The RPG Blog Carnival topic for September is established settings. This is coming in just under the wire because–in addition to being busy–I had to sort out my many, and sometimes contradictory, thoughts on the topic. So here you’ll get a broad overview of why I think people love RPGs using established settings, and why I think they’re usually a bad idea–and how to better get what you really want when you play in an established setting.
My next couple blog posts will look at some other setting-related topics, including my experiences with published RPGs using pre-existing settings, and why the setting of Four Colors al Fresco is the way it is.
There are exceptions, but I’ve come to realize over the years that what generally draws me to a book, movie, TV show, comic book, etc., is the characters and situations in that story. I don’t want to play a game set on the Red Dwarf, I want to play Rimmer & Lister & Cat–except I don’t want to do that, either; I want to create my own stories with my own characters. But if I do that, they either end up as pale pastiches of the original, repetitive shadows of the original, or something largely different from the original. I want to enjoy playing in an established setting, so I keep trying, over and over again: Star Trek, Star Wars, Dresden Files, Babylon 5, Buffy & Angel, Doctor Who, Marvel comics, Ghostbusters, Leverage, Primeval, and others. Sometimes it works; more often it falls flat for me. It’s not that it’s not fun, it’s that it’s not as fun as experiencing the source material was–and often not as fun as playing in a different setting.
For me, there are several ways out of this conundrum. The most obvious would be to not play in an established setting. But, for me at least, RPGs with strongly-established, detailed settings don’t cause the same problems as RPGs based around previously-existing settings. Ars Magica, SkyRealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein, Underground, Werewolf: the Apocalypse–these are some of my favorite RPGs of all time. (Not to mention my continued weakness for similar detailed original settings, even knowing I’ll probably never get to play them: Eoris, Eclipse Phase, Freemarket, Harn, Glorantha, Mechanical Dream, Earthdawn, A|State, Blue Planet, Tribe 8, and others all grace my shelves, often to the tune of dozens of books.)
Adapted Setting Bad; RPG Setting Good
The difference is that a well-crafted RPG setting is just that–a setting, first and foremost. It is designed for play, and thus leaves an opening for the players to fit into. Whereas most of the settings that originate in other media are the backdrops for character dramas, and thus focused around those characters. We may love the settings, but what makes the stories as enthralling as they are are the specific characters, interactions, and plots of those stories. Keep the setting, but change the characters or eliminate the quest, and it loses the luster. I’ve tried more than once to recapture the awesomeness of Blake’s 7, but either you get too far from the original, and thus lose it, or you find yourself trapped in the original, and you’re no longer playing an RPG–you’re just retelling someone else’s story. It’s the same trap that American remakes of BBC shows fall into, and why they’re almost always disappointing.
This isn’t inevitable. One of the best ways to fight this problem is to take the setting you love, but tell a different story in it than the existing stories. Middle Earth is a wonderful setting, but it’s hard to play during The Lord of the Rings and not feel like the back-benchers. However, there is all the history after Return of the King that is unwritten. Or, let Sauron win, and now you have Midnight–all that Middle Earthy goodness, without having to constantly defer to the story lines and characters of the books.
Existing Settings That Work
In some cases, the setting is so well developed that there is room for other stories within it. Maybe before or after the published stories, or in another part of the world, or in the “cracks” of the existing stories (I’ve heard about some awesome Star Wars games that focused on characters “just off screen” from the events in the original trilogy). Star Trek is a prime example of this–you can pretty easily “clone” the source material to create a great RPG experience: just create your own crew, on your own ship, and send them in a different direction, and you’ve got the Star Trek experience, except you’ve made it your own.
The next kind of setting that works really well for an RPG is the truly vast setting. I can think of two prime examples that work really well (from experience). Games based on the Marvel or DC comic book superhero universes are pretty easy. You can even engage with a lot of the world-shaping events, because these universes are so vast that there are hundreds of goings-on that never show up in the comics. Sure, the X-Men may be leading the fight for mutant rights, but that doesn’t mean your group of heroes can’t face similar trials, or make a contribution to the bigger story. Even the Flash can’t be everywhere at once (and while Doctor Fate or Doctor Strange perhaps can, they have bigger fish to fry).
Another, slightly odder example that I’ve found works really well is Doctor Who. The universe of Doctor Who is literally limitless–if you can imagine it, it can be part of it, somewhere and somewhen. But the real reason it can work is that it plays equally well–though very differently–with or without The Doctor. You can play with him, because there are hundreds of years of his life we haven’t seen on TV (or read in books), not to mention all the future regenerations we have yet to see. You can play with another Time Lord or Lady. You can play a game without Time Lords–and with or without time travel. You can play an entire group of Time Lords and Ladies. And so on. There’s even room to play games with the established companions, traveling with their established incarnation of the Doctor, just set between the established stories. Big Finish has been making a living off of this for years.
But Doctor Who‘s an odd duck. And the number of settings that are both vast enough to have room for additional stories, detailed enough to give you something to go on for those additional stories, and not overly dependent on their original main characters, is actually kinda short, IMHO. So, if you have a yen to play in an established setting, what do you do?
Making It Work
I already mentioned one solution: twist it. Change the history (“we’re playing Star Wars, but starting right after A New Hope, and that movie will be the entirety of the canon”), pickup where the original left off (“Angel, season 6, anyone?”), or move to the other side of the world/galaxy (that’s pretty much the explanation for the West Coast Avengers).
But I think there’s an even better solution: figure out what it is you want, and then play that. So, is it the setting of Firefly that you really want, or is it Mal and Wash and Jayne? If it’s the latter, either admit it, and play them, or take that basic dynamic and put it into your own setting. Create your own space western, unconstrained by the TV show–take as little or as much of it as you want.
I know for me, when I’ve most enjoyed using established settings–both those that started outside RPGs, and those crafted for an RPG–was when we made them our own. And the best games force you to do this. Dresden Files, Smallville, and Ars Magica all have a reasonably-detailed world to start with. But the reason they work, and don’t leave you feeling overly constrained by that established setting is that the established setting is painted in broad strokes, and part of setting up the game is creating your own detailed subletting to play in. I think Ghostbusters pioneered this technique with its franchise conceit–it’s certainly the first game I’m aware of to do it. If you really want to play in an established setting, I’ve come to think this is the best way to do it.
It’s Not About the Setting
However, maybe when thinking about it, you’ll realize that what you really love about your favorite book or TV show is the story, the characters, and their interactions–and the setting is cool, but secondary. In that case, don’t bother with a licensed RPG. Instead, find an RPG that’s about that style of story. Like exploring the interpersonal consequences of doing dark things for a living? Grab Blowback. Love crazy plots with quirky characters making dumb choices? Play Fiasco. Want the general story structure of a TV show with seasonal storyarcs [think How I Met Your Mother or Heroes]? Primetime Adventures is your game. Want heroic-yet-grounded adventures in a world of elves and orcs and dwarves? Never mind MERP or One Ring–get yourself a copy of Burning Wheel. Want freewheeling space opera adventures? Maybe you want Star Wars–but maybe you’d be better served by Bulldogs! or Savage Worlds.
Each of these games relies on the players to build a setting out of common elements and shared choices. And they give you–in some cases force upon you–the kind of story that made you fall in love with the that original book or movie in the first place. Sure, I may miss my Corellian freighters or cylons–but I’ll also be playing a more satisfying game, crafting stories of our own that give the same thrill those originals gave me, precisely by divorcing our game a little more from the source material.
…Unless it is About the Setting
As an added bonus, you avoid the biggest pitfall of the established setting: differing understandings of the setting. Even if you actually do want to play in the setting–that’s really what attracts you–you need a whole group who is familiar with the setting, and roughly equally familiar. This, right here, is probably the second most significant reason why I’ve had much more fun with rich RPG-specific settings than with RPGs set in rich pre-existing settings. With a setting created for an RPG, at worst, everyone reads the setting, and you’re all on the same page. If it’s based on some other source material, you have to separately acquire that source material, and then read/watch/listen to it. Or you have to accept that not everyone is on the same page. This was a problem at first for our Dresden Files game–i read the RPG books, but I’ve only read one of the novels, while everyone else in the group has read every single thing published. But I’ll talk more about that in a future post.