Big, Detailed Settings in Play

edited April 2010 in Play Advice
I'll admit it--I love big, detailed settings. I'm enough of a geek that I'll enjoy just flipping through setting books. But it seems to me that it mostly fits under the heading of "lonely fun." Some people enjoy making thousands of character sheets, I enjoy pouring over esoteric lore about a fictional world.

Once upon a time, I, too, settled into the default position that you could introduce this material at the table only with long-winded lectures holding forth on the topic, and blamed the other players for their natural reaction of eyes glazing over, heads drooping, and eventually, nobody paying much attention. Now, I've seen ways that some games have handled this well, and it has made me interested in what other techniques might exist.

To kick things off and illustrate what I mean, here are some of the techniques that have inspired me:
  • Minutiae in Shock:. We have little tidbits of setting scattered out on the table, which anyone can contribute towards. The audience can use minutiae to influence conflict, so we have a reason to reincorporate these facts in the story.
  • Setting Aspects in FATE. The FATE fractal means we can define any part of the setting with Aspects, just like a character. And characters can use those Aspects in play. Even better, there are rules to declare and add new Aspects.
Both of these work great with collaborative setting creation, but they can also help share a big, detailed setting. Joshua A.C. Newman has started doing this with Human Contact in Shock:. Basically, we just have a bunch of minutiae to start off with. A FATE setting can have a bunch of Aspects already in play, giving you a starting point. We can add more in play, but that doesn't mean we have to start from scratch, either.

What are some other ways to break up lots of detailed setting information and introduce them in play, in a way that's actually fun, instead of the old, long-winded lecture?

Comments

  • Keith Senkowski has a great blog post about how life paths are really great ways of teaching the players about the setting without having to give the long-winded-speech.
  • Ages ago I ran a big blood-and-thunder fantasy game. It was immediately after I had graduated from college, and I was working as an office temp, and so I had a lot of free brain cycles. So I set up an email list with all the players on it, and every day on my lunch break I'd send out something about the world. It was fragmentary and impressionistic, and was meant more as a creative exercise -- I recall writing epic poetry "badly translated from the Orcish," for instance -- but the players either loved it or ignored it, and it really contributed to how well that game ran.
  • I love reading deep background for a game. I hate actually trying to run games with deep background.

    Last time I linked to my thoughts on the subject it triggered a minor firestorm, so I'll summarise them instead:

    * Abstraction- use knowledge skills or some equivalent to provide information as and when it's needed.
    * Familiarity- a setting they already know- present day, home location, for example.
    * Analogy- Like X, but with Y- like the above, but with certain key differences outlined.
    * Start from ignorance, find out in play.
    * Collective world building.

    If the game doesn't do at least one of them, then its deep setting is a problem and not an asset.

    I'm really digging games where the players can just make up background elements off the cuff at the moment, so I'm veering away from 'deep background' type games.
  • Most of the best games I ever played were Exalted 1st Edition, which has books and books and books of setting information. Part of the reason the games were so fun and lush was the giant amount of setting to play around in. Everyone playing had differing levels of familiarity with the setting itself, but the game worked well.

    I think the reason a detailed setting worked for our group-of-the-time was that everyone had mind-numbingly boring day jobs.

    Now, I was working from home, but everyone else in my group was a computer programmer in the air force. These people would have email conversations 30-40 messages deep about where to go for lunch out of sheer boredom. (This was before Gmail and nested replies! My inbox was a mess!) So the ST sending out walls of text explaining Realm intrigue or the climate of the Scavenger Lands was fine, because it gave people shit to do during the day.

    My current friend/gaming group is full of people with busy lives and fulfilling jobs, which makes that kind of thing more difficult.
  • Jason, you should check out this somewhat recent, lengthy thread on this very topic:

    Giant Detailed Settings And Story-Gaming!
  • Posted By: Brian MinterJason, you should check out this somewhat recent, lengthy thread on this very topic:
    I followed it at the time, but felt pretty disappointed when it ultimately came back around to assigned reading (a little more than halfway down page 2). I'm really much more interested in ways of breaking big, detailed settings up into manageable pieces.
  • Well, no, that wasn't the conclusion...the conclusion was that step 1 was identifying your goal with the setting for this group. IF your goal is to have a huge number of facts absorbed by the players before play begins, then you can't avoid assigned reading. Sometimes this is a very good idea. It can really add to things like historicity, authenticity, verisimilitude, etc.

    But I assume from your annoyance with this solution that this is not really your goal - that is, you don't want all the players (or perhaps even yourself) to have a lot of assigned reading beforehand. So using that solution would not be what I recommended in that thread. So tell us your goal! And about your group too.
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: JDCorleyBut I assume from your annoyance with this solution that this is not really your goal - that is, you don't want all the players (or perhaps even yourself) to have a lot of assigned reading beforehand. So using that solution would not be what I recommended in that thread. So tell us your goal! And about your group too.
    Good point. And yes, when you put it like that, I can see that I do have a different goal. I don't want the players to absorb a large number of facts before play, necessarily; I'd rather they absorb a large number of facts in play. And if they should feel motivated to do a bunch of reading beforehand, I'd like that to payoff in play, too, but not so much that it becomes a requirement.

    I've got a group more like the one Elizabeth has now—everybody works, and nobody has a particularly large amount of free time to devote to things like reading a thick setting book. I still love rich, detailed settings, though, so I want to have ways of breaking up those facts, so that we can absorb them in play. That way, we can have big, detailed settings, but if you don't have time to read a big setting book, you've still got enough that you're not missing out.

    As I said at the top of the thread, Minutiae and Aspects seem like great ways of achieving this. They both give enough mechanical teeth so that a player is motivated to find ways to engage the setting, and they both break those facts up into digestible, evocative bits.

    To illustrate, I ran a game set in the Forgotten Realms with this group. They'd all gamed enough that they'd played Forgotten Realms games before, and while I don't believe that the setting makes GM's run it badly, it certainly does nothing to discourage it. The walls of novels lure GM's into the trap of making their favorite character the star, while the PC's get to sit back and watch someone else save the day. Having been burned in the past, they were up in arms the first time the word "Harpers" crossed my lips, and I feared violence to my person should I utter "Elminster." They'd had GM's before who used the big, detailed setting as a club with which to beat them over the head, so they weren't really willing to even give me the chance to make my own mistakes. I was judged by the mistakes of others, and so never got the chance to do anything differently.

    I'm running a historical game now, set in post-Roman Britain. In a former life, I obsessed over this period. But I don't want this to become Jasons' lecture time; I want to give them enough of the setting that they can play with it and enjoy it, but I don't want to beat them over the head with it. I want them to be able to learn the setting during play, and I want that to be something fun.
  • Posted By: jasonI've got a group more like the one Elizabeth has now—everybody works, and nobody has a particularly large amount of free time to devote to things like reading a thick setting book. I still love rich, detailed settings, though, so I want to have ways of breaking up those facts, so that we can absorb them in play. That way, we can have big, detailed settings, but if you don't have time to read a big setting book, you've still got enough that you're not missing out.
    Okay, that tells me about your groups but not quite about your goal. You said you want them to "be able to learn the setting during play", but what I'm trying to get at is, what's the purpose of learning the setting? Do you want to teach them about this cool setting that you love, i.e. the purpose of the game is to teach? Do you want the setting to play some role in the story? Is the setting the source of challenges or conflicts?

    Basically you have to answer these questions in order that you break down the setting into various divisions:

    1 - Stuff they absolutely must know in order to play the game. There are no cellphones in post-Roman Britain. Women are treated a particular way in Iroquois culture. Whatever. This is the "reading list" you want to minimize. The fact that you want to minimize it should be a clue as to what relationship the setting should have to the game.

    2 - Stuff they probably should know at some point in order to play the game, and which they should keep in mind over a long period of time. People in small-town America often own hunting rifles and shotguns even if they're not "avid" hunters. Whatever. These are things that go onto a cheat sheet or other reference.

    3 - Stuff they might need to know in a particular situation but that they don't need to remember - either it's such a brief factoid that there's no burden in just re-explaining it each time it comes up, or it's not likely to recur. James H. Duff was Governor of Pennsylvania in 1950. This is something you explain "in the moment". By making a list of these things, you minimize the need to lecture.

    4 - Stuff about the setting they don't need to know unless they ask. Mulla Khan was one of the most prominent singers in Baluchistan. You normally don't need to make a list of these, but you should note when players ask, because they may be signaling their interest in other, related areas of the setting.

    5 - Stuff about the setting they don't need to know unless they really charge after it with a shovel. Ashkisy is in the Omsk Time Zone. You probably don't even need to know this stuff yourself.

    I kinda think that people who say "I want the players to learn all about this setting but I don't want them to do any boring old reading..." often kinda do want the players to do the boring old reading, but they don't think it's realistic. If getting a setting "right" is important to the atmosphere of your story, there really aren't any shortcuts. You can count on them getting it wrong if you play before they learn.
  • For the upcoming Vienna-in-1800-ish operapunk game I'm starting (we're in chargen now), I tried one-page "Loresheets" that highlight setting elements the players should know for grounding their characters. That's proved pretty successful for laying out telling details like "Most city streets are dirt roads" or "buildings that abut cemetaries have no windows so people won't dump their chamber pots on consecrated ground." I've done some in bullet-point fashion, others in short essay. Only five Loresheets so far, more if the players want them. And as far as I'm concerned, the players have the green light to expand things by contributing their own Loresheets. If someone wants to riff on horses and buggies or a particular borough or a certain school of sorcery, fine by me.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyOkay, that tells me about your groups but not quite about your goal. You said you want them to "be able to learn the setting during play", but what I'm trying to get at is, what's the purpose of learning the setting? Do you want to teach them about this cool setting that you love, i.e. the purpose of the game is to teach? Do you want the setting to play some role in the story? Is the setting the source of challenges or conflicts?
    I like stories where the specifics of the setting, ecology, and traditions play an active role. So, the goal isn't quite to teach them the setting just for the purposes of teaching the setting, but to open the setting up enough for them to use it in the story as much as I do.
    Posted By: JDCorleyIf getting a setting "right" is important to the atmosphere of your story, there really aren't any shortcuts.
    I might have agreed with this not too long ago, but Minutiae and Aspects seem to get really close to this. As detailed in the post by Keith Senkowski that Nathan linked to, you can pack a lot of this into lifepaths, too. I'm sure other, similar techniques must exist along these lines.
  • Posted By: jasonI like stories where the specifics of the setting, ecology, and traditions play an active role. So, the goal isn't quite to teach them the setting just for the purposes of teaching the setting, but to open the setting up enough for them to use it in the story as much as I do.
    Okay, to what degree do you use the setting? Or in other words, if a player says something completely wrong about the setting, 1, how much does it bother you, 2, who decides that it's wrong?

    If Aspects are close to what you want, I submit that a player getting the setting "right" is actually a fairly low bar for you. You are willing to give up your vision of the setting and go with what another player at the table creates. You aren't attached to your version of the setting as much as you think you are. This means you actually have to teach very little - the "dealbreakers", as it were. (Of course collaboration is not guaranteed to give you, or any of your collaborators, a satisfying result, but it can, and it's easy.)
  • edited April 2010
    Because I've seen contradictions from other people at the table really break down the contributions you get from others, I try not to say anything, but the truth of the matter is, it often does bother me when someone throws out a wrong detail. So:
    1. More than I generally let on.
    2. Really, whoever knows enough about the setting to catch the mistake.
    I've been looking at Aspects in my Chronica Feudalis campaign, where I tried to distill as much of the setting as I could into short statements which I could write on index cards and leave in the middle of the table like Minutiae in Shock:. I didn't see the players coming up with a lot of Declarations of their own, so in our game it mostly served as a means of establishing setting details.

    As much as I like this kind of approach, I'm still not entirely satisfied—hence starting this thread. After all, if I felt that Aspects really did everything I wanted, I wouldn't be interested in other techniques, then, would I? But it seems like a good start. I also had this LiveJournal entry from Ken Hite playing with the back of my brain, which I finally remembered enough details from to Google up a link for. He talks about using lifepaths, Lore Sheets from Weapons of the Gods, and random encounter tables as means of sharing big, detailed settings. I'm interested in what else might be out there. I'm not so convinced anymore that fidelity to a setting and player input has to be mutually exclusive.
  • Posted By: jasonI'm not so convinced anymore that fidelity to a setting and player input has to be mutually exclusive.
    Well, a setting is just a setting, when you're focusing on story, even a historical setting. When you say "fidelity to a setting", what you mean from a story gaming point of view is consistency with an established vision. It might be your vision, or the vision of another creator (here I am thinking of Tolkein's histories, or Turtledove's), but somehow in order to get that fidelity, you have to get them to see the elements of the vision that you want to be established. You can't telepathically get them to do the right thing - you have to communicate it somehow. Visually, textually, audibly, through tactile means (food? perfume?) At any rate there just aren't any shortcuts for that. If you have a great deal of detail without which you are dissatisfied with play, in order to get satisfied you have to get that great deal of detail across somehow, and it has to be outside of the play you want to be satisfied with. I say embrace it. Some of the best historical RPG experiences I've had have been with history aficionados. It's an incredibly rich experience when more than one person at the table has access to a large volume of knowledge about the setting. But they had to read a book first.
  • Unless you have players who are self-motivated to learn the history of the Middle-Realms (see what I did there...Middle-earth...Forgotten Realms) there is really only one thing to do:

    The details of the world have to matter to the player and the best way to do that is to connect the character to those details. The player will ask questions about the masked lords of Waterdeep when it is their character's job to guard them, secret-service style. The player will care about the dunedain when they are the bastard sons and daughters of the lineage whose bloodlines have been dismissed by the elves as too watered down to be of any use.

    Both minutiae and aspects are created collaboratively and through play, I don't see how they relate to playing a highly detailed published setting. In order for a detailed setting to matter, it has to be relevant to the players and relevance is related through their characters. If you don't want the players contributing details that don't fit, either give yourself veto powers over their input or don't allow it at all.
  • Posted By: jasonWhat are some other ways to break up lots of detailed setting information and introduce them in play, in a way that's actually fun, instead of the old, long-winded lecture?
    I'm still of the opinion that the most successful methods do their work prior to play. This especially includes the big daddy of all big detailed settings: the Real World.

    This could be anything from reading the 300+ novels set in Forgotten Realms, to watching (possibly as a group) the Star Wars or LotR movies, to collecting newspaper clippings for a couple weeks.

    As far as the collaborative world-building approach goes, I'm not convinced that it's generally feasible to produce sufficient word-count in a reasonable amount of time that gets anywhere near what I'd consider a big detailed setting.



    Cheers,
    Roger
  • I've been in Jason's place many times. I want to play a game set in the Middle Realms (or what have you), and everyone says "ok, cool", but no one is nearly as stoked about the Middle Realms as me. Maybe one other dude has the Player's Guide to the Middle Realms or has read the 'Last Adventures of Haldithir, Dark-Cloaked Ranger Lord of the Middle Realms' trade paperback.

    There was lots of good advice in JDCorley's bigtastic setting thread. But I think the best piece is "There's no shortcuts".

    I'm starting a Mouse Guard game at the moment. Two of players had never read the Mouse Guard comics, so we encouraged them to pick one up, and I brought along my copies to loan out. Now we're all on the same page in terms of basic setting info and expectations. ("Oh, ok, it's not really like Redwall at all. Now I get it.")

    If no one is interested in the setting enough to read a book or comic or a lore-sheet handout or watch a movie, maybe this group isn't up for that setting.
  • Or, you make characters who don't know anything about the world and allow the players to discover all of these details and historical tidbits that you so love at the same time that their characters do.

    And learning them in play, learning what their characters need to know in order to survive and flourish, they'll care about the details.

    That said, they probably still won't care about the grove, where the great armies of man stopped marching so Isildur could take an epic shit.
  • Posted By: JuddThat said, they probably still won't care about the grove, where the great armies of man stopped marching so Isildur could take an epic shit.
    You're right - in all seriousness, only introducing setting elements through the eyes of previously-ignorant characters loses a BIG part of fun of a detailed setting, dramatic irony and connection/identification with something cool. Azincourt is a million times better as a shady meeting place between crime syndicates because of what happened there before.
  • edited April 2010
    I'm just trying to narrow down techniques here.

    So far I've got:
    • Let 'em come in ignorant and tie setting elements to their character.

    • Their characters are as green and new as they are, so they learn together.

    • They read the book(s).
    What else?
  • Posted By: JuddWhat else?
    How about just telling them as it becomes relevant and their character could reasonably be expected to know?

    I mean, hell, Trail of Cthulhu is built on just plain giving players info, right? Why not apply the same concept to other sorts of character knowledge?
  • Posted By: komradebobHow about just telling them as it becomes relevant and their character could reasonably be expected to know?
    In a lot of games I've been a part of, this conversation happens:

    Player: So I'm gonna do X.

    GM: Oh...uh...well, you wouldn't do X because of setting element Y.

    (Result 1) Player: Oh. Um....can I do Z? Or Q?

    (Result 2) Player: Well, if I had known that, I wouldn't have spent the whole session setting up X! (sulk)

    (Result 3) Player: I'm doing X anyway.
    GM: OK, but you know that doing that will incur all these consequences....
    Player: screw it, I'm doing X.

    ---

    In 1, the GM has suddenly been recast as the gate-keeper of appropriate actions. The player becomes hesitent about doing stuff, in case he runs up into "stuff he wouldn't do".

    In 2, the player is pissed off because he wasted a bunch of play time. It's not really the GM's "fault", as he's not a mind-reader, but to the player, he suddenly got blocked, and it's not that he thinks the GM is wrong or out to get him, but he would have liked to know that information beforehand so he could not have wasted the time...you see the circular problem here, right?

    In 3, the player is all "fuck you" to the sense of setting fidelity that the GM and, perhaps, other players are grooving on.

    I've been in all of these positions, as GM and as a player! The problem is that when the GM feels info is appropriate isn't always aligned with when the players think the info is appropriate, and so on. As a player in these kinds of situations, I become the eternal questioner in order to try and head this kind of stuff off, but that's not always a great solution.
  • Judd: I think it's also been suggested that that group starts tabula rasa and builds the big detailed setting through play.
  • Posted By: RogerJudd: I think it's also been suggested that that group startstabula rasaand builds the big detailed setting through play.
    I love that but it feels like the polar opposite of playing with a big published setting with a word-count and an ISBN number, taking up beloved space on one's gaming shelf.

    Man, starting from scratch is my bread and buttah but I'm not going there because it doesn't feel like it is what Jason is getting at. The techniques he chooses to highlight as inspirations are made for that kind of thing but I dunno.
  • Posted By: JuddThey read the book(s).
    Well, this isn't the entirety of the third option. They might read a Loresheet (that's a cool name for it), they might just have a brief setting discussion session, and so on, depending on how much is absolutely necessary, how much is absolutely the "deal-breaker", beyond which messing it up would mess up the story effect that the setting is meant to have. If the whole book is a deal-breaker, i.e. if they get ANYTHING wrong, someone's satisfaction or a relevant story effect will be ruined, then they have to read the book.
  • edited April 2010
    Creating setting through play: Maybe Jason will clarify for us. Still, for the purposes of list compilation, I'd throw it on.

    I'm not sure if this counts or not, but I feel like there's also some sort of "Look it up when we get to it" option that I've seen in play.
  • Jason, this is your thread and I am wondering where you want this to go?

    Could you (or anyone) name an instance of play where a big setting was on the table and it was a fun experience? What made that setting text fun for you all?

    What connection do you see between Shock:'s minutiae and FATE's Aspects and big settings?
  • Posted By: ndpIn 1, the GM has suddenly been recast as the gate-keeper of appropriate actions. The player becomes hesitent about doing stuff, in case he runs up into "stuff he wouldn't do".
    Nathan,

    It's not always the GM. Sometimes it's another player at the table saying, "X doesn't happen in the Forgotten Realms!" This seems to be constructive denial stuff, Simulationism stuff, and this is the bread and butter for lots of groups. Because when you get it right, everyone is around the table nodding and smiling, because of fidelity of setting or whatever.
  • Adam - oh, yeh, totally. All of those scenarios are the "bad side" of that particular coin. It's totally possible and cool that someone says "You can't do that! Royalty have people who touch them beheaded!" and the players all "Oh, right, uh...I just wink, instead!"

    But I've been in the situation where everything I try to do is wrong due to something in the setting (offends someone, "wouldn't be done", whatever), and it's really frustrating!
  • Posted By: JDCorleyYou can't telepathically get them to do the right thing - you have to communicate it somehow. Visually, textually, audibly, through tactile means (food? perfume?) At any rate there just aren't any shortcuts for that.
    Yes, absolutely. I'm interested in what some of the other means might be. Reading assignments and lectures I'm familiar with, and not entirely satisfied with. I'm interested in what other techniques we might be able to use at the table to communicate that.
    Posted By: JuddBoth minutiae and aspects are created collaboratively and through play, I don't see how they relate to playing a highly detailed published setting.
    Have you seen Human Contact? I wouldn't compare it in volume to Forgotten Realms (at least, not yet!), but you've got two small books full of setting details now. It basically works like Minutiae already on the table when play starts. In our last Chronica Feudalis campaign, I did the same with some Aspects that consolidated some of the highlights of the setting.
    Posted By: JuddOr, you make characters who don't know anything about the world and allow the players to discover all of these details and historical tidbits that you so love at the same time that their characters do.
    I'm doing this with a Werewolf: The Forsaken game I'm running right now. It doesn't have as much detail as some settings, but enough that we might run into trouble. Basically, I broke the major setting themes into major topics, and then planned a chapter around each one. So far, it's worked out pretty well.
    Posted By: JuddWhat else?
    That's what I'm interested in! So far, my favorites include:
    1. Having a bunch of Minutiae or Aspects to start off with.
    2. Random encounter tables
    3. Stuff like "Lore Sheets" from Weapons of the Gods
    4. Lifepaths
    I got the idea for #1 from Human Contact, and it's given me a good start in my Chronica Feudalis campaign. It works well for my post-Roman Britain setting, because there's not a whole lot of history that we know for sure. So, I want to make sure I establish those things that we do know for sure, but I'm not too worried about other players adding new things, since, once I've set up what we do know, there's so much that we don't know about the period that it's very unlikely that they'll suggest something that's just flat-out impossible.

    I got #2-5 from the aforementioned LJ that Ken Hite posted.
    Posted By: komradebobHow about just telling them as it becomes relevant and their character could reasonably be expected to know?
    You certainly can do that, but it kills some great opportunities. A few years back, I tried to run a Legend of the Five Rings game. It didn't go too well. I tried to come up with this one-sheet of basic Japanese etiquette. After all, a lot of the game here lies in the veiled subtleties, and you can't be very subtle unless you know the rules. I wanted stuff like putting your sword on the wrong side when you sit down to signal that you didn't trust the guy, rather than just the player forgetting that detail, or using "-san" to insult someone, not just because you forgot that you were supposed to call him "-sama."

    Now, yes, I could have just introduced those details as they came up. That would have avoided the general discontent that brought the game down (my brother still sometimes refers to that campaign by saying, "Oh yeah, the one where you gave us all that homework?"), but it would have meant that all the subtle interactions came from NPC's doing subtle things towards the PC's. It would never be something that the PC's could do. That seems like a missed opportunity to me.

    Also, what Nathan said.
    Posted By: JuddMan, starting from scratch is my bread and buttah but I'm not going there because it doesn't feel like it is what Jason is getting at. The techniques he chooses to highlight as inspirations are made for that kind of thing but I dunno.
    I love collaborative setting creation, too, and I play lots of games that way. I'm just wondering if that love has exiled me from the established setting I loved in a previous life forever, or if some clever techniques might help to draw players into a big, detailed setting.
    Posted By: JuddJason, this is your thread and I am wondering where you want this to go?
    I'm interested in the techniques people use at the table to communicate a big, detailed setting in a way that's fun.
    Posted By: JuddCould you (or anyone) name an instance of play where a big setting was on the table and it was a fun experience? What made that setting text fun for you all?
    I think it remains more theoretical for me than real. Story games were once pretty theoretical for me, too, so that doesn't scare me off too much. But in my own experience, the big, detailed setting has mostly been "lonely fun" for me as the GM in between sessions. Players have typically not cared much. My last D&D campaign was ostensibly set in the Forgotten Realms, but "Realmslore" came up so infrequently that it really could have happened anywhere. The players didn't know the setting and had little interest in learning it, and while we did have fun, the story felt like it took place in a void at times. It had little connection to history or traditions beyond what the PC's did, and I think this had a lot to do with the PC's knowledge of the setting. They didn't know it, so they couldn't use it to their advantage. I agree very much with what you said, making it relevant to a character seems pretty key to getting them interested. I'm planning a new D&D campaign where one of them plays a swordmage of Myth Drannor. Now, suddenly, he's asking me for links to read up on the history of Myth Drannor! So I suppose you could really look at it as what kind of techniques can help make setting bits relevant to a character. Minutiae and Aspects make them relevant to a character, because those bits turn setting facts into resources that players can use. The things Ken Hite wrote about—lifepaths, random encounter tables, and "Lore Sheets"—do much the same thing. So what else is out there? What other techniques do we have to (1) break up a big, detailed setting into digestible bits, and (2) turn those bits into things relevant to characters and fun for players?
    Posted By: Adam DrayIt's not always the GM. Sometimes it's another player at the table saying, "X doesn't happen in the Forgotten Realms!" This seems to be constructive denial stuff, Simulationism stuff, and this is the bread and butter for lots of groups. Because when you get it right, everyone is around the table nodding and smiling, because of fidelity of setting or whatever.
    Well, in between that last D&D game I ran and the one I'm preparing to start this Saturday, my brother ran one set in Eberron. And while no one cared much about Forgotten Realms, we do have a big Eberron fanboy. While I'm sure some tables would have found the corrections fun and engaging, I just found the constant shut-down and negation stifling and aggravating, every bit as much as if it had come from the GM. Obviously, this relates a lot to how you play, what you expect out of play, and all that. I love affirmative, collaborative play, that "Yes, and" kind of play. Negation is incredibly toxic to that. But I'm also a huge nerd, so I appreciate a lot of detail and getting a setting "right." Not too long ago, I would've just accepted that those two things were mutually exclusive and simply dealt with it. But indie/story games have taught me that a lot of the things I once gave up on as impossible aren't nearly so impossible, so now you've got me thinking about the ways that we can have a collaborative play experience and still stay true to a big, detailed setting.
  • I think I'm saying that it comes down to creative agenda. If everyone is on the same page about fidelity to setting, then the game will probably rock. If some care about fidelity and others are hand-wavy about it but really just want gripping moral issues with setting important but in the back seat, you might have agenda clashes.

    I do understand that you are searching for techniques to raise the importance of setting, but I don't think you're trying to make it primary. Right?
  • You could always look at IAWA. The setting here lies spread out in little chunks across the oracle. Or how about looking at Ganakagok for inspiration. The setting here lies hidden away in the cards and come out at certain times. The less you imply and the more concrete bits of information you stash away for future use the more control of setting in the game. Im pretty sure you can make a game that utilizes something like this to create an internally logical setting "behind screen" to pull from when necessary.
  • In the past, I've worked more on getting the players to understand a new setting using working principles rather than facts, per se. Like lines versus points. For example, in a medieval Europe game, I provided the following "lines" to the players, bits geared entirely at establishing setting flavor in a way that could inspire the players to extrapolate their own details. I introduced more subtle details and political "points" during play as needed, tying them to cues that asked for a player response: "The bishop enters, and everyone around you drops to one knee and bows their heads. Some people fold their hands in prayer. What do you do?"

    The Lines:

    - The only illumination at night is firelight or moonlight. Period. Night is DARK. If you don't have candles, torches, lanterns, or enough moon in the sky, it's pitch-black.

    - Unless it's a Roman road, roads are dirt. Dusty in the summer, muddy in winter, often with deep ruts. City streets are pretty much the same, except with more chamber pot filth.

    - Your birth nails your social status, which is viewed almost like belonging to different species. In general, the filthier and more poorly dressed you are, the lower your station, and vice versa. Almost nobody can rise above their station. Lots of stereotyping is based on class, so go wild doing it.

    - Nobles and those of rank can get away with a lot. Because they're better than you. Or just because.

    - People drink a lot of beer, because beer (and wine) is safer to drink than water.

    - Horse crap everywhere. Lots of animals live in very close proximity to people.

    - Coin is for merchants and nobles. Got a chicken? Barter for those new shoes.

    ...and etc. The point was to give the players a few telling details that worked as principles to extrapolate the rest of the world. If you're willing to cue them when the subtle points come up, playing with a little bit at a time, and even reinforcing your subtle thing mechanically (reverently touching the hem of that holy man's robe gives you a bonus on your next roll, maybe), I think you can get quite a bit across. It depends on how much you're willing and able to convey in play as opposed to a priori prep.
  • Posted By: jason
    A few years back, I tried to run aLegend of the Five Ringsgame. It didn't go too well. I tried to come up with this one-sheet of basic Japanese etiquette. After all, a lot of the game here lies in the veiled subtleties, and you can't be very subtle unless you know the rules. I wanted stuff like putting your sword on the wrong side when you sit down to signal that you didn't trust the guy, rather than just the player forgetting that detail, or using "-san" to insult someone, not just because you forgot that you were supposed to call him "-sama."
    I think this may go to what Adam is saying about conflicting agendas.

    I have been in that exact situation with D&D Oriental Adventures. The players who loved James Clavell's 'Shogun' as much as me were totally into all those samurai details, and the ones who weren't were frustrated because they didn't know or care about that stuff. Which, in turn, frustrated the enthusiasts because my god, your worthless ronin can't turn his back on the emperor what is WRONG with you?!?!

    Except a sheet of details about that etiquette doesn't work so well. Like your brother said, it feels like homework.

    What you need, I think, is to play THAT game with only the people who dig 'Shogun' (or whatever). And if your group isn't that group, then your enthusiasm for the genre or setting is probably not enough to make the game work.

    I don't mean to sound defeatist! Learning to put down a setting or game that no one else is into is a hard lesson, and one I have not fully learned.
  • edited April 2010
    To be more positive, another vote for lifepaths being a great way to communicate important setting details. Burning Wheel and Storming the Wizard's Tower are both awesome for this.

    Players DO want to take in setting information when it directly affects their characters.
  • edited April 2010
    In long term Ars Magica campaigns I was in that became deeply detailed, each person took a region or group to flesh out. We used the skeleton of the AM world, and then peopled it with mages, dukes etc. that we had created and cared about. Working out the maps helped us figure out what was needed and who else could be there (eg "how many Covenants are there around here? Well, we've got two neighbors or so, one might be down by this swamp, the other in this major city...")

    Depending on how long the players are interested in committing for, you can do *a lot* over time.
  • Yeah, what Emily says. We're doing exactly this in the Operapunk game. What I didn't mention is that we're using Wave as a collaboration tool. So far it's working really well. Everyone is shining their individual spotlight on different areas of interest, or asking questions about the contributions of others to get clarity or make suggestions.
  • Posted By: Brian Minter
    I have been in thatexact situationwith D&D Oriental Adventures. The players who loved James Clavell's 'Shogun' as much as me were totally into all those samurai details, and the ones who weren't were frustrated because they didn't know or care about that stuff. Which, in turn, frustrated the enthusiasts because my god, your worthless ronin can't turn his back on the emperor what is WRONG with you?!?!
    I would be so tempted to have the "in" players play samurai, and the folks who are less interested play "outsiders", unfamiliar with the culture.

    Actually, that sounds like it could be a cool game.
  • Posted By: jason
    Having a bunch of Minutiae or Aspects to start off with.
    Random encounter tables
    Stuff like "Lore Sheets" from Weapons of the Gods
    Lifepaths
    OK, brass tacks: Things you can implement to make the setting palatable. Your list here is solid. I'd say that Brennan T invented a new one (or at least, I haven't seen it done quite that way before) in "How We Came to Live Here". Its a dirty hippie game about collective setting-creation while at the same time exploring the Anastazi culture... without having to read volumes of it to get started.

    Now, stop me if I'm misremembering (I looked at Jason's copy and was impressed, will eventually score my own), but you basically have what can be called "Culture Classes". It's like a character class for your character that sets them in some "cultural group" of the tribe: Hunters, gatherers, potters, weavers, stuff like that. They are socially interesting and these cultures have huge weight in the setting. Anyway, these cultural classes have levels, and to advance to the next level (1-6 or so?) your character has to do certain things or have certain experiences.

    It is an awesome way to divide a setting into bite-sized chunks, teaching a culture (here realisic, but fantastical works just as well) in easy to swallow bits that are tied directly to the character, and doing so in a way that comes up throughout play, unlike "just at character generation" (like Lifepaths and Loresheets).

    Keith, I think you mentioned that Lifepaths were an awesome way to present setting. Personally, I think most implementations are just as overwhelming as Loresheets in WOTG were. I like the tightness of these cultural groups from Brennan's HWCTLH, the fact that you don't sit there for hours pondering which lifepaths or loresheets to take, rather you choose one based on a summary, and in reading the class you not only know your place in the culture and the setting, you see what you can do to be a more important or renown member of that culture.

    -Andy
  • I like sound of that.

    I always wondered about those "class/level names" in D&D, like where if you reached 8th level as a Fighter you should be referred to as a Myrmidon, and a 14th-level (or whatever) Magic-User was an Arch-Mage.

    It makes a whole lot more sense if you say:

    "If you want to become an Arch-Mage, you must pass the Trial of Beelzebub in front of the Council of Arch-Mages. Do you want that 14th level, or not?"

    Cool.
  • Posted By: Paul T."If you want to become an Arch-Mage, you must pass the Trial of Beelzebub in front of the Council of Arch-Mages. Do you want that 14th level, or not?"
    Some of this was built in to AD&D Second Edition, most explicitly with the druid class and the weird stuff one had to do to become hierophant or whatever. Less overt were things like fighters gaining followers and building strongholds. If one looks for it, the idea is there, but I agree a hard, classes-wide implementation of something like this would be cool.
  • Posted By: AndyNow, stop me if I'm misremembering (I looked at Jason's copy and was impressed, will eventually score my own), but you basically have what can be called "Culture Classes". It's like a character class for your character that sets them in some "cultural group" of the tribe: Hunters, gatherers, potters, weavers, stuff like that. They are socially interesting and these cultures have huge weight in the setting. Anyway, these cultural classes have levels, and to advance to the next level (1-6 or so?) your character has to do certain things or have certain experiences.
    The kiva societies? Yeah, those looked awesome! How We Came to Live Here is pretty high up on my "desperately must play!" list.
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