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Drawing within the lines vs. drawing our own lines

November 22, 2014

One thing I’ve been thinking about is setting as an emotional investment and two ways it works.

Drawing within the lines

Take pre-established setting, and one of the core goals of play for a group is staying within the setting canon, and the fun and events created in play are primarily about how the characters fit within the canon or interact with it.

This requires the group to sufficiently coordinate on what that canon is, and how they’ll use it.  It’s also where I see a lot of groups begin splitting across lines as a few people have read the 402 pages of setting scattered across 8 books, and then you have the other player who looked at the pictures in half of one book.  Some friends were really invested into Lord of the Rings and it was kind of critical to get group re-readings of select books to get themselves on track.

So, if say this was a superhero game, based on say Marvel comics, it would be very important to respect and give nods to the setting bits – SHIELD, Victor Von Doom, Morlocks, etc.   The focus of play is playing within and interacting with all of these bits.

Drawing your own lines

In this kind of play, the core focus is not necessarily overriding or breaking canon, as much as it is focusing on what you create revolving/tied to your characters.

Again taking the Marvel Comics example, you might instead focus on the heroes being a small team in some corner of New York, and the setting focus would be on their personal families, friends, nemesises and so on.  The focus of play would be building this entire world and whether the larger setting bits come into play at any point, or simply remain distant ideas rarely mentioned, wouldn’t matter as much.

Where the focus goes

Although this seems mostly like a stylistic choice, I think it’s becomes a bigger issue – this goes everywhere from how you build your characters, what relationships/NPCs you establish, what conflicts you choose to build your focus on and so on.  It spread further out in terms of where the camera or spotlight goes, where conflicts focus around scene to scene, or story arc to story arc, and even what should be getting narrated, if at all.

Both Simulationism and Narrativism can go either way, which I think is one of the tripping points for the issue of fidelity vs. protagonism as a dividing point for a lot of people.

Sim as interaction-with-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of canon elements, primarily, while Sim as creating-parts-within-the-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of tone/mood of story, color, and established tenets of what fits within that world.

Nar as interaction-with-setting is Protagonism with some elements established as boundaries – “We can be knights of the Round Table, but we can’t kill Arthur, or fundamentally change the other major established characters”  Nar as creating-parts-within-the-setting is pretty trivial – it runs on basic Narrativist play without any thought at all, except perhaps intentionally avoiding canon elements.

Time and feedback loops

Provided everyone knows what elements are involved and are on the same page as setting, playing within the boundaries of setting requires less time investment – once the tenets/elements are established, you can play one shots of games and get that payoff in play rather easily.

I think this is one of the reason superhero games work so well for many people – genre familiarity, familiar elements, short story arcs are already part of the genre.   You don’t have to build up tons and tons of investment and exploration – you can simply shorthand because people have read the comics/watched movies – they know who the characters are, they know what their motivations are, and the emotional content is already loaded to some level.

That is, if we run a game where Batman and Wonder Woman get married?  That sentence alone stirs up a lot of thoughts and ideas for conflict and I don’t have to spend lots and lots of time explaining who these characters are and what it might mean or why it might have conflict or drama involved.

Creating your own setting investment within a larger setting requires more time and tighter feedback loops to get everyone making things that are important and interesting and investing back into it.    “Sure, sure, the X-man Mansion was destroyed, but what we really find interesting is our mutant kids who have all moved back into one person’s extended family house and so-and-so’s brother who disowned him and my character’s best friend who doesn’t know I’m a mutant…”

It takes more time or tighter design to create these new elements, to get everyone invested in them and to focus on them instead of the shorthand for setting elements.

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