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Setting Info and Playing Without Playing

Okay, folks, I've been naughty; I just spent some cash on Yet Another RPG. This one's Burning Empires, written by Luke Crane and using his Burning Wheel system. It's based on the Iron Empires comics by Christopher Moeller, known for his Star Wars comic book cover art and illustrations for Magic: The Gathering cards. A few years ago, Moeller was in discussions with Avalanche Press to do an RPG and setting guide for Iron Empires; it was even mentioned at the back of one of the Iron Empires issues. That didn't work out, allowing Crane, a fan of the comics, to pitch his own system to Moller. Several months of blood, sweat and tears later, Crane and Co. at Burning Wheel HQ put out an amazing product.

One of RPGnet's members was recently reading an old Iron Empires issue, read the note about the then-forthcoming Avalanche Press effort and started a thread asking for more info. A respondent wrote:

As much as I like BE, I wish there was a metric ton more setting info.

Interestingly enough, the sentiment was echoed by a few other posters. Then Luke Crane himself weighed in:

There is none. None what so ever -- aside from what exists in Chris' mind from day to day.

Did you really want me to make up endless lists of garbage stats for population, planet size, gravity, sun color, capital cities, etc? It wouldn't be from the setting that Chris developed. It'd be my hacked together garbage. And it would be meaningless in play.

Oh, it'd help you flesh your games, right? Bull. You can do that on your own on the fly. The only thing it'd stand for is to pad page count as questionable reading material. Setting of that type serves only to give the reader the sensation that he has played the game without ever having to risk actual play. It's nice, it's a tasty snack, but ultimately junk food.

Instead, in BE, I shifted paradigms. That entire book is a setting book. Every picture bursts with Chris' imagination and his vision. The lifepaths paint the society and culture. Traits offer hints and details to the baroque societies. Technology adds cool details -- of your own devising.

The hitch is you can't just read this book. You've got to play it. You've got to invest yourself in it. In this fashion, it is truly an old school RPG. My fucking Expert Set didn't come with a map and lists of cities and populations. It was a way to play really cool Tolkienesque fantasy games. The rest was up to me. But that's a poor comparison. BE's ancestors are much more in the vein of Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia. Those games set you up with a setting and situation and then said "Go!" To truly understand and appreciate those masterworks of game design, you had to play them.

Same goes for Burning Empires. It's all about playing the game.

And you know something? I have to agree. I remember thinking not so long ago, while considering quitting the hobby, that the experience of me running Heavy Gear couldn't compete with the adventures that played out in my head when I read the setting info. (I don't really think that the rules of the game were a great help either.) Most of Heavy Gear's line I was able to read and enjoy on their own because they were self-contained fiction, sometimes with cool pictures. The Gears And Striders books were the best (the Leaguebooks got a bit too dry and encyclopaedic), as each page was a neat little piece of self-contained historical fiction accompanied by a picture of a cool-looking machine. You Battletech geeks probably know what I'm talking about; the Tech Readouts are similar. You can't help but create your own personal, non-Shared Imaginary Space and do some Solo Play when you read them, even when you're prepping for a game (which makes it even worse half the time).

And that's one of the problems with those games; half the time, the stuff the game company comes up with is so neat and organised and interwoven and cool, you feel (a) very protective of that coolness - ahem, sorry, "canon" (see my description of my mindset while GMing Heavy Gear) and (b) as though what you and your gaming group come up with pales in comparison with your own personal game that you played while reading all that gorgeous setting info (or the game that the game company was playing in order to come up with it).

In a way, that's one of the scary things about the games on my shelf at the moment, games like Dogs in the Vineyard, The Shadow of Yesterday, Primetime Adventures and (soon) Burning Empires. You can't read them and have your own little solo game in your head with them; you read them and are driven to get some friends together and play the crap out of them, because the play that the games shape and advocate, rules to setting, balls to bones, is where the cool shit comes from.

As a side-note, I'm coming to the opinion that a licensed game can be kind of dangerous if you're playing with a pack of setting-geeks; everyone has their own investment in the coolness of the source material that they have to work to overcome in order to have a good game. Gav: Being a big-time Star Wars nut, have you ever had this trouble when prepping or playing a game, especially if/when you've had Star Wars wonks at your table?

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Obviously, I agree with you. My particular evocation of this thought process came from two springs. First, from trying to be original with Iron Empires. I mean lets be honest, do we really need another space empires game? No. At least not a traditional one. How could I hope to compete with GURPS or Traveller? I can't. So I delved into something different.

Interesting side note, that Avalanche book would have been exactly what those kids were looking for. I saw the manuscript. It was dismaying to say the least.

The second spring for that thought was the reaction to Mark Smylie's Artesia rpg. People were gushing that it was the best game ever just based on reading it. Hell, I remember some folks on rpg.net proclaiming hosanas before they even read the game part of the book.

That's when it hit me. That setting material substitutes for play. There are too many things to do in life and certainly not enough time to play all the games one would like. Setting material is this comforting junk food that leaves you full and hyper without ever having to sink your teeth into a full meal of the game. Read the setting and be satisfied that the games you would run would be super awesome and then put the book up on your shelf.

I don't want to perpetuate that cycle. Love them or hate them, my games are meant to be played!

Rob that is why I try and play my own setting as much as possible. All of the ideas are in my head and if players have too much of their own preconceived notion, they might go down the wrong path. I do like Luke's concept where he is creating the game to be played. I try and do that with my settings. Even when I ran Bubblegum Crisis, I still had my own feel. The other thing that I try and do sometimes is bring some of the players perceptions into play and expand on them like I did with John and Bubblegum Crisis. His hole idea of coming from a fantasy realm and into a science fiction one was too tempting not to play with. It is a huge pity that you never got to figure out why? But that is where life can get in the way of Role-playing.

Luke, Dan, thank you both for replying!

Dan, one of the things I really like about the games I mentioned, especialy Primetime Adventures, is that the setting isn't just the GM's, it's everybody's; everyone has a hand in its creation. PtA is the shining example with its pitch sessions, which can be damned tricky; the Producer must make sure that the final concept is consistent, gameable and, above all else, every single person at thae table is jazzed by the whole of it. This means the Producer must be pretty damned aggressive when managing the Pitch, something I really wasn't during the Pitch for The Spillane Way.

Burning Empires takes a little pressure off, as it comes a little more front-loaded with setting; however, the World Burner process still includes everyone at the table in creating the arena for play; it places more structure around PtA's freeform pitch process, using its rules to help build a planet that both interests everyone and maintains the Iron Empires flavour.

Dogs in the Vineyard and The Shadow of Yesterday are different again - they're a middle-ground between Burning Empires's "more flavour than detail" setting and the utter setting-absence of Primetime Adventures. The settings are broad and vague and the text encourages the group to fill in their own detail in play; these games not only say "make the setting your own" but actually step back and give a group room to do so.

Something I just thought of, and no knock against you here, Dan; I wrote the Sydney: 2033 BGC setting that you used in the BGC game (and ported my GMPC over into your game too). Anyway, I have the feeling the classic model of a solely-GM-created setting, where the GM effectively writes his or her own sourcebook, can be just as dangerous as a fully-pre-loaded setting. It's a prime example of "playing without playing" as the GM is actively creating, just on his or her own. You really feel like you're doing something roleplaying-related, but you're still not playing an actual game - and when the game finally rolls around, the GM will likely be just as protective of his or her own creativity, if not more so, than the GM who got their setting pre-baked in a sourcebook!

And what a good setting it was. You did save me the pains of going through a fleshing out some of the details, especially the history which I definetly used.

I like PtA as well for its ability to involve the players in the creation. However as a GM it would limit me on story creation which is something I really enjoy doing. Though I may try it in the future just to see how it works out for me.

Thanks for replying again, Dan. I guess our tastes just vary on this a bit! :-D

I'm a bit jaded when it comes to story creation and RPGs. Been there, done that, found it boring. When I was "creating the story", as it were, there was little for my players to do but Uncover Plot Points and Get Into Fights - both of which were tedious, at least from my perspective. I already knew any Big Surprises and games were just playing out the Slow Reveal, sowing clues and plodding through the rest of the mundanities. It'd be more interesting to actually sit down and write a story myself; I know, I've done it a few times. (Actually, beyond fanfic, i have the feelign that's what I was doing when writing out settings like Sydney: 2033 as well.)

Combat was as tedious as the rest of the game, not because of rules-crunch, but because there was no real excitement or sense of purpose behind it - I threw fights at players because, you know, it's expected, right? We're playing an Action Movie, right? Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, right?

In contrast, the most balls-out fun I've had playing an RPG was those games of InSpectres I ran for Vickie, Rhys and Kev, when I had absolutely nothing beyond the PCs, their Franchise and four one-to-two-word results from the Client Contact table. They were crazy and they were great, not least because my players were involved with introducing ideas and coming up with some awesome stuff!

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