Settings – Less is More

I don’t really care too much about the Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, or Mystara. I think they have some neat ideas but I don’t really care about the settings as a whole. I kind of like Dark Sun, but I don’t really care about who’s the sorcerer-king in charge of Gulg (google tells me her name is Lalali-Puy). I have a favorite clan in Legend of the Five Rings (Dragon), but I really don’t care what happened in year XY of the What’s-his-name dynasty. I enjoy some Shadowrun, but I honestly can’t tell you a single one of the major megacorps off the top of my head, let alone who their CEOs are (although I know one of them is a dragon).  In the Blades in the Dark game we just started, there is this huge list of factions in the book.  When we made our crew, we picked a handful of them that like us and dislike us.  I care about that handful, but it just as easily could have been a number of factions we made up, and the others on that list? I don’t really care about.

Here’s the stuff I DO care about.  Dark Sun is a world that was almost destroyed by a magical disaster, those who survive do so in a barely habitable desert.  Magic drains the land further, metal is rare, and the major cities are ruled by powerful and mysterious sorcerer kings. In L5R, I love the value of face and honor, the role each clan plays in the empire (and the power struggles between them), and the threat of the shadowlands.  Also I just like the Dragon clan in general and think the Kitsuki being the ONLY ones in the empire who go “Hey, maybe we should investigate crimes with forensics, guys!” hilarious.  In Shadowrun, I care that the megacorps EXIST. I care about the meta-humans and the racial tensions between them.  I care about the highly stratified society, the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.  I do care about dragons and that they can run businesses, just not which dragon and which business in particular.

The settings above that I said I didn’t really care about? They have some cool stuff in them.  I think Warforged and the Lightning Rail are super neat. There are a lot of really cool classic modules and adventures in Mystara. I honestly don’t think I would be the gamer I am today without the Baldur’s Gate series, which really benefited from all FR lore that was included in the game. They’re not bad settings, and I would happily sit down and play a game in any of them. They have some cool details and neat locations, but no strong themes or conflicts that gets me super excited about them.

I want to know the big picture of the setting.  I want to know what’s going down (or about to go down if no one stops it)!  I want to know the themes that this setting is trying to express.  I want some details, not the whole 10,000 year history of the setting, but just enough to get me interested.  Tell me the cool stuff that’ll give me an idea of how different this setting is compared to our real life (and the other stuff on the market)!  Tell me why I want to play or run game in your setting!

I don’t need any more information beyond that, if anything, all the extra stuff is just going to get in my way.  If I got the flavor of the setting down, my gears are already working.  I’m already coming up with my own situation, as well as some NPCs and situation to highlight that situation.  Maybe I’ll find a neat location or NPC that I want to include amid the established setting materials, but ultimately all the details of the setting only exist as far as they serve the game.  If the situation requires that the Crane and the Phoenix be next to each other cause shit is about to go down between them, I don’t care what the map in the book says, they are (An aside: I do really like maps, but they need to serve the needs of the game, not the other way around). It’s only once we’ve been gaming for a while in the same world that I start caring about established facts, and even then only what has been declared in our game.

There’s nothing wrong with a setting having lore, facts, and details in it. I know for some other people, that is WHY they like published settings, so they don’t have to come up with that stuff themselves. Heck, I can even find those details fun to read, and I appreciate the care that went into crafting it. It is just that kind of stuff doesn’t excite me to PLAY in the setting. Worse, sometimes it makes me feel like I actually have to memorize and know all this to run the setting ‘properly’. When the setting is painted in the broadest strokes, with just enough for me to grok what this thing is about. Show me just enough to get my imagination going and starting to fill in the rest. Show me just a few details, the things the authors thought was just way too cool to leave out!

Show me this:

Not This:

The bottom chart maybe more useful information, but the picture above is what makes me think it would be cool to go there!

Picture Sources:

Pyramid Picture: Dennis Jarvis, taken from Flickr
Demographics Chart: Screenshot from Wikipedia on 11/16


One thought on “Settings – Less is More

  1. Pingback: Setting: Angels Among the Stars | You All Meet in a Tavern

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