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Setting

November 24, 2007

Dev asked me to talk a bit about “non-mechanical” techniques you can do to fiddle with your games.   For me, mostly it come out of boredom with standard genre cliches- if I’m going to spend hours playing a game, and I happen to have a creative hand in it, I really want to do something that is different and intriguing.

Mostly, it comes down to a few tricks applied in clever ways:

1.  Culture Mixing

What would South America look like if it was conquered by Muslim Spain?  What would the architecture look like?  The food?  The clothing?  The music?

I usually do this as an inspiration to create a culture or setting in a fantasy or fictional world, instead of alternate history, if only because it allows me to cut away dealing with lots of real world concerns and allows me to control how much research into history I have to do to make it work.

2.  Taking History into Fantasy

Try reading up on the historical stuff behind druids, or bards, fairies or anything.  You’ll find tons of cool ideas and start asking yourself what would happen if you put it into your game.

For example, if bards were lawmakers and advisors to the kings, the ones who bear witness to oaths, and you put that into D&D, suddenly you’re going to find that bards become the leaders or second in commands to every party.  It not only changes the idea of the class, but it also gives you an idea on the setting- oral historians, proclaiming laws, etc.

3.  Taking Fantasy into History

You see this a lot, but it’s always fun to try for yourself.  What if the Greeks were Elves or the Vikings Dwarves?  What if the Schism involved the Necronomicon?    Weird, fun, and strange ideas come forth when you go the other way around.

4.  Take a cliche and follow it to the logical end

“A thousand years ago, mankind waged a terrible war with magic.”  Ok.  So what does that mean?

Well, it means anything that’s lived over a thousand years remembers that humans are dangerous.  It also means anything that lives a few hundred years probably has parents or grandparents who remember the war, and the humans, all of their errors, their arrogance and betrayals, intended or not.

Don’t be surprised if elves, dwarves, and anything with any sense at all probably is unfriendly to humans, and probably would like to strip all magical knowledge from them.

See how one cliche can open the doors to a whole setting, if you actually think it through?

5.  Justify arbitrary mechanics/cliches

Maybe D&D’s memorized “spells” aren’t spells at all- maybe they’re little spirits who can only do one magical thing and you summon and bind them when you “memorize” a spell, and unleash them as you cast it, and they fly free after having fulfilled the contract of their duty.

You’ve now justified one of the most complained about arbitrary mechanics ever.  Is it still arbitrary?  You bet, but now at least it adds color and gives some plausibility the players can work with.

6. Mixing Mood

Often I’ll look at a music video, or a painting, or a movie trailer and think of the mood it invokes and ask myself how to apply it to a game or game setting.

For instance, imagine a meditteranean city, in the vivid blues, greens, yellows and oranges of a jazz painting.  Instead of taverns, you’ve got speakeasys, where the bards sing while the fighters stand up on the wall, and a sorceress in a sequin dress enters, looking to find some good men, but not too good (wink) to reaquire a little diamond.  Oh, look, we just made D&D Noir.

7. Loading Themes

It’s easy to load themes into your setting.  Want to do nature vs. technology?  you could have deities representing each side, or maybe cultures or political groups.   You never even need to state the themes, just load it into aspects of the setting the players can’t ignore, and it will become a part of the game depending on how much they have to deal with it.

8.  Add context to generic bits

Lots of games give you pretty generic roles, but what do they mean to you?  What’s a fighter anyway?  It’s a lot more fun when you add context to the game and define certain things, such as classes, to be something specific- the players can now take an angle on it on something other than just mechanics.

“All mages come from the Tower of Tanaz.   Orphans are left there to learn, and everyone is under magical geas forbidden to speak of what goes on in there.”

Does this limit players?  Sure, but more importantly it paints your setting and makes it real to the players.  It gives folks something to play with- and if you do enough of them, something is going to be something they really like.

Remember, if you’re going to get a group of folks to spend 3-4 hours talking about things that don’t exist, it better be non-existant things they like.

Next up- an example of me applying these tools for creating a setting.

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