Series Info...#9: Building Blocks, Part 3: Setting

by Travis S. Casey
June 1, 2001

Moving on through our survey of the major elements of RPGs, next on the list is setting. Last time, I said that scenario is the most crucial of the three elements for a computer RPG. That's true, in so far as it goes -- but in an ongoing, online world, setting is (or at least, should be) the source of scenario.

What do I mean by that? A good setting suggests ideas for scenarios; and, even more, scenarios naturally arise out of the interactions of elements of a good setting. For example, let's consider that most cliché of fantasy settings: a land where the rising power of a Dark Lord (Dark Ladies are not quite so cliché) is extending a shadow across the lands of the Good Peoples.

Ok, now that you've had a chance to stop chuckling, let's go on. The reason that this sort of setting gets used so often is that it immediately suggests a type of scenario: the quest to stop the Dark Lord. This can be a long process, giving rise to many scenarios along the way. A typical escalation might be:

  1. the Dark Lord's evil minions are discovered
  2. seeking out the base of the evil minions
  3. confront the minions; gain clues that they're part of something larger
  4. seek out information
  5. find out about the Dark Lord, and that he needs a certain magical item
  6. go seeking the magical item, to keep it from the Dark Lord

... and so on. In addition, such settings generally have an ongoing war between the Army of Darkness and the Forces of Light, which opens up a set of military scenarios as well.

I mentioned above that scenarios should naturally arise from interactions of setting elements; what this means is that things that happen within the setting, which may or may not be results of player actions, should give rise to potential new scenarios. For example, consider what happens if/when the Dark Lord is defeated in the above setting. This might seem like the end, but consider where things could go next. Just because the Dark Lord is gone doesn't mean all his minions suddenly disappear. It could take years to "mop up" afterwards. Further, if things went to a full-scale war, there may be a good deal of rebuilding and resettling to do -- and the longer the Dark Lord's minions were around, the more there will be to do.

This is an important thing to consider in building a world for an online game -- you don't want it to be too limited. The classic Dark Lord scenario ignores or skims over the aftermath of the struggle, but in many ways, that can be the most interesting part of such a setting. After all, only one player or small group of players will probably get to participate directly in the ultimate defeat of the dark lord, and the whole struggle may not be of much interest to some potential players. In rebuilding, however, there are many more potential opportunities to participate, and there's room for players who want to explore, to build things, or to play the game in other ways that don't involve going out and killing monsters.

To put it in general terms, here are two major things to think about when designing a setting:

Points of interest. What interesting features does this setting have? Do they suggest ideas for scenarios? Could they be changed so that they would? Note that these "points" don't have to be locations -- they could be situations (such as the Dark Lord's rising power above, or a state of tension between two countries), activities that exist in the setting (such as "troubleshooting" missions in Paranoia's setting), items (such as the various books of the Cthulhu Mythos), or anything else that scenarios can be centered around. It's also wise to consider what directions one could move in to add new points of interest to the setting.

Span. How long do you expect the current state of the setting to last? Does a "next stage" for the setting suggest itself? If this next stage is dependent on player actions, what alternative next stages are there? (Or to put it another way, what if the players *don't* stop the Dark Lord?) And, while we're considering that, how much effort will be needed to bring this "next stage" about? Note that you can consider the span of each of the points of interest, if you want to.

You can think of these two elements as being breadth and depth of the setting, respectively. A setting for a multiplayer online RPG needs a lot more of each than a typical paper RPG setting does. Where a large, active paper RPG group might have a dozen players and meet for six hours or so a week, even a small MORPG is going to have from a few dozen to a few hundred players logged into it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The need for scenarios is so great that such games typically rely on infinitely repeatable scenarios or require the players to generate their own scenarios. Even in these cases, however, you still need a strong setting -- in the first case, you'll need a continuous stream of new scenarios to keep experienced players coming back, and in the second case, a good setting that suggests scenarios will help the players in coming up with them.

As well, you can think about the different kinds of players, and what sort of setting elements could accommodate them. Players with dramatist leanings will appreciate elements of a setting that can help make for good stories -- which is pretty much the same consideration as that for a setting's points of interest. Those with gamist leanings tend to focus more on the scenario level, but a continuing thread running through scenarios may be of interest to them -- especially if they're linked in such a way that doing the "right thing" in one scenario can pay off in a later one. Those with simulationist leanings may actually be the biggest fans of a well-developed setting, appreciating the logical sense that it makes, and especially how new plot threads seem to arise in a natural fashion from what has gone before.

Looking at a setting from the perspectives of Bartle's suits, achievers will tend to find a setting where they can accomplish something lasting to be attractive. Explorers appreciate the breadth of a setting, since it gives them more to look over. Socialisers and Killers may be the hardest two types to make a setting appeal to, but with effort, it can be done. For example, a typical fantasy world needs bards and minstrels to truly be complete -- and barkeepers too. Those sorts of roles, involving a great deal of interaction with other players, will tend to appeal to socialisers. Killers really have their own game within the game, but they can often be put to use within a setting by allowing them to play "bad guys" of various sorts, or by setting up competing factions within the setting.

There's a lot of work that goes into creating an online world, and because of that, abandoning one once it's begun can be very, very hard -- and that's a primary reason why planning ahead in this way is important. I know I've said it several times already, but it's the most important point in all of this: a good setting suggests ideas for scenarios. If you have a hard time thinking of ideas for scenarios within a setting that you imagine, or if there seems to be a natural "end" to the setting, it may not be well suited for an online world. If you're not sure about a setting, talk it over with other people -- if it interests them and gives them ideas, then it may be a good setting. Talk to them, and see if their ideas spark ideas for you. And if not... well, there's always another world to imagine.

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