How Do You Present a Setting?

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It's a question, not a statement because I am researching how others do it. So far, my favorite way to present a setting, especially unusual ones, it found in The Petal Hack by Brett Slocum.

PetalHackTOC

In three short pages, this overview delivers what players need to know about what makes Tékumel good and what makes it different. Brett also provides information about why characters would go on an adventures and links to learn more about the world. For all my reading about Tékumel, I never felt like I could run an adventure there until I read this brief introduction.

For anything I've read to date, this is my gold standard for explaining a setting to players. To abstract it a bit, I want to tell players the following:

  • These things exist or are in abundance (Magic, Deities, etc.)
  • These things do not exist or are scarce (Calvary, Iron, etc.)
  • Things to know about Culture(s) (Ethics, Politics, etc.)
  • Very brief overview of places (Five Empires)
  • Why characters go on adventures
  • Links (not pages in a book) to more information.

What Would Wizards Do (WWWD)?

When Wizards announced that it was releasing The Guildmaster's Guide to Ravinca, I waited for it to be listed on Amazon to see the Table of Contents. (I won't be able to buy it until maybe Spring). I wanted to see how they would present a new setting. I figured that the page count would be longer as 5e has more intricate rules that first edition of The Black Hack.

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picture of TOC from link to Amazon's preview images of the book

To my surprise, the Welcome to Ravinca section was also three pages. Reading further, though, it seems those three pages only cover three of my six items on the list: These Things Exist/Are in Abundance, What is Different, Things to know about Culture. Maybe it also includes an overview of places, but I won't know until I read it. The currency item struck me as odd. I've rarely encountered a group that cared about what the money was named nearly as much as its composition. (Just tell me if it's a gold piece, silver piece, or copper piece.)

I was not surprised that more information about the setting is in the book instead of external links. Linking to information about Ravinca in Magic: The Gathering doesn't necessary inform players of Ravinca in D&D. Outside of that, Tékumel has also existed in several different RPGs whereas Ravinca is a setting new to them.

It feels a bit like comparing apples to oranges, but gives me some information to answer my big question. Both books provide a very brief overview that covers the distinctive elements of a setting. Both books seem to cover elements of the overview in more details in subsequent chapters. However, I still think that a short paragraph that states why a character is adventuring in the setting is valuable before discussing how to generate an adventure in that setting. I will admit, though, that I am very biased to a setting book containing a player section and a separate GM section.

What Would Monte Do (WWMD?)

Looking at the Numenera Core Rulebook, I have to guess from the full-size PDF preview from DriveThruRPG, that pages 11 to 14  cover the brief intro to the Ninth World. I'm not including the Getting Started section or the Why I Wrote This section. Without more detail, I went to the Numenera website to get an overview of the setting.

In 574 words, this elevator pitch manages to provide an overview of all but two elements: These things do not exist and Links to more information. The main idea of the setting is that anything is possible, so it could be argued that limits do not exist. That said, I believe it would be more fair to say that it includes everything I would want to imagine playing in the world. It accomplishes its small word count by suggesting possibilities. It invites the reader to fill in missing gaps. (I suppose as a promotional piece to encourage sales, it has a different audience that an intro in the purchased book itself.)

What Would Anyone Else Do (WWAED?)

Looking through other systems, Rune Stryders for EABA has a short page about Ruhn that says a lot about what is different, but leaves out descriptions of any known places in the setting (that is covered elsewhere in the book). It is engaging and pretty straightforward, but feels too brief for my tastes.

The Hellfrost: Player's Guide for Savage Worlds uses two pages to introduce the setting. It seems to cover all the items I mentioned at the beginning. Magic is unreliable (What is scarce), winters are getting longer and colder (What is abundant), a sketch about the kingdoms (places), a bit about culture change as a result of the war, and even a couple paragraphs of where players can start.

Lastly, many old-school settings use tables to detail a new setting. It is an indirect method that allows the GM to discover the world as much as players do. For my Samoora setting, I have only one encounter table so far and it features creatures, magic, and terrain that is not covered in the summary. Using tables provides a lot of utility with an economy of words: if done well, it's not just brief, but evocative of the setting.

For example, one entry on my encounter table references sentient beings not mentioned in the player's guide.

You encounter a pair of neighboring tiny villages. One has three dozen forges with blacksmiths toiling in full plate mail. The other village contain a handful of one room huts containing a dozen or so swords hanging on the walls. There are no doors in any structure in the two villages. While you are deciding what to do, several men arrive dressed in full plate armor. They are silently wheeling in raw iron ore on carts. Their armor is caked in dirt.

I'm not saying that I've written this entry well, but I provide it as an example of something that is encountered that is best not explained in advance. I don't want to write up every race of sentient creature in the first few pages. I'd have to create an entire book for all of them.

I may decide to go this route as I enjoy it the more I think about it.

Conclusion (WWID?)

Again, I don't claim to have the answers, but I think Brett introduced Tékumel very well in a short space. He covers six essentials things that players (and potential GMs) need to know about a setting before diving into the details. I like talking about what is missing or scarce in a setting as much as talking about what new and different elements exist. Looking at other examples, I imagine that two or three pages is the right size to provide a solid overview. In my next post I plan to link to my Introduction to the Samoora Sea using these examples as a guideline.

 

 

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