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The Setting is not the Role Playing

Posted By Patrick Benson On December 11, 2008 @ 1:02 am In GMing Advice,Specific RPGs | 20 Comments

During our last session at my friendly local gaming shop where I am a player in a Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition game I picked up a copy of the recently released Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons. I am currently running a 4e game where dragons are a major part of the story arc, so I was considering whether or not to purchase the title.

I skimmed the contents and I was a bit disappointed. This is not to say that the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is a bad product. I cannot endorse or denounce a work that I have not read completely through. What little I did read of the title was not what I was hoping to find nor was it a pleasant surprise.

In one part of the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons there is a detailed description of a typical dragon’s anatomy. The inner workings of the skeletal, nervous, and cardiovascular systems as well as other details are covered. This anatomy lesson is pure fluff in my mind. Possibly entertaining to some, but it did not convince me to buy the product.

I read some of the fluff out loud and with a sigh I placed the book back on the shelf. I then muttered out loud “What good is that going to do for my game?”

In response one of the other players said “Um, it’s called role playing!”

I chuckled but then it hit me – no, it is not called role playing. It is called setting. Details of that nature help to flesh out a setting. The reason that I was disappointed with the product was that it would not encourage the role playing aspect of my game. I wanted a product that would help create a sense of mystique and intrigue regarding dragons. A copy of Grey’s Anatomy: Newly Revised Dragons Edition is setting material that actually hinders the atmosphere that I want to create in my game. This fluff took away some of the mystique of the dragon mythos with its approach.

This setting material only provided in finer detail common concepts about dragons which I and my players already have. In other words, I do not need a picture of a dragon’s muscular system in order to understand that a dragon is a strong and fearsome beast. I do not need a comment on the size of a dragon’s brain in order to conceive of it as being smart. The stats in the system convey all of that information to me already.

What I wanted was to see material that would help me role play a dragon. Setting may help you understand a world, it may help you shape and define a character, but a setting does not provide you with role playing. Role playing is how you decide to portray the character within the setting. Setting and role playing are complimentary, but setting and role playing are not substitutes for each other.

Furthermore, and even more important, having a detailed setting does not guarantee that you will encourage role playing. Creating character incentives within the setting may lead to an increase in role playing, but providing details that are unlikely to be useful to the characters does not lead to drama or tension for the characters to react to.

Keep this in mind that next time that you work on the world that you are designing or are considering setting material for your game. If your objective is to flesh out the world in greater detail then any setting material that you want to use is fine, but if you want to promote role playing focus on the structure of your plot and character dynamics and tailor your setting to enhance those aspects of your game instead. Setting is a powerful tool that every Game Master must learn to use well, but do not think of it as the only tool that is available to you when running your games.

That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The Setting is not the Role Playing"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 11, 2008 @ 6:50 am

Here are some thoughts on Dragons:

As to the difference between setting and Role-Playing, I’d say you’re dead on. Setting beyond the minimum neccesary that doesn’t engage your players is more or less a waste.

#2 Comment By DeadGod On December 11, 2008 @ 9:41 am

I agree. Setting is not, in and of itself, role playing. Setting does two major things for a game: #1. It provides context for the players to suspend their disbelief, which is important for any story. #2. It inspires players. They are motivated by, rewarded by, or want to be included in elements of the setting.

Setting does not equal play, but I feel that setting is the fuel on which play runs. It is the amount and flavor of a setting that ultimately defines a campaign. (OK, so maybe the game system has a lot of influence in that area too.)

I find it interesting enough to ask: What would you expect out a book for it to count as “role playing” material instead of “setting” material?

I should think that NPC write-ups still count as setting. It is what you do with those write-ups that is the actual role-playing. I would also say that locations fall under the same classification. I think what I would classify as “role playing” material are things that directly evoke choices from players. Choices often appear in the written form as traps, encounters, and items that are unique enough that they cause players to experiment or think creatively.

I think an awesome idea for a product would be a book full of interesting choices. It would contain descriptions of a dilemmas, without too much actual background info so that you can easily plug it in to your game. It could also include tips on how to introduce the dilemma, how to get characters involved in the dilemma, and interesting twists to put on the dilemma.

#3 Comment By Rafe On December 11, 2008 @ 9:50 am

They did the whole anatomy thing with the 3.x Draconomicon, also, which was pointless then. How did they think it would be relevant now? It’s filling pages, in my opinion. Though I haven’t read the whole thing either, something that would have been nice is more information on dragon minions, cults, followers and dragon in-fighting.

— no, it is not called role playing. It is called setting. —

Spot on and something that does not occur to many people and, if/when it does, it’s hardly thought of so succinctly. Well put! It’s setting fluff, not a role-playing aid.

#4 Comment By BryanB On December 11, 2008 @ 10:53 am

I agree. The setting is simply the environment where the PC’s roam as the role-playing supposedly takes place. Just because one uses setting fluff in its entirety doesn’t mean that they are role-playing any more or any less than a GM who does not use it.

The guy that talked to Patrick was making an “apples and oranges” comparision really. It was nonsense.

#5 Comment By BryanB On December 11, 2008 @ 11:00 am

I forgot to mention something about the 3.5 Draconomicon. I bought that book because it was pretty to look at. I knew when I bought it that I would find it somewhat interesting, but not particularly useful for my games. I was right. The information is fascinating and the artwork is very pretty to look at. The book has, in fact, never been used by me for gaming purposes. This is probably because the information I really needed for the party to encounter a dragon, was already present in the Monster Manual. I’ll bet the same thing applies to this 4.0 Draconomican series.

#6 Comment By feuer_faust On December 11, 2008 @ 11:10 am

Not a bad bit of article, definitely something I have held off on in the past (or simply overlooked). Trying to keep all detail player-and-action relevant can be tricky when you’re on a roll.

Regarding the new Dragonomicon: there is a bit in there detailing roleplaying a dragon. It goes on for a handful of pages, detailing the average dragon’s goals and perspectives on the world around him. Something akin to how people view the milling about of hamsters or rabbits. :) That said, a good part is extra fluff, tons of stat blocks, then fluff and stats for dragons from other settings throughout DnD. Not a bad buy, but not very necessary.

#7 Comment By Vagnaard On December 11, 2008 @ 11:45 am

I look at those books as idea troves. I know most found the draconic biology chapter useless, even insulting, but I found it interesting. As you said, setting is not role playing but contrary to what you said, I believe this kind of information is worthy to have a place in my brain.

Why ?

Because it can help me stimulate roleplaying. I will take your example to try and explain what I mean. You are running a campain where dragons are paramount in their might and godliness… That is cool, but it would be interesting for the players, while trying to find a way to defeat a particular dragon, to have an “expert” on dracologie come to them and explain his theories (which bypass most of the magical explanations and goes more into the mundane) about dragons. This way, the players with the setting information you gave them, can come with a realistic plan to defeat the dragon.

And the funny thing is that the so called expert may himself be a dragon that wanted to give false but believable information to the players to get them killed.

This way, the setting did help me add drama in the game.

#8 Comment By Starvosk On December 11, 2008 @ 11:56 am

I think that the 3.5 Draconomicon, and to a lesser extent this one, is more geared toward a non-RPG playing audience. When you were a kid, didn’t you read those ‘biology of a unicorn’ or whatever books?

Many people I’ve met have purchased the Draconomicon simply because it’s chock full of dragon goodness. These are artists, fantasy readers, movie goers, etc.

I think the intent of the book is not so much gaming material, but perhaps to serve the same purpose as other ‘coffee table’ books and the like.

#9 Comment By John Arcadian On December 11, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

I can think of one reason where something like the ultra-detailed biology of dragons would be useful, and it is kind of a toss-up as to whether you find it useful or not. I have a player who would read that and start devising ways to try to tweak the rules to take out dragons. “If you cut him here then you might take out his ability to breathe fire, etc., etc., etc.”. Whether or not this is cheesing it up or not depends on your play style. Is the GM likely to allow bonuses when an attack like that is made, or is it used to add flair and cinematic effects to an attack? Hard to call and it depends on your play style.

I can see a few places where setting information like this can be a role-playing aid. You could hand the book out as the journal of some dragonologist, or have it available as the result of a successful gather info check. It doesn’t make for role-playing though. I much prefer books where there are things more relevant to the game being played detailed like that. Then again, whose to say what is relevant to the game being played on a group by group basis?

#10 Comment By Vagnaard On December 11, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

@Jogn Arcadian

My point exactly. I can see groups for which this information can be a good roleplaying aid and other who would find it stupid.

I think you cannot discredit informations just because at first sight it doesnt seem usable. You never know.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 11, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

Excellent point. The rules are like the framework and foundation of a house. The setting and fluff are like the sheetrock, paint, trim, etc. And the roleplaying is what the family living there does to make it a home.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 11, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

These comments are awesome, but I’m just going to reply directly to a few.

@DeadGod – I think a role playing aid product would be focused on characters. Motivations and relationships would be the emphasis, and stat blocks (mechanics) and descriptions (setting) would receive less attention.

@Vagnaard – Yes, the setting may lead to role playing. That was not the point though. The point is that it is not role playing. Just as the driver and the automobile are not the same thing, yet when you put them together you can see the obvious benefits. You need to understand where one ends and the other begins in order to reap the most rewards from them IMO.

@BryanB – Actually, the player was just making a comment so please don’t think that he was trying to prove a point. He was just taking a friendly poke at my whining, but his comment was inspiring! :)

Again, I’m not saying that the Draconomicon is a bad/good product. I’m not saying that setting material isn’t incredibly useful. I’m just saying recognize that setting and role playing are two different things, and that recognizing the dfference between the two can help you to become a better GM.

#13 Comment By BryanB On December 11, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

@Patrick Benson – I wasn’t sure if you were serious or not about the actual comment made, because I have heard several gamers say pretty dumb things and they were dead serious at the time.

Example: If a GM doesn’t use all of the WotC books, he is being a lazy GM. :D

#14 Comment By Sarlax On December 11, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

I wanted a product that would help create a sense of mystique and intrigue regarding dragons.

I think it’s hard to make something more mysterious by writing 250 pages about them.

I don’t see how fluff does anything but help one to play the role of the dragon, even if said fluff doesn’t directly speak to how a dragon behaves (although this material is in the book).

Take the anatomy, for instance. “Due to their scales and thick hides, chromatic dragons have a poor tactile sense. Hence, a dragon can be comfortable sleeping on a jagged pile of treasure, as long as the pile vaguely conforms to the dragon’s shape. Dragons are, however, sensitive to pain. Anything capable of penetrating their hide and scales receives their full attention.”

Now, think of what this means if you’re playing a dragon. You don’t get scratched. Things which could really irritate a human do nothing to you. When you see humans carefully working through your lair, shielding eyes from the light of magma, coughing from the smoke, and grimacing in pain when they snag skin on spurs of rock, you don’t empathize at all. You never experience such things. To you, humans are weak and need constant coddling. They deserve nothing from you.

Sure, an author could say simply, “Dragons are very proud and arrogant,” but that’s meaningless. I find the sections on anatomy, life cycle, etc. very useful for playing the role of dragon because they set up the experiences of dragons.

It’s the old writing axiom: Show, don’t tell. By providing so much fluff about dragons, the book is really giving you the context to understand a dragon’s mind and life.

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 11, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

@Sarlax – Excellent point, but I really don’t think that material is needed. I already have a sense that dragons don’t hurt easily. I already have a sense that dragons don’t look at the party members as peers. That text isn’t useful fluff to me, because I see it as stating the obvious.

But your example proves my point – setting can be used to help with the role playing. It is separate from the role playing, but compliments it when done well. I just don’t think that the Draconomicon does setting well from what little I read.

Fluff can be entertaining and interesting, and when done well it is inspiring. The fluff that I read in the Draconomicon didn’t impress me, but others might be inspired by it. To each his own.

I think that you can develop a greater sense of mystery by writing open ended material. H. P. Lovecraft was a master of horror because of what he didn’t reveal (very rarely were the horrors described in great and exact detail in his stories). Do something similar with the Draconomicon – reveal a little bit about dragons, but then offer only theories about still undiscovered details. Write things like “To this day, there are no known witnesses of a dragon’s nest. Whether the eggs are that well hidden, or if the dragons eat the witnesses is highly debated. Dragon egg shell pieces are always discovered after they have been removed from the lair by the beasts. Perhaps to prevent predators large enough to threaten a dragon from appearing, or perhaps as bait to lure large creatures with. Again, there are only theories and no proof as of this writing.” That to me adds some mystery and it is off the top of my head. I imagine an editor and talented writer could do significantly better.

#16 Comment By DDC Trent On December 14, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

@Patrick Benson – “That text isn’t useful fluff to me, because I see it as stating the obvious.”

That’s a very good point but keep in mind that Wizards audience isn’t just to the DM that’s been running a game since 2nd Edition. To you this may be stuff that isn’t useful but to someone who’s only experience with fantasy gaming is through MMORPGs this might be something that they would like.

I haven’t read the Dragonomicon though so I can’t comment exactly on this though. What I do know is that Wizards wants to make their products appeal to a broader audience.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 15, 2008 @ 9:45 am

@DDC Trent – Another excellent point, but I would say that WotC is still pushing pure fluff in this section. My reasoning is as follows:

1) Forget experience with D&D. Dragons are cultural icons that people around the world are familar with. You might not have even heard of RPGs and probably would still have a pretty good concept of what a dragon is (big fearsom beast, perhaps highly intelligent).

2) This book is marketed at someone who already has the 3 core books for 4e. You already have a sense of dragons being big fearsome and intelligent beasts from those books (the artwork, the stat blocks in the MM, the freakin’ cover of the DMG, etc.).

3) Most businesses want to appeal to a broader market. That’s just good business. This fluff does not help to achieve that. You have to buy $100 worth of books first to be able to use this product. It isn’t an introductory product, it is a supplemental product. The D&D Starter’s Set is a product that might draw in new gamers, not the Draconomicon.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Draconomicon, be it good or bad, the point is that setting and role playing are complimentary but not substitues for each other.

#18 Comment By Nefandus On December 15, 2008 @ 10:02 am

Your note dovetails nicely with one I was commenting on over at http://www.steamtunnels.blogspot.com

If you don’t mind, I’ll repost some snips and adapt some to your example.

“Think back to when you started playing whatever game you are currently excited about – before all those sourcebooks, player manuals, and expansions were developed, when all you had was the core rulebooks. Now, go gather all the books and kit you bought since that time to expand your game. Is it a heavy backpack? Do you bring it to every session and thunk it on the floor? Is the game at the table more fun?

In most cases, it has very little effect on the game at the table at all.

Too often, gaming companies act like publishing companies, churning out product with the aim of adding more choice to sessions (or selling more widgets), and players snap it up under the assumption that it will make the game better.
Because there is frequently a long interval between game sessions in a serial campaign, I think players enjoy inhabiting that imaginative space. There’s an appeal about these expansions – particularly the player-oriented ones which turn character creation into a game of its own. Players absorb the material in these supplements and then try to formulate a brilliant or unusual character advancement strategy. There is a strangely compelling feeling to designing characters, not unlike a game of Solitaire.”

GMs like to daydream about the how’s and why’s of various settings, but these have litte to do with what actually happens next when you get to the gaming table. In cases where supplements present minute detail (ie the anatomy of a dragon) there really isn’t a gaming interface to access that information withing the context of a session. It’s not like you or a player has a rule mechanism by which that information will suddenly become relevant in a game. Those things don’t matter to an RPG session any more than they would in most movies or stories.

Those books are a pacifier that tides you over. For the amount of content that gets churned out – I think the value often isn’t there, especially when those materials aren’t balanced or playtested as well as the initial core books. If the character designs succumb to “power creep” – then it just means the gamemaster has to boost the challenge levels higher to cope. There’s not enough benefit for the hassle it causes.

Churning out endless and increasingly niche expansions for a game might sell books to players in the short term, but it doesn’t make managing or creating adventures easier, and won’t bring more games from the bookshelf to the table. “More complexity” does not equal “more easy”.

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