Setting - considering depth of detail and evocative detail as separate issues?

edited April 2006 in Story Games
I've split this off from Generic American Settings; hope no-one minds me reposting my comment from there.

I'm suggesting looking at written setting content (perhaps I should be calling this colour - the stuff within your game environment) as falling somewhere on two axes. These are the level or depth of detail, and another factor that I'm muddling between calling evocative detail and idiosyncratic detail. Talking will hopefully show what I think I mean.

With these 2 axes, rather than seeing games in terms of generic to detailed - in my opinion too coarse to capture important possibilities - you have four possible poles, with games falling within the limits they offer.

1. Detail Low, Idiosyncracy Low: Generic setting. Setting emerges from what the players bring to the table, but without guidance or a firm vision there may be a risk of tending to the lowest common denominator - safe options that are less likely to clash with the game, and that everyone has a good grasp on (because of their ubiquity in culture). However, a group confident with the game system and with their own vision are going to be able to wrap it around this fairly straightforwardly, as there is little 'getting in the way'.
2. Detail Low, Idiosyncracy High: I would put Dogs in this category: lots is left unsaid, but you have elements (coats, ceremony, mormonism) that are very evocative, and so interact with individual and group schemas to produce an emergent sense of setting, directed to some extent by those elements. But these elements suppress some possible settings just as they offer up others, and this may dismay some who find it difficult to play as these elements (in this instance, more due to mormons than to coats, based on internet chatter) get in the way of where they want to go.
3. Detail High, Idiosyncracy Low: Concerned mainly with the mapping out of relationships between setting elements, in terms of distances, partnerships, and so on, to give some kind of predictable framework; the kind of work that John Kim has said he likes to be provided with by a game setting (hence I imagine one such setting might be Harn).
4. Detail High, Idiosyncracy High: Concerned mainly with throwing crazy ideas at the reader to get the juice flowing, as well as the mapping provided by the previous. Possibly something like Exalted? I dunno. Anything that provided me with the stuff that I got from reading China Mieville, say - a million tit-bits that left me wanting to know more.

I notice now that my poles aren't truly poles; I'm sure that someone could come up with a setting that expressed almost no facts but was incredibly evocative in what it did give you. But hopefully you get the drift.

People will prefer some approaches over others for certain games. I would prefer a generic setting for a supers game because I have a palette of super-stuff that I want to smear this way and that. A spacefaring game, I want some ideas, but once you get me started I'll be happy riffing off of them. The third option is less my taste, but would make sense where the characters were very compelling and I wanted a complex structure for them to explore and alter. The fourth I would probably read and then use the snippets that most jazzed me, zooming into the bits that I thought were cool. My current short-duration gaming taste shapes these preferences to a large extent. Possibly other people will have a single flavour that they always go for.

Does this gel with how other people see things? If you think so, is there a case for one method consistently working better than others, say for a specific creative agenda or type of genre? Is it firmly down to individual differences?

While I think formal setting/situation creation mechanics are really cool (and I'm trying to monkey around with sitch creation for my own design) I'd be really happy to leave them aside for this thread and focus on how the setting as written is contributing to the players - to their imagined space, the urgency of stories, the richness of characters, the space to play.

[edited to tidy up.]


  • I'm sure that someone could come up with a setting that expressed almost no facts but was incredibly evocative in what it did give you.

    I don't see how this is possible. The details presented are the medium for whatever evocation you are attempting.

    Alex, I think you're pointing at the difference between good writing (details that are evocative of the setting) and bad writing (details that lifeless minutiae).
  • I think you may have something here, Alex--namely, that you can define a setting by how evocative it is and how much detail accompanies that evocativeness. I tend to agree with Joshua tha low evocation (esp. joined with high detail) is just bad writing, but there are definitely cases where I would soften that estimation.

    There has been a fair amount of posting on the Wizards of the Coast website (I think in their game design log) on the issue of detail to player enjoyment during play, which leads me to postulate something like this (quick and dirty):

    If you are working with a high detail setting, the best time for the players to absorb its details are outside of play, that players get the most enjoyment in play when they can assume the details and just work with the evocative elements in play. Quick, evocative descriptions work best.

    If you are working with a low detail setting, I think it is more important that the players come to the table with a 'feel' for the evocative elements. Again, with this 'feel' in hand, they can sketch out the details for themselves when you give them brief evocations in play.

    I suspect the lower the detail, the better a high evocative element--because you will need the players to be more active in participating. For games that lack a strong GM, the low detail high evocation may be ideal, providing players with a lot of fodder for inspiration.
  • [nb cross-posting with lsbo - I'll read your comment in a mo, but I might get called up to make dinner soon and want to respond to Josh beforehand]

    Josh, re: your first comment - I'm imagining a setting that contained almost purely a sense of things, in the most abstracted way - the landscape is like despair; death is considered a mercy. Instantly gets you thinking, but gives you more a mood to riff of. But I won't labour this - I just wanted to clarify that I don't think Dogs is the extreme of light setting - there is a lot of solid stuff in there about the faith and its structure.

    I originally thought the issue might have been one of bad writing, but I think that's not necessarily so.
    I think my axis is poorly named, and I'm going to switch to using provocative, in its sense of tending to provoke or stimulate- as it suits what I'm trying to get at better. For one thing, non-provocative content can still be interesting - it can still be evocative.

    I'm thinking that a setting low in provocation might be smart writing. For a generic, details light setting, it can keep out of the way and allow a more open space for people to play in. When you combine this with a heavier set of detail, the outcome shifts somewhat - the space is necessarily less open, because of all these pesky facts; the options now are to use it as found, as a framework, or to subvert and undermine it.

    Both these types of setting are less likely to shake whole new ideas out of you - they don't contain well posed, provoking questions - but let you come in with your own ideas, or let you produce ideas by subverting the norms.

    The other possibility is to ensure that your content provokes. It says 'here is this thing, awesome and unusual. What does this make you feel?' It should ideally be something impossible to ignore in the setting. Because it asks questions, it demands the players to supply answers - but the very posing of the question shapes things in some ways.

    I agree that this is to some extent a matter of writing. After all, a feature of setting can seem very provocative, in the right hands, or generic in another, depending on the priority the writer gives it and the way it is presented. But non-provocative content needn't be due to failure by a writer; it could be a deliberate choice.

    I'm increasingly realising that I'm (badly) channeling John Kim for much of this, and I feel like I'm defending a preference that I don't myself have - as I said, I'm currently into short games with less detail in the box. Nevertheless, does this account seem at all persuasive? To my mind, the high-detail low provocation category does currently seem less relevant, but I do think that provocative content, while my preference, is doing something that not everyone wants from a setting.
  • Both these types of setting are less likely to shake whole new ideas out of you - they don't contain well posed, provoking questions - but let you come in with your own ideas, or let you produce ideas by subverting the norms.

    Alex, half of FLFS is written as a flag-waving jingoistic celebration of imperialism. I fully expect players to subvert the hell out of those norms and have seen that happen in playtest. Writing out the "norms" of the fictional world or the genre is basically just an invitation to subvert them. That's what norms are for. ;)
  • I think there's a good deal of in-game presentation that can change how this is viewed by players as well. If you hand out a 30 page packet to someone that they have to learn before they can be engaged in the setting (in any way - deconstructionist or celebrational or whatever), that's going to produce a very different play experience from if you spend some time introducing little pieces of the setting here and there. (Video games do this a lot - in Grand Theft Auto, you get a precis on driving when you get into a vehicle...then you get a shooting mission...then you get a stealth mission...and so on, through each of the skills you need to develop to proceed in the game.)
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