Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Who Gives a S**t?" A Meditation on Setting Design

Tons of people are doing settings, but that is kinda hard for me to wrap my head around. I love GURPS content, I love spells, powers, advantages, builds, encounters, adventures, but for me, a setting is kind of a deeply personal thing.
-Benjamin Gauronskas, Let's GURPS
Yes, that is the second time I've used that quote, but I think it's an important one.  It highlights a truth: Settings often aren't useful to people precisely because they are so personal.  A GM discussing his favorite, homebrew setting is often about as engrossing for the audience as a player discussing his favorite character.  In part, this is because settings need to be experienced.  What makes Star Wars fun is that you're there, watching the ships explode and the lightsabers clash.  What doesn't work is watching a couple of nerds sit around discussing the importance of the Bendu Priests in the founding of the Jedi Order.

The problem here is that we need to be able to connect with a setting, and we'll only do that if it's useful to us.  I've avoided going deeply into setting with Psi Wars because, for the most part, it won't be useful to you.  I get it: Most of you who are reading this are doing so to see how I build a campaign, or to rip off some rule idea I have, or because you're bored and want to read GURPS stuff. The majority of my audience will never run a Psi-Wars game.  That doesn't mean nobody will, but if I want to my blog posts to be as universally useful as possible, I need to make my posts useful to a broad audience: the casual reader, the inspiration-seeker, the crunch-head, and the psi-wars fan, and thus my posts have so far been generic and very meta.

The same principle must apply, itself, to setting design.  To make our setting interesting, we have to connect with our audience, and to connect with our audience, we must understand their needs, why they might be interested in a setting.  We also need to understand what a setting is. So, before I get into building any setting material, let's stop to consider the point of a setting, and who our audience is.

Setting: What is it Good For?

Context.  It's good for Context.

Everyone who's studied literature knows that all literature have four bits: Character, Plot, Theme and Setting.  Setting is usually an after thought: it's the stage in which everything else takes place.  It's "not as important as" characters, who perform the action, plot, the action that happens.  However, I would argue that this misses the point of what setting really does, which is to provide context.  A story about two lovers whose parents disapprove of their love has a very different context in Renaissance Verona than in the Antebellum American South.  

Setting puts us in a specific time and place, and that carries with it all the context that we might associate with that.  If you're a woman in some fanciful fairy-tale medieval world, you could be a princess, or you might "rebel against conventions" and be a knight, but you could not be a scientist (though perhaps an alchemist!).  The setting determines what you can be, and what that means.  For example, the idea that a female knight "defies conventions" is a setting-assumption, a context provided by the setting. Perhaps all knights are men, and perhaps your female knight gets a lot of guff.  Perhaps some knights feel threatened, other knights are concerned about your well-being, and one particularly handsome knight is besotted with you, but is now thoroughly confused about how to go about dealing with you.  It could just as easily be the other way around, where female knights are common, or that male knights are revolutionary or unheard of.  The setting determines this.  Your character is a knight, but the setting provides context as to what being a female knight means to the world.  Likewise, the setting shapes the plot with context.  Perhaps being a female knight causes trouble for your relationships ("Why can't you just be a princess, like your sister?"), or perhaps your father's death creates an inheritance crisis, with some dastardly duke trying to claim it, as he argues that your father has no "male heirs" and you vociferously disagree as an heir to your father's knightly title.  Again, all of this, from social convention to inheritance law to the idea of titles themselves are setting assumptions.  They provide us with the context we need to make the story work.

Role-playing games thrive on context.  They evolved out of games, first and foremost, so they already had mechanics and gameplay in place before they even became "roleplaying" games.  Most people like to argue that the major innovation was that players now "played the role" of a single piece... but we were already "playing a role" in wargames, usually that of commander of a force for a specific scenario.  For example, if you play as Ryu in Street Fighter, you're already "playing his role" but you're not role-playing.

What "role-playing" actually covers is a topic for another time, but one of the things that mattered in the switch from wargame and boardgame to role-playing game was a deeper emphasis on context.  You're not just "playing a knight," you're worried about what being a knight means, in this world, in this setting.  And to really explore that, we need to know what being a knight means in this world, which means we need to define our setting.

Psi-Wars has Space Knights that use the force sword and psionic powers.  How does one become a space knight?  How do various factions feel about them?  Why doesn't anyone else use force swords and psionic powers?  Space Knights seem well studied in philosophy... but which philosophy?  What underlying assumptions does it have?

Psi-Wars actually already has a lot of this context (We have a galactic core, which is civilized and powerful, and a rim which is barbaric and poor; we have Communion, with all its underlying assumptions; we have an Empire and an Alliance and criminals and law enforcement and alien warriors and giant robot armies).  The point of going deeper is to provide even more context.  That context provides inspiration to GMs trying to create plots of players trying to create characters.  Context provides inspiration for actions to undertake, or challenges that might afflict the PCs.  It helps to explain why the factions fight, and to outline the troubles we'll have in bringing peace to the galaxy.  It even explains why we might want to bring peace to the galaxy.

As we move forward, we need to remember that, more than anything else, we need to provide useful context to our players (or to GMs who might want to use our material).

But what's useful context?

Those Who Give a S**t: Your target Audience

What is useful depends on who  you ask.

The easiest way to know what people want is to simply ask them.  Hey, reader, what do you want out of a setting?  Well, there are more than a hundred of you, typically, more than 500 sometimes.  If you all responded, that would give me quite a lot to sift through.

An easier way, one used by most companies, is to do some research and then to come up with an archtypal imagining of their target audience, and then design the game towards those specific people.  With that in mind, let me offer you four players and how they might approach your setting.

Brent, the Jock

This is Brent.  Brent is only in your game because he's your bud, and he likes hanging out with you guys, but he'd honestly be as happy bowling, or watching sports, or playing video games.  He's mostly here to be social (A "cheetoist" as the kids call them).  He has no interest in doing any "homework." He doesn't really want to make a character or read through the rules.  He mostly just wants to sit down and play, and more than that will make him moan about how RPGs are so much work.  Brent demands to know why he should bother with setting at all.

I've made Brent a jock, but he could as easily be someone who works a lot and just doesn't have time to read, or a girlfriend gamer who's just there because her boyfriend is, or really anyone who feels that an enormous investment in a non-existent fantasy world is a waste of time.  He represents anyone who has zero interest in reading massive tomes.  He just wants to play.  One might be tempted to say that he's fairly rare in GURPS circles, but I find the opposite is true.  He might make a character (ideally from templates, or even better if he can talk you into doing it for him), but thereafter he just says what he does and rolls 3d6.  For him, GURPS is actually pretty simple, and he likes it that way.  He doesn't necessarily mind a detailed setting so long as he'll experience it rather than need to put a lot of work into learning it.

Brent is important, probably the most important of the four.  If we keep Brent in mind, we'll remember that all setting material has an investment cost.  One of the reasons Star Wars is such a success is that it has very little investment cost.  There's an evil empire, and you know it's evil because it looks evil, and it fights the plucky, heroic rebellion, which you know is plucky and heroic because it looks plucky and heroic.  You don't need to read a million comics or watch a bunch of TV shows and read up on wikipedia to follow the movies.  For him, if Psi-Wars suddenly becomes this huge study of complicated politics, he'll tune out.  If Brent was one of my readers, he mostly spends his time on the Primer, looking at characters, getting the gist from others, and waiting for an actual game to emerge.

Brent demands that our settings be minimalistic, and easy to get into.  He demands justification for each detail we add to our setting.

Willow, the Nerd

This is Willow.  Willow is a huge nerd, and she games because she loves games.  She's a huge Star Wars fan, belongs to the fan-fiction community, is a wiki-contributor, and has a collection of Star Wars figurines at home ("Rey is the best Jedi!" though she's also partial to Aayla Secura, but she won't admit it).  She's also deeply invested in GURPS and has perhaps run a few games of her own, as well as owning all the supplements (and complains about a lack of THS fiction line), and she hates games where "things don't make sense." She's studied history, theology, linguistics, economics, etc, and is quick to point out inaccuracies she finds in any setting she plays in.  But she'll also read everything you write.  If you write well, she'll get terribly excited and want to add to it.  If you write poorly, if she has no sense of the setting, she'll lose interest or grow disenchanted.  Ultimately, she wants to go to your setting (She is a "simulationist", as the kids say these days).

I think we all know a Willow.  In a sense, role-players are Willow: We're creating our own worlds and our stories and exploring them.  Willow is very strongly represented in the GURPS community, as GURPS excels at the sort of lavishly detailed settings Willow really enjoys.  She's also naturally drawn to more detailed settings (so naturally she's more a fan of the Expanded Universe) because it allows her to invest deeply.

Sometimes people want to invest deeply.  Perhaps they're bored, or perhaps their life sucks and they want to escape for a little while.  Good setting material is often entertaining for its own sake.  But for it to work, it has to be internally consistent.  It needs to hang together well.  She stands in opposition to Brent, because to Willow, setting is its own justification.  If Psi-Wars becomes too simple, she'll tune out.  If she's one of my readers, she got terribly excited when I wrote Communion stuff, and has been somewhat lukewarm for the rest of the time (unless she likes meta stuff, then she's happy).

I think we pay too much attention to Willow when we design settings, because she gives us the most feedback, thus Willow-centric settings tend to be overrepresented.  If you move too far towards Willow, your richly complex setting becomes very difficult for new people to enter.  Nonetheless, she does exist, and she matters.  We need to make her happy too.

Willow demands that our settings be entertaining and internally consistent.  She wants something worthy of exploration.

Desirée, the Romantic

This is Desirée.  She's been roleplaying for years (her favorite game is Vampire: the Masquerade, but she's been moving towards 7th Sea and Fate lately).  She loves to LARP (especially "Nordic" LARP).  She likes romantic stories, and when she discusses your games, she always discusses the people in them like they were real.  Her characters all have extensive backstories, usually with multiple relationships buried in there.  She's disappointed if there's not some exploration of relationship somewhere in the game (Romance, yes, but also familial or friendship, or duty to another; ideally, some fantastic intersection of all of the above).  She has little time for mechanics, but claims she just plays for the story. (She is a "dramatist" or "narrativist", as the kids say these days).

Desirée doesn't have to be girlish.  She's any player who role-plays to see how the story unfolds, rather than to "game the game."  They want to participate in that story and find out what happens next.

Desirée cares deeply about the setting, but only to a point.  Economics bore her to tears.  She has no time for discussions of military technology.  She doesn't want to hear about yet another martial arts school.  What matters to her is what the setting does for her character's story.  She'll want to know about Psi-Wars aristocracy ("Do they have houses?  How do those houses feel about each other?"), or social conventions ("Do they dance?  What does a boy give a girl if he really likes her?  Do they drink wine?  What could my character do that would utterly scandalize her father?")  Slavery might interest her, as it's dreadfully tragic, or criminal organizations, either as a source of rebellion or someone to rail against.  She wants to know what the setting means for her personal narrative, what social and contextual options it gives her personally.  The big picture isn't as important as what she can do with her little piece of the setting.

Desirée demands that our settings be focused on creating interest narrative choices for the players and providing a social context for their characters.

Bjorn, the Warrior

This is Bjorn.  He's also been roleplaying for years (Cut his teeth on D&D.  Loved the Rifts setting but hated the system.  Thinks the Street Fighter RPG was underrated.  Would really like to get his hands on Legends of the Wulin, and owns all three editions of Exalted).  He's already got his character all written up, and his character is badass.  He's found a loophole to exploit to make his character invincible, but he'll be deeply disappointed if you don't find a way to get around it.  When you mentioned Psi-Wars, he instantly asked about lightsabers, Jedi powers, and wanted to know more about the Rightous Crusader, Rebellious Beast and Death ("Hmm, or maybe the Other would be better.  What kind of templates can I change into if I take that?").  If he's reading Psi-Wars, his favorite bits were the weapons and armor posts, and all the martial arts.  He tunes out whenever Desirée discusses philosophy or her latest romantic tragedy, but sits upright whenever there's a fight.  He'll explain that he's not here for the story, but for the mechanics (He's a "gamist" as the kids like to say these days)

People love to hate Bjorn, but the truth is a lot of us got our start playing as Bjorn.  He's one reason GURPS DF is a big hit (and Brent loves playing DF with him).  Cool powers and interesting gameplay draw us in, and they're as much a part of a role-playing game as Desirée's deep interest in roleplaying.

Bjorn also cares about your setting, but only to a point.  He has no interest in social dynamics or politics or legal matters.  He wants to hear about military technology, cool martial arts styles;  He decides what philosophy to adhere to not based on his personal beliefs but what powers they give him access to, and what strategies they encourage.  He plays the game to win, and he's looking at the setting like a game board to navigate.  For him, the setting matters mainly in what mechanical context it offers.  For him, it's about navigating the various philosophies and factions to get at the best mechanical bits (and for many such players, this isn't just a hassle, but part of the fun of the game, as pursuing the coolest powers often has the most interesting narrative demands)

Bjorn demands that our setting be focused on creating interesting mechanical choices for players and providing a context for their struggles.

Pleasing Everyone All Of The Time

Upon reading the above archetypes, one might be tempted to put oneself in one category or the other, but I suggest against doing this.  You are not a Willow or a Bjorn.  Rather, at different times and in different ways, you are all of them.  All people have a tendency to initially resist investing in something new, but if we're going to invest, we want to invest in something high quality and intriguing.  Role-players, by and large, both want to play a role, but also want to play a game.  We want to know what a setting means for our personal, narrative choices and for our tactical choices.  The above archetypes do not represent people but impulses with all of us, extreme ends of particular spectra that we're all speckled across.

Fortunately, these requirements aren't mutually incompatible.  It's possible to make a setting that requires a low investment to jump into, but rewards deep investment (Star Wars is just such a setting), and setting elements can both contain interesting narrative choices while also guiding mechanical strategies.  We don't need to pick and choose which players to please.  Rather, we should try to keep their demands in mind with each step of our setting design:
  • Brent demands that our setting have a low investment and wants a justification for each setting element (Elegance)
  • Willow demands an internally consistent and entertaining setting, and she wants the setting to reward deep exploration (Depth).
  • Desirée demands context for her interesting narrative choices (Drama).
  • Bjorn demands context for his interesting mechanical choices (Action-Packed).
By answering these four demands, we ensure that our setting is not more bloated than it needs to be, but that it still has plenty that people can (optionally) explore, and that these setting elements both drive narrative development and player tactics.  The result should be a very solid setting, if we can stick with the ideal.  Of course, nothing ever reaches its ideal, but ideals are like stars: You don't need to reach them, you just need to use them to guide you to your final destination.
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