like and why I don’t like what I have come to dislike. For me, the games I keep coming back to and inventing are those with implied place.
Do your favourite games fit into this scheme? Is there a space I’ve missed that’s not clearly an overlap or an outlier?
- I have a no homework policy: I never expect the players to go away and do stuff on their own between games. I’ll elaborate on this later but basically it comes from the experience that no one does it anyway, when they do it’s not to my liking, and basically that trying to schedule other peoples’ time for frivolity away from the actual frivolity is bullshit.