Roleplaying settings run the gamut from post-singularity transhumanism to 1920s pulp to stone age neolithic. Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been published in the last forty years, plus countless home brew versions. But despite their differences, there are several underlying factors that determine how good a setting is to roleplay in. These aren’t cosmetic details, but foundational issues that permeate all genres. When shopping for a setting, or creating your own from scratch, it’s important to keep them in mind.
The Setting Needs a Variety of Problems
Conflict is essential for stories; any neophyte storyteller can tell you that. It’s just as vital to roleplaying games as it is to prose writing. You can’t send your PCs to raid the dragon’s lair if there’s no dragon. Roleplaying games have an extra complication, because in most cases you need to come up with a new problem every week and it needs to be a problem big enough to involve every main character.
As such, roleplaying settings must be fraught with conflict. The Federation, for example, would be a terrible place to set your game. There just aren’t enough things going wrong there. Of course, other parts of the Star Trek universe would work just fine.*
While a novel can get away with a “trouble in paradise” story about the one time something went wrong in an otherwise awesome society, that won’t work for roleplaying. The players will realize their mere presence is enough to generate problems, and that quickly becomes contrived.
The greater your setting’s potential for conflict, the more options you have, and that’s a major plus. If you’ve had three sessions of morally gray political intrigue, it’s great to mix things up with a black and white combat mission. In order to do that, your setting needs to present a variety of problems that need solving.
The Setting Needs Incompetent Law Enforcement
In a well run society, there would be no need for Playable Characters (PCs), because their role would be filled by the police. In extreme cases, like the aforementioned dragon, you might call in the army. Society figured out a long time ago that preserving safety and security is a job for organized law enforcement rather than private individuals.*
If players figure out that someone else could be doing their job for them, it’s poison for your game. Why should they bother to go banish a rampaging ghost if the 1st Precinct’s Pan-Spiritual Response Team has already been called? You’ll see this if you ever run Hunter: The Vigil in concert with any other White Wolf setting. Mages, Vampires, and Werewolves already have their own police forces to keep the more dangerous members of their society in check, so there’s no need for hunters.
Law enforcement in your setting needs to be underfunded, corrupt, overstretched, or all three. It should be clear to any player that whatever this week’s problem is, they’re the only ones who can deal with it. Even better, your setting could have no law enforcement at all. Post-apocalyptic worlds are good candidates, but feudal and frontier societies can also exist with no organized police force.
This applies even if your PCs are part of the police. Then when the going gets tough, they can’t call for back up. Their squad is it. The one exception is if your PCs are working in direct opposition to law enforcement, as criminals or revolutionaries. In that case, you want the police to be competent so they can make effective antagonists. Of course, a healthy dose of corruption or moral failing is still a good idea, that way your PCs won’t come off as total jerks trying to undermine a perfectly healthy society.
The Setting Needs Some Mobility
Even if your game is a relatively stationary one, the PCs still need to get around. It will strain credibility if problems keep popping up in the same three block radius. Mobile PCs give you a wider field to work with. They might have dealt with all the difficulties facing the village of Adventureton, but Campaignville is just a day’s ride away!
Being ambushed on the road is a classic roleplaying trope, but you don’t want travel to be so dangerous that PCs won’t do it. Bandit raids and deadly rockslides should be exceptions, not the rule. Otherwise your players might decide it’s better to stay home.
Speed of transit matters a lot. The faster PCs can get around, the more responsive they can be. Characters with access to motorized transportation can cover quite an area, which gives you even more flexibility in generating your scenarios.
However, it’s also important to put limits on the PC’s mobility. If you give them a super fast spaceship and tell them to go nuts, they might abandon your planned adventure and go somewhere you haven’t made any content for. If you can never compel your PCs to stick around in one place, they might decide to head for the hills the moment they get frustrated.*
To keep mobility from getting out of hand, it’s good to build in some safeguards. If the PCs have a sailing ship, then you can always say the winds have died down, keeping them in port for the foreseeable future. If they’re in a spaceship, then perhaps it has to stop for maintenance from time to time. If they can teleport at will via magical powers, you may have a problem.
The Setting Needs a Level of Egalitarianism
Bigotry and prejudice are tricky subjects in any storytelling medium, and you have to be extra careful with them in roleplaying games. Players put a lot of themselves into their characters, and that makes everything far more personal. Someone who enjoys reading a story where the main character is confronted by racism might not like it so much if they’re playing that character. This isn’t to say you can’t tell difficult stories in roleplaying games, just that the protective barrier between audience and character is much thinner.
Roleplaying games, even horror ones, are almost always a scenario of empowerment.* So you don’t want a setting that makes it difficult for the players to experience that empowerment. For example, it wouldn’t be a good idea to make a setting where light skinned males are legally confined to domestic housework, with severe consequences if they step outside that role. Any light skinned male PC in that setting would spend all their time dealing with people who don’t want them to adventure, and that won’t be fun for a lot of players.
That example doesn’t exist in any roleplaying setting I know of, but its not uncommon to see settings where similar restrictions are placed on women. It means any female player who wants a character of her own gender will immediately be shoehorned into a story she might not be interested in.
This is why 7th Sea makes a better setting to roleplay in than historical 17th century Europe. In 7th Sea, you can play an Innishman without getting banned from every respectable establishment in Carleon, which would not be the case if you were an Irishman in London. You can also play a woman with a sword without being sent to a convent.
If your players like the idea of playing with a prejudiced society, you can increase the bias level, but it’s best to start at a low baseline. This way people who came to the table expecting a fun night of dungeon looting won’t be ambushed by racism.
The Setting Needs Limited Magic/Technology
The more powerful a story’s magic or technology is, the greater chance there’ll be some kind of exploitable loophole. In a book or movie, the worst you will see is fans and critics complaining on the internet. In a roleplaying game, PCs will exploit that loophole until the story begs for mercy.
Unlike characters in a prose work, PCs have their own free will, and won’t always ignore a setting damaging exploit just because the GM asks them to. Clerics in Pathfinder can create an infinite amount of water with the 0th level spell Create Water,* so any story relying on water shortages is out the window. Star Trek is so full of exploitable technologies it would take all day to list them. While a clever GM can get past these issues with some frantic hand-waving, it’s better not to have them at all.
Firefly is a great example of how to do this right. The setting is rife with advanced technology, but any questions of why it isn’t used on a larger scale can be answered by “too expensive.” Outside the core worlds, access to the really high tech stuff is rare. Since the rim and border worlds are where your PCs will do most of their adventuring, that works out nicely. Call of Cthulhu does a great job limiting the use of magic, because sorcerers who try to exploit it go insane.
Another option is to follow the magical/technological implications to their natural conclusion, as we see in Avatar: The Last Airbender.* In that setting, people’s telekinetic control of the four classical elements means they can build huge cities and travel vast distances despite relatively low levels of technology.
Either way, the key is to establish consistent rules so that players won’t have to constantly suspend their disbelief.* That way they can focus on the story without being distracted by the implications of healing magic in a medieval society.
Putting in the work to get your setting’s magic/technology consistent, or choosing an existing setting where that’s already the case, will save you a lot of effort in the long run. GMs can overcome most shortcomings in a setting, but each one will cost them. Instead, why not use a setting that’s optimally tuned for adventure?
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