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).
On the face of it, they are aimed at similar markets. About the same size and thickness, hardback, sci-fi roleplaying.
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:
Basically, Pathfinder rules combined with 73 out of 520 pages of setting to bind it together (14% setting).
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.
- Do I want to write rules without a setting? Nope.
- Do I want to write rules and include a basic, vanilla setting? Nope.
- 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.