Setting Up (and Upsetting) Settings

Establishing a setting that everyone at the table feels invested in is very hard, but can be deeply rewarding in play. When tabletop RPG players draw on their setting-specific knowledge to solve problems, direct play, and even just make joking references, it evokes a sense that we’re all there to share something fun and special, something that’s ours. Introducing a new setting to your gaming table presents a challenge, however: What if you’re the only one who’s interested in it?

I’ve been struggling with this question for a while now—see the Google+ post this post is built on, from nearly a year ago—but felt the need to revisit it today thanks to a post by VSCA’s Brad Murray musing on the various ways that games communicate setting. RPGs offer a range of ways to paint a picture of their detailed settings, like timelines describing their history, maps describing nations and geography, and character creation options and bestiaries that spell out what everyone in the world is capable of, and which movers and shakers they get their marching orders from. I’m not sure I know of any games, though, that offer guidance on how to teach their settings to the players in the group who might not want to pore over rulebooks as deeply as GMs tend to.

So, how do you bring a rich setting to the table for the first time, and have it be an experience that rewards deep, shared knowledge of that world? Here are a few different approaches I’ve tried, for better or worse.

1. Assign homework

Or, in other words: The GM pores over all the details of the setting, shares the setting materials with the group, and hopes that they’ll become similarly invested. I don’t rely on this approach anymore, though—I just end up disappointed when nobody else gets as invested in the setting as I do. That’s not to say that games with detailed settings are useless to me, but that the best I can hope for from them is to use the setting details as inspiration for scenarios that don’t require anybody but the GM to know the world in depth.

For me, In Nomine presents a good example of both of these ends. I ran it for years thinking players would eventually internalize the setting details enough so that we could really insider references and subtle clues together. Ultimately, I realized it just wasn’t happening—players enjoyed it, but learning the setting to the extent I had would have been like doing homework for them, and they just weren’t that interested. I ended up designing Halos & Hellfire, my own angels-and-demons urban fantasy game, using In Nomine as inspiration in my prep, but with no expectation that every player would really know the setting. It worked great—just not as a game with a beloved setting every player knew and loved right off the bat.

2. Use a familiar setting

A more effective way to play in a setting everyone at the table knows and loves, I think, is to pick a beloved setting that already exists, or is near enough to one. The quickest route to playing in a shared setting everyone loves is to gather players who are fans of some existing world, so they can bring their encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars or Dragon Age to the table. The next quickest route is to pick something that’s close to what they know, so you don’t have to teach too much new material, and so we have many “it’s D&D, but…” settings to choose from. Urban fantasy settings are built on a similar premise, and I think it does help reduce how much needs to be learned, but the familiar part of those settings (i.e., the real world) is not exactly the “fun” part of the setting.

I do enjoy using very familiar settings with preexisting attachments among the players, and I expect to run more Mass Effect and Fallout inspired games in the future. That’s not all I ever want to run, though, and I sure would like to run more games that rely on a strong sense of shared setting.

3. Make the PCs ignorant

I suspect you can teach players the ins and outs of a detailed setting during play as long as you introduce their characters as outsiders, or (Hollywood style) amnesiacs, or the like. You can deliver a whole, rich, internally consistent world, but the players and their characters don’t know jack about it yet. This gets around the problem of assigning homework, and allows you to introduce settings they don’t already know and love.

This is the approach I’ve been using with Exhumed, where the characters awaken from their graves into a ruined world with no memories of what came before. You also see it in Fugue System games like Alas Vegas. This approach does, however, require more of a long-term investment before it can possibly pay off in the form of a strong sense of shared setting. After all, the players can’t care about a setting they don’t know yet.

4. Make up the setting as you go

A lot of relatively new story-focused games have this set as their default—offering some hints at an implied setting, and letting the GM (and sometimes also the players) connect the dots. This worked great for a 13-session arc of Urban Shadows I ran, for instance. I’m really looking forward to running some other games that use this approach to great effect as well, including those in the Soft Horizon series.

Functionally, though, this approach is the same as “making PCs ignorant,” albeit with more room for player involvement in the creative process. I suspect players might be even more endeared to a setting they help create than they would be to one they “discover” gradually, but in both cases, there’s a significant time commitment before it feels like a real setting. My schedule often only permits me to run one-shots or much shorter arcs, and I like to try out different systems regularly, which makes it tricky to employ such an approach.

5. Serialize the setting and rotate rules

Or, in other words: Revisit the same setting over and over again through one-shots and short arcs, even if in a different game system each time. Eventually, some shared sense of lore will seep into the group, and you still get to try out all the varied games on your shelf.

This approach first occurred to me after the first time I ran Halos & Hellfire—the In Nomine inspired game mentioned above—because I didn’t want players to have to worry about any baggage from In Nomine‘s setting. Instead, I just ran a one-shot in the urban fantasy version of my hometown used in Monster of the Week, which in turn neighbored the the supernatural Boston setting we’d used for Urban Shadows. I haven’t run enough games in that setting since to say that this technique will really build a sense of a shared setting in the long run, but I’m hopeful. I don’t know that it will work as a setting for every urban fantasy game on my to-play list, as many have different baked-in assumptions about how magic works on a grander scale (contrast Dresden Files Accelerated with Unknown Armies, for instance), but we’ll see what we can come up with.

Bringing it all together

Something tells me that I may end up running a “multiverse hopping” series in my future, in an attempt to draw on as many of these techniques as I can. Player characters would be newbie “planeswalkers,” just learning the mysteries of travel between parallel universes, so players aren’t expected to know too much to start. Each session would visit a different setting, perhaps even use a different rule set, but (hopefully) gradually build investment in a shared meta-setting. (The Strange and Lords of Gossamer and Shadow—and Amber, on which it was based—are good contenders for such a meta-setting; I’m hoping that the upcoming Soft Horizon book could be another one, as I love the settings offered already in Sand Dogs and The King Machine.) And if, along the way, we happen to find that one of those settings the players visit seems especially promising, we could zoom in more on that.

That’s an ambitious dream for someone who only gets to play roughly once a month. We’ll see what I can manage. Of course, I’m open to other approaches, so please feel free to suggest any in the comments. What’s worked for your group in building games around detailed settings, or building detailed settings into your games?

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