The Platform Matters: System Influence on Setting Design

This morning, on Twitter, a brief conversation came up wherein we ever so gently touched upon the topic of setting and system. It’s no surprise I was interested in the topic and, while I can write concisely, the space was far too limited to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue about the nuances of how these two things operate. If you’re here today to hear me rambling about “the creature” or other such nonsensical things, go ahead and check out. We’re going to get all nuts-and-bolts and examine the interaction between these two important facets of game creation today for this anniversary edition of The Razorwise Report.

Okay, I lied. Maybe, I’ll get a little rambly here because I’ve got something pretty cool to tell you. While I’ve been posting The Razorwise Report sporadically for over seven years, it was a year ago today where I decided to post a lot more. When I say a lot more, I mean a LOT. It started off as DBloC, the Daily Blog Challenge, where I posted every day, and then I just kept going. Around Easter, I shifted to a daily work week schedule as it was too much for me to do between ramping up our release schedule and all that other stuff. At any rate, it’s great to talk with you all like this and I encourage you to get the word out about The Razorwise Report. I thank you all for swinging by and reading what I’ve had to say. I’ll continue on with it, though I’m considering a few other directions to take it in the future.

Now, let’s get down to our talk about setting and system. Before we get going, I want you to remember two very important things:

1. System is the most important thing.

2. So is the setting.

You may well call shenanigans when you read that. You might even surmise I made a typo. Nope. Both things are very important, so a designer has to decide how to approach any given project and finesse the two where they mesh so well, it’s hard to see where one part begins and the other ends. Or, perhaps, it’s difficult to imagine a clear demarcation between the two given components.

Today, we’re going to just look at how selecting a system, a platform for our setting, is going to inform our choices. I’ll be adding liberal asides from my own experiences. When I first sit down to work on a new setting, I’m focusing just on that thing. It’s the thing I do first. I’ve rarely said, “Oh yeah, gotta invest time and energy in system X just because it’s a hot system”. The popularity of systems ebb and flow–a good setting can survive various incarnations, permutations, and system redesigns because, at it’s core, it’s the setting that matters. A great example of this is Shane Hensley’s Deadlands. It is the cornerstone of his professional gaming identity and has seen multiple well received incarnations over the years. Why? Because, at it’s core, Deadlands is a wonderfully cool setting. Heck, when I first got into the biz, Shane told me that it is the setting which matters most. As Reality Blurs has grown over the years and I have gained experiences, I have not seen anything to refute said statement. For example, RunePunk, our first setting, has a strong, core following and I can proudly claim there is nothing else like it on the market.

For the example of system influencing choice, I’m going to examine our most recent release, Agents of Oblivion. This is one of the products on my famed and legendary list of settings I had conjured up back in 2004. We’re still working the plan. It was slanted towards Savage Worlds. However, even then, I planned to develop select settings for multiple systems. First off, before any deciding specifically how the rules would come together, I sat down and wrote what I wanted the world to encompass. This brainstorming phase is liberating because you can sketch out, in large terms, the mission statement. Hrmmm. This might be better put as a laundry list of the stages in the development process of the game, so allow me to do that.

Here are questions I ask when sitting down to create/consider a new setting:

1. What is the genre?

2. Is it something we’ve done before? This is particularly important when reviewing outside material or one of the guys pitches something already in the queue. It’s important to have product separation, although having certain products cross over at touch points (like with Realms of Cthulhu and Agents of Oblivion) is okay too.

3. Is anyone else doing something like this? I’m including this as it used to be more of a concern for me when we were getting going and should be something designers entering a particular marketplace should be well aware of. At this point, folks know we are going to put our own spin on things, like we’ll be doing with our zombie game, Life After Death. This was an earned reputation. If possible, you don’t want to step on the toes of established entities for three reasons. The first is folks could consider you derivative, you could hurt your potential revenue stream, and your product will be constantly compared to GAME X regardless. As well received as Realms of Cthulhu was, it was constantly compared with Call of Cthulhu. It was never the case for us to do it to prove X is better than Y anymore than Trails of Cthulhu was. All three approach the Mythos from different, jagged angles and provide altogether different game experiences and have different strengths and weaknesses when attempting to go with a particular type of game.

Now, after working through those questions, you have a setting concept, but still nothing concrete. Agents of Oblivion began as modern horror espionage. It made it rapidly through the checklist and then it could be worked on properly. This is where system raises its mechanical head.

Although it may well never see the light of day, a revised, expanded edition of Agents of Oblivion (for True20) was written some years ago, along with a general conception of the universe, and all that sort of thing. I had done a lot of work on it, but other, more pressing, projects kept getting in front of it, and then the general market for the system declined. We didn’t week overmuch. We knew Savage Worlds was the key focus of our product, so I reworked a lot of materials for the Savage Worlds edition. The setting information came over largely intact, it was our interpretation of Agents of Oblivion within the context of the setting which demanded the greatest amount of work. That’s the interesting thing about developing for both a new system and Savage Worlds. There is a lot of development space where a designer can place his mark. I largely built the mechanics from the ground up and had to develop a resource system. This was a consideration when doing it for Savage Worlds, one I knew was going to be there from the beginning–certain elements would have to be made from scratch. Now, since we’re considering doing Agents of Oblivion for another system, there are (again) certain elements, some familiar, some new, I’ll need to tackle to get it to work well within the confines of the (unannounced) system in question.

This is a concern and consideration for both the battle-scarred veteran and the neophyte, how much do you want the system you’re designing for to be ready for you? Iron Dynasty for Savage Worlds required completely building up a robust set of Edges to reflecting combat whereas the upcoming Fantasy Craft edition had a lot of that work already done for us in the core book. We needed to refine different elements (such as class and level-based options where, previously, there were none and how to work out the finer points of ganso).

In Savage Worlds, someone familiar with the system knows it is an intuitive, delicate process. It is not simple number crunching. You have to to be comfortable with the system to know when you’re getting the feel right. Even then, it requires playtesting, fine-tuning, and tweaking to get things just so. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this peak underneath the hood about what goes on in my head as I sit down to build worlds for you to play in. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section, and I’ll be more than happy to expound further.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!








5 Notes on, The Platform Matters: System Influence on Setting Design

  1. I’d really like to see someone do a spy setting for Mutants and Masterminds. Agents of Oblivion could be the thing!

  2. The system is a tool. The setting is a tool. But the single most important element at a gaming table is the GM.

    And the end product is enjoyment.

  3. “Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this peak underneath the hood about what goes on in my head as I sit down to build worlds for you to play in.”

    Indeed, I suspect that the peak underneath your hood may be a result of the bone spurs – your recent transformation in Mythos-drenched Charleston may have been accelerated by local miasmic conditions.

    That which you espouse is always of great value to those of us who have departed from, or lurk in the outer periphery of, the comfortable shroud of sane consciousness – y’all.

  4. “a good setting can survive various incarnations, permutations, and system redesigns because, at it’s core, it’s the setting that matters”

    Setting and Story are the important thing IMHO, but then again I’m not a power gamer so that’s no surprise. I still think though that a well-designed system shouldn’t inform on the design of the setting/genre and vice versa. The challenge of the designer and the GMs then is to not play the game with the same flavor, even though the underlying system may be the same.

    “In Savage Worlds, someone familiar with the system knows it is an intuitive, delicate process. It is not simple number crunching. You have to to be comfortable with the system to know when you’re getting the feel right. Even then, it requires playtesting, fine-tuning, and tweaking to get things just so.”

    To me – this point is why I think – it’s so hard to design/GM for Savage Worlds. The bell-curve of Risk/Reward, Life/Death is very narrow – its much more finely nuanced in SW than other d20 games. Some people say “You don’t need to worry about balance when designing for SW.” In some respects that true, but I think those people are speaking from a d20 POV, if you know what I mean. In a real sense though, that’s total BS – balance DOES matter, because a well balanced game keeps risk in front of the players all the time (again, this is not the same type of “balance” you might hear about in many 4E/d20 forums IMHO). So… since the bell-curve of risk/reward is narrower, it’s much easier to muck it up and a) either TPK all the time, b) have your players roll over everything, or c) have to constantly fudge everything to create the illusion of balance. The latter is what I found myself doing while running SW for a long time, and as a novice designer I found myself thinking: if it’s so hard to get the right risk/reward mix — maybe there’s something wrong with this system I love so much?

    I’m rambling… maybe this would be better as a blog post… hrmmm….

    In any case.. thanks for the great brain food Sean. As always.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    Kurt, yes, the GM matters, but speaking strictly system and design, it’s not as much a concern as system design should provide essential parameters for the GM–trying to predict variabilities is, ultimately, in exercise in madness as all permutations cannot be taken into account, only the grosser (read “larger”) play styles can be given proper accord. The system is a blueprint for the builder. Bad design. Bad house.

    Jonathan, glad you enjoyed the article!

    Jonathan, did, indeed, make a blog post regarding this here—> You should read it over and share your thoughts on on forums here—>

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