Settings in RPG Design: On Carts and Horses

I’ve noticed that many other amateur game designers I’ve talked to focus heavily on the setting of their game, often getting into minuate of architecture and fashion before even considering fundamental design concerns such as Character Advancement. This isn’t particularly surprising when you look at some of the older generation of RPG and compare the number of pages in a core book spend on detailing the setting versus explaining the rules. I’ve always thought this putting of setting before mechanics had a lot to do with the origins of many game designers: former Game Masters (“GMs”) who wanted to tweak their favorite system to be more in line with the sorts of games they wanted to run. My personal preference has been to make a solid system first that can work well in a variety of settings but a recent experience while designing Days of Blood & Chrome has caused me to examine this belief in-depth.

I started making Days of Blood & Chrome after reading a thread on the Giant in the Playground Forum in which the original poster was looking for a Real Robot RPG and nobody could help him find one. For those who don’t want to risk getting sucked into TV Tropes, “Real Robot” refers to a genre of Anime in which the giant humanoid robots are treated as “realistically” as is possible: they are deployed as infantry, built by corporations and militaries, and fight wars within their physical capabilities. I said “realistically as is possible” because giant robots any larger than a very tall man are amongst the least practical military vehicles imaginable. There have been treatises written on the subject but the easiest way to frame the complaint is “why not tanks?” Practically any technology that would permit giant robots to fight on a battlefield could be more efficiently deployed on a tank chassis and there are few, if any, terrains in which a tank (or other traditional vehicle) would not outmaneuver a giant robot. Faced with these concerns I decided to follow in the footsteps of the great creators of Real Robot Anime and tried to come up with a setting where giant robots could “realistically” dominate the battlefield.

My initial draft was comprehensive, but unsatisfying. I proposed a special “Longshot Field” that would nullify long ranged sensors and weapons while permitting visual tracking and combat. These Fields, for unspecified reasons, only functioned on roughly humanoid frames and their battlefield advantage (along with superior “smart” weapons and anti-personnel munitions) made them the primary combatant on the battlefield. This style of minimalist setting design is how I’ve approached my games thus far – Four-Color Heroes, for example, has a default setting that is no more specific than “superheroes and supervillains exists.” In Four-Color Heroes this approach is advantageous because the superhero genre is broad enough to encompass everything from Golden and Silver Age Superman to the Dark Knight Returns with some odder off-shoots in-between. By keeping the setting details minimal I allow anyone who picks up the system to write their own setting and run the game they want without tripping over unnecessary setting details (e.g. TSR D&D’s ban on Dwarven Wizards).

Yet, my “Longshot Field” explanation felt lacking. For an ostensibly Hard Sci-Fi game, what explanation could I give for the Field being so peculiarly limited? Even though I had come up with it, it sounded suspiciously like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan‘s reasoning that Spiral Energy is best channelled through a humanoid form resulting in absurd (but entertaining!) results such as a walking battleship and spaceships that transformed into galaxy-sized robots. In short, an explanation that enabled but did not explain. So, like any good Netizens, I took my ideas to the Internet and asked for analysis.

And did I ever get it. By the 3rd page of the thread I was convinced that my simple “Longshot Field” fix wasn’t going to be enough for Days of Blood & Chrome so I put together a different and far more detailed setting. Not only did I feel better about the setting being more detailed, but the reaction from the thread was much more positive. There is some truth in the idea that a good setting can sell a game (I, for one, adore Shadowrun even though actually running the system is a headache) but I hadn’t seen it in practice for one of my own creations.

Now, this doesn’t mean I would go back and make a “core setting” for the games that don’t need more detailed settings but it was a good reminder as to the power of settings. That said, too many “big name” games on the market today are all-setting and no (or crappy) rules. To any amateur game designers reading my blog: if all you’ve got is a setting, write a book instead. It’s very hard for a single designer to produce as rich or compelling a setting on their own as a big company and still have time to make a good game. That said, don’t neglect the core setting of your game if your rules or concept need the support. There’s a balance, to be sure, but I’d say most amateur game designers spend far more time on their setting than is necessary and their mechanics suffer as a result.

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