Implied setting

Person holding tool during daytime. Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash.
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

‪The podcast “Fear of a Black Dragon” does the thing that yields my highest praise in gaming media: it makes me want to stop listening and go play a game! The episode on “Times That Fry Men’s Souls” is especially good, in large part due to the deep discussion of implied (emergent) setting. ‬

‪“Implied setting” means that the rules of a game define enough on their own, & the table comes up with the rest. (Jason & Tom do a better job summarizing.) I personally find that trying to focus on written, defined lore in a game often ends up leading to negative outcomes.

‪Sometimes you can get around this by explicitly declaring that your game’s instance of the Forgotten Realms / Doskvol / Bastionland / whatever is a thing unto itself. But even then, it’s easy to feel beholden to what’s written and overly constrained.

‪Worse, it can lead to gatekeeping by players or the GM who want to use it against folks. “Oh, there was a supplement that said this village actually has a ruling council of witches, this isn’t canon.” It can get worse in games using non-gaming universes like Star Wars. “Well, actually this deckplan is for a Star Destroyer model that didn’t exist yet in this timeline…”

‪As FoaBD points out, old school games like Original Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller often only had an implied setting: you could infer things from the classes and monsters and treasure and random tables and such, but the designers assumed the GM would create things as they go according to what we’d now call emergent storytelling.

When I look at new games I want to run, like Numenéra from Monte Cook Games, the lore drags me down. I’m not interested in learning about a bunch of pre-written NPCs that are set in stone, or locations and history that our characters are assumed to know. These things can be useful when we grab the stuff that fits our games or we might need in the moment and repurpose accordingly. Using material this way provides tools, not rules.

Disclosure: I am writing a section of an upcoming product from Gauntlet RPG, which is also responsible for this podcast.

One thought on “Implied setting

  1. Good points about implied setting, and I just had a thought about how I like my RuneQuest with Glorantha. I started playing RuneQuest in 1978 with just the RQ book, which does have a map, and soon a couple adventures, but still the setting other than having a map was pretty implied based on the rules. Cults of Prax added more, but I actually primarily engaged with the rules portions which do deepen the setting, but they still are more in the realm of implied setting, and not so much “this king ruled at this time, and the culture of this nation is that.” So my Glorantha is definitely based off some of the setting material that has been published, but it’s also got a strong dose of implied setting. Including that Sartar is quasi-medieval European (the 1978 RQ rules have medieval European armor and weapons). Sure, the book says “bronze age” but no, that’s not what the rules support.

    Frank

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