Story and Setting

Hmm, I was reading Trollsmyth’s post today, and it led back to a storygames thread that is handwringing over  “can setting be good in a storygame?”  I would have thought “duh, yes,” as in other genres a well realized fictional world is a powerful tool in creating an interesting story, but apparently opinons are mixed.  People are worried about the need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting, and of contravening “canon.”

A couple thoughts on that.  First thought is David Mamet’s rant from yesterday about  HOW you present story information in a way people care about – via the drama, not via infodump.

Some folks in the thread mention doing helpful setting summaries; I recently saw a cool one in PowerPoint for Paizo’s Golarion.

But I have a more fundamental observation.  You don’t NEED to give them all those loads of info.

a) What does a local yokel (the prospective first level character one is to depict) in a semi-medieval land know about history 100 years ago, let alone detailed ancient history?  Nothing.  Tell them about their hovel and the immediate political concerns it has.  Most people know this.

b) Canon is crap.  It is non-binding.  If the PCs haven’t experienced it in game, it doesn’t exist.  If they go into a hex and you tell them it’s farmland and later you read a supplement and there’s a lizardman camp there instead – who cares?  Are the RPG police going to bust in through your windows and tell you “you did it wrong?”  This may be a PARTIALLY legitimate concern with a game world based on well known IP like Star Wars, but really, get over it.  Even in that case, you just tell the players at game start “look, this is MY instance of the Star Wars world – things may differ from canon and your actions may alter official history.  P.S. There’s no Ewoks.  Yay!”

c) Don’t info dump.  Go read Mamet again.  Players don’t listen and don’t remember.  Show, don’t tell, and make the showing part of the drama.

Here’s an example.  In my Reavers game recently, the PCs came to a new island, town, and noble manor house they were casing out and infiltrating.  It was from a scenario (Green Ronin’s Mansion of Shadows) that had all kinds of setting detail.  Did I just up and tell it to the PCs?  No.  They discovered what they discovered as part of their actions.  It was very helpful to me to have the detail there, so that I wasn’t having to make stuff up all the time when they decided to go bust down a random door, but I was neither tied to it nor did I need to tell them about anything they didn’t personally see, fight, screw, or pee on.

And that works.  During the climactic battle, the PCs remembered a minor setting detail – one of the noble women had a key that let them in through a small door in the inner defensive wall, allowing them to flank the defenders.  Why did they remember that?   Because one of the PCs was snuck through that door by the noble woman so they could go bang.

There was a town, with all kinds of location descriptions.  I didn’t give them a map or explanations of locations they didn’t go to.    Places they went and interacted with, they went back and interacted with again and formed relationships, plots, etc.  It works in a dungeon, in a town, in a country, in a world.

  1. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Don’t just show, involve in the drama.

There is also a lot of concern about “players that know more about the setting than another.”  My response: so?

Do people that know more about history in the real world have some kind of advantage over other people besides a vaguely smug feeling of superiority?  No.  In a group of adventurers, so what if one guy knows all about thirty gods and the other one doesn’t?  Either he’s a helpful information resource (good), or a know-it-all twerp that introduces dramatic conflict (also good).   I guess sometimes other players get some kind of inferiority complex if someone else knows more?  Well, handle it just like the real world – have your character beat theirs up.  That’s a bit tongue in cheek but maybe I’m just not relating well to the concerns of the “there should be no GM, just the players making the world up as they go” crowd.

Anyway, JDCorley has a lot of good posts in the storygames thread, check ’em out.

6 responses to “Story and Setting

  1. Couldn’t agree more, particularly with (b). My Rogue Trader game is based on my understanding of 40K, with a bit of Marvel Comics, a bit of WFRP, and a dash of Call of Cthulhu. It is similar to Games Workshop’s official setting, but the details differ. Of course, the oiks on the forums wail and gnash about it not being “canon”. Tough. My players enjoy it, and that’s all that counts.

  2. While I agree over do / “show” in play instead of infodump, I don’t think the advice should be followed too closely.

    One problem with Mamet’s advice is RPGs are much less visual than TV, and much more like radio instead. Generally as a GM you have to speak, and can’t rely on visual cues. So you pretty much have to have NPCs talking about other NPCs or PCs.

    Agree very much so on canon being non-binding. Existing setting material is there for you to plunder as needed only. To spark creativity. Nothing more.

    • No, it’s exactly the same. As a screenwriter, you don’t have real visuals – you just write down what the visuals would be. As a GM, you don’t have real visuals, but you describe them to the players. Just because it doesn’t end up on the screen invalidates “show don’t tell” in no way – it is just as applicable to novels.

      Describing courtiers sneering as the general walks by instead of having someone tell the PCs “the courtiers think they’re above the general” is the equivalency.

  3. Someone also pointed out a few years ago that during the listing of treasure in a hoard is a good time to sprinkle in some setting info as well, since you almost always have everyone’s undivided attention. Also, players will then use that history to justify why their character should get that particular piece of treasure, leading them to incorporate the setting’s background into their own characters.

    Thanks for the link! 🙂

    • Sure enough! And that’s a great point, it does call for detail work. Like I’m sure most of us have watched the “making of” the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fimmakers didn’t want to go the “read the Silmarillon at us” route, so instead put in all kinds of little details in the weapon design, set design, etc. Nobody needed a lengthy description of Moria, they just saw that Gandalf the Grey was shitting himself at the thought of going there.

  4. The ‘100 years ago’ guideline is a pretty reasonable one. I’m also using the ‘long-distance travel is rare’ guideline. Together, these ensure that the small amount of information I dumped at the beginning of the game is relevant, and liable to stay relevant for most of the game.

    So the players know the name of the valley’s big town, and they know the name of the village they’re in. They know the name of the larger kingdom and its capital, and they vaguely know what’s north and south of this kingdom, though not much in either direction. And that’s all they know, because that’s roughly all their characters would know, given the limited physical and temporal range of the average person’s day-to-day interests.

    As setting details and places and NPCs become relevant, they’re presented in the game itself. If the knight orders of the kingdom to the north of the starting location become game-relevant, they’ll show up at that point, not before, and the players’ lack of knowledge about them will be completely appropriate and in-character.

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