Friday, August 21, 2015

RPGaDay 2015 #21 Favorite RPG Setting

One thing that irks me about the modern RPG publishing industry is how often they say "setting," but actually mean "campaign."

To clarify, a "setting" is a place for adventures to happen. A "campaign" is the answer to the question: "Who are the characters and what do they do?" The Discworld novels are a great example of this. The Discworld as a whole is a setting. But the series has not one, but several story threads running through it. Each with a unique set of characters who live in different places in the world and do different things. So even though all the stories take place in the same setting, Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, and Moist von Lipwig are all effectively playing in separate campaigns.

I don't know how long this trend has been going on, but I started noticing it a few years ago. The first time I spotted it was the FantasyCraft Adventure Companion. It promised 3 settings, but all it really offered was campaigns. Sure each campaign took place in its own setting, but the opening paragraphs of each section were from some sort of in-setting mentor figure giving you the Big Speech about how you're going off into the big bad world to do X. While the X was usually pretty broad, and in one case was simply the wandering adventurer as respected social role, the rest of the material was presented in such a way as to support that specific campaign.

But what if I don't want to be a wandering adventurer? What if I want to be a merchant? Or establish a homestead out of the frontier of the world? If I want to use this so-called setting as an actual setting, I'm going to have to do at least half the work that buying a packaged setting was supposed to save.

Fate Worlds has this sort of problem as well. It promises settings, but delivers campaigns. And the majority of those campaigns are simply hacks. Rather than offering anything resembling a setting, we get mechanics to support a given campaign style. So rather than telling us a little story about Jack and Diane, we are instead given different rules to detail how Jack and Diane (for any given value of Jack or Diane), can interact or relate to one another.

Please note that I am not calling these products out as flawed designs or bad products. I simply feel that they are mistakenly marketed. If something calls itself a setting, I am presuming that it will be well-written enough to support multiple campaign types. If all you are offering is a campaign, please do not call it a setting.

I think it also sets a bad precedent. A while back on Facebook, I saw an established publisher of third-party Pathfinder material post in a Pathfinder group "Help! I'm writing a setting, but my playtesters have just figured out that it's really just a campaign!" I am paraphrasing, but that's pretty much what he said. Needless to say, that guy's not getting my money.

Maybe I'm just spoiled on the way GURPS does their setting books. They have a reputation for being bland, but thorough. And I think that a portion of this is that they do not assume a campaign. There are suggestions and ideas for different campaigns and adventures throughout the book, but it doesn't assume you'll follow any of them. (Considering my Discworld example above, it makes remarkable sense that GURPS Discworld is a thing.)

(I do have lots of cool settings on my shelf, as well as a few campaigns. But this rant has been brewing for some time and I thought I'd take the opportunity to get it out.)

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