Following up on Olivia Hill’s latest post about why we shouldn’t separate Fluff, and Crunch, and about the latest trends in gaming, the time calls for a clarification about what setting means. Deep in the founding principles of what a roleplaying game is lie the idea that “stories” emerge through play rather than being predetermined as in a book. After all, the whole specificity, and selling point of roleplaying games is that you can, through play, weave the story you want.
There’s a thin line here between what many “New School” players consider roleplaying, and what many “Old School”, or “Story Games” players consider roleplaying. If the story’s pre-set in its entirety up to its logical conclusion, boss fight, or cliffhanger leading to the next supplement, if it’s a Dragonlance-like romp, or an adventure path, the story’s emergence is usually confined to those marginal actions which won’t durably impact the planned adventure series. At the end of the day, there are only two options: to fail, or to succeed at the adventure. Missing too many hints? Fail. Total party kill during the final boss fight? Fail. This pattern turns the meaning of roleplaying into something close to acting: you play whatever character you want, talk in voices if you want, discuss with minor Non-Player Characters, but everybody knows how this all will end—success, or failure. The diegesis, the setting and underlying assumptions about the characters support the mimesis of play, the acting part, hence setting supplements being extremely detailed since they’re all there is to foster the willing suspension of disbelief of the players.
In Old School, and Story Games alike, roleplaying means that the players—Game Master included—have no fixed idea about the game session’s outcome, that all bets are off, and odds open. The diegesis here is but partly-written because it’s the players’ job to join the dots in an active creation of belief that the mimesis, the play, will further shape.
Understood in those terms, and trying to further bridge the divide between Fluff, and Crunch, you find setting bits in every movable part of your game: in character classes, in equipment lists, in spells, in monsters, and in magic items, artifacts, and relics. Deciding, for instance, to play AD&D solely with Fiend Folio monsters, or with the Terratic Tome, will give a very different flavour to your game than you deciding, for instance to go with orcs, and goblins. Featuring a spell-casting class means there’s magic, etc. Imagine a D&D game where the only allowed races would be Aquatic Elf, Lizard Man, Flind, and Ghoul instead of Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling.
It doesn’t take much more than that to kickstart a great game: forget about the Fluff, and intentionally build the setting into the rules. If you decide wisely what books, and game supplements to use for all those movable part, you will never need a setting book again, because they all are.