Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

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. []

8 responses to “Whither setting?”

  1. James Mendez Hodes Avatar
    James Mendez Hodes

    Dogs in the Vineyard is actually my favorite implied setting, even though so much about it is explicit. Does it count as explicit? I’m not sure, I just love reading it, what little it is.

    1. Right, I love the setting as expressed in Dogs in the Vineyard. It’s stated, sure. But he leaves a lot of room for you to go in there. Mostly, what he states, are suggestive details, not exhaustive historical accounts. You’ll note that there’s nothing about the origin of the Faith, no NPCs or locations named except Bridal Falls, and just a lot of “these are the dreams I had about this place”.

  2. There’s plenty of implied setting in Exalted. It’s just that nobody bothered to tell the guys writing the Compass books this. Also, it’s a bit *too* implied to the point of vague unhelpfulness. As a result, there are a million cool setting pieces tied together with essentially nothing. 

    For instance, instead of “anyone loyal to the Warlord Grum” we have “creatures of darkness,” which is actually “anyone marked as an enemy by the Unconquered Sun, who is not actually infallible.” Not that you’d know those are equivalent unless you read the god books, the Glories sourcebook, or hung around the forums for a million years. 

    Likewise, the thematic distinctions and conflicts between the Dragon-blooded and the Solars, encoded in their mechanics and Charmset, are enough to fill several books and games–or would be if the stated setting actually backed up the implied setting without wandering off to do its own thing.

    1. First, as I said, YMMV.

      Second, it’s not implied setting if you fail to imply it. That, really, is where the varying mileage comes from. For me, if you just gave me the charms and crunch, I’d have no clue about the setting. With World of Darkness, if you just gave me the powers and crunch, I’d be able to make sense of a lot. Some of that has to do with being primed through other media, I’m sure, but a lot of it comes from the setting being expressed through the crunch—non-power crunch, especially.

      1. I don’t really think you can use an anectodotal experience to define whether or not something counts as “implied.” 

        Here’s why: if something fails at its implication, then it might just be that instead of some fundamental design conflict or mechanical failure, there’s an organization or layout problem… which is also a major issue in Exalted.  

  3. I think that while you raise your points well (and you’re onto something) ultimately what you are terming ‘implied setting’ is just context.  WoD uses the context of ‘modern day’ and Jane Austen novels use ‘Regency’ context.  In that sense the details exist regardless of the specifics of which vampire runs what city, or who was the prime minister of England.

    A fantasy setting (any fantasy setting) has to set up context with specifics since we cannot relate to the world from our own exhaustive histories, studies or other examples.  This becomes harder the further removed from the scenario we are (for example the excellent Mechanical Dream changes even base assumptions such as Gravity is constant, and down, or water boils at 100 degrees C, but it means any assumptions about a scene are very hard to establish without concrete statements from the narrator), especially if there are no famous novels or other more broadly painted pictures to draw from.

    A truly calcified setting as I see it is something that not only locks regions or history, but forces a specific path even in the future.  Playing in a Saga (Star Wars) game for example means that you’re stuck in a setting where your actions cannot change the future.  This doesn’t necessarily limit a GMs creativity, but often takes the ‘heroic’ or ‘epic’ out of player actions to a degree.  The most common solution/response I’ve seen to this is to simply avoid canon areas except for a few excursions.  Groups will invent a town using demonstrated models in some vast an unexplored region, or detail and flesh out a city/planet/galaxy/time-period that is not touched upon.  This way they gain the flexibility (a breath of the ‘living’) you mention, while still having the framework of the more calcified sections of the game. 

    Ultimately though I don’t think all calcification is bad.  The group I play with most often has more problems coming up with rich, interwoven characters if they are building from nothing (as they have nothing to build from, and nothing to inspire them) but do better with some setting background with details they can latch onto as a start point.

    It’s interesting to try and figure out how much calcification is too little (no context or reference), and how much is too much (outright telling, additions forbidden).  As always, this as with your Exalted example no doubt varies highly from group to group.

    1. I’m glad to hear a defense of a calcified setting. Being me, I’d chose to interpret it as “well, you throw out the provided calcified setting and make your own”, but I must resist that urge, because I think it’s not true to say that. You use the calcified setting to help you make your own when your story lives somewhere near-but-not-in canon.

      As to implied setting, I do not think it’s context. Sure, context is part of it, but it’s also very specific detail provided not through exposition but rather through implication in (typically) mechanical elements of the game.