February 21, 2014
The All-Important Setting
Nothing defines a campaign more than its setting. When you decide to run a game, this is usually the very first thing you think of and it will define all the decision both the Gamemaster and the players will make. It helps determine what sorts of characters are going to be played, what sorts of antagonists the characters are going to face, and even the overall theme of the game. As a Gamemaster, the setting is in may ways your character. Just as the players mold their characters into what they want them to be, this is what you have the freedom to do with the setting. Just as players might try to defy conventions with their characters, so too can you defy conventions with the setting. Every single thing you decide to do with the setting will have far-reaching impacts on your game, molding it into something unique and all your own.
Imagine you have decided to play in a “standard” fantasy setting with elves, magic, and dragons, all those things players have come to expect out of a fantasy-themed game like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons. Sure, you can leave it as is, as basic J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired fantasy, or you can change it up to make it your own. For example, say you just watched a documentary on World War II and decided to try and carry over some of the themes of that era into your fantasy game. In this fantasy kingdom you are going to set your game, you make it a human supremacist community where non-humans are distrusted or outright despised. At best they are treated like second-class citizens, at worst they disappear into the night as the elite guard come to their door and are never seen from again. There, that one change has altered the entire theme of the game from being fantasy to what many would consider the genre of “dark” fantasy. The more you add to this, the better. What are the elite guard? Are they men and women who are entirely loyal to the King, or are they themselves a mystery? Perhaps they are demonic spirits bound into armor, or animated constructs created to serve his will, or maybe the will of a trusted adviser who has their own plans for what this kingdom could be. See how easy it is for your imagination to take flight with the setting? Keep going. What other sorts of interesting story elements can you come up with?
In my experience, I have seen three general ways of thinking involving the setting. The first, which is likely the most common, is to use a preexisting setting for your game, often the “canon” world of the game you are playing. This includes Gaia from Anima: Beyond Fantasy, Dragon Age’s Thedas, the post-Awakened world of 2075 in Shadowrun, and countless others. This is a great option because it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you in terms of design and often your players will have a very clear understanding of the setting as well. The second option is the predefine option where you build your setting entirely from scratch, just as we did with the dark fantasy based on World War II era Germany above. With this option, you need to have something prepared for your players to introduce them into your world so they have some knowledge of it when designing their characters. Finally, there is the “build as you go” option in which your setting gets fleshed out as you play the game. Games like this often start out feeling very generic, but as you go they do tend to take on a life of their own in a very natural feeling way, which is a great advantage to this method. Which is best? Well, that is up to you and your players.
Setting can often get overlooked by both Gamemasters and players. It should not. Take the time to flesh out the setting of your game and I promise that you will find it to cause a notable, positive difference.
As always, thanks for reading and I wish you all good gaming.
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