Setting Mastery

How badly should we treat this person? Roll Intelligence + Camarilla Lore or something.

Back when D&D 3 came out, the designers talked about “system mastery.” Knowing the system better always helped you play a more powerful, effective character, but 3e made this an explicit design goal. Some feats and spells were just plain better than others. Later on this turned out to not be such a great idea, but it encouraged a commitment to learn the rules.

This sort of thing exists in setting heavy games too. Setting mastery exists, and it gives players various advantages. This was an enormous part of Vampire LARP. If you knew the Camarilla Traditions well, about inter-clan relations, and about little things like the Tremere hierarchy, you’d get an edge. You can accuse other vampires of various crimes. You could pressure Tremere flunkies to do various things. You could get the Setite beat up as soon as he showed up.

This created a powerful commitment to the setting. It created an advantage to the point where character knowledge rules restricting what you could know were strictly codified in big organizations. Furthermore, this gave players the ability to call Storytellers/GMs/whatever on their understanding of the setting, or impose their interpretations. How badly should clanless vampires get treated? What exactly can the Prince do? The person who got to answer these earned power. And on a meta-level, players used their expectations to criticize whether storylines were plausible and “true to the game.”

(One thing I noticed in LARP: Men often used setting mastery to challenge women, especially women running games. So that sucks.)

Thus, in many setting-heavy games, players come to the table with a sense of ownership over the setting that conflicts with what other people believe, including the people running the game. But this kind of setting mastery alienates new players and disrupts the course of play. So the question arises: How do we keep the commitment and immersion of deep setting, without letting people bludgeon each other with it?

I can think of some answers, but I’ll take them up in the future. Let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “Setting Mastery

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