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Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without?

Poll Results (voting in this poll has ended)
Setting all the way!
0% 0 votes
Just the rules, please!
100% 2 votes
TOTAL 100% 2 votes
Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 6, 2013 6:34 PM (edited 9/6/13 2:34 PM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
So I was thinking about this the other day and after running an extremely lengthy Exalted game, and wondering what game I will run the next time my turn to run comes up (several years from now, but still), it occurred to me that while I personally love RPGs that come with a setting (e.g. most White Wolf products), many people might prefer a generic ruleset with a setting the DM made up. What do you think?

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I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo
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Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): No. Dowd. Shhhhhh...
Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): Matt just won. It's all over.
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 6, 2013 6:59 PM (edited 9/6/13 2:59 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I can see a lot of arguments for both sides, but in the end I have to lean towards rules only. The tipping point for me is having players know the setting, for two reasons. First, if only some players know it, that can cause conflict between players who do and don't, and second, if the players and the DM have a different interpretation of the setting, that can cause problems too.

Of course, making your own setting is a ton of work, so I hesitate to call it a requirement. The best-case scenario, I think, is having the DM and only the DM know the (pre-made) setting. (Alternately, if everyone knows it and is on the same page, that's great, but it's hard to achieve.)

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There is no Mythril Sword in Elfheim
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 6, 2013 7:43 PM (edited 9/6/13 3:43 PM)
Cuzzdog (1522 posts) Head of Gamer Corner R&D
Rating: Not Rated
I personally like just the rules. Having most of the other players know the extensive history of Exalted Land (I think that's the continent's name, I never got around to learning it) as well as the major list of cast of characters alienated me from all those session. I felt like most of those sessions went like this for me:

DM: Ok, you guys stroll into town when who should appear before you but his sir honorable excellency, Lord Fruffypants!
Other players in hushed whispers: Lord Fruffypants! Oh my god! I can't believe the DM is bringing in Lord Fruffypants! This is so exciting!
Me: Err... ok. I... go talk to him?
Other players: Psh... you don't just go talk to Lord Fruffypants Cuzzo. What are you? A moron? Everyone knows that! Talk to Lord Fruffypants. Can you believe this guy everyone??

Which bring me to my second negative point about pre-made settings; metagaming. It becomes almost impossible to prevent metagaming when everyone at the table knows the history of the world. I feel like this is a lose/lose situation here. If you have some players who don't want to know the full background of the world, then they become alientated and it becomes easy for the DM to lose them. But even if you have all the players on same page, and everyone gets fully read up on the situation, it then becomes extremely difficult for the DM to pull out surprises that utilize the setting. Of course, the DM could just prevent this by ignoring the premade setting and coming up with his own stuff, but then what did you really gain by having the premade setting in the first place?

Whenever I DM, I try to go for an organically grown setting. Start with something small and generic that everyone can relate to and then let the world build itself out from there as the group goes along. This way the DM and the players share the onus of coming up with a world and in the end everyone can feel satisfied in having a hand at what was built.

Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 6, 2013 8:04 PM (edited 9/6/13 4:04 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I would also add that players often seem to like the process of discovering things about the world. Having an existing setting can sometimes lead players out of the defined setting areas for this reason, which again kind of defeats the purpose.

Cuzzo touches on a big problem I have with Exalted specifically: the powerful NPCs. I see a lot of upside to having a setting, but I feel like having particularly noteworthy NPCs is all downside. Plots often end up centered around them even if they shouldn't be, and it makes it difficult to introduce equivalently powerful antagonists who aren't them. I think a generalized setting without explicit characters, especially those with extreme combat prowess, is a lot easier sell for the players.

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There is no Mythril Sword in Elfheim
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 6, 2013 10:08 PM (edited 9/6/13 6:08 PM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
Hmmm.

Well, I don't really want to let this turn into a defense or excuse of Exalted . . . I'm definitely aware of the fact that the Exalted games I ran for you guys (c. 2006?) had some pretty major flaws. Among other things I think that I failed to introduce characters in a way that made it clear that Lord Fruffypants was important, and conveying the scale of power levels is a particular issue with Exalted that I still struggle with, though I have improved at.

I think at some level, for me, the draw to a system that comes with a setting is that I don't particularly want to have to generate a whole world. Though I do have a habit of taking the setting materials and twisting them in some way.

I think there are a couple of nuances here that are part of the issue:

1) I think there's a difference between running a plot in a setting and running a plot about the setting. A lot of the plots that me and Steve ran for our group were about the setting - they hinged on fairly nuanced setting knowledge and then inserted some sort of Metaphysical Mystery (use of the Realm Defense Grid for me, bizarre group of immortals living in the Wyld for Steve).

The first two parts of the trilogy I ran for my group didn't really hinge on you knowing anything about the setting. The first story was a basic coming into power story, which I think did a great job of introducing the characters to the basics of the setting. The second story was a story about defending their home against an unknown aggressor. Both of these worked just fine - they got introduced to people and places both in the setting material and of my own invention, but because they never needed more than a surface level understanding of any of this, and functionally didn't know the difference between them.

But the third arc is now once again focused on a pretty specific bit of setting knowledge. My last session consisted of pretty much handing the reasoning behind this to them on a platter. Hopefully what it results in is a task list that they understand and can follow (and do so in their own way), regardless of whether or not they retain the setting knowledge that was dropped on them. But there's a point at which I can't help but feel that this might be the least accessible of the three stories because it's the most alien.

2) Sometimes I wonder how much of the issue is that it's easy to get sloppy while DMing a system that comes with a setting. It's easier to just assume that people know something, whereas if you're running something you made from scratch then you know the onus is on you to convey all the relevant pieces of information.

This is actually something I probably want to improve upon as a GM in general - being clear about what information I need to convey to the players in an explicit fashion and how it gets there. I'd also like to improve on how I frame scenes in general, and make it feel a bit crisper, not like the scenes just run into each other without shape.

3) Not sure this ties in or is just a distinction I like to make, but I think there's a difference between a setting nobody knows, a setting some people know, and a setting everyone knows. I think I include the DM in this group on equal footing with the players, though I realize that might be a bit counter-intuitive. But realistically I think there is a big issue with playing a setting only some people know (I agree with all the comments above). Still, settings everyone is familiar with - for example, Star Wars - make for a very different type of play than settings that some or no people are familiar with. Or for that matter a World of Darkness game which is functionally set in the real world, but with magic elements.

_________________________________________________
I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo
________________________________________
Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): No. Dowd. Shhhhhh...
Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): Matt just won. It's all over.
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 7, 2013 1:21 AM (edited 9/6/13 9:21 PM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I don't want this to just be a referendum on Exalted's setting either. So let's look at some other stuff!

In D&D, I don't recall setting ever really coming up. I personally avoided Forgotten Realms specifically because it was well-known (and also because that meant less books to buy!), and I suspect an FR campaign comes fraught with the same issues as Exalted. I only really tried to explicitly run in Greyhawk once, and it really just provided flavor, which is fine.

The biggest example I can think of of me trying to run something in a setting was Wheel of Time. Now, that game had a lot of potential, and none of the players were familiar with the source material, but I don't think it could ever have actually succeeded. The whole plot was just hunting down major characters in a series of boss fights anyway.

Then there is of course my own setting, which worked in a number of campaigns. I think the main reason it worked was because it was sort of in the vein of Greyhawk: it had a map and some generally defined regions and such, but that was basically it. The specifics beyond borders were mostly made up for the campaigns and/or filled in based on what players did. Though I should mention there was that one time I tried to run it for you guys and you immediately latched onto the greater world map and decided to explore the continents I hadn't defined, despite knowing nothing about the ones I had. That's what prompted the exploration comments, above.

I am not sure, but another thing that may have helped with my setting was that it had a pretty rich history, but it was just that - history. Like the big mage order had a defined past, but it didn't really affect its present except to explain how it got there. I think a big problem with all of the known settings is that you usually know too much about the present or future when you play in them.

I haven't played Star Wars, but it always felt like it would have the same issues as Wheel of Time did for me personally - every plot seems to relate to or tangentially follow things from the core material. I personally find this totally lame. If people have good setting familiarity and are willing, you can certainly get past this, but it's not trivial. I feel like in WoT's case you're going to gravitate towards following Rand around on his adventures or setting a campaign in Seanchan or Shara, neither of which seems like a very fun idea. But just setting a campaign in a known location (say, Tear) and using what we know of that place from the books could work really well. In the case of Star Wars, I think you'd probably want to make some new planets. Then again, even Lucas can't resist revisiting Tattooine over and over and over. (I'm sure the Two Rivers ends up the same way in a lot of WoT campaigns.)

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There is no Mythril Sword in Elfheim
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 9, 2013 9:01 PM (edited 9/9/13 5:01 PM)
Cuzzdog (1522 posts) Head of Gamer Corner R&D
Rating: Not Rated
I guess if you really want to nitpick (and when have we ever not wanted to nitpick??) the real question here isn't a matter of setting vs no setting, it's how much setting is there? You could say that even basic D&D comes with a setting; it's Tolkien Land. So to me, there is a big difference between playing Star Wars, the generic place where the magic system is the Jedi system with well known alien types, and Star Wars Episode 4 A New Hope where you're a rebel pilot backing up Luke in his Death Star run.

Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 9, 2013 9:01 PM (edited 9/9/13 5:01 PM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
Well, I think your setting is kind of outside the question I'm asking, since it's a setting invented by you. So, by default, the DM knew all about the setting and the players knew functionally nothing, which is really pretty similar to someone making up their own campaign setting. In your case I feel like the difference was in the degree of rigor behind the setting. Maybe also to the way the rules were built for the magic system? I don't recall that part very specifically.

You point about pre-made settings meaning you know too much about the present and the future strikes me as pretty accurate in identifying the problem. And yet, realistically, shouldn't their characters have knowledge of the present already? (Knowledge of the future is a whole other can of worms). I mean, honestly, for three characters who grew up in Nexus, it makes sense that they know who the Emissary is, and who the 7th Legion ambassador is, in the same way that I recognize Bloomberg as the Mayor and Joe Lhota as the dude who kept popping up and saying that the subway, while totally screwed, was less screwed than it could have been after hurricane Sandy.

Star Wars is a weird case because I think it would actually be relatively easy to avoid the events of the movies, but I think it's impossible to avoid the feel of the movies. I can tell a thousand stories about being a smuggler with a non-human sidekick escaping from a Hutt crimelord, all of which take place on planets other than Tattoine. But I'm not sure I can tell a story that doesn't seem to be referencing Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt every five seconds. Granted, the title of the book is "Star Wars: Edge of the Empire" and is specifically dealing with the criminal element, but still, with an entire galaxy at war there surely must be some other issues creating a chance of adventure? The extra weird part here is that my group seems to default to forming their own criminal empire wherever they go, and I suspect that the SW:EotE themes would actually be perfect for us. I could certainly see a story in which the players get caught between warring criminal elements and end up ending/taking over one or both of those groups.

But does it ruin things to know that somewhere Luke is jumping out of the Sarlaac pit with lightsaber swinging? That it's impossible to have the most epic plotline? Or do we just do an alternative timeline? Maybe Luke allies with Vader in an attempt to turn him and gets turned in kind? Lots of options there, and the kind of galaxy-spanning news that the players could hear about at a bar and would signal to them that this isn't the Star Wars galaxy that they know.



_________________________________________________
I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo
________________________________________
Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): No. Dowd. Shhhhhh...
Cuzzdog (3:57 PM): Matt just won. It's all over.
Re: Tabletop RPGs: With Setting or Without? – September 10, 2013 1:26 PM (edited 9/10/13 9:26 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
My setting was actually used mostly for generic D&D, without any rules changes to account for the magic system. I ran a custom rule set (based on WoT to a degree) in the oft-referenced Jim and Tozzi campaign, and maybe for one other, but the setting was actually pretty divorced from the magic system. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing, setting-wise.

I think the problem with knowing the present in a setting is that it doesn't change. Sure, we know that Bloomberg is the mayor of New York, but that fact is a.) not going to be true in the near future and b.) unlikely to have any impact on our lives. I think when you're playing Epic Heroes(TM), the standards change. Knowing who the king is can be nice flavor text, if it doesn't really matter, or it can be an annoying constraint, if kings in your setting are also super powerful beings you'll almost certainly come into conflict with.

The larger issue is that if you know a few specifics, you tend to latch onto those. There are presumably tiers and tiers of powerful beings to tangle with in Exalted, yet every conflict seems to end up centering on one of about a dozen of them that are all predefined. Likewise with Star Wars, people want to reference what they know. It's not hard to think outside the box, but no one seems to want to.

Incidentally, isn't KOTOR held up as a great Star Wars spinoff plot? That's a game set so far chronologically from the movies that its effectively in its own world. I would guess that's not a coincidence.

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There is no Mythril Sword in Elfheim
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