Solving Setting Mastery

I’m pretty sure Dante knows what the Digital Web is. Why not email him in game?

So last time I talked about setting mastery and how it can screw up a game. In retrospect I think I overemphasized the bad parts. At its best, it helps people becomes natives of the setting. When they’re not jerks, they help everyone else get into the spirit of things and best of all, save GMs a ton of exposition. Nevertheless, bad stuff happens and man, some of the feedback on the last post was pretty vehement about it. So what can we do?

GM and Story Supremacy

It’s GM over player, and game’s progress over individual achievement. Yeah, people don’t like hearing that in an age where we’re supposed to spread the power around and indulge casual preferences. Tough — we’re not talking about those games. Games with a “golden rule” or “rule zero” need to emphasize that they apply to who ultimately decodes the setting. The GM’s job isn’t to use the setting to favour one player over another, but keep the story strong. On the other hand, the job is also about listening and seeking out balanced contributions. Sometimes it means ignoring the loudest, longest and best-informed argument. But when the hierarchy is set, there shouldn’t even be arguing; players should be interrogating the GM when things are unclear. Upholding the GM’s power gives her freedom to lead collaboration, and use the solutions below.

Letting Players Fill in the World

One critical part of the GM’s role is letting go of control, and letting players fill in non-critical and interesting details. Keep in mind we’re not talking about games where direct narrative control is a reward or the field of play. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but I will note that in many cases we’re talking about small bits of information that don’t have clear game effects, but help players make sense in the world, so systematizing them with stakes and shit is a waste of effort. The classic example here is in Mage: The Ascension, where people rip their brains in two figuring out whether something can really be coincidental, like the famous “mundane teleportation via finding a cab real fast” deal. Can someone just happen to find a cab to get away? Are there cabs around? If the GM things, yeah, maybe, but she doesn’t give a shit where specific cabs are, then the answer is yes.

Identifying Diegetic Solutions

Deep settings encourage immersion by creating customs, slang and visual cues players can use to behave as their characters would. These blur the traditional (and thus, inherently iffy) divide between setting and system. For example, when regional sorcerers meet in a Mage: The Awakening game’s convocation, they follow set rules about who gets to speak, the range of permissible topics, and how to settle disputes. Drop players’ characters in, and they can use the setting to define the setting. What constitutes oath-breaking? Take that shit to the convocation.

This example is a bit of a cheat because I designed convocations to do just this, but it’s not an original idea. Vampire LARP works because the in-game government almost works. But when I designed convocations, I was really thinking about conclaves (high Camarilla functions in the game) which are a bit more formal. In LARP you have a whole other set of player versus player issues, but on the tabletop bringing the question to an NPC authority or better yet, dealing with it through player action, is the way to go.


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