Settings in Roleplaying Game Rules

How important is the setting in a RPG rules product?

I’ve had a couple of products on my shelf for a while, both of them non-OSR, but the lessons I’ve learned are relevant to all RPGs.
They are Starfinder (Paizo) and Coriolis – The Third Horizon (Modiphius/Free League).

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On the face of it, they are aimed at similar markets. About the same size and thickness, hardback, sci-fi roleplaying.

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When I purchased them, I flipped through to look at the pictures, feel the quality, and generally get a ‘feel’ for the tone of the game. This was a skim, not a delve into rules.

My first-glance thoughts were as follows:

Starfinder

Basically, Pathfinder rules combined with 73 out of 520 pages of setting to bind it together (14% setting).

Coriolis

A d6 dice pool system, with ‘Arabian Nights in Space’ theme. 180 of 360 pages of setting (circa 50% setting).


Some Time Later…

Something attracted me more to exploring the Coriolis book than the Starfinder book. I’ve now delved deeper into both rules and their respective settings, and come to some thought-provoking conclusions.

My brain needs a setting woven into a rule system that captures my imagination and makes the rules homogeneous and believable. It should bring those rules to life when I read them, and engage me in a significant way. A way that makes me want to carry on reading the rules and more importantly, to run/play.

Starfinder seems very flat. The setting is a kind of generic sci-fi. It has the usual alien races, planets, and spacecraft. The kind of thing you saw aired over seven seasons back in the 90’s. That’s not to say you cannot bend the setting into your own versions/needs, but while I read the rules I didn’t get engaged enough to want to run it. Anyone familiar with Pathfinder, will know what the rules are all about. It’s D20-based, D&D 3/3.5e stuff with a buff and polish.

The Starfinder stock setting requires a delve into my memory banks to access sci-fi TV I have watched.

Coriolis is the opposite. The setting has me thinking about all kinds of great NPCs and adventure seeds as I read it. The book is designed with a homage to the setting, the theme is continuous and engaging. The character creation is all wrapped up in setting. It’s glorious. I forgot about the rules system as I got wrapped up in the setting, but it’s basically a d6 dice pool system. The number of d6s rolled are based on your stat+skill+modifier. Any 6 is a Limited Success. Three or more 6s are a Critical Success.

The Coriolis stock setting feels familiar. It’s based on an alternative, futuristic north African/Middle-Eastern premise in the cold of space, and it works beautifully. Outside of the bustling space-station bazaar, through the cold void of space, I see planets like a Mos Eisley-style Persia — Marrakesh, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Iran filled with domed mud buildings, exquisite Persian architecture, and bong pipes filled with strange opiates, and the scent of exotic spices from far away planets, brought to the markets by spice traders.
Great clothing reference: http://istizada.com/arab-clothing-the-ultimate-guide/

My desire to play/run Coriolis is strong. My desire to play/run Starfinder is meh.

What does this mean to me?

As a publisher of games, adventures, and settings. This has made me realise the importance of creating rules that are not bland, vanilla-flavoured, or stripped of character to allow people to add their own settings in. I can’t read bland. I don’t like bland. I like spicy food. I like spicy games.

The setting should heavily influence the rules, and maybe even be written before.

As an example, let’s say I am writing some post-apoc OSR rules — which would be heavily based on other rules under the OGL. I want to establish the setting in a believable world, I can take cultures from earth and use them to add the flavour. Maybe take Japanese cultural influences, such as samurai, cherry blossoms, temples and Shinto shrines, buddha, etc and make that post-apoc. Once that’s formed, I can then re-write the rules but tailored to the settings, adding flavourful, settings-specific rules that feel well-placed. The two should be almost seamless.

So,

  1. Do I want to write rules without a setting? Nope.
  2. Do I want to write rules and include a basic, vanilla setting? Nope.
  3. Do I want to write a setting, and then find, use and rework appropriate rules that can be blended into the setting I have created? Hell yes.

It seems to me, that Free League and Modiphius have done this with things like Symbaroum, Tales From The Loop, Mutant Year Zero, and many of their other offerings.

In conclusion, they are not writing game rule systems, they are creating rich worlds to explore and adding some rules to allow it. That to me, is how it should be done — OSR or not.

 

10 thoughts on “Settings in Roleplaying Game Rules

  1. Good post. Yes the Coriolis setting existed long before the system. And though the basic rule set was designed for a different system (Mutant Year Zero), it is actually very different in play. The same goes for Tales From The Loop, which again uses the same core mechanic, but in a player-facing narrative mode.

  2. How funny we share the same problem to a T. I have both Starfinder and Coriolis and have ran neither. One, Starfinder was a gift by my wife who knew I like Sci-Fi and the other I bought because the premise sounded awesome. I agree with your writing 100% Now get out there and play!!

  3. I really dig you conclusion: write the setting first and then find or create rules to fit. That’s definitely a good way to go.

    Now the question is: how do you best present setting?

  4. This is what you achieved in The Midderlands, there was a very good balance of rules, setting and I think a third thing thats something where those first two blend and give a sort of tingly feeling to the imagination. You called it game juice and it summed it up perfectly, Its very strong in the Midderzine too IMO. Enthusiasm/enjoyment meets a good balance It happens in some products and creates a wonderful fusion on those rare occasions. All together they give that creative nudge to the reader that allows them to run with it AND feel authentic, while also feel like spontaneous creativity is not only possible but doesnt threaten that feeling of authenticity in the slightest – it still feels like canon without having to try to fit canon. Art and production also has a place here although tastes vary, and thats not saying big glossy productions are always the way, sometimes something that feels more tactile and approachable works much better and that can be harder to pull off right, still though every now and then a product comes along and pow! all those factors come together. Ive also found over the years that a blend of module and background setting are often where Ive found this most often to work best. Early Enemy Within had this, 3rd Edition Runequest didnt, in fact it lost it in a bid to be more generic. Glorantha faded into the distance in the rulebook and the game struggled for a long time. It wallowed in the doldrums and became a bit spiritless although eventually they tapped back inwith rereleases of the revamped old modules that then lead to a resurgence in Glorantha. If a rulebook or supplement see those rules pop with pieces of the setting wrapped up in them, you cant help but read through every detail including NPC stat blocks looking for and finding clues of the setting and perhaps its because its turning the setting into something tangible here that can manifest in gameplay here and there. Things like Midderlands Fish having possible uses after slaying them which leads to adventure seeds or better yet, player driven narrative. This on top of flavourful (pardon the pun) stat blocks adds extra layers to what in many less colourful supplements might just be rather dull to read or at least useful but 1 dimensional. That I think supports the whole, even if you dont want to use the particular rules offered it still prods the mind into concocting something similar in your chosen system, it guides you. I love that!

    1. Loving the “Ettiene L’Equinian” haha. Thank you for the kind comments about The Midderlands :). I need to have ‘game juice’ in the first few pages of a book. That can be a setting or a rulebook. It’s harder to achieve in a rulebook only.
      If you take reader engagement as the key goal, a rulebook/setting should grab attention in the first few pages or moments and hook you in. Films and novels do it, and so should role-playing books. It’s why I like Coriolis and not Starfinder.
      I want to know the basic feel of the setting in the first 3 pages, and have it punch me in the face and WANT me to run it… how that is achieved is an art.

      1. Yup I agree, and it is a fine art. Too much rules without the feel of the setting, or too much mood and nothing to express that in-game is a tight-rope walk. I think as you get older or more experienced as a GM you can jig that into a game if its lacking somewhere in the material but its so much nicer if the book or supplement you are reading from encourages and enthuses that already. Its like marinating a good meal. Beyond the wall has an interesting approach too and I only discovered that recently, it tweaks some of the standard rules a little bit like spell lists and adds some nice dimensions to character races thats quite a light touch but leaves you the reader thinking about other possibilities along the same lines. It feels quite like the ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ books in some ways and it mentions Ursula le Guin in the credits among others. Enthusiasm from the creators about the game infuses something that GM wants to capture and put into the game I think. Although even then its not guaranteed perhaps!

  5. This is exactly what I have been thinking. Most of my favourite RPGs share these traits: KULT, Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, WFRP and now Symbaroum and Coriolis.

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