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Choosing a Setting

by Delphine T. Lynx

Please be aware that, while the article below is relevant to gaming in general, its initial target audience was those interested in MUDs, or Multi-User Domains - text games played via computer. Therefore certain aspects may not be applicable to classic role playing games, but the theory behind the essay is.
Strange round building

Or choose weird round buildings for your setting.

Choosing a setting. It can be a problem for any administrator, and it is my opinion that there is no more pivotal decision when creating a game. Everything one does, everything added and created from beginning to end, will be within the framework of what is chosen now. Such a choice is never easy to make, this decision delaying many potentially great games - indefinitely in some cases. I write this as much to aid myself as to assist others, for, indeed, I am currently obsessing over a world lacking a setting. But as Mahfouz Naguib said, "You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions." And that is what it is my intention to provide - questions. In choosing a setting, one can begin in a broad, nonspecific sense. Start with the four basics. These are, arguably, as follows.

Some will disagree with my choices, others with the number of groupings chosen. But for our purposes here, these four will do. Below I will examine each category and lay the foundation for the following pages on specifically choosing one. For the moment we will not take into account hybrid world models.

The first category, as we can see, is fantasy. For every person asked a different definition will be given, but, to me, fantasy can be defined as, "A world in which extraordinary events are explained through magic or the supernatural." Unfortunately it must be broken down further, as 'fantasy' is not specific enough. To cite an example of a more specific fantasy setting, let us look at Myths & Legends. A myth or legend is arguably historical, but, as we can see, often falls into the fantasy category by way of being, "An extraordinary event explained through magic or the supernatural." Nevertheless, the feel of a Greek Legend will be far different from that of an epic tale of High Fantasy. Keep this in mind - fantasy is not precise enough a genre in itself.

Historical settings are arguably most difficult of all to write, as they require a very strong factual basis - an error ridden historical setting can leave a very sour taste in the mouth of any participants savvy enough to realize the inconsistencies. The advantage however is that, whether you are using modern day Argentina or Britain in the 1500s, historical settings give a strong factual basis that you can create your world upon. This leaves fewer ambiguities and often allows players to delve into your game more rapidly than with a completely original setting, as they will have at least a cursory real world knowledge of the subject.

If historical settings are the most difficult to prepare for, horror settings are certainly the most difficult to pull off. If the impression isn't conveyed perfectly, all that is left is a trite and cliché version of one of the other settings mentioned here. By it's very nature, the horror setting relies purely upon gleaning emotional responses from its participants, creating the sought after feelings of terror, suspense and intrigue that have the potential to make horror one of the most memorable of settings. As with any other genre, horror settings can vary greatly, from a gritty, modern day murder mystery to the oft seen story of vampires and dank castles.

Finally we come to science fiction. Not as common as fantasy, but the likely runner up, science fiction offers many of the same qualities to it's story lines as fantasy - incredible forms of attack and transportation, fantastic creatures and epic conflict. It achieves these however through 'science' rather than magic. While not always rooted in valid scientific fact, the basis for science fiction is generally one of technology. It is generally accepted that well researched scientific principles are not a requirement of good science fiction, but the audience you attract will expand if logical explanations can be provided.

Before choosing one of the above settings, it's important to consider certain things. I certainly do not have included all the factors, but some of them may include:

1. Intended audience. It's unlikely the casual gamer would be interested in Polynesian Basket Weaving as the prime occupation in your world, despite its possible interest to you.

2. Player Interaction. How do you want your players to interact with one another? Certain settings provide for cooperation, killing, socialization or competition - be sure to choose one that will foster the behavior you'd like to see in your players. Richard A. Bartle wrote an excellent resource on player behavior, "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" ( I would recommend his work to anyone making an effort to create a game.

3. What's 'cool' to you? Everyone has certain settings they'd like to see; often times, the problem in choosing a setting is not on account of too few, but too many options. Try to take your preconceived settings and run them through the first two steps, above. You may get lucky and weed out some of them. But make sure that, whatever you choose, you like it.

4. Try to get the opinion of others, especially those of the type you'd like to play your game. Just because to you two settings are equal doesn't mean that someone else may not have a preference; this can help you immensely. The above should be enough to get you started, however I have taken the liberty of expanding upon the four basic setting types and adding a bit of text to each, as seen below.

1. Fantasy
a) Myth & Legend - The range here is vast, from classic folk stories to Norse legends to the classic Greek myths. All can provide beautiful backdrops to your game.
b) Society of Magi - A world in which the aristocracy is composed of mages, with magical knowledge highly sought after and respected. Such settings can range from prosperous to corrupt and poverty stricken, dependent entirely upon the will of the powerful ruling classes.
c) Magic as a 'rumor' - In such a setting very, very few people will actually possess magic. Any relics or users of magic will be worth huge sums, with magical power kept rare and mysterious.
d) Every Day Magic - This is a setting where everyone is a mage of some kind. Overall, quality of life will be excellent, as magic serves the mundane needs of most people. Such a world offers many opportunities for lavish settings, created through magical power.

2. Historical
a) Ancient History - For example, Ancient Egypt, or Mesopotamia. This can be an excellent setting, as it allows a far 'simpler' world model.
b) Ancient Greece or Rome - While very different, the settings provide similar opportunities. A rich culture, military action and political intrigue among them.
c) Medieval or Renaissance Europe - Again, very different, but providing similar settings in many cases. Keep in mind that the players have many preconceptions of such settings.
d) The Modern World - This is likely very hard to implement, and I would not suggest it for any large-scale game. However, there are certain recent conflicts that would make for excellent settings, for instance, the American Civil War or either of the World Wars.

3. Horror
a) Paranormal - Here the threat will often only be hinted at, a hugely powerful force lurking just around every corner. This setting relies upon the possibility of danger more so than danger itself to frighten the player.
b) Mystery - While hard to create a theme of horror, if done correctly a setting of overlying mystery can provide a highly suspenseful backdrop.
c) Classic - We all know it - vampires, bats, caves and men with large axes. What more need be said?
d) Hunted - As with the movie The Matrix, this sort of theme will derive it's suspense through opposition of overwhelming strength, always just around the next corner, on the trail of the characters.

4. Science Fiction
a) Science History - one of my favorite settings, this is where 'Science Fiction' is applied to a time period in the past rather than the future. What if King Arthur had the machine gun?
b) Classic - This will entail the classic tale of interplanetary warfare, beam weapons and aliens.
c) Cyberpunk - Generally Science Fiction, though occasionally combined with Fantasy (as in Shadowrun), Cyberpunk provides a gritty, 'real world' backdrop for remarkable technology, often including machinery implanted in the human body.
d) Espionage/Crime - We all know it, brought to life by James Bond, The Saint and a host of others. Combining the extraordinary devices normally seen only in classic science fiction with a setting of supposedly real world espionage, this setting is one that's often considered very 'cool', and yet appears to have had little success in the MUD world.

Nevertheless, it is a setting with potential...After all, doesn't want to be a suave secret agent?

A last, unmentioned type is one that combines two or more of the above. Excellent examples of this include the Star Wars Trilogy (Rare magic use with classic Science Fiction), The Matrix (a Hunted setting along with manifestations of extraordinary talent) and, perhaps, Final Fantasy, with it's combination of magic, fantasy and modern inventions.

Please, however, be mindful of something - the above settings may and should be twisted, molded, combined or torn to pieces. In the end, I hope to have been useful to you - if, at least in part due to the above, you're able to select a setting and begin your masterpiece, this has been a success. May your world blossom.

Delphine T. Lynx
Copyright © 2001, Delphine T. Lynx - All rights reserved.