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So You Want To Play an RPG?: Worlds and Settings

May 21, 2013

As I’ve continuously said, roleplaying games are not really so much games as they are collective storytelling experiences. It’s you and your friends chance to tell interesting stories that you’re never going to see on television or in movies or even in books because they can be so many things that make them unpublishable (filled with mood whiplash, derivative, far too concerned with some details and completely unconcerned with others, etc) but are ultimately fun for you guys. Especially because you’re not watching some actor do these things or reading about some character doing them, you’re the one in control. You effectively have the pen in your hand, or in this case the dice, and it is your choices that will affect the world your character lives in.

Of course, how did that world come to be?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that can be said about building fantastical worlds. Creating a space where adventure is possible is a difficult task. There needs to be good grounding for the players to build their characters, but still plenty of elements of the unknown. We need frontiers, but we also need dark alleyways. For every mafioso pulling the strings of a criminal underworld, there are dozens if not hundreds of people just going about their day-to-day lives.

As the Game Master, that world is yours to create and it can be a very daunting task.

However, many many people have come before you and you can see very far because you can stand upon their shoulders. What I want to discuss today is a question that will certainly plague new game masters, as it certainly plagues every game master who starts a new campaign. Do I want to make my own world, or do I want to use an established setting?

There are plenty of books out there that detail all sorts of fantasy and science fiction settings. From worlds filled with four color superheroes to eerily dark modern worlds inspired by the ramblings of men wearing tin-foil hats. Every flavor of fantasy and science fiction is covered. Furthermore, dozens of your favorite books and video games have been translated into table top roleplaying format. Sometimes multiple times. Also, if you can’t find an officially licensed product, you can probably find a labor of love made by fans on the internet in all manner of systems.

People who have been gaming for years have shared your desires to play in all sorts of settings. Don’t worry.

What are the pros and cons here though?

For an established setting you get a lot of stuff, in some worlds maybe even too much, but the ultimate benefit is that someone has already done the leg work for you. How many people live in City X, how are guard patrols structured, what are the legends of this world, who are the great figures who have walked its histories? All of that is answered for you, and even if its not there are plenty of vague hints or multiple choices laid out to help you make the world somewhat personal.

You’ll never be without a handy and fairly well fleshed out character to drop into a chance meeting at a tavern.

Plenty of these settings will provide you with information you probably won’t ever think about when making a world. Stupid nitpicky stuff that is fairly obvious when you think about it, but you might not see because you’re too busy getting excited about possible adventures. Things like, “What’s the climate here?” or “How do these people earn a living?” In worlds outside of the modern you can’t just announce that someone works at some white-collar job and be done with it. Even in early industrial eras where there might be a local factory, you need to know what that factory makes (also important if you’re using an old factory as a set piece in a modern or post-apocalyptic game).

Not only is that information beneficial because you have answers to your player’s questions, and possibly your own, but it allows them to really dig into something. If they can dig into something, they’ll be able to create better characters, and better characters means more engagement with the story.

For example, I’ve always found that settings close in structure to the modern world can produce characters (both player and non) that feel much more real. My first truly successful and memorable campaign was set in Northern Crown, a world based off of colonial North America but with magic and science that acted like magic. The players could really get into the fact that they knew what a Scotsman or a Puritan would act like. It made it easier to come up with characters on the spot when I could go, “Oh this guy is from Magical England, he has an English accent, he looks like this, and these are probably his core values.” All because I have the trope of Englishman in my brain and so did the players.

I will breathe a word of caution that games actually set in the modern world, with no fantastical elements like magic or superheroes, don’t seem to have this same success for some reason. Sometimes people feel vaguely uncomfortable about portraying different races, genders, creeds, and so on to the point where you as the GM might wonder if too many of your enemies are Islamic terrorists or that everyone thinks your portrayal of this or that NPC was too stereotypical. If this doesn’t happen, you sometimes just run the risk of everyone talking like they’re in a bad B-movie.

Portraying an elf archer might seem silly, but it has enough psychic distance that we can imagine it. When you’re portraying a tough-as-nails cop with nothing left to lose, you can start to feel silly. You realize you’re playing a game, and that can be far worse than any other problem your group might face. It’s the problem of reality creeping in. It’s the destruction of suspension of disbelief, which is different for different people.

I remember a game where the GM was really into computer science and the history of computers, and a few times when our Whiz Kid computer hacker character tried to break into a system, we’d all inevitably have to talk through how to actually crack things even though he had a +20 on his Computer Use check. The GM never blinked at my use of skill rolls to hand wave medical problems away or the like, probably because he wasn’t a doctor. For him, the hacking had to be right even though everything else ran off of skill rolls.

I bring that up not just to tell you a quick aside but to reveal one of the only major cons to established settings. There’s always a chance that one of your players, or even you yourself, are that guy. The person who’s dedicated a lot of fanboy love to a particular world or setting. They know the demographic distribution of Tatooine, or just how many banner men House Tyrell can call. Their suspension of disbelief will be sundered by any attempt to stray from canon, or worse they’ll go along with it while huffing and puffing that you’re making James Oliver Rigney Jr (aka Robert Jordan) spin in his grave.

This is the restriction that can come with everything being built for you already. I’m reminded of the West End Star Wars game, which was written shortly after the original trilogy had wrapped up and when there was very little other licensed content. In this game, Wookies couldn’t pilot ships alone because we’d never seen one do that in the films. If you wanted to have force powers, you either had to be an old man, or have a really convincing back story about the old man you had met who told you about the force. It was and is one of the purest iterations of Star Wars outside of the films, and that sort of sucked if you wanted to do something different.

Of course, that’s what brings me to the compromise of building your own setting.

Building your own original setting from the ground up is difficult, and it will take time. There are so many things that need to be considered, and for you to really understand to make a kickass setting. Plenty has been written on how to do that, and plenty more has been written on how to be a writer who has their own original world. However, in gaming and in life, there’s a very true concept, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What do I mean?

I mean borrow, beg, and steal.

Setting out to create your own world is something I encourage, and I think its great. I’ve made plenty of worlds that were original enough, and others that weren’t. However, it can take time, and that can be reflected in the game itself. Plus, there’s a lot that can go in to creating a world from whole cloth. You should have a good grasp of a lot of subjects; culture, geography, demography, history, biology, and so on.

That’s why I’d say at the very least you should be taking inspiration from somewhere. Obviously George RR Martin’s setting for A Song of Ice and Fire is based heavily on the historical world with its Rome analogue in Valyria, and the Free Cities standing in for much of central and southern Europe during the Renaissance. Furthermore, since Dungeons and Dragons ripped off Tolkien, and is the primogenitor of many roleplaying games, it’s important to remind ourselves that we wouldn’t have Lord of the Rings if Tolkien hadn’t ripped off lots of Norse lore.

If you think a concept is cool, take it and use it. Perhaps file the serial numbers off a bit here or there, or don’t. There’s nothing saying that you can’t pilfer names from other sources, or base your Elves off of the way elves were done in your favorite book series. You’re free to create the world you want, and no one is going to hunt you down for royalties just because your players are based out of the city of Winterfell or Whiterun or Dunwall. If you need a quick character to fill a bureaucratic role and you want to give him a little flair, base him off some bureaucrat on a tv show or in a movie. Don’t go around naming the forthright lord of a setting Edward Stork but it might help that when the PCs enter a new territory and you want the lord to be trustworthy and honorable, that he has some broad Stark-colored brush strokes.

References are fun. They’re things the PCs may be familiar with and that will help ground them in knowledge that will help them create better characters. The real goal with your setting isn’t just to have a living breathing world that has good internal logic, but to create a place where you can have adventure and characters that go on adventures. It’s another tool for you to have fun.

An established setting, one that’s cobbled together from various sources, or something completely original that you breathed life into. Those choices only matter insofar as they let you and your players have fun.

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