Whither setting?

John and I were talking recently about Exalted, a game that Austin has a deep and complex relationship with, that I have never cared for or about. I was trying to hash out what my problems with it were, and we stumbled on something I think is interesting. What follows may be rambling.

Other people have talked about implied setting before, notably Ryan Macklin. The short version is that there are two ways to communicate the setting of your game to the potential players: one, stated setting, is by outright telling it to them (“The Order of the Basilisk was formed in 1132 by the archmage Rowan Farlight, to counter the forces of the warlord Grum…”) and the other, implied setting, is by hinting at it through bits of the game’s content (“Spell: the Basilisk’s Eye. When you cast this spell, anyone loyal to the warlord Grum glows with a faint aura visible only to you…”).

What I want to talk about, though, is a distinction that is related, but different: the distinction between living setting and calcified setting. ETA: by living setting, I mean setting that is amenable to addition, typically through play. By calcified setting, I mean setting that has a definite canonical form that does not admit of change.

While there’s room to argue over when and how to use stated and implied setting, I think it’s pretty clearly the case that, between living and calcified setting, living is strictly to be preferred.1 A calcified setting may be fun to make, but it doesn’t allow other people—players, if you’re a GM, or people who buy your game, if you’re a designer—to come in and muck around. You’ve got to give people room to get their hands dirty if they’re going to make something cool.

The question then becomes when is a setting calcified? Obviously, the answer to this varies between games and people. Many people love Exalted in a way I do not think I can ever fully understand. So, bearing in mind that your milage may, indeed, vary, I will use the contrast between Exalted and World of Darkness (old and new) to try to make my point.

I, generally speaking, don’t like stated setting. It feels like it’s set in stone without giving me the opportunity to contribute, and contribution really helps me buy in. Every game has some stated setting, and if there’s little enough, I’m able to take it, absorb it, and do what I will with it. World of Darkness, which I have had a long and fruitful relationship with, has some stated setting, for example. But I’ve historically ignored almost all of the stated setting. The game’s setting is, for me, living, because I’m able to ignore the stated setting and throw in details as I wish. But I find that, with Exalted, there’s little enough implied setting that if I throw out the stated setting, I’m left with nothing. The implied setting doesn’t carry me through.

There’s another dimension to this issue, and that is chronology. This is of particular interest to me as I work on a game set in a very particular historical period, Et in Arcadia Ego. Many games with a lot of stated setting carry a lot of defined chronology with them, too. This really calcifies things, to me. Either you can’t change anything big about the world, because events, and with them people and places, are set in stone, or you just toss the chronology, and are left with dead weight in the book you bought.2

So, in my World of Darkness games, we went for an abstract “modern day”, without worrying about the particular year. I think that this is an achievable aim for Et in Arcadia Ego, too. Jane Austen certainly set her books in a generic “late-Georgian/Regency” period. The only thing you can gather about the historical period and geopolitical events is, usually, that England is at war, presumably with Bonaparte. There’s a strong temptation to throw in lots of historical detail, but I think that would only engender what Robert Bohl called “history panic“. Enough cultural detail that it feels like the period, sure. But does it matter who was Prime Minister? Does it matter whether the Old Price Riots are going on in London? If this game were as pointedly historical as Grey Ranks, yes, it would. But it is not. The intent is to evoke a period, not an event.

How do I do this? Implied setting. But the setting I have to imply includes things like the rules of introduction and the fact that it’s not done to ask the same partner to dance more than two sets in a row. I want to make lines in the dirt that remind the players to act in the way that characters in Regency stories act. I think that the biggest risk is that I make a game like A Taste for Murder. While it’s a great game for a mystery, it’s a bit thin on historical feeling; nothing about the game reminds you to play and act like an interwar Briton. I want to have a game that reminds you that you’re playing characters in Regency England, but doesn’t just tell you that.

  1. If you think otherwise, I’d love to hear your reasons. []
  2. Note, if the inability to change history is relevant, as in Grey Ranks, this doesn’t become a problem. The inexorability of history is a considered and important part of the game. []