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Someone Else’s House

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On February 15, 2010 @ 3:08 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Reading fellow Gnome Scott Martin’s article on “Setting vs. Cast” made me realize that I generally don’t enjoy RPG settings borrowed from books, movies, or television.  (For the sake of this article, let’s call them literary settings.) Asking “Why not?” led to this article, which includes advice for using literary settings.

I recognize the popularity of literary settings; entire systems are written for them. But they also have some shortcomings, at least in my experience.

Removing the cast changes the dynamic of the setting.

In good fiction, the setting is like another character that the rest of the cast interacts with. A good gaming group can use a literary setting to its potential. In my experience, however, most groups either end up aping the original story, or make so little use of the setting that any setting would suffice.

Gaming is not storytelling.

Many literary settings have elements in place to facilitate the original story. These elements may not fit gracefully into an RPG environment. Powerful archetypes like Jedi Knights and Tolkien’s elves wreak havoc with game balance. Chain-of-command tensions common to Stargate or Star Trek can implode a gaming group.

That story’s been told.

No matter how evocative your version of a literary setting is, at some point, everyone at the table will have to resist thinking about the book/movie/TV show that the setting is based on, and not about their own story. Literary settings risk cloned characters, metagame knowledge, and the entire campaign echoing the original story.

It’s never as cool as the original.

No matter what the party does, someone else has done some really cool stuff in that setting, and the comparison is inevitable. Do you go for bigger and better, and end up with “Star Wars, The Director’s Final And This Time I Really Mean It (Shut Up About Han Shooting First Already) Edition, With Even More Fractal Explosions”? Or do you give up and acknowledge that your NPCs will never be as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks?

Not everyone is on the same page.

Fellow Gnome Matthew J. Neagley touched on this in his controversial Star Wars article (45 comments and still growing!). Picking a literary setting means that some of your players know far more about the setting than others, possibly even more than you. This can happen with any setting, but I find that players tend to expect more customization from a traditional setting.

It’s someone else’s house.

For me, gaming in a literary setting is like living in someone else’s house. Sure, everything you need is there, but it’s neither the house nor the furniture you would have bought, and it’s not arranged how you like it. The GM can always rearrange things, but that can feel presumptive in a literary setting (at least to me). 

OK, now what?

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from using a literary setting, but these are some possible pitfalls. Some techniques that may help:

  • File off the serial numbers. Change the names, but keep the tropes. This allows for more elbow room, and sends a signal that it’s similar but not identical to the original setting.
  • Beg, Borrow, and Steal. I’m a huge fan of ‘drifting’ elements of established settings into mine. You don’t need all the complexity of Star Wars to have a Muppet-led clan of laser-sword-wielding mystics.
  • Claim it as your own. Okay, so you’re going to use a literary setting. But do something drastic that will send a clear message that your game is not identical to the original source. (Don’t go any further until you read that link.)
  • Move the action elsewhere.  Find a relatively unexplored time or place for your game. That Other Cool Stuff still happened, but it happened a long time ago, and/or in a galaxy far, far away.
  • Challenge the established roles and motivations. Don’t let the campaign mimic the original storyline. Instead of another Firefly-class ship “out on the raggedy edge”, perhaps your players are active rebels against the Alliance. Instead of military officers with their own warship, perhaps they’re rogue traders working the periphery of the UFP.

Whatever you do, don’t let the setting get in the way of the fun. We play in these settings because the original stories are awesome, but we should not assume that a game in that setting will be nearly as awesome.

Agree? Disagree? More advice or questions? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Someone Else’s House"

#1 Comment By Razjah On February 15, 2010 @ 11:10 am

I think which version of dealing with the setting depends on the group, game, and campaign.

Star Wars Saga works well for the example. One group would be fine with running the original movie as the campaign with new characters. Another would hate it and run an alternative world. While a third would rather be the rebels (or empire) bumping shoulders with the main characters from the movies.

I think that it is best to talk with the group during the campaign planning to see which method they would prefer. Drifting ideas is good, but if one player really wants to try to hit on Leia, having the false Star Wars universe won’t cut it.

Removing cast changes setting- pick something where the cast is important to run into. Star Wars is good. Star Trek is not, being that guy who gets killed on deck 46 is not many people idea of fun.

Gaming is not Storytelling- make the game storytelling. Balance is good, but having fun is better. Let someone who is most able to keep their character’s power in check (least “I Smash” guy) be the Jedi/Tolkien elf/Captain of the ship. I know this works for the game I’m playing in soon. Only a few of the characters get any real magic weapons- and they get fully powered Weapons of Legacy. It’s ok, our story and fun will not be centered on who killed the most, or biggest hit.

The Story’s been told- so what? or Make a new one. Star Wars has tons of worlds to explore and you can even set the game in a different time period to ignore the plot of the movies. Set it after the destruction of the second death star- you are part of an elite team who hunt down the remaining empire commanders… You get the idea.

Never as Cool as Original- by being different it will be different and shouldn’t be judged in comparison. Besides, movies and books have no mechanics and no dice. Vader saving Luke from the Emperor- could have just been a really good persuasion role, maybe a roll of 2 gets him killed.

Not everyone is on the same page- this happens even with homebrew settings or just a rule book. Some people will remember all the details others will not. Besides you can always say that I am not following cannon and be done with it.

It’s someone else’s house- if you live anywhere for any length of time you will adjust it to fit your style better. Carpets and chairs rearranged, fridge organized differently, new drapes and towels. If you are not comfortable doing that then perhaps this house is not correct for you. Good news- we have a whole block for you to try out until you feel comfortable. Plus there is that empty house across the street that you can decorate as you wish.

I honestly think that a combination of Scott and your method works best. Steal the setting and whatever other elements are most important and kill of whichever NPC causes problems. Run the Star Wars movies with Luke getting killed in the raid on his homestead. Now Obi-wan must find another who can aid him- Behold! A group of pirates/smugglers/rebels/whoever which can aid him!

Settings a very useful because they let the GM worry about other stuff and they are generally balanced. There is no worry about what happens when the party leaves and goes to the other nation, which you weren’t ever planning on fleshing out. In a setting you simply turn the page and all is made well.

#2 Comment By umbral.fury On February 15, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

As a quick question, do you have any suggestions of scifi settings that aren’t “someone else’s house?” I like scifi games but have run into similar problems and I don’t like the changes that work for some people.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 15, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

@Razjah – Definitely talk to the group about what everyone wants.

Not every approach works for every gamer. I’d go nuts in the group you describe, but if it works for you, don’t let my opinions stand in your way.

@umbral.fury – Slipstream immediately came to mind, as did Gamma World and Star Frontiers. But one of those is intentionally pulpy, and two are really old…

Thinking about it, the various editions of Traveller probably cover enough time and space that you can almost certainly find an area you like and go from there.

Sci-fi may actually be one of those genres where “Dawn of Worlds” group-based setting creation works best. Everyone picks an element or two, and stir it up.

Literary settings do have the tremendous advantage of “plug and play”. Most of the players have seen the movie/show/book, and are familiar enough with the setting that a bunch of background material isn’t necessary. Which definitely explains their attraction and popularity…

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On February 16, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

Claiming it as Your Own and Moving it Elsewhere are both essential. If you’re not playing the main characters (as the Indiana Jones RPG and many X-verse games assume), the book characters should be only occasionally on screen at most.

I agree that the major advantage of literary worlds is easy buy-in… and that buying into the wrong thing is a common flaw. One of these days, I will have to read Traveller.

@umbral.fury – If you’re looking for a cool setting without a book or movie background, look into Diaspora. It’s a FATE based modern game.

#5 Comment By Katana_Geldar On February 17, 2010 @ 12:04 am

Okay, since when is gaming not story-telling? It’s different from telling an actual story as there’s more than one involved, but there still is the story.

I have commented on this MANY times on my own blog, did a series of articles in it and still people don’t get it.

Now, I understand the difficulties of literary settings and they ways people have for compensating, but people STILL want to play Star Wars! They want to have those events and characters that they know and still be the heroes of their own story.

This is where GM’s have to be creative, you need to take the game to a blank area where things affecting the players have not already been decided for you. I often say this, but it’s a BIG galaxy and we have about 5000 years or more to play with.

Just start with a homebrew planet and/or alien species and your away.

So what if it’s someone else’s house? You can still experiment with the furniture until you find a way to suit it. You can paint the walls and do things without taking away the structure of the house. Just because a system based on something else puts up a fence, it does not mean you have to stop being creative.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 17, 2010 @ 9:31 am

@Katana_Geldar – It’s storytelling, but it’s not the same. Gaming never gets the rewrites (or retakes) that polish a piece of fiction. The solo artist also knows well in advance exactly what is going to happen, and can dramatically build up to that; gamers who know what’s going to happen will either over-prepare for it or try to avoid it entirely.

Personally, I don’t want to play Star Wars (especially since the prequels), but I’d gladly play in a very similar setting. Yes, the GM can be creative, and remodel that “galaxy far, far away”. But having remodeled both settings and houses, this GM finds that better results come from starting with a blank slate.

#7 Comment By Lord Inar On February 23, 2010 @ 10:46 am

I cut my gaming teeth on LotR (even when I was playing D&D) and with the smart decision of ICE to choose right after the Plague as one of their time periods (the first “points of light” setting?), we never had any trouble both being fully in the world and making a difference. For me the best use of “Move the Action Elsewhere” in a game.

Of course we always had to be judicious since we were bordering Angmar and there was always the threat of the Witch-King paying too much attention to us, but that’s what kept it LotR and not just a generic fantasy world.

I think the issue with Star Wars is the Jedi, since they are so iconic for the Star Wars universe but really only comprise about 1/10^10 of the galaxy’s population (a guess), it’s harder to “Move the Action Elsewhere”

#8 Comment By Katana_Geldar On February 26, 2010 @ 2:47 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Well, not all of us are as creative as you are, Kurt, some of us don’t mind having something to work with, as frustrating as it may sound.
Comparatively, a setting where I can be more creative sounds rather relaxing and a lot of work at the same time. Problem is, my group wants to play Star Wars…
@Lord Inar – This is why I constantly have to use my “no Jedi allowed” rule. I love Jedi, but you have to tailor the campaign to them.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 28, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

@Katana_Geldar – To each their own, and I’m not *that* creative… I’ve remodeled many a world, but my players are generally more easy-going when I remodel Greyhawk than when I remodel (for instance) Middle-Earth.


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