Setting and Design, hand in hand knife fighting.
I am going to write something now that might be just about unheard of in the world of amateur, Indy, internet RPG game designers. (what are we again?) I may cast aspersions on myself that I might not be able to shake.
I am not really that well read.
There I said it.
I don't make a habit of reading a ton of fantasy or science fiction. I’m a biography and real history guy, and even then I am not a page devouring bookworm.
Sure I have read the obvious stuff, J.R.R.T., Shannara, Amber, Fritz Leiber, but that’s about it.
So when I start talking about setting, I’m seriously not some kind of expert.
With that preamble in place, I will say I know what I like when I play RPG's. Now that I have settled into that spot in everyone's mind that was once occupied by their crazy uncle who would eat anything and yell, “I don't know if it's good, but dang, I LIKE IT!”
As much as I like universal or setting agnostic game design, I have started to look at it as a bit of a dodge.
So as I move into working on a new game, I also start thinking should I tie it to a new setting or work into mining a bit more out of my old tried and true fantasy setting.
The benefit of using an established setting is familiarity, we have been running games in the same fantasy setting since high school for crud’s sake. Which brings me to the one thing I really love in any book or setting. A feeling of history. I like the idea that if the players are exploring some ruin some where, that there is a story behind it. The ruins are there for a reason and are not just some pile of stones sitting there acting simply as a place for an orc to hide. Using a setting that has been played in for a while helps take care of that. When I put a statue of a long past hero in a town square, chances are someone played that hero a few years ago. For a lot of reasons I find that concept of history great.
The issue with using my established setting is that it's very vanilla fantasy. There are not many hooks to hang an interesting mechanic on, and frankly I can think of at least three or four games that depending on the style of game someone wants to run, do vanilla fantasy better than any thing I can write. (Dungeon World, Legends of Anglerre , Dungeon Crawl Classics, all jump to mind)
Working on a new Setting gives a designer another set of problems and advantages.
Fist of all setting work is very time consuming, intricate, and sometimes difficult. If you write a game and a setting that the game is built for you're doubling your work load. I can't overstate this. I don't know if I have time for it.
However a fresh setting allows a designer the opportunity to weave the mechanics of the game into the story and the flavor of the setting. I have been using it as an example a lot lately but the Amber RPG, is a great marriage of Setting and game. I think the system really emulates the constant jockeying, competition, and interpersonal dynamics of the Princes and Princes of Amber extremely well. The system does not stand as well if ported to another setting.
It seems to me that setting and design go hand in hand nth each other, but not in a civil waltz. More like they are tied together in a constant knife fight. System constantly trying to pump life into the setting while not getting buried by it. And setting constantly trying to buoy the system and give it plenty of fuel to burn, while not being lost behind a veil of system related flotsam.
I just have to decide what approach will let my game design survive the knife fight, old reliable foundations, or new custom built framework?
Right now I am leaning toward working on a new setting also. If for no other reason than t keep things fresh. My friends and gaming group have recently developed some interest in the Steam punk aesthetic and that might be an interesting area to explore.
For myself, I have been mulling over the idea of cultures being interconnected in the distant past then cut off for one reason or another to develop on their own. I would like to explore the concept in a setting.
Until next -Mark.