Micro Settings

I saw a discussion on the Tenkar’s Tavern* discord server today. One participant pitched a suggestion for a game setting to get feedback from the community. I will call him the Pitcher as it is nicer than participant. The Pitcher was actually looking to do an entire world building job. I had already read a initial draft of the first book and that ran to 86 pages without any game stats, maps, NPCs or art.

The general reaction of the active people was that they thought it would be fun to play for four or five sessions.

I was quite surprised at that at first and it got me to thinking about what makes a setting have longevity?

I suspect that deep down we all want to win. Role playing games are not supposed to be about winning. They are open ended stories that could play out forever. In reality they don’t. After the third time you saved the world it is time to hang up your shield and enjoy your rewards. You have faced impossible odds and won.

The pitch I heard today was such a bleak world that winning would have no purpose. It may have been a case of there is no point in trying to win in a world full of so much suffering and little comfort.

I skimmed the list of most recently released games and eight out of ten were dark, grim and very negatively portrayed worlds. Skipping back a ten years and the games were much more upbeat and about exploring rich worlds and looking for adventure.

Even my own RMu adventure path is about a conflict between two evils, not between good and evil.

I wonder if this is a case of follow my leader. I could imagine one publisher thinking that they could make their game stand out by going all dark and moody. Other publishers see the sudden success of the trend setter and next thing is that we have a fashion or a movement for bleak game settings. Will these games have longevity?

Game of Thrones was bleak and miserable but that has now gone. I am guessing that everyone who wants a bleak and miserable game setting already has one. So how big is the market for more of the same?

More interestingly, I don’t think the setting writers and world builders are going to fall back to high adventure heroics. They have done that and would want something new.

Pugmire, Ironclaw and Ponyfinder all seem to have zeroed in on a particular niche, of animal heroes. In Pugmire you play talking dogs, Ironclaw you can be different woodland creatures and in Ponyfinder you play horses.

Although I read and enjoyed the Martin the warrior and Redwall Abbey books I don’t want to roleplay them.

I think in the fantasy genre people still want elves, dwarves and the rest of the Tolkien races along with vampires and dragons.

The question is how will the world builders pitch that so it is neither high adventure or bleak and pointless?

*An OSR centric discord server.

6 Replies to “Micro Settings”

  1. I wonder if it would be possible – or, rather, easy – to create a setting where the tone could be defined by the GM? So, the setting is tone-neutral, but individual groups could play it grimdark, high adventure, low fantasy, whatever.

    Might be interesting, but I have a feeling it would also be difficult.

    1. I don’t think it would be particularly difficult. You describe the world, the people, the history as a regular setting but then you include a number of Campaign Seeds. The first says that unnoticed by the ruling powers a plague is creeping through rural communities and it is starting to encroach on larger towns. In the GM section you explain that the BBEG is using assassins invade temples and attack/poison priests which has prevented the stopping of the plague. Regular people are becoming infected via rat droppings and cross contamination so the spread is quite normal. As time passes magical/divine healing is becoming harder to find. Eventually temples will shut their doors and admit no one.

      A second campaign seed tells of a stranger from a strange land that presents the ruler (of where the campaign starts) with a jewelled dragon egg. It soon transpires that every ruler on the continent has been given such an egg. Sages warn that dragons cannot be controlled and should the egg hatch it will lay waste to the city in its insatiable desire to gather all the gold and precious treasures to itself. The characters are charged with locating and destroying the eggs before they hatch, at some point you are going to get young dragons and the longer the campaign lasts the older they get. The GM also has a Mom dragon who is most displeased with the theft of her eggs and you have a foreign power behind the planting of the eggs in each kingdom in the first place. That is your high adventure/save the kingdom/world campaign.

      A third seed deals with a band of mercenaries and a brewing regional conflict. This gives you a low adventure backdrop.

      And so on, you could produce half a dozen to twenty possible campaigns set against the same world and regional powers.

      That is my first thought.

      1. Interesting, I hadn’t considered different campaign seeds as a way to distinguish. I was trying to think of how to portray people/places/creatures in different ways depending on setting. The accessibility of magic is one easy differential, as more magic tends to mean more heroic, but changing from a good guy vs bad guy situation to a rather greyer one (not good vs not good) is a bit trickier.

        1. So the second option is to strip away layers. Regardless of the style of play some things remain the same. The geography doesn’t change. National borders may remain the same.

          You could build that as a ‘core setting’ product.

          You then build individual People, Places and Politics books for a grim setting with low magic and politics that would rather drag everyone down rather than let somebody else rise up. Then the same for a sweeping high fantasy setting filled with 50th level mages that seem to give 1st level characters world saving quests for no logical reason. Any GM then needs just the one core setting but by swapping People Places and Politics you can swap NPCs, monsters, magic to fit the game they want to play.

  2. Zweihänder is bleak and miserable, as was WHFRP 30+ years earlier. Vampire and the World of Darkness (hint unsubtle hint) is still going after 30 years. Kult got a revival a while back, though I prefer the 1st edition from the ’90s. Lamentations of the Flame Princess starting with Death Frost Doom are 10 years old, and going strong and grimdark. Call of Cthulhu is 38 years old.

    There’s no reason to think dark settings have less longevity than bright shiny fantasy settings literally full of magical ponies. I can’t play in the latter for more than a couple hours without regurgitating glitter.

    If you want both, Evernight for Savage Worlds is a good example. It looks like magical ponies at first…

    1. I wouldn’t put CoC into that category, I was specifically thinking of fantasy settings. Horror games should be glitter and rainbow free zones.

      Savage Worlds is on my to do list for some point in the future.

      I was wondering if these bleak settings offered the same level of escapism as something more high adventure. It is possible that playing in a world that is worse than reality makes things look not so bad?

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