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On this blog you will find two types of entries. First, of course, normal bolg pots, and second, you will find articles. You can distinguish articles because they will have the label "article". The special thing about articles (contrary to my normal blog posts) is that they are longer, more thoughtful, and I will keep them updated to my current ideas and thoughts. So, because articles never get outdated, I will always encourage you to comment on them, no matter how old they are.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Elements of Setting

The last post I made on The Forge about Distant Horizons, I was asking about the setting concept I want for that game. Troy Costisick replied with a link to his blog Socratic Design where he write about setting (What is Setting? part 1). When I read this I began to think about how I would categorise the different aspects of setting, and I think that my goal of doing so is a little different that what Troy are doing.

What I try here is not to list all possible element a setting or game world consist of, because I do not see this as very useful when you want to build an interesting setting. What I try here is to categorise the elements after what they do in the setting. In this way I hope that it is easier to use this to build a setting on short notice. Furthermore, I try to do this in a way so it will be interesting from a role-playing point of view; in the way that this will easily lead to situations the characters can engage in.

I have not reached this goal yet. What I do here is more like a "first thought" that have to be developed further, and I hope to get back to it in future article.

The categories

I have split the elements of setting into five categories: Facts, Rules, Relations, Dynamics and Conflicts.

This is the concrete facts about the setting. It can be geological data of different features of the land, it can be descriptions of cities and roads, or it can be facts about history and gods, or about different people and races and different creatures.

Facts only describe that something exists and where and when. That a god exists is a fact, but the religion of that god - the gods relation to people - is described in a differed category (Relation category).

Facts does not do very much in a game other than defining the basic layout of the setting. Some facts will be necessary, like what races are available in a fantasy game, but most facts could just be added during the game with very little effort, as long as the basic Rules and the important Relations are defined.

I will split this into two types of Rules; hard Rules and soft Rules. (maybe these two types should have a category each).

Hard Rules are the ones that can be described as rules of nature. This is what different things and creatures can and can not do; their capabilities and limitations, and it is the rules about course and effect as defined by natural laws. Hard Rules are rules that can not be changed and only in special cases be broken. If a hard rule is broken it will be seen as something unnatural for that world.

Soft Rules describe the general layout of the world. These are the rules that describe how the world typically looks like. When something goes outside a Soft Rule, it is not unnatural, but just strange. Soft Rules can for example be a description of the level of technology in different areas, and the typical climate and geological features. It may also describe how magic normally behaves.

Soft Rules can also be rules about how humans (and other races) behave. For example, this can be how large a typical city is in a certain area and what the normal distant between cities is, and it can be social rules that tells what is seen as normal behaviour.

For games that tries to simulate reality Hard Rules are very important, because they tell exactly how things behave under different conditions. In games that are more focused on the story and role-playing interactions, hard Rules are only used to know if you are inside the boundaries of the natural world, or outside in the supernatural, when you do your narration.

Rules are also used when the players want to add something to the world. In this case the soft Rules are the most important, because these give a better understanding of what you will typically see in a certain area.

Relations is how the aspects described under Facts relates to each other. This will mostly be social and political relation, but it could also be relation between industries, for example how mining relates to smithing, or it could be how criminals and the law system relates to each other. Relations also give the characters a place to fit in.

In social relations you should normally think of people in term of groups. This can be racial groups, cultural groups, religious groups, political groups etc.. When you define relations a good way to think about it is: How the group perceive themselves, how they perceive others, how others perceive them, and what their agenda is (if any) and how paranoid/aggressive they are in pursuing this agenda.

Relations are extremely important in a game. They describe how the characters fit into the world - what roles they can take - and they give an hint about where conflicts can arise between groups.

Dynamics are how the Relations changes. For example a friendship between two groups can become problematic and can turn into hatred. This is important because it will lead to Conflicts.

Dynamics is mostly used during a game, where they tell how things change around the characters, and how things change in reaction to what the characters do. Some Dynamics can be defined before the game; something that is about to go wrong when the game starts.

Dynamics should tie into the mechanics of the game, because it is something that happen in the game that the character should react to, and possible change.

When some relations go against each other it will result in Conflicts. I properly do not have to explain this very much, for in most RPGs conflicts are the story-driving element and therefore the core of the system.

Most Conflicts will arise doing the game, but a setting can be much more interesting if there are a few conflicts build in that the characters can take part of.

Other stuff

There are some other stuff that are important for a setting, but which does not fit nicely into the categories above.

Something that is of great importance for the story is the feeling or the mood, or the thematic idea, so these thing will of course reflect on the setting. If you want a dark feeling in a story about the struggle between hope and despair, there have to go something on in the environment that can support this, like a desperate battle between good and evil.

When you make a setting, having decided on a feeling or a theme will make it much easier to decide what should be in the setting and how it should be expressed, so it can be of great help if you want to add something to the setting.

So feeling should really be an important part of setting creations, but because it is more abstract I do not know how to put it into categories, so I am a little uncertain how to place this.

As it is now I have put history under facts, but I do not really feel that this properly tells what a history or back-story do. The history of the setting is there to explain the current conflicts, and sometimes to explain the current relations. It is also interesting to note that history that does not explain any of these two things, will really not be important for the game.

When you have a history you know what have coursed the conflicts you now face, and it can indicate where these conflicts will move things to. Of course it is not all history that are known, which will make some conflicts a mystery.


This is just some preliminary ideas, so I do not really have any conclusions right now, but I hope this can lead to some better tools for working with setting.

- Anders

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