Special Snowflake settings

Lately there has been some chatter about “special snowflake” settings in my online discussions. One question has been, is it better to have lots of setting-specific information on a setting that players can or must know to enjoy the game? Or, is it better to have a more generic and accessible setting where assumptions hold in general?

I’m already telegraphing my take on this. I think the question itself could be reframed for a more useful discussion. You can focus on whether a campaign is distinct and different, but I think a more valuable question is how much buy-in and education a campaign requires to effectively play in its bounds.

A typical game of Old School Hack has a very, very low expectation of what you need to play. The basics of your character on are on the sheet, and you help the GM make the world up as you go.

Compare that to, say, Tekumel. This site says “If you’ve never encountered Tékumel before, you’ve stumbled upon an entire world the equal of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in detail and wonder: thousands of years of history, entire languages, rich cultures, unique creatures, bloody conflicts and fascinating mysteries.”

Yeah, when I read that I get the feeling there’s no room for me to just make a human fighter and get started. I will need to marinate in the details of a culture, to get a sense of its worldview and its naming traditions and maybe a bit of its geography and neighbors before I can even play in the game. That does not appeal to me.

Both Games Workshop (Warhammer) and Jack Shear (World Between) found a middle ground. “It’s like Europe, yeah? But with a [fantasy/Gothic] spin!” So you can have a player come in and say, “We’re playing in The Empire (or Caligari) and it’s like Germany, with a few key differences.” But the player knows to go with a Germanic name, and has some stereotypes available.samesameEven within that subset, what Jack finds to be sufficient setting detail and what I find to be sufficient setting detail differ considerably. He goes for a paragraph per country, I want a couple pages. But a couple pages for an entire country, and a handful for that part of the world–that’s not too much to absorb just to get started. And most of that is for the GM rather than being required for the player.

At my game table I have people who are eager to show up for new things to get in on the ground floor. It is harder for them to get excited about joining games in progress, especially games that have been going on for years. There’s a lot of layered history, both in what PCs have done and in what they’ve learned in their various adventures. New people have routinely had significant time in the game session with more seasoned players explaining some back story to them. Explaining why everyone who had been playing a while sat back and raised their eyebrows when a name came up, or why they’d go to this NPC for help.

What is the answer? Well… I think the answer is to have a gaming life where there are entry level games available, and also room for veterans and bold new players to go into venerable and storied games.

I like the idea of Justin Alexander’s “Open Table” gaming. I also like having long-running campaigns with their own culture. I think the main point of conflict is when players and GMs expect different things, or if players don’t have the same assumptions.

I recommend having a low-investment open-table option for when you are luring new people in, or when your veterans want a break. Then have your more refined offerings, with higher investment and expectations, for when that makes more sense. The open table is a great way to de-mystify your game table for players, and also to vet players to see who might be up for more rigorous settings. An open table helps find new blood, and having depth beyond the initial simplicity helps keep a group’s interest.

Okay, I admit it. I put the gif in this post because I think it’s hypnotic, it may or may not have direct relevance to the post.

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4 Responses to Special Snowflake settings

  1. Yora says:

    I think when it comes to creating settings, the best approach is to do both. Keep things mostly familiar and mundane, but introduce a small number of unique elements that have very far reaching effects. Players need to know only these three or four things and then hopefully most stuff they encounter and deal with in the campaign will make sense to them. Dark Sun can easily be summed up as a.) wizards turned the world into a desert, b.) the few most powerful remaining wizards rule over their personal cities, c.) the Templars are their personal guards who have everyone cower in fear, and d.) life in the world is so brutal and harsh that pretty much all living things have some psionic powers. It’s easy to remember and should be enough for players who don’t know anything about the setting to get into the campaign with characters who have a basic understanding of where they are and what they are doing.

  2. fictivite says:

    Yora: Your example works to a point. Then the new player will look at races, and suss out what a good name might be, and find out where the campaign is actually starting. If the game has been going on for a while, there is likely more on the circumstances where the group finds themselves.

    If the Dark Sun game has been going on for three years with this group and you’ve got a new player, then even with a basic entry there will still be a learning curve to figure out the scene. It makes sense to have a mentor PC assigned for one reason or another. (That’s what tends to happen in my more long-lived games.)

  3. imredave says:

    One of the features I liked best about the old Empire of the Petal Throne rules was that although the setting was quite intricate and complex, you started as a southern barbarian quite literally fresh off the boat and were not expected to know anything about the setting to begin with, As such you could quite easily roll up a fighter and go. Of course it was possible to commit some social faux pas and end up on the impaling stake, but it is an “old school” game.

  4. fictivite says:

    @imredave: That sort of entry works well for players. The trick is to avoid the new player feeling like an outsider watching the inside clique play. Some players can handle that well and just try to muscle into the in-group. Others will feel sufficiently excluded to not come back.

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