Setting – Canon & Evocative

December 15, 2007

Over here at Story Games Christian is beginning a discussion of Canonical settings vs. Evocative Settings and Shreyas asked me what I think is good design for both. Since this ties right into what I’ve been intending to write about setting, I thought I’d just add it here.

Following the definitions from the thread- canonical settings have specifics, details about the game world while evocative setting leaves it to the group to make most of those up. (yes I think it’s a spectrum, but we’ll talk about both ends for the sake of contrast and approach). As I said before, a good setting gets everyone on the same creative page, a bad setting does the opposite.

Canonical Setting

A good canonical setting is loaded with juicy themes the players can buy into. You don’t need hundreds, you just need something like three- or perhaps stuff that can be interpreted multiple ways. For example, oWoD Mage is about self-development & enlightenment, about playing with dangerous power, or freeing the world from binding thought. Or maybe you interpret it differently, but basically the point is there’s enough there that many people can find a reason to care and want to get involved in the going-on’s of the game setting.

A good canonical setting has what I call “Context Touchpoints”. Bits of information the group can latch onto and it becomes shorthand to make for neat stuff together. “I’m a survivor of the Battle at Reflex Point”- and suddenly everyone at the table stops and looks, shocked… because it means something to them. The problem a lot of settings have is that they load up on mindless info – 20,000 years of history, the exact details of the astronomy of the fantasy world, or population numbers of cities, but not the stuff that builds stories.

Remember, history as numbers is boring- history as people, as causes, as cultures, that’s interesting. Same thing applies to setting. Details only matter as much as they make people care. While there may be a tiny subset of players out there who play roleplaying games for “realism” and care that your book has mapped the land taking into account how silt deposits on river banks- most everyone else doesn’t care- we’re playing these games to have elves, magic, spaceships and worlds where the good can triumph, or at least the invidual be empowered.

Second, a good canonical setting avoids bloat- having too much information. How much is too much? Well, some groups will tell you that they’ve all memorized most of Tolkien’s writings. Some groups read half of the classes/splats in Character generation and that’s what they got. But for the most part, I’d argue that the right amount of information is enough that a casual reader, someone who is going to put no more than 2 hours into reading your game/book, will be able to grasp the major points of the game and the setting. Maybe you can get away with more if you have outside canon like books, comics or movies which the person has already consumed and absorbed. But the main thing is not having so much that the casual folks in your group and the hardcore folks in your group start to pull away from each other in understanding the game and working together.

Third, a canonical setting needs to be clear if it has any sacred cows that the group is expected not to touch. This is moreso if the game is built on a licensed setting- “No, you can’t take over Helm’s Deep as your personal fiefdom”, etc. In general, though, I find it is best if the sacred cows are few and far between. The point of the setting is to provide something to play with, not a wall of things you can’t touch.

Ultimately, you can consider good canon info to be like different colored paints and a good game to give advice or system choices to help the group figure out how to handle those colors, which ones to focus on, which ones to drop, etc. A million colors, or bits of information mean nothing if you don’t know what to do with it.

Evocative Setting

Good evocative settings require something different than canonical settings- instead of trying to navigate and build on what is there, you need players to build from scratch a lot of things and for it to matter specifically to them. Again, you have juicy themes, but instead of the players pulling it from specific bits of context (“I was there… at Omaha Beach.”), they’re having to take those themes and build something concrete around it. It could easily be argued that an evocative setting rides on how well the group can build it- supported by good advice and/or mechanics. This is tricky- when it works right, the players get the cool stuff they want and laser precision focus on it. When it doesn’t work- no one gels into caring about the game at all.

A good evocative setting paints exciting things, that the group wants to explore and play with, just as much as the details of a canonical setting does. The evocative setting requires more economy, because you are working with less words, they have to be more efficient at getting the ideas across. Colorful bits and good artwork helps. (I’ve also noticed that good evocative settings tend to work well when the characters are well defined- there was a discussion a couple years back about how much you have to nail down to actually play- Setting, character, situation, I think it was like 2 of 3 or something?)

An easy trick that works for a lot of evocative settings is to pull from outside genre knowledge. You mention “Cowboys” and it paints pictures without you having to explain everything. Inspectres and Dust Devils are two games that work this way. This trick backfires when people aren’t familar with the genre or the source material- if you’re talking about Conan, people could be thinking of anything from R.E. Howard to Governor Arnold.

Now here’s something interesting I’ve noticed in terms of system support for evocative settings- they usually allow a lot of direct player input- Polaris, Inspectres, Stranger Things, 1001 Nights, etc. – they all provide tools for the players to build immediately on the themes and fill out the details. While you can do the same with a lot of games, the trick with these systems is that they often make it a core part of play- there’s not a lot of meandering to find meaningful stuff- players take the clay and shape it into what they want and keep reshaping it as part of play. The group has to be able to make their own context touchpoints.

The easier and more intuitive this is for players, the more consistently rewarding play. The more challenging or complicated the system is for building what you want out of the evocative setting, the harder it is for players to create and latch on to specific, interesting details and build the fiction they want. Whereas the worst canonical setting leaves you with thousands of pages of useless information and no tools to sort it or find a focus, the worst evocative setting leaves you with nothing to latch on to, and no support to build it.

Though I’ve been speaking about this from the standpoint of a designer, it also follows from the place of your everyday gamer or GM- whether you’re navigating a pre-existing setting or making one of your own, you have to figure out how to make it work with your group and pull them together, not apart. What are context touchpoints that your group buys into- what matters to them and gets them excited for play? How can you focus on those and drop the arguments about whether it makes sense for Magic City of Ozymadius to export healing potions? How can you take the map with a half note scribbled on it and have the group build a lost civilization of wonder?

Setting sells because it’s exciting and sexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build.

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