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.

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The most fascinating thing happened to me after a few years of playing World of Darkness. Over time, I began to hate combat. Like fire-in-the-soul, singing the world-ripper melody of vengeful dead gods level of hate. I took my katana and trenchcoat and just hung them up in my dingy undercity apartment, never to look at them again. I was hesitant to give it up at first, mystified as I was by this development, but my loathing grew stronger and purer with every minute we spent killing some asshole’s mooks.

After a time, I realized that there was a genre clash. When playing Mage, a game about transcendence and the malleability of reality itself, I found I was really just playing a super hero in a setting that was mechanically unfit for it. When playing Vampire, I had the same problem. The game’s fiction was laden with these cool ideas and highfalutin concepts, but somehow we spent hours just trying to hurt some guys with our katanas and Desert Eagles. Where was all that intellectual conflict? From what I’ve heard of a lot of WoD games, this is not uncommon. Part of this problem is rooted in a confusion within the source material—at no point in Mage: the Ascension are we told what Mages do with their time. The War is over, the Technocracy won by any meaningful definition of the word, and the spirit realm is basically off-limits. Ascension is not a goal that has a mechanic, or is even explicitly attainable. And if it was attainable, ἀρετή, the stat governing your Ascension, was utterly opaque, meant to be a kind of platonic-ideal-world understanding of the entire universe-as-a-whole that was impossible to play. Combine that with the still-extant threat of the Mage-Hunting Technocracy and you have a cocktail for aimless HITMark kill quests and zombie-survival-but-with-magic games.

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