Tuesday 4 August 2020

A Setting to Serve the Game

At some point I suspect we've all sat down to read an RPG and gone through the following process:
  • This setting looks neat, I'd love to run a game in it.
  • Okay, there's quite a lot of setting here, time to dig deeper.
  • Right, that's all cool, but I have no idea how I'd actually run a game in there.
This is something I try to avoid whenever I'm working on a setting for a game. I've spoken about it before as the idea that Setting should Serve the Game.

Basically, the game is more important than the setting, so if something needs to change it should be the setting. This isn't some universal dogma, just how I like things to be with games I'm playing. I believe that the world comes to life at the game table, not on the GMs desk.

So from the very start Into the Odd did this. The game existed before the setting, so I knew that I needed a world where:
  • Adventurers could go out and look for treasure as independent groups.
  • Weird obstacles could guard the treasure.
  • Some treasure would have weird powers.
With Into the Odd we got a world with a single city that's barely held under any sort of authority, a perilous underground that doesn't follow the rules and a wilderness that doesn't make sense, and the implication that Arcana are discarded alien devices. A world born out of the game's adventurous requirements.

Electric Bastionland expanded on this with the Debtholders, Failed Careers and Machines all being new elements that both flavour the setting but were ultimately born from game requirements.

As with all my advice, this all sounds very absolute. Am I saying that your game setting should have NOTHING that doesn't directly relate to the game? Well sure, if it works, but I don't begrudge people that like a bit of side-salad on their plate. If it gets the reader inspired then it's good by me, but too much side-salad and I suddenly realise I can't see the pasta anymore.

This is particularly relevant as I hash out a loose setting for GRIMLITE, a world I'm tentatively naming Husk28, a forgotten moon of a broken planet. Tinkering around with it got me thinking about one of the most successful tabletop RPG settings of all time.


Something about this setting just works. It got its flesh-hooks into me when I was 10 years old and despite walking away multiple times something keeps dragging me back. Sure, miniatures are appealing, and there's some incredible artwork that brings the setting to life, but I think it's worth dissecting the setting to see why it works. Does it support my theory that the best settings serve the game, or does it cry Heresy at my false sermon?

This is cheating a bit, as this is clearly a setting primarily written for miniature wargaming, rather than RPGs, but the same principles apply. Many jokes have been made about the tagline "In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there is Only War" but it really spotlights that this is a world that exists for the benefit of your table. 

I'll take any excuse to talk about the two original Realms of Chaos books. These were giant, messy volumes filled with Chaos stuff. The core of it really was a procedure for creating a Champion in the service of one of the four Chaos Gods. You'd also get some random followers ranging from humble Skaven and Orcs to Sorcerers, Manticores, and Giant Snails. It definitely had that early-GW feel of "let's make a game where we can use all our weird miniatures at once", yet the setting makes it work. You aren't just a grab-bag of unrelated miniatures, you're a warped and disparate warband following a twisted god of corruption. Why is your Knightly Champion being followed by a Giang Frog and a Minotaur? Chaos! That's why!

Of course the random element sort of spits in the face of this idea. If I roll a Treeman as my latest follower I guess I'd better go and buy the miniature or get creative with some twigs. I suspect many players would fudge the randomness slightly to make their own miniatures fit here, but the kitbasher in me sort of likes the challenge of going full-random.

So the Realms of Chaos work as a setting for narrative wargames. There's a reason for your warband to exist the way it does, and there's a reason why you're always fighting everybody all the time on bizarre battlefields. I'm cheating here, because while these books do serve 40k they feel primarily written with an eye on Warhammer Fantasy Battles.

Warhammer 40k has Chaos, sure, but amongst other elements it also has the Imperium. This is both its biggest asset and flaw.

Chaos works because you've got four factions with a very strong identity and clear reasons to oppose each other, but plenty of room for variety within them. A Khorne warband made up of Dark Elves and elite Chaos Warriors is going to feel very different to one made up of a horde of Beastmen and Snotlings. Yeah, you can get Khornate Snotlings in Realms of Chaos. 

At first the Imperium looks like it has all the same hallmarks. It's big and incomprehensible. It's fractured into the Mechanicus, Militarum, Inquisition, Arbites, Astartes and the faux-latin list could go on all day. Even these fractures have sub-fractures, most classically in Space Marine Chapters that breaks the Astartes down into handily colour-coded factions each with their own gimmick and agenda.

But it's not quite the same. At a glance you'd think this perfectly serves a game where you need to be able to explain any two players fighting a pitched battle against each other. 

Ultramarines vs Tyranids? Great. Rematch of the century. 

Ultramarines vs Mechanicus? Sure, I guess. Their agendas could clash in a way that sparks a battle.

Ultramarines vs Imperial Fists? Erm. I guess one of these Chapters is sheltering an enemy of the Imperium? Maybe Tzeentch has tricked one of us into attacking the other. No, not my side, your side.

Ultramarines vs Ultramarines? Suppose one of us has to be the Alpha Legion in disguise? Wait, we both have Roboute Guilliman soooo....

It gets worse with some of the other factions. Eldar are an ancient, dying race where every life is precious. So why are they mowing themselves down again?

I mean it's not going to stop two players fighting each other, but it lessens the narrative appeal. You can make it work if you're creative, but it doesn't have that masterful directness of Realms of Chaos. Anything goes over there, so two followers of Slaanesh could easily be pitched against each other just as easily as they'd go and raid the civilised lands. 

I wrote WARPHAMMER 99k as a joke, but it sort of demonstrates a very clumsy approach to making the 40k setting better serve the game. It catapults the 40k universe back into the Realms of Chaos, but it  loses a lot in the process. Personally I feel like it's an issue of scale. 40k wants to be this epic thing. Wars of millions are fought every day above hive planet with billions of people, all but a speck compared to the trillions of Daemons that pour into the galaxy from the Eye of Terror, yet all this is nothing compared to...

And so on.

But the fact is, most people are going to engage with the setting through battles between armies measured in dozens rather than even hundreds, maybe even less than that if they're playing Kill Team. Sure, the individual life is meaningless in this cruel galaxy, but I also spent hours painting this little Exarch and I think she's actually pretty cool. 

So I like that the Imperium is unfathomably massive and stagnant, but what's lost if we apply a thunder hammer to it until the cracks are a bit clearer.

Completely fracture the Astartes. At least enough that it's easy to explain why your Salamanders are fighting my Blood Angels every week.

This is a lot easier if you remove the idea that the marines are the heroes of the story. There's an entire rant on that topic stashed away inside me but I'll bury it down for another day.

Put more narrative focus on the individuals. Allow everybody to be a bit of a renegade. Allegiance is primarily to your army's leader, rather than the faction as a whole. Now there's more appeal in considering why two Wolf Lords would bring their Companies to war against each other. 

What's that? There's already an edition of Warhammer 40k that solves all of these issues?

Rogue Trader was weird. Sort of the 40k parallel to the Realms of Chaos books. Giant mess of creative ideas, blurring the line between wargame and RPG, with heavy focus on "let's use every weird mini we have". 

And the Rogue Traders themselves are essentially the Renegades I was describing above. They fly around deep space seeking money by whatever means. They have Imperial authority but can also basically do what they want. Hire an Eldar bodyguard? Sure. Get some Ork crew? Great. Blow up a rival Rogue Trader? Absolutely.

Most meaningfully, it's easy to imagine two rival Rogue Traders calling on support from different Marine chapters. Now that Salamanders vs Blood Angels battle is on.

Modern 40k is clearly having to walk a line between serving its tabletop games alongside a range of novels, video-games, and presumably the big-budget TV series and movies are only a matter of time away. 

If you're writing a setting to be used purely at the table then you've got the luxury of focus. Take a step back and look at the actual needs of your game. You'll thank me when you sit down with a bunch of new players and your world emerges through play rather than an exposition dump.


  1. You are excellent at this sort of thing. I'm one of the people working on a game for your Eclectic Bastionjam and I've found that trying to fit my setting within an ItO/EB framework has been enlightening on how to match a setting to a system. I've been narrowing the focus of the setting and how it expresses itself as I've written and playtested my game (the playtest went excellently and we're actually going to keep running the campaign!), and everything just works, and it's because of how well designed the ItO/EB system is, and how intrinsic diegesis is to it.

    Shameless self-promotion here's the draft of Maximum Recursion Depth ;). Given limited time and energy I think my jam entry is going to have to be an "ashcan" edition but I'm really hoping to do something more with this down the line.

    1. Looking forward to checking out the Bastionjam entries. I'm avoiding them at the moment so that I can jump in blind on a stream!

    2. Oh nice, that sounds awesome! I'll keep an eye out for that.

  2. I spent the last 7 months making a three level dungeon for my Into the Odd sporadic game using more or less these same principles described here, to fit the world into the system. It's like a weird/gonzo/horror version of the real world if the apocalypse and the aliens had occured during the Victorian Era and only London, Bastion of Civilization, now called simply Bastion, remained (and who knows what happened on the other sides of the world).

    All of these are mere hints found on notes, books, and lore fragments the explorers uncover when they travel searching treasure and Arcana.

    There is not a coherent worldbuilding here, it's only scattered hints that might make sense if one really tries, but that in general make no sense at all.

  3. "presumably the big-budget TV series and movies are only a matter of time away."
    Funnily enough there are two series on the way for 40k - one based on Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn, and an animated space marine one.

    I feel similarly to you about the game and have always rationalised away the disconnect as being something that just happens when the galaxy is so big, and the bureaucracy is so slow that essentially every fleet can only trust themselves, especially when you consider what could happen when you have shadowy agents like inquisitors or rogue traders pulling the strings behind this. Maybe the battlefield is too chaotic and things have gotten lost so even when it's Imperial Guard on Imperial Guard, these could be thinking they're fighting the enemy when it's actually just another company of their regiment whose position was unknown. If you're expecting an enemy, them shapes in the smoke sure look like an enemy.

    Even following on from Rogue Trader, the background then seemed much more interesting when it was just a line in a codex somewhere referring to the Badab War - and giving essentially no other information than it was a civil war that caused the death of billions when some space marines seceded. The vagueness gives so much more room to play than when the parameters have been defined.

  4. I like vague settings intended to serve the game. One of the things I dislike most about current W40K is the HUGE amount of lore. I just don't have the time for that, and it also feels stifling. But others love just that. I know a guy who's recreating a particular large battle from the Horus Heresy in almost the same way historical gamers do the napoleonic wars. Not for me though.

    The realm of chaos books were great, but the idea that you would convert your miniatures (or replace them) as they acquired new mutations never worked out in practice. Hardly anyone ever did that, because it would mean redoing and potentially ruining finished miniatures you might actually like. Sure, you could buy the same base miniature again and do a new conversion model, but still.