System and Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes up a game the past few weeks, thanks to my intended change in gaming habits. It’s got me examining that age-old balance in RPGs – system and setting. As I examine games that I might like to run, I look at both aspects, and I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two.

So, for the purpose of clarity in the following article, let me lay out my definitions:

System is the combination of mechanics that allow the modeling of the game world in play.

Setting is the fictional world of the game, including the campaign world and all the assumptions that go into it.

Essentially, I’m saying that the system is the set of tools that allow you to participate in the setting. Forgotten Realms is a setting, and D&D 4E is the system you use to play there.

We good? Good.

As I look at games to play, I’m struck by the observation that games tend to fall into two camps with regards to system and setting. One camp ties the system and the setting tightly together, so that the system reinforces the feel of the setting, and the setting pulls the necessary system elements into the game. Here, I’m thinking of games like Unknown Armies, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Polaris.

The other camp tends to divorce system from setting, so that the system can handle pretty much any aspect of any setting, and the setting uses only those aspects of the system that it needs to. Games in this category are things like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, and d20 Modern. Now, I’ve chosen those three games specifically because they are at the extreme of this camp – they are essentially generic systems.

There seem to be real advantages to both ways of doing things. In the first group, you have games that are very rich in flavour, mood, and theme by default. You can feel the postmodern horror in Unknown Armies everytime you have to make a terrible sacrifice to power your magic. You feel the desperation and lurking insanity everytime you count up the dice colours in Don’t Rest Your Head. You feel the doomed fate of your characters with everything you do in Polaris. This is stuff that’s really lacking in the other camp without building a lot of specialist mechanics in, which, of course, moves you more into this category.

On the other side of the street, you tend to get systems that fade out of the spotlight and let you concentrate on the roleplaying. You can adapt the systems quickly and easily to pretty much anything you want to do, and your players won’t have to learn a new set of rules. This gives a fair bit of flexibility, and can emphasize the storytelling aspects of what you’re doing. But it can also limit the ability to mechanically implement creative ideas, both as a GM and as a player, that may require separate mechanics to produce.

Let’s look at an example I’ve currently been working on. I’m starting an episodic Hunter: The Vigil game, but I involved the players in the worldbuilding part of setting the game up. The result of that was a world where a lot of the specialized H:TV systems didn’t fit anymore. So, I developed a new framework for granting minor supernatural powers and/or special abilities to the characters, one that I planned to be fairly loose and rules-light. I wound up having to create different mechanics for about twenty different things that the players wanted to be able to do. This game of H:TV isn’t going to much resemble the default play style put forward in the book.

Now, that’s not bad, and that’s not necessarily good, but it involved a fair bit of effort on my part and negotiation with the players. It also illustrates both categories of game I cited above: World of Darkness is fairly setting-light, building a more generic system at the sacrifice of specificity of setting. the Hunter: The Vigil book provides specialized mechanics to integrate more closely with the setting. I wound up stripping several of those specific examples away and building new ones based on the generic stuff.

What’s my point?

My point is that I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to run a number of one-shots over the next several months. Some are specific tightly-bound system-and-setting games, while some are just ideas that I need to put a system to. My buddy Clint put together a great three-shot game using OpenQuest, but he had to build some specific mechanics in to make the game do what he wanted. I’m not sure that the system is robust enough, or models things in the right ways, for some of the setting ideas I have. Another great generic system I like, FATE, could handle some ideas better, but I find it to walk a very fine balance between rules-heavy and rules-light – combat, specifically, doesn’t always have the tactical feel that many of my players like, and many settings would benefit from. And for the games where I’ve already got a system, there’s the problem of getting the group to learn the new rules.

So, anyone out there got any suggestions or comments? If you were going to run a game based on the movie The Prophecy, for example, what would you use?

We’re All In This Together

**Warning** The following post is a lot more rambling than a lot of my other posts. Caveat Lector.

Lately, I’ve become enamoured of co-operative world-building for games.

As an idea, anyway.

I’ve been reading Mortal Coil, and listening to the That’s How We Roll podcasts about building the setting for Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints. When my friend Clint started his new D&D campaign, he threw it open for the players to create chunks of the setting. And that was fun.

My long-running D&D campaign is wrapping up next weekend, and another game I run is going to be wrapping up in a few (3-4) months, so I’m starting to think about the next game. And I’m toying with the idea of building the world collaboratively.

I’m torn, though.

Here are the pros, as far as I’m concerned:

  • Real buy-in from the characters. If they make something up, they’re going to care about it.
  • Ideas I could never have come up with. Other people are going to think of things I never would have, and that’s going to create a world with a different flavour than I would have on my own.
  • It shows me, as GM, where the players want the focus of the game far better than just getting them to tell me.
  • The players will have a better knowledge of the world they created than if I create something on my own and expect them to read it. ‘Cause I know that some of them won’t.

Here are the cons:

  • I’ve got to live with the results, even if I don’t like them.
  • Fewer surprises for the players.
  • Players need to make a bigger up-front investment of participation than they may be used to. They have to want to do it.
  • Some may create more than others.
  • I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

In the middle is the question of verisimilitude: Which way makes the most real-feeling setting? The one with the single, unified vision or the one with the wider range of input? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I probably won’t until after I try the collaborative method. Maybe not even then.

Different approaches address the issues in different ways. Mortal Coil uses a co-operative set-up of a Theme Document to set the generalities, and then a chip-buy process in game to add facts during play. With the resource-based way to add facts, it means that each player has the same ability to influence the world, and those who jump in first wind up with less ability to jump in later.

The question method used in the Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints makes sure that each player (including the GM) is forced to contribute a certain amount. This gets everyone’s input, but it can put some players on the spot, and it means that certain players may not want to take part.

In my friend’s game, he threw out a large number of pieces that we could take and flesh out, if we wanted, and provided some rewards to encourage us to do so. This led to pretty much everyone doing at least a little creation centred around our characters, though some did more and some did less.

I think that it’s fairly necessary to come to a collaborative session with a foundation to build from; Mortal Coil builds this with the Theme Document, while in the other two examples, the GM brought the basics and others embellished. Clint had a much more solid world built, leaving a number of niches to the players, while the Evil Hat folks had much less of a filled-in structure to start with.

Of course, depending on the rules set you use, you may find some of the particulars of the setting dictated by the rules. If you’re building for D&D, you either fit in all the D&D stuff, or you have to explain why it’s not there to (or with) the players. A more open rules set, like FATE or Mortal Coil, lets you build the rest of the game on top of the setting, without having to worry so much about that.

I’m greatly enamoured of the Mortal Coil world-building, but I absolutely hate the resolution mechanic. If I were to marry the world design with FATE, possibly using FATE points in place of Magic Tokens, it might work. The one downside to the Mortal Coil world system is that it’s hard, really hard, for the GM to prep anything before the setting building, because there’s nothing to work with yet.

On the other hand, if you design too much of the setting, and the campaign story, before hand, it limits the meaningful input for the players. So, another dichotomy to resolve.

We did some collaborative setting building in our DFRPG playtest, producing Magical Winnipeg. It was quite a success, though we did it mostly by e-mail, with me collating and parsing all the input.

We’ve also really embraced collaborative character creation, in pretty much all our games, to make sure the character types work well together, and decide why we’re together, and to help each other with our ideas and concepts.

I realize that the right way to create a campaign is whatever way produces a fun game. I know I can build the standard kind of campaign and have it work. Now, I’m toying with the idea of building a collaborative setting to see how that works out.

I dunno, though.

Any input from you folks would be welcome. What do you find good/bad about collaborative setting design? What methods do you use? How much of a foundation do you start with? What rules sets do you game with? How does it work, or not? Talk to me.

Dresden Fluff

I’ve talked a fair bit about the rules aspect of the Dresden Files RPG that we’ve seen. We’ve also had a look at some of the setting and world bits. I haven’t brought them up before now because I’ve been concentrating on the other pieces. Now I’ve got a little downtime until after the supernatural characters are created, so I want to use it to talk about the setting material.


One of the first chunks they sent us was what they’ve been planning to use as the first chapter. It’s called Harry’s World, and it’s a pretty nice overview of the main conceits of the setting, the big players, and the overarching background. It is, in fact, about all you would normally get in a chapter on setting in a lot of other games.

On its own, it’s good. It stands as a solid introduction that lets you understand the rest of the book. It lays out the mindset of the game very nicely, covering a variety of topics. Magic is real. Most people don’t believe in it. Monsters are out there. Some people know about them. Wizards. Shapechangers. Faeries. Vampires. All that sort of thing.

Nothing gets a very detailed rundown – they’re saving that for the later chapters – but really, you’ve got pretty much everything you need right here. If this were the only setting material in the book, you’d be wishing for a little bit more, but you’d be pretty satisfied overall, given how easy it is to build stuff in the system.

The next setting chapter is Who’s Who, and it comes along later in the book, after most of the crunch. It is an encyclopaedic (and I use that word in its fullest meaning) list of all the important characters from the Dresden books. And not just the ones that appear – both Harry’s parents are in there, along with Justin DuMorne and Heinrich Kemmler. There’s a description of each, varying in length based on how much information we get in the books, along with running commentary that adds color and sidebars that talk about using the various characters in the game.

If you haven’t read the books, this chapter is full of spoilers. Be warned.

It also looks like each of the entries is going to get a stat block, but I can’t swear to that. Even without the stat blocks, this chapter is packed with useful stuff for running the game, and is a great source for character concepts. They even suggest a Carpenter Kids campaign, playing the children of Michael and Charity Carpenter, that sounds like it would be a lot of fun, even if only as a one-shot.

Beyond the obvious utility of this chapter, there’s another benefit. It shows very nicely the different types of people at large in the Dresdenverse, what their motivations and goals are, and the sorts of stories they generate. Just flipping through it should give GMs ample inspiration for setting up encounters, adventures, and entire campaigns.

And then we’re on to the last fluff chapter we’ve received, called Goes Bump. This is the monster section, for lack of a better name. It lists the various classes of supernatural creature out there, from Angels to Zombies, with a description of each type, breakdown of subtypes, and comments and references for everything.

This section will have stat blocks, though the version we got didn’t have them yet. Gotta nail the system down before you start using it to stat things.

Again, the length of each entry varies, based on information in the books. Angels get less than a page in the playtest version, while Demons get a little over four, and Vampires get close to eight.

It’s not just monsters that get listed here, though. This is also the place to find stats for incidental mortals, like police officers or EMTs or minor practitioners, for you to throw in as NPCs on the fly. It’s a toolbox for putting together encounters and adventures, filled with the stats you need for the job and the commentary and description to help you figure out how best to use them.

Now, page counts don’t mean a whole lot at this stage of the project, but the overall count for the fluff sections so far is 256. What that means is that this is going to be a big, meaty book when it’s done, brimming over with neat stuff for the game.

I can hardly wait.