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Author Topic: Does Setting Matter?  (Read 7257 times)
ThreeGee
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« on: March 04, 2003, 09:34:37 AM »

Hey all,

In this thread about system, the point was raised that the majority of gamers (at least the vocal ones on another board) think that setting is the single most important part of a game.

My take on the matter is that the gamemaster will use whatever he likes from a setting and junk the rest, creating his own world; the system is the important part of the game and the rest is fluff. However, objectively, I must acknowledge that my argument is the same as the other side, only switching setting and system. This raises the question, Does Setting Matter?

Later,
Grant[/url]
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2003, 09:45:53 AM »

Hi Grant,

Of course Setting matters. Without characters, setting, situation, a system, and color, role-playing isn't happening.

I lay this out pretty explicitly in my essay, "GNS and related matters of role-playing design," so I don't really see how it's an issue.

That leads me to think that you are not asking, does Setting matter, but rather, why is it the focus of so much attention, at least in terms of polls and canvasses? Here are my answers.

1. Consumerism. People legitimize their participation in an activity by buying stuff, and lots of setting means lots of stuff to buy.

2. Entertainment that happens not to be role-playing. Setting-books are only one small step removed from fiction, and people often buy them to have something to read.

3. "Genre." Quite a lot of the games published between 1987 and 2000 are what I call High Concept Simulationism, which means a well-defined setting and an embedded point or theme that isn't challenged through play, but rather repeated. Setting is often used as a term to indicate this sort of game, although people are really using it to refer to all five elements, not just one.

Best,
Ron
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Matt Wilson
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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2003, 10:12:32 AM »

Grant:

I fell pretty heavily into the "yes setting" camp for a while, probably influenced by some of the elements Ron notes above.

One thing that got me to break out of it was playing with a system that didn't depend on details. I think D20 encourages details up front, to facilitate some of the gamist goals. You need to know exactly where the orc is so you avoid its reach when you move, and you want to know more about that chest to help you spot a trap. I think it's easy to take that craving for detail and keep going. If the players are going to ask about this, then they'll probably ask about that, and oh, crap, I'll need info on A, B, and C. You can see this in their World Building column in Dragon.

So, anyway, first I broke out of the "must have lots of rules to be good" camp and played some FUDGE. That got me thinking that it'd be easy to just make stuff up on the fly. Follow that up with a game of Sorcerer and Sword, and I was convinced.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: March 04, 2003, 10:15:21 AM »

Hey, and what's more, GM matters, and players matter, and catering matters...

System Matters does not mean Only System Matters.

The same principles apply to all elements of play. Sure, you can chuck parts of the setting, or alter your catering menu. But isn't it easier to have the setting you want right up front, or have the caterer bring what you want the first time?

Everything matters. OTOH, nobody ever said "catering doesn't matter" (or "setting doesn't matter") hence whey there's no essay on that point.

Mike

P.S. I'm overstating to make a point. Setting's are never complete. As such, you have to tinker with them anyhow (and hell, you might enjoy it). As such, the principle probably applies less. But it applies nonetheless. Especially regarding catering; get it right the first time...
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Valamir
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« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2003, 11:18:28 AM »

I think there is the biggest most important reason of all why setting gets top billing in all major RPGs.  Its really very simple.

System is not copyrightable.
Setting is.

Take your high concept game of choice...Children of the Sun say.  All the mechanics...all the time and effort spent on writing them, testing them, balancing them...great.  So what.  I could write a new game lift the concepts of those mechanics whole cloth (or very nearly so) and if I was feeling particularly friendly put a mention in the acknowledgements.  But the WORLD of Children of the Sun.  That's sacrosanct.  That's owned.  That's inviolate (or at least as inviolate as the owners want and can afford it to be).

It makes PERFECT sense that systems are deemphasized and setting held out as being whats really special. Because that's what the publisher really owns as protectable intellectual property.  Shane Hensley likely couldn't care less if someone swiped the "deal a card" for initiative system from Dead Lands outside of pointing out its obvious heritage.  But start throwing around Manitou, Huxters, and Hanging Judges roaming around the Wierd West and I guarentee he'll have something to say about that.

So yeah, it makes perfect sense.  The sad part is that so many people are sheep enough to fall for it.
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contracycle
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« Reply #5 on: March 04, 2003, 12:13:57 PM »

Several good points above, and Valamirs point especially taken.  OTOH, I don't think people are "falling for it" becuase I don't think the system, stripped down and abstracted, decontextualised, would be very meaningful on its own.

Thinking a bit about setting rtecently, it struck me how seldom we distinguish between background and foreground.  There is a big difference IMO between the "living in interesting times" part of background, and the setting foreground in which action occurs.  Partly I think this arises through the lack of mechanical (not play mechanical, like physical, procedural) distinction between background and foreground, and because we are accustomed to characters implicit foregrounds not being important or destined to overriden so they can all meet in a bar.  One could esxtablish a background like "a norman fief" and have very different settings by virtue of whether the foreground of action is in the keep, or in a peasant hovel outside it.

My problem then is that with the Big Settings, which I do find to be interesting and entertaining in their own right, is that there is seldom attention paid to the process of selecting the foreground.  I think paying attention to the distinction, and how one selects one as a subset of the other, might be fruitful in terms of exploration of setting and colour.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #6 on: March 04, 2003, 12:14:48 PM »

Setting is usually the hook that gets a group to go "ooo-cool!".  Setting is usually the part that sparks the players imaginations and gets them excited about play, and is often the part that gets stuck with defining, "What play is about" where system doesn't or is very subtle about.

It's this ability to convey what the game is supposed to be about that makes a game fly or die, even if the system is wonky.  People will play with a "flawed"(incoherent) system, often because they all understand via setting what the game is "supposed" to be about.

Setting also establishes some common ideas, assumptions, and backstory points that allow players to be on the same page as far as play.

Chris
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #7 on: March 04, 2003, 01:21:16 PM »

Good point Gareth. I think that Foregrounding a character may be a concept we should discuss further. What's a kicker, but a sort of mini-foreground detail.Hmmm.

Mike
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ThreeGee
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« Reply #8 on: March 04, 2003, 01:21:29 PM »

Hey all,

I do not pay any more credence to the nefarious plot idea behind setting-dominance than I do to the theory that simple systems are necessarily more attractive to new gamers or that children are inherently less intelligent than adults, etc ad nauseum. Broad, over-arching grand unified (conspiracy) theories beg too many questions to appeal to me.

On the other hand, Gareth, your point about background/foreground is an excellent one. It deserves its own thread, but I have pondered that same idea. I think it is part of what fails to appeal to me about Setting. The background is a huge amount of information to process, just like a heavy system would be, but fails to tell me just what my character, in the foreground, should be about.

Chris, I think your point is right on the mark. Warhammer 40K has to be one of the worst wargames that I have ever played, but a huge number of people play it--far more than any other wargame I can think of. When asked why they play, the answer is inevitably, "Great setting." Same for the various White Wolf games. The setting speaks directly to people in a way that mechanics never will. "Well, in this game, you roll a twenty-sided regular polyhedron, modified by situational modifiers, to determine whether you can, in fact, do what you want to do." As opposed to: "In this game, you play a vampire with superhuman abilities. Let's talk specifics."

I still believe in setting-lite games, but I can understand the appeal, at least. And maybe my preference lends credence to the idea that Setting Does Matter.

Later,
Grant
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: March 04, 2003, 03:08:54 PM »

Hi Grant,

I think you're misreading Ralph's point about the economics and copyright. He isn't posing a conspiracy or plot. He's talking about the outcome of many instances of individualized self-interest that happen to yield very common results. That kind of thing is (a) widespread across lots of different activities and (b) often mistaken for "conspiracy."

Gareth, your "foreground" already has a name in my framework: Situation.

Best,
Ron
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #10 on: March 04, 2003, 05:50:52 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Gareth, your "foreground" already has a name in my framework: Situation.

Right, but it's rarely a part of chargen. It's either ignored, to be provided by the GM in a tavern somewhere, or it's always the same in every game. As in Paranioa where the situation is that you are troubleshooters, and you've just been tapped by the computer to go shoot some trouble.

What I was thinking would be cool would be a sort of Mega-situation where it was unique to the particular game and detailed a lot of where the characters were at. Actually, thinking about it, Alyria's storymaps seem to be much what I'm describing. Also interesting because they are player created. So, think storymap large enough to cover a whole "campaign" worth of play. Yeah, a "foreground" type of situation.

Mike
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Rob Donoghue
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« Reply #11 on: March 04, 2003, 08:07:44 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Quote from: Ron Edwards
Gareth, your "foreground" already has a name in my framework: Situation.

Right, but it's rarely a part of chargen. It's either ignored, to be provided by the GM in a tavern somewhere, or it's always the same in every game. As in Paranioa where the situation is that you are troubleshooters, and you've just been tapped by the computer to go shoot some trouble.

Mike


Horn tooting on.

That's more or less exactly why Fate chargen is phased - characters are theoretically tied to the setting and their own story over the course of chargen (the downside is that chargen tends to take an entire session, but it works out).  If you take a look at the pdf (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/FateRPG/files/fate.pdf), there's a pretty extensive chargen example in the appendix that ideally illustrates exactly this point.

Horn tooting off.

As to the question at large - I'm starting to see it sideways - to say setting (or rules, orwhatever) don't matter based on the argument that you're going to rip it out an replace it with somethign better seems not-quite-right.  The desire to insert something better seems to just emphasize how important setting really is. :)

Personally, I'm nuts for setting, and I place the greatest weight on one factor - how accessable it is to my players (or in the absence of that, how effectively I can seperate out a foreground that is accessable).  I have entire shelves of games whose settings I love which I will never run because the sheer volume of text my players would have to absorb for the setting to really resonate with them is absurd.  

As an example, I think it's one of the reason's Amber is such a persistant game setting - Zelazny greatest strength as an author was probably his ability to express a great deal very concisely. It's possible to get buy in with a single book that barely even qualifies as novella sized these days.

Of course, my priorities are colored by that whole getting old, less time thing - they were not always so.  So I put forward a second question that I'm pretty curious about.  Assuming setting is important (to whatever degree), what do you expect it to bring to the table?

-Rob D.
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Rob Donoghue
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Clinton R. Nixon
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« Reply #12 on: March 04, 2003, 08:16:00 PM »

Pardon my language, but setting damn well matters.

I'm going to throw a crazy idea out there, though: setting in the form we usually see it doesn't matter. Lists of principalities and rulers and such matter little by themselves. What does matter is a setting that provides many places for player characters to enter it.

I'll look at a few of my favorite games:

The Riddle of Steel - This thing is setting-loaded. There's crackloads of info in here. Each country, though, instead of being intricately detailed, is set up with just enough information that the sort of conflicts that might happen there are very apparent. Take the country of Farrenshire, my favorite. It's sandwiched between Stahl, the country of atheist militarism; Oustenreich, the quasi-German sell-out nation that licks Gelure's boots; and Angharad, the nation of clan-based pirates and mysticism. What might happen to these wine-drinkers and cheese-eaters? Well, being a country with a good sea-front, it can be a good launching point for Gelure in a war, so there's some conflict as Gelure tries to rule it. It's close enough to Stahl that they might try to annex it and it's got a very traditional feudal system, so the gentry and the peasants could be at each other's throats in an instant.

That's narrativism without even looking at the system - a setting absolutely packed with conflict is presents.

Sorcerer and Sword - Here's a different sort of setting that matters. You've got a definite sort of visceral fantasy present - with demons that want to tear out your soul for a bedpan. No traditional setting is present (well, we have a few examples), but a baseline setting exists, in that we know what sort of player characters exist, what forces move in the world, and what sort of action can happen. S&S is one of the most setting-heavy games I own, in my opinion, and the setting is what drives the game.

That's just two examples, but you could take a lot of games out there, including Trollbabe, Dungeons and Dragons (want to talk setting-heavy? The "light setting" that comes with the game is full of setting chunks), and Unknown Armies, and look at their settings, all of which are riddled with unfilled holes that fit player characters like puzzle pieces. That's how good setting matters.
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Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games
Rob Donoghue
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« Reply #13 on: March 04, 2003, 08:29:22 PM »

Quote from: Clinton R. Nixon

Sorcerer and Sword - Here's a different sort of setting that matters. You've got a definite sort of visceral fantasy present - with demons that want to tear out your soul for a bedpan. No traditional setting is present (well, we have a few examples), but a baseline setting exists, in that we know what sort of player characters exist, what forces move in the world, and what sort of action can happen. S&S is one of the most setting-heavy games I own, in my opinion, and the setting is what drives the game.


Hnh. You entirely had me up til this.

Let me preface everythign that follows with this: I agree completely - all the reasons and examples you point to for the power and utility of setting are things I am in 100% accord with.  Except this one.

And it's no criticism of Sorcerer and Sword.  I consider the whole Sorcerer line (as well as your own Paladin) as another beast entirely, somethign that removes setting and replaces it with theme.

And it's a welcome change - the sheer power of the games that use theme as their engine can be seen in how much people have done with them.  They roar out of the gate like hell's chasing them.  It's amazing, but it's not setting,  it's something else entirely.

You're trying to extend the definition of setting, and I appreciate that, but in doing so I think you're doing a disservice to Mr. Edwards, and your own, innovation.

('course, since it is yours, feel free to do so :) )

-Rob D.
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Rob Donoghue
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Alan
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« Reply #14 on: March 04, 2003, 09:23:01 PM »

Hi there,

Maybe we need to make a distinction here between setting in actual play and setting presented in the rule book.  I'd suggest that setting isn't necessary in a rule book, but is necessary for actual play.  In fact, setting is created by the act of role-play as the imaginary world is explored.

A more interesting question: What elements of setting contribute best to coherent play?  I mean to suggest that the GNS options will each be best supported by different details of setting.
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