RPG Settings – The Useful and the Not So Useful


Over at Department V, Ralph Lovegrove details points that line up with my own thoughts on the threat the Official Traveller Universe brings to an RPG session of Traveller.

Here’s a passage (the whole thing is worth a read):


These are the regulars of the setting book format:

  • History of past events that justify the current climate (including myths, metaphysical incidents, and possibly future milestones)
  • Things that can happen: events, triggers, and adventures
  • Geography (with maps and locations)
  • Individual NPCs
  • Organised factions
  • Monsters
  • New degrees of freedom for characters, including classes, powers, etc.
  • Setting-relevent technical bits e.g. how to construct a castle
  • Sometimes these things are clumped together in chapters, sometimes they’re scattered or crammed into appendices or sidebars, sometimes they’re only implied.

I propose looking at those elements by functionality. I have three categories:

  1. Things that state or justify the status quo. This includes history, myth, people and factions, geography, culture, and so forth.
  2. Things that serve to upset the status quo. This includes tools to manage changes in factions, potential events (triggers or “bangs”, etc.) and tools for dynamic expansion of the play area (e.g. sandbox generation in Sine Nomine’sgames).
  3. Subsystems for specific circumstances (if we meet this monster, if we build a castle, if I pick this character class, etc.)

My beef with setting books is they are preoccupied with #1 and leave the GM to muddle through #2, which is where the game actually happens. Much as I love Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor it fails in this regard — it implies a status quo that the PCs should be upsetting, but it leaves the mechanism for causing that upset entirely to the GM (hooks and links sheets are not enough).

Category 2 is where the GM and players take ownership of the campaign — which should be the design goal of all published settings. Settings should be written from a GM-player perspective; too many are written from an author-reader perspective, and do not acknowledge the need for these mechanisms, and are incomplete products as a consequence.

I took my own stab on this topic recently at the Citizens of the Imperium forum, which is ostensibly about playing the various versions of Traveller, but is really about arguing about the Third Imperium (the house setting GDW created for Traveller).

Someone wrote:

The one problem I have with running an ATU – which I am – is that my players are left largely ignorant of the universe in which their characters have notionally been functioning for some fifteen or twenty years. In some respects they’re as ignorant at 38 or 46 as they would be expected to be at, say, 18.

Sure, I can shore that up with exposition via the “your character, with an education of X, would certainly know that the Grand Foofaw of Wapapitame Nine has been petitioning for full Imperial recognition for the past fifteen years.” The biggest notional advantage of the OTU for me is that the players have at least the opportunity to inform themselves about a broad background of Imperial culture, politics and whatnot. With an ATU, for the sake of creative license you trade away that potential for deep player knowledge and autonomy.

Granted, it’s all I can do to get players to familiarize themselves with the basic rules, so this might not make a difference. I try to spin up some background color and chrome for them to read outside of game time, but who the heck knows what they actually read!

I replied:

If you look at the text of the original three little black books of Classic Traveller you’ll find no mention of The Imperium or any reference to any details that later came to define the OTU.

This was on purpose. Miller and company assumed every would go off and build their own settings. (Miller has been explicit about this in interviews.)

Second point: if you read the original text of LBBs 1-3 you’ll find that the the default assumption is that the PCs travel an area at the edge/frontier/whatever of a centralized government. If you look at the selection of ships, weapons, the world generation system, and how trade works, it is clear they have left “civilization” far behind.

The assumption then, is that the PCs are NEW to the area of play. They served their time in the forces back in “civilized” space, and now — like Civil War soldiers going west, or mustered British soldiers going to the Indies — they are heading off to new lands to make fortunes.

I bring this up only to say that I don’t think Traveller was ever designed or meant to be played with a four foot stack of supplements supporting it. What mattered was the setting material that the PCs could learn about and interact with *through* adventures.

This issue of setting bloat is something that happened after the first wave of RPGs. TSR, GDW, and others were certainly happy to produce material that consumers wanted to spend money on. But I question how much valuable utility actually came from such purchases. While I can see the fascination with countless details about fictional worlds I would propose asking anyone (players or referee) how much digging through and mastering a thick background of setting really matters against having the players focusing on this adventure, right here, right now.

I mean this challenge in the most practical sense: honestly ask how much all that thick material imperial lineage matters to some ex-marines getting caught up in a derelict ship with aliens coming to kill them.

Please note: I’m not talking about having NO context or background. I’m asking: how much does one really need to support sessions of regular play focused on adventure-style tales.

Note as well that the 1977 version of the rules assumed that TWO SUBSECTORS would be enough of a setting area to keep players busy for years. (The concept of a “sector” isn’t even in the text!) The 1981 edition said there would never be need to go larger than a sector. (A nod to the release of Spimward Marches material released the same year.)

The OSR in the field of fantasy RPGs has been solid in their recognition that what you need is to focus on background material that matters to the PCs *through play.* My own approach to Classic Traveller is to bring this OSR sensibility back to the game. (In this and in other ways.)

I’ll be playing some Classic Traveller tonight, set at the boundaries of interstellar empires (much smaller than the OTU). The remains of a fallen empire will be scattered across the worlds of the subsectors. There will be settlements to lay claim to worlds. Local politics. And, significantly, the PCs will be recent arrivals, here to make their fortunes outside the bounds of civilization, just as the rules of LLBs 1-3 suggest. What they need to know is what they have to learn.

6 thoughts on “RPG Settings – The Useful and the Not So Useful

  1. Christopher, I approached this question last year on my blog; although I continue to use the universe that I’ve created. It is sector-sized, but I find that one or two subsectors is all I can focus on without getting lost in writing the setting. I still enjoy building the setting, but as it’s mine, I can change it if I want to, to make an adventure work better. I hope you’ll have a look at what I wrote,
    and I’m interested to see how similar or different our conclusions are.

    Best regards,

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