Friday, August 26, 2016

Tabletop Tips: The Importance of Setting

By Patrick Hawes-DeFrias

One of the cornerstones of Geek culture is the classic tabletop roleplaying game. I’ve been in a Dungeons and Dragons group for a few years now, and I’ve been having a blast. We’ve had twists and turns, ups and downs, and lately I’ve even been working on writing my own campaign. But it’s not all fun and games, despite the fact that tabletop RPG’s are, literally, fun games. It takes work to get a game going and have it run smoothly. To that end, I’ve decided to write about my own experiences for the purpose of making your dive into the world all the easier. Today’s subject- understanding what your game’s setting is, and how that should impact your decisions and actions.
Spot Check- Where are we?
One of the biggest factors in determining your game’s setting is, of course, the game itself. For example, my group has been playing Dungeons and Dragons version 3.5, which means, barring any outstanding campaign ideas we might decide to run with, the general setting of the game is that of High Fantasy. Peasants and nobles, barbarian camps, dragon hoards, wizards, and genies running around causing untold mayhem. That means a few things in terms of what my character should and should not do- for example, generally speaking your character probably shouldn’t be using the same lingo and slang that exists today. If my character see something that looks like an airplane, my character should react with shock and amazement, unless he has some sort of technological background. It’s important to realize that what you and your character see as commonplace are likely two very different things. In fact, there’s even a campaign that exists to enforce that fact. In it, the players encounter an alien ship and explore it. Upon doing so, your party finds various things that resemble modern devices, for example something that looks like a TV screen. A player might think to turn it on, because “hey, I know what a monitor is in real life, so I’ll ‘just happen’ to try and press the switch”. Upon doing so, their character gets an energy blast in the face, because that “TV” was actually a death trap. This setting forces players to try and think like someone who’s never seen or heard of modern conventions and, while a bit cruel, it is something to learn from. Because remember, it’s an RPG, and you are not yourself in this setting. You, well, you’re playing a role. Essentially you’re an actor, just one with more agency.
Of course, this particular game is just one of many, and other games have other settings. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Apocalypse, which you could classify as modern-fantasy games. In them, strangeness and magic occur all the time, but only the player-characters and their affiliates would likely know about or understand it. Otherwise, modern day knowledge is free game. Then there’s futuristic games like Cyberpunk or Shadowrun. In a setting like that, you have to remember that insane technological advancements that you couldn’t possibly believe today are commonplace, and things we have now will seem vintage and archaic. These game settings all require a different kind of person to go through them. Let’s say you make the same kind of character for each of them. They won’t be exactly the same of course, the games I just mentioned have different rules and ways of making a character. But, let’s say that for each game you make a sneaky rogue or assassin. And, let’s say the character’s mission in each game is the same- sneak into a warehouse and steal something. That character is going to be acting differently in every single game, in personality and in how you play the game. In D&D, you’ll have to worry about magical constructs and spells that protect an area in all kinds of fantastical ways, so you might ask your mage-type party member to check the place out first. Then, you could silently take out guards with your knife and bow from the shadows. In a modern setting game, that won’t work necessarily- what if they have alarm systems and infrared cameras? Sure, there won’t be magic necessarily, but modern conventions will make up for that. Modern times also mean guns, so you REALLY don’t want to be fighting guards unless you’re equipped to do so. However, that means your sneaky character could also be well-versed in firearms, so you might be able to deal with security before you get anywhere near the warehouse. And finally, the futuristic settings. There might be straight-up sci-fi levels of technology protecting the building- drones, robots, motion sensing turrets, electrified floors, who knows. You might have to do hacking to get in, either by yourself or with the help of a party member. You might have technology yourself to help you get in- cybernetic augmentation, cloaking, hell you might have a jetpack. The point is, the same type of character cannot, and will not, behave the same way in the same type of situation, as a fundamental necessity to the type of game you’re playing, and it’s important to realize this from the beginning.
Beware the booming voice from the sky!
Having said that, you need to keep in mind the most important aspect of your game’s setting- your Dungeon Master (or Game master, or Storyteller, whatever the game calls him/her- the person in charge of the game). They’re the one who has set up the world you’re playing in. Sure, your DM could be running a premade campaign, but even then they might decide to switch things up. Perhaps they have a time travel storyline where you end up in modern times, or they decide to add monsters, factions, etc. that aren’t in the main game. They might add in ideas from other games- this is especially true if you are playing a game that uses something like the d20 system, which is highly modular and in a way encourages mixing and matching gameplay elements. Point is, the DM is the person telling the story, and as the story’s main characters, it’s your job to run with what’s given to you. It’s a back-and-forth. The DM gives you a situation to resolve, you respond by creatively handling said situation… or, perhaps you fail. The DM takes this into consideration, forms an outcome, and gives you a new situation to resolve. Both parties need to cooperate, or else the game becomes a standstill.
I roll to sense the game’s tone.
Lastly, all people participating in the game NEED to have one thing perfectly clear, or the game will be ruined- the game’s tone. I’ve seen it a couple times now, where the players have a different understanding of what the game’s tone is supposed to be compared to what the DM had in mind, and it’s nearly ended games. What do I mean by this? By tone, I mean how the game “feels”. Think of genres- you’ve got action movies, comedies, horror films, and so forth. None of these feel the same when you watch them. If you go and see the next Halloween movie, and there’s a character who’s making silly, stupid jokes every 5 minutes who doesn’t immediately get murdered by Michael Myers, you’re going to be really confused about how you’re supposed to feel while watching it. Game campaigns are the same way- if the DM sets up a serious, high-adventure storyline, but the characters are off doing silly, dumb things, that seriously harms the progression of the game. Occasional humor and silliness is fine, after all you’re playing a game with friends, so it’s bound to happen. But you can’t let it get in the way of the plot. Even if it means just pulling the DM to the side before the game starts and straight-up asking them what the tone should be, just do it. Otherwise, you could just end up with a mess. Of course this falls on the DM as well- if everyone’s taking a game too lightly, or hell, too seriously, just stop the game for a second and say “hey guys, this is how the game should feel as you’re playing it”. Ultimately, it’ll be far less disruptive than letting it go unchecked.
How do I know this? Well, here’s an example of this happening with my own group. A while back, we all went on a camping trip, and for fun we decided to set up a one-shot campaign (that is to say, a game that would last only a few sessions at most- basically, one quick adventure rather than an entire storyline. Because it was going to be a one-shot, we decided to have a little bit of fun by making it an evil campaign- after all, Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 has several evil-based classes that have full stats and level progression that players generally never get to experience, except as enemies or boss battles. We did a few sessions during the course of the camping trip, and it was really fun! We were able to get away with all sorts of stuff that would never fly in a normal game because hey, we’re the bad guys, and it’s not like we’ll be playing a full storyline anyway. So, the campaign had a very casual and lighthearted feel to it. But, we ran into 2 big problems after the trip- 1) We didn’t finish the adventure, and 2) We had way more fun with the game than we expected. So, we collectively decided to keep the game going, since we had recently taken a break from our previous game and needed a replacement for our weekly meet-up. This, however, came with a change that nobody discussed, and this was where our problem occurred. Our DM for this evil campaign figured that since the game was being extended into a full storyline, it should be made a bit more serious. And that’s a perfectly logical and understandable conclusion to make- it was now going to be a game that we would be spending some time with, and thus we should take it more seriously. But, the players (including myself) didn’t realize this, and thus we started making dumb decisions. The point where it started to break down was when our wizard wanted to get a mirror for scrying (basically, using magic to spy on people). We found one at a local shop, and rather than buying it or stealing it, we decided to kill the shopkeeper and take it. I, playing as an assassin, was all for this because I got to use my cool, sneaky assassin abilities. So, the wizard distracts the shopkeeper as I sneak behind and take them out. Someone else happened to come into the shop, so we took them out as well. PROBLEM- we were in a major city, and eventually the double-murder was discovered, and this ended up being one of the breaking points that made the town guard go on high alert, and this is when our DM stepped in and basically asked us what the hell we were doing, since we just made the mission we were going on WAAAY harder for ourselves. But we talked it out, resolved the problem, and started taking it much more seriously. But we still caused the game to be significantly harder during this segment, for really no reason at all. And, we had to deal with the consequences of it. If our DM didn’t step in when he did, we probably would’ve kept on doing stupid things, and either A) make the game unplayable, or B) gotten all our characters killed. So, by any means necessary, KNOW YOUR TONE.
End of the road, friends.
So there you have it- understanding a game’s setting is fundamental to having a good roleplaying experience. Know what game you’re playing, and know how your DM is going to CHANGE the game you’re playing. And above all, know how the game is supposed to feel! After all, as I said before you are an actor in the storyline. And believe me, you don’t want to be the guy who comes up on stage thinking he’s Ace Ventura when it turns out he’s actually supposed to be the Lone Ranger.

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