Monday 12 October 2020

Settings for Games: The Importance of Answers

This is the continuation of a loose series of posts about the relationship between a game and its setting. I've written before about how a setting should serve the game, but as I've mulled it over I think it's more of a two-way relationship than I'd previously written. 

Specifically, I think I've overstated the need for a setting that creates Questions. Sometimes you really do need some Answers too.

Critical Answers

I've spoken about how I like artwork that raises interesting questions about the world, but here I'm talking about answers to questions that the GM or Player might have about a setting they're exploring.

We've all bought games, thinking the setting sounded like a cool place to run a game, then read through it and realised we have no idea what a game in that world would actually look like. For me, this comes down to unanswered critical questions.

It's a very specific sort of question.

A setting doesn't need to answer every question a player could have about the world, but there are generally a few critical questions any prospective GM would have about the setting they're preparing to run, and it pays to include answers.

At its most basic level: 

Why are these characters together? 

What might the start of a session look like? 

What sort of opposition will the characters face?

But depending on how the game goes, your critical questions might also include: 

What happens if we fail at our main objective?

We got super rich really quickly, what can I spend it on?

The players have decided this dungeon is too dangerous and they want to go home, how does the world respond to that?

Lots of blogs have written variants on the theme of "Here are 20 Questions to ask yourself about your setting before running a game", so nothing new here, but the key is being able to pick out which questions are truly Critical, and which are not. As usual there isn't going to be a hard boundary here, but best-fit is still useful.

Really it's any question that, if left unanswered, might cause the game to significantly stall while the GM has to create an answer without support from the setting.

To use Electric Bastionland as an example, one of the first lines of text in the book explains that the group have all come into a shared debt, and have decided to become Treasure Hunters to try and pay it off. This answers a number of common Critical Questions in one very short piece of text. I don't like to brag, but I'm quite proud of this little part of the game.

And what's more, that Debt mechanic actually serves double-duty by also prompting...

Flavourful Answers

This is more akin to the purpose of question-based artwork. Answers to the weird little questions that players might ask while engaging in the game. 

In the case of the Debt mechanic: Why are we in debt? And why together?

So the game answers them. You're assigned a Debtholder, but it's not fully explained how you got into debt with them. You get just enough to make your own interesting answer.

Any why are we all in Debt together? Well hopefully the Conductor has read the section on Bastion, because there are three bullet-points designed to answer all questions like this.

Why are you in debt together?  Well everything in Bastion is Shared and Complicated. It's a quirk of Bureaucracy. Welcome to Bastion!

It's a question somebody might ask for purely game-related reasons, but the answer hits them in the face with some setting-flavour before they realise you're engaging them in the world.

This is related to the idea of considering the specific and generic elements in your setting. You can take your generic components like "the city" or "orcs" and add in your specific flavour by thinking about the questions players might ask during a game and tying the flavour to those answers.

Why are we kitted out like Dark Age peasants while the Orcs all have submachineguns? 

Answering that question in-game goes a much longer way to engaging the players with your world than including an opening chapter of fiction describing how the Orcs came to develop such advanced weapons.

The Test

When you're wondering whether a question is worth answering in your game, consider that your players ask it to you and the only answer you have it "You don't know. You'd have to investigate that yourself".

If that sounds like a fun answer to your question then don't break a sweat over it. Add a Flavourful Answer in there if you think you've got something better than what the GM would just invent on the fly, otherwise leave it open.

If it sounds like not having a somewhat solid answer to that question would stall the game? That's a Critical Question. Find a way to impart the answer into at least the GM, but ideally the players too, and as early on in the game as you can manage. 


  1. Were there any earlier versions of Into the Odd that didn't have debt as the primary driving force? If so, what took it's place?

    1. Into the Odd actually didn't have debt, that's new for EB. It was a much looser "you're poor so became a treasure hunter, now go adventuring".

      One of the improvements for EB that I wouldn't ever go back from.

  2. Why are these characters together?

    What might the start of a session look like?

    What sort of opposition will the characters face?

    What happens if we fail at our main objective?

    We got super rich really quickly, what can I spend it on?

    Any more questions? Work them out, man. Lets make a Chris' 10 questions so we all can put our settings into test.

  3. Excellent points and I agree (on reading the free version of EB) that this is something that works in Electric Bastion land. I can see how it could play and how I could run it.

    It's something I'm going to keep my eye out for now; this explains why I couldn't get excited for Mork Borg for example, as beautiful and brilliant as it is, but could easily drop into Blades in the Dark.

  4. Late to this party again... After reading the game, I had assumed that after (and/or during) failing at a career, a character accrued multiple debts which had been bought out by the current debtholder. These debts were then bundled with those of other characters to basically force them to go treasure-hunting as a group (since solo treasure-hunters probably tend to die before paying off much of their debt). I was thinking that debtholders are possibly more interested in getting their hands on interesting treasures rather than just getting cash.