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The Importance of Setting

by
 

Until relatively recently, I labored under the false belief that most first and second generation roleplaying games were "generic" in nature and that it was only later that the idea of an integral setting for the rules was introduced. After all, wasn't (and isn't) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a rules set usable in any fantasy setting? Is AD&D bound to any one milieu? Certainly not, I would say — just look at the large number of settings TSR has created for it over the years. It was primarily on this basis that I founded my false belief for so long.

Not long ago, however, a friend pointed out the fallacy of my long-held belief. "Can you think of any examples of generic rules sets other than AD&D?," he asked. Almost instinctively, I turned to Traveller. Wasn't it a generic SF rules set? Unfortunately, I soon realized that it was not, at least not for long. When the game was first released, GDW intended Traveller to be usable in any kind of science fiction setting that GM desired and I remember trying to do that once upon a time. But once we began to learn a little about the Third Imperium, Traveller seemed a lot less setting-neutral. By the time of MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era, and Marc Miller's Traveller, this became an established fact. Traveller was the game of science fiction roleplaying in the Third Imperium.

This realization hit me like a ton of bricks. How could I have been so blind? Yet I was. As thought more about it, I came to the conclusion that there were very few genuinely generic roleplaying rules sets. This was as true in sci-fi as it was in fantasy or any other genre. Traveller seemed to be the paradigm case. That Steve Jackson Games could consider publishing GURPS Traveller is proof that Traveller is a setting, not a set of rules. Indeed, one of the primary attractions of games like Traveller is their detailed setting. I had to conclude, then, that it was setting that sold a game and not rules.

Fading Suns is a good case in point. I happen to think that Fading Suns is one of the best things to hit science fiction roleplaying in a long time. It's fresh and dynamic, with a lot of mood and good ideas. Unfortunately, I find its rules really quite poor, with combats that drag on forever and a personality traits system that leaves me baffled. Perhaps these are my own shortcomings. Be that as it may, my point remains: I like Fading Suns and think it's a rather good SF RPG. Why? If I don't like (or understand –– you choose) the rules, how called I call it a "good game?" The only possible conclusion to which I can come is that its setting is so compelling. Without its nifty setting, I doubt I'd give Fading Suns a second thought.

White Wolf's Trinity is a reverse example of this principle in action. I like the Storyteller system. While not without its problems, it's a flexible enough system that I could make it work in a variety of situations. In fact, I've been tempted several times to use the Storyteller system outside of the World of Darkness. I was initially rather enthusiastic about White Wolf's intention to produce a science fiction game. Sadly, Trinity's comic book psions and goofy Aberrants destroyed any interest I had in the game. That's too bad, as there are some nice elements in Trinity, including a game system that I think would work well in SF.

In the case of both Fading Suns and Trinity, it was the setting and not the rules that determined whether or not I was well disposed toward the game. As I gamer of too many years, I've muddled through a lot of very poor game systems. I now have a good repertoire of "tricks" to overcome most rules-related problems. When I like a game setting enough, I show a lot of tolerance for bad or unclear rules. However, I can't think of a single instance of when I've put up with a poor setting because I liked the rules of a game. Setting is not only what draws a person to a game, it's also what keeps him there.

A lot of what's currently going on in the SF gaming world makes more sense in light of this principle. Fading Suns is a healthy game, while I dare say that Trinity is not. Look at Dream Pod 9's games and you'll see what I'm talking about. Heavy Gear is very popular and well-supported. Its take on the anime mecha genre is original and vibrant. That's why the game has as high a profile as it does. Jovian Chronicles on the other hand has very few supplements and doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in SF gaming. I suspect that it's the relative flatness of this setting compared to Heavy Gear that is responsible for this. It certainly can't be the rules, since both use the nice Silhouette system. I suspect that the new Tribe 8 will do well because of its very well-conceived and unusual setting. The buzz generated by Biohazard's Blue Planet is also about its unusual take on SF, not its rules (which are quite forgettable). If you look around the shelves of your local game store, I'm sure that you'll see plenty of other examples of what I'm talking about.

You might rightly say "So what?" After all, setting drives the sales of genres other than sci-fi. That is true, but with a very big proviso. Fantasy, I have long felt, is a very moribund genre. Most fantasy gaming settings take their inspiration from one of two sources: the high fantasy of Tolkien and the swords and sorcery of Howard. There are exceptions, of course (such as RuneQuest and Tkumel), but these are few and far between. As such, the differences between any two fantasy settings isn't really all that great. Indeed, there's such a common vocabulary of fantasy settings that it's possible to talk about "elves" or "orcs" and be understandable to most other fantasy gamers. Sure, there are some weird takes on certain staples of fantasy. Yet, I would suggest that the reason we consider them weird is because they deviate from the unspoken "canon of fantasy" established by Tolkien and Howard (and a few others). In fantasy, there really is very little new under the sun and its shows in the settings of fantasy roleplaying games.

Science fiction has the opposite problem: there's not much in the way of a canon. George Lucas may well have been right when he suggested that SF stories are the fairy tales of the 20th century. However, science fiction has yet to establish quite the common vocabulary that is to be found in fantasy. Certain themes (like rebels vs. the Empire or man vs. machine) are commonplace, but they still don't have the same kind of stranglehold over SF that equivalent themes have in fantasy. SF is a much more wide-open genre. Consequently, an original and innovative setting plays a much greater role in distinguishing one work from another. The same holds true in SF RPGs.

Broadly speaking, both Fading Suns and Star Wars are space operas settings dealing with larger-than-life heroes and villains set against an epic canvas of an interstellar empire. No one, I think, would confuse the two settings. Each is very different from the other and differs to such an extent that both can co-exist peacefully without sapping the other's base of support. The same isn't true in fantasy where so much is, in my view, yet another riff on tired themes and settings. The vast possibilities of SF almost preclude interchangeability between settings, something I honestly don't see in fantasy.

I see so much diversity in science fiction that it's little wonder that SF RPGs tend to emphasize setting as a selling point. A generic rules set would almost be an impossibility. Of course, that's exactly what TSR's Alternity hopes to be. I've read the rules through fairly well (more on them in a review later) and they are not as bad as I had feared. However, I sincerely doubt whether they would be suitable for all types of sci-fi. In fact, many sub-genres within SF would be very poorly served by Alternity. Nevertheless, I think it handles certain kinds of settings with facility, but it's not likely to be a genuinely generic SF rules set. Even TSR seems to acknowledge this fact implicitly by rushing to produce Star*Drive, their baseline setting for the game. Star*Drive isn't a bad setting and should work very well with the Alternity rules. I suspect that, in the long run, Alternity may simply become the Star*Drive roleplaying rules and any pretense to universality may be dropped. Only time will tell, of course.

Science fiction settings also tend to be a lot more idiosyncratic than their fantasy counterparts. After all, much SF is an extrapolation of current trends, both in technology and in society. Now, there are about as many extrapolations as there are extrapolators. Yes, there are some common ones, but there are quite a few unusual ones as well. Each sci-fi setting has a different emphasis and focus, oftentimes ones that are unique to that setting. As an interesting consequence of this is that there's a lot more room for many SF RPGs in the market. There's no reason that the popularity of one would necessarily lead to the demise of others. Each game setting is a different perspective, a different view on a rather broad and amorphous genre.

It's my sincere hope that I haven't made another mistake about the nature of gaming as a hobby. Provided that tabletop roleplaying isn't marginalized further by computer roleplaying, I see SF as a potentially powerful, even trend-setting, genre. In the past, SF hasn't been as popular as fantasy. With the dawn of the 21st century, our collective thoughts are again turning to the many possible futures that may await us. Gaming is a wonderful way to explore these futures and many of them.


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