What Makes a Good Roleplaying Setting?

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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  1. Ethan C.

    Good tips, Oren. One thing that I might add, as a sub-topic to “The Setting Needs a Variety of Problems,” is that the setting must be changeable by a small group of individuals.

    Not only do you need dragons to exist, but you also need them to be killable by a group of 4-6 PCs of whatever level your party is. Or if the dragons are too strong, the orcs or goblins are killable.

    Whatever problems exist need to be solvable by means of gameplay. Those means will vary depending on what the game is; if you’re playing D&D or Pathfinder, or any other system with a lot of emphasis on combat it’s a good idea for most problems to be stab-able or shootable. If you’re playing an investigative game, the bad guys need to leave enough clues that they can be caught. If you’re playing a sci-fi game, make sure that smart use of the setting’s technology will give the PCs an advantage.

    In short, while you’re coming up with things for the PCs to do, make sure they’re the sort of things the PCs actually *can* do.

  2. Ethan C.

    Thanks, Oren!

    The issue I bring up is what’s always stymied my ability to get into a game of Vampire: The Masquerade. While I find the setting extremely cool, it’s very hard for me to figure out how exactly a group of PCs could have much of an effect on anything. The combination of Camarilla laws, clan loyalties, sires’ power over their childer, and blood bonds all seem to take so much agency away from the PCs that it’s hard for me to find any plots believable. And on top of all that there’s the apocalypticism of the antedilluvians’ reawakening hanging over everything, making even major changes seem probably irrelevant.

    • RVCBard

      Yes! This is what I hated most about all the dense setting stuff about White Wolf games–so much so that I plan to completely ignore it if I ever run a World of Darkness game again. There will be no infrastructure–only monsters.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m of the opinion that there are two ways to run Vampire: The Masquerade in keeping with the setting as written. You can either play in a very remote outpost of the Camarilla, where the PCs are big fish in small pond, and nothing as important as antedilluvians ever shows up, or your PCs can be high ranking vampires plotting and pulling other’s strings.

      The second works much better with a very small group, as it can get a little crazy having six powerful vamps all working together.

      • Mike

        I don’t know that one has to be that extreme. How many decades- or centuries-old vampire elders have enough spare time and interest to micromanage a group of restless neonates? And how many of said neonates who are being manipulated even realize that?

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Well, they don’t have to be the centuries old type of vampire to cause trouble. Most courts are going to have a number of vampires that are far more powerful than starting PCs, and such a rigid power structure, especially with your PCs starting at the bottom, will make it difficult for them to stand out.

        You get the same problem in settings like Legend of the Five Rings, but in Vampire the difference in power levels between an older vampire and a younger one is much smaller than between a starting L5R character and their lord.

    • JakeS

      My recommendation for V:TM would be “get Requiem,” because from a purely mechanical perspective it’s both a better world and a better system. You can even recreate the end-times pseudo-Catholic feel by setting the story in a city run by an Archbishop with a Millennialist streak.

      If you do want to run a V:TM game, though, my alternate recommendation would be “burn the splat books.” Like Star Wars, the core material is much more solid than the expanded universe.

      Once you’re down to the core book, the setting is not that difficult to fix. First, remember that Kindred society is slow-moving: Your troupe’s sires will typically have had their formative experiences before the Great War – certainly before color TV.

      With a hacker in the troupe, you can own your Prince’s telecommunications, and if relies on couriers delivering hand-written notes, then you have him at a massive informational disadvantage.

      A hedge fundie PC could easily become a major power broker by attacking their elders’ Resources in indirect ways that they can’t easily trace because they don’t understand modern financial markets.

      Oh, and microcameras are wonderful things. So many ways you can compromise a criminal cabal like the Camarilla without breaking Masquerade.

      Second, you’ll need to tone down the outright mind-reading powers, to give the PCs a chance of keeping secrets from their elders. One way to do that would be to insist that mind reading only gives the mind reader information, but not the contextual skills to make sense of it, unless the mind reader has those skills already.

      Finally, remember that power in V:TM typically come with an associated Humanity loss, and Humanity loss comes with a range of exploitable weaknesses, like reduced active hours and Derangements. (The alternative, high-Humanity elders, comes with even easier exploitable weaknesses, like idealism, which is why very few elders are high-Humanity.)

    • GeniusLemur

      That struck me about that setting as well. I read the rules and said, “There’s nothing to DO here! You can play petty, meaningless power games with other vampires and… well that’s about it, actually.”

      • Cay Reet

        Power games pretty much are what old vampires play not to die of ennui.

  3. Mike

    Is the Federation a bad location, or is it just the heart of the Federation that’s bad? Two Star Trek series (not counting the other three for various reasons) and several dozen books would suggest that Starfleet crews on the frontiers see plenty of problems. In fact, a lot of these rules and idea would seem to suggest sticking to the fringes in some manner or another.

    • Bronze Dog

      I’d say the problem with the heart of the Federation in Star Trek is that it’s (allegedly) too utopian, which makes it difficult for really dramatic sci-fi stories to happen to the same characters on a regular basis. Gene Roddenberry meant well in wanting to depict a bright future, but it limits your options if you want people to care about the story and characters.

      Fringes and borders often make for good settings because that’s where conflict tends to occur, and ultimately conflict is what stories are about.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Definitely you want to go with a story on the fringes of the Federation. That’s what every Trek show has done, for exactly the reasons you describe.

      There’s still the problem of Federation technology though, and how easily it can solve many problems. Plus even on the outskirts, the Federation’s power and resources can easily be projected at a problem, since what else are they going to spend those resources on?

      You can tap dance around this problem as a GM, but it’s a challenge you’ll want to prepare for.

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