Sunday, September 30, 2012

On Setting: Four Last Fragments: RPG Blog Carnival

This month’s Blog Carnival looks at gaming in established settings and is hosted by the excellent Dice Monkey blog. You can see my other post on the topic- “Getting the Setting Right” here.

When I first started thinking about this topic, I realized what a hypocrite I was. I thought, “Well, I don’t run in established settings because I build things myself…” with a certain amount of smug satisfaction. Then I actually paused to consider what I’d run over the last decade. An Exalted campaign, a Vampire: the Masquerade campaign, Star Wars, Changeling the Lost, Grimm, Fading Suns, Legend of the Five Rings, and Scion. Those were all premises that I wanted to run in. Even when I run my own games I usually go and raid from existing material for ideas and inspiration. There’s more than a little Mystara, Shadow World, Glorantha, The Old World, and Sundered Skies in my various fantasy campaigns. I like reading new setting materials. More than core rules; more than rules supplements; more than bestiaries; more than modules, adventures or ‘paths’- if I see a good and solid setting sourcebook that’s what I’ll buy.

But at the same time when I go to run, I hesitate. Here’s the root of my problem and it may sound stupid. In the back of my mind is always- maybe I’ll do something so cool that it will be worth publishing or doing something more with. If I’ve run using an established setting or world, then my options are limited. I could either try to get it published there or rework it heavily so that it isn’t clear where it comes from. It is a little dumb, but sometimes I feel when I run in another setting I don’t really have ownership in the broadest sense. And what I’m creating is, in some ways, work that could be more productively put into a project of my own. Yet I really love some of these worlds- and running in them makes things easier. It means not having to do so much prep work- and being able to point players to an easy set of references.

In the back of my mind too is the problem of bottling lightning. I can usually tell when a new game, more often small press or independently published, has come out of a campaign. Sometimes the authors have barely filed the serial numbers off. The other day I saw a game and assumed it was a parody of a popular horror game featuring bloodsuckers. But no, they’d just changed a few terms and concepts to make a new game. It looked more like a heavily house-ruled campaign. Then there are games that describe themselves but don’t really say anything. They have a setting they played in- but what exactly the players do or what makes it new isn’t clear. It probably worked at the game table for them, but somehow they haven’t figured out how to convey that to a buying audience. I’m afraid of falling into that trap…

I love that we’re in a time where different settings can be published and translated over to multiple systems. I’m not a Savage Worlds player, but I’m cheer by the fact that so many new settings have had SW versions produced. We’ve seen that with other systems like FATE, M&M, and Hero System. However, not all systems work equally well for all settings. Horror games don’t work as well where players can more narrative control or the opportunity to spend currency to avoid risk. Call of Cthulhu is a game where your characters ought to be constantly on the short end of the stick. To paraphrase Ken Hite it is not a game about personal development or advancement. The CoC rules reflect that. So I’m a little skeptical about d20, Savage Worlds, and True20 versions which take that on. On the other hand, lighter settings don’t work as well with crunchy systems. That’s why I wouldn’t run a Ranma ½ game using GURPS 4e. It is worth looking at the core values and purpose of a setting. You can really see that in the sweep of comic books. The same game system than can adequately emulate the Marvel Universe might have problems with Watchmen or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It might also have problems with something as over-the-top as The Authority or Supreme Power. All games have certain assumptions about the world built into them- and when those don’t match the setting, you get a problematic experience.


Most smart freshly created rpg settings build in room for multiple characters as “the lead.” But fewer established fictional licensed worlds have room for that. Even those which seem to allow for it- Buffy or Harry Potter for example- have a key character and sidekicks. They may be capable, but they’re not on the same level or connected to the key destiny of the story. Game systems then have to work to get that somehow balanced between player parity and faithfulness to the tone of the setting. Of course there’s the even more extreme case of something like Dr. Who. Some settings which seem to offer lots of strong multiple protagonists- Star Wars, Heroes or A Game of Thrones- split those characters up significantly. The actual “band of heroes” happens more rarely than flipping to a scene with a couple doing their thing. But the majority of classic Hollywood-style properties focus on a central character- with the story being one of transformation for them. In this case, one of the tasks of the GM emulating the setting is figuring out how to run multiple films in parallel, each with their own protagonist and somehow meshing together at the end.

I’ve talked before about the connection between video games and rpgs. I put together a list of VGs I’d like to see a tabletop rpgs. For each of those I had a pretty good idea of what a story/campaign set in that world would look like. Most of them offer some depth and story. I know what the players would be doing in that campaign setting. They have an openness to the world even if the track you’re playing is fairly narrow. Some games are cool and suggest a rich and vibrant world, but I have a hard time picturing what kind of tableop campaign you could run within it and remain at all true to the narrative- take for example Shadow of the Colossus. That’s an awesome game with a heart-tugging story, but how would you actually play that with a group.

So I’m a little surprised by the video games which have had pen & paper versions. Take for example Alternity: Starcraft and GURPS Myth. They’re both based on RTS games. They don’t immediately suggest to me a group of PCs- and I have a hard time picturing what a sustained campaign would look like. On the other hand I said the same thing about HALO and then discovered there was an extensive back-story to the world. It still didn’t offer great room for anything but war stories, but there was depth. Then there’s a game like AD&D's Diablo II: The Awakening. The point of the games beating things up as fast as you can and getting loot- can you really emulate that at the table? Then there’s Street Fighter the Storytelling Game. How does that translate into a viable campaign setting and remain close to the original? I can see playing out something like Soul Caliber because it offers travel, alt history, side stories, and characters that team up. But the tournament stylings of Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken don’t do that; even though we have generic games like Fight! that aim there. So here’s my question- how much do can you change the basic premise of a setting, before it becomes not that setting? What elements need to remain intact to make it work? In the case of Street Fighter it seems to be hyper martial arts, world police, and Cammy’s shapely legs on the cover. But have we seen adaptations that have completely switched up the basis of the world?