Setting Expectations – Bending and Breaking

October 12, 2014

I’m running a fun political game and it struck me how important it is to know in pretty much any RPG beyond a tactical fighty game,  whether aspects of a setting are things that are set in stone, things with occasional exceptions, or things to be broken through play – and how that changes the conflicts that make sense.

The Princess and the Throne

We’re playing a game loosely inspired by history.  We’ve got an aging king, with his daughter as his only child.  She’s actually astute and politically savvy enough that she’d probably make a good leader.  Now, there’s a lot of ways this could be played, but knowing where this fits is critical for the group to coordinate:

Gender Neutral

In a gender neutral game, this is a non-issue – the daughter takes up rulership.  This is my default for most fantasy or sci-fi games where the point is fluffy action and not social struggles.

Superficial Objections

In a game with superficial objections, there may be a character or two who makes some remark about the fact she can’t have the throne, but in actual play, nothing really stands in the way or provides any real resistance to it happening.   This is actually kind of tough ground to tread if you’re not clear because it’s easy to misinterpret objections “for show” as foreshadowing real obstacles in play.


In a game with resistance, there’s significant resistance from many NPCs.  The situation would be unusual, but not insurmountable.  This is the place where I find the most fun when I want to deal with social issues in play, because it does make the issue a real thing, but it also makes it one that can be overcome.


A Groundbreaking game is where you have a character do something unheard of.  In this case, it would be the first woman to take the throne.  Resistance would be high and this would be the overarching conflict of the campaign.  Although this sounds potentially amazing, it seems like it would require a group to really know what they’re doing as it would be very easy to mix up “high resistance” with “unchangeable fact” of the setting.

Impossible to Change

An Impossible to Change game is one where there is absolutely no way for the princess to take the throne, ever.  These are also important to communicate, so players aren’t coming in attempting to make something happen that doesn’t fit the game, and also is a waste of time.

Anything in your setting that matters

Now mind you, this is in regards to sexism and political power – you could easily apply it to any kind of trope or expectation of play as put forth in the setting material itself – whether it’s a non-issue, up to a solid, unbreakable rule of the setting.

This stuff allows players to create characters aimed at conflicts that are compelling and interesting and not waste time in play on things that don’t fit.

This also doesn’t mean the hard set, impossible to change parts can’t make fun conflicts either – for example in Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior, the end result WILL be that the society will fall, no matter what.  The personal conflicts for the characters aren’t actually about winning the unwinnable, but rather as a way to let characters reveal who they really are and focus on other conflicts that come out of that fact.

Past examples gone bad

I remember one game of L5R where a player wanted to play an exceptional character – an outcast to his clan, unskilled in all the things his clan valued, and lost to any political games.  His character concept had his character starting play from being backed into a corner – which, sounded great in concept! Problem was, the player effectively wanted all of those problems to be superficial – not any kind of actual resistance – when he got put to resistance, he completely freaked out – he got up and left the room.  Everyone else was like… “But… you put all this effort into starting your character from a hard spot… didn’t you want to have to fight your way out?”

There was a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, years back, where one player suddenly decided she wanted to have her character suddenly “rescue” the Indians and lead a revolt.  It was very weird, sudden, left field and felt like a lot of white guilt lashing out.  I didn’t have the language or the skill at the time to understand the solution was to stop the game and ask the player what was going on, but effectively there was a setting clash happening: I was playing with the understanding that the violent white colonization of the Americas was Impossible to Change as far as this game.

Navigating it for our game

For our game, my friend laid out that she wanted the primary conflict of the princess to be whether she can succeed her father, or at least, figure out how to arrange a marriage alliance that’s best for her kingdom.  Just from that, it made it obvious that we’re looking at a game set at Resistance, in terms of the gender issues.  (Mind you, I didn’t have these terms in my head 2 months ago when we started playing, but since we’re playing now and I’m watching how things unfold, I felt having terms would be useful going forward…)

I don’t think you need to spend a very long time negotiating every aspect of a Setting, but it’s probably good to look at what kinds of characters the players are creating and what they’re looking to do, and see where it intersects with setting bits that are unchangeable vs. non-issues, etc. and where you can set up great conflicts.  Having things like this language means that you can make these things clear AS you play, as well.

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