Day Seven of #RPGaDay is ‘Most “intellectual” RPG owned’ and I’ve seen many interpretations of what “intellectual” means (I took it to mean something that was kind of self-consciously clever and knew it, probably with a dash of hipsterness as well). For me, the game I own that has intimidated me the most with its evident smartness is Hillfolk. One reason is that the Drama System requires a fairly in-depth understanding of narrative concepts like dramatic poles and themes, but the other reason is the sample settings included with the book. Hillfolk itself is ‘A game of Iron Age drama’, which requires a greater knowledge of human history than a stock fantasy setting (and also research!). Also, the second half of the book is a series of short treatments for settings and campaigns, some of which are recognisable from other games or media (Malice Tarn is Watership Down by way of Bunnies and Burrows) but others are settings that are so rooted in high-concept, meta or real-world history that there isn’t much similar stuff out there. The corruption of Golden Age Hollywood, the paranoia of cold war Moscow, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, “Breaking Bad meets The Wrestler” and escaped African slaves seeking revenge all feature, among many other more fantastical settings. The majority of them deal with problematic aspects of genres or history and challenge the players and GM to roleplay the points of high drama in settings that deliberately address subjects very far from the good vs. bad morality of many other roleplaying games. I chose Hillfolk today because the settings in it are a challenge to think more deeply about the worlds we create and the problematic aspects of humanity that make us uncomfortable.
For my actual article, I wanted to lead into talking about what makes a good setting guide. While I like to be challenged, I also enjoy light-hearted or heroic settings where answers may not be easy, but they won’t leave your soul rent in twain at the end of every session. I talked yesterday about my difficulties with Lux Aeternum and today I’d like to give some examples of really good setting guides, because I think it’s an underestimated skill. I’ll be focusing on setting guides that create a concrete place rather than a tone or a framework for building your own places, just because otherwise this would take all night. Some of these have already appeared elsewhere on the blog, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.
P.S. The title of this post comes from a game one of my friends ran which was an utterly generic fantasy game with names like “the Dark Tower of Doom” and “the Forest of Trees”.
I talked about this a little yesterday when discussing Luex Aeternum, as a point of comparison. Swashbuckling Adventures is an adaptation of the setting for the game 7th Sea into the 3rd Edition D20 rules, but it has its own line and can be read entirely independently of 7th Sea (and indeed, I haven’t read much of 7th Sea).
As a setting, Théah is massively detailed between the two lines of books. I sort of feel that it is the quintessential ‘alternative Earth’ swashbuckling setting. The countries are thinly-veiled composites of elements from countries in the real world, but taking the most swashbuckling era of each of them. They each have their own very distinctive personality and style, and nationality is such a big aspect of character that it is the first decision you make at character creation. This makes sense: Swashbuckling Adventures incorporates all of the swashbuckling archetypes that exists and some fantasy ones too, but the swashbuckling genre has been represented very differently in different cultures. The kind of swashbuckler you play is rooted in your character’s nationality, so choose the one most in line with the style you want to play with. Then, each nation also has its own prestige classes, fighting styles, secret societies and even different kinds of magic. The standard D&D classes are re-flavoured for suitability, some don’t exist at all and new ones are introduced. The richness of Théah as a setting practically oozes from the pages of Swashbuckling Adventures, which benefits from an entire line of books in the 7th Sea game all compressed down into one of the most evocative books I’ve read.
This is a setting guide that knows its genre and plays it to the hilt (if you’ll pardon the expression), and I don’t feel it’s ever been equalled as a setting for a game of derring do and swashing buckles.
Sharn: City of Towers
Sharn: City of Towers is one of the (almost uniformly good) sourcebooks for the 3rd Edition D&D magi-punk setting Eberron. Sharn is the capital city of Breland, which is the default country in Eberron. Apart from being the book that really, really needed an index, it is a near perfect, obsessively detailed setting guide for a fantasy city. Sharn is divided into districts, and in every single one City of Towers provides details of shops and inns, landmarks and neighbourhoods, key NPCs and plot hooks. You could run a campaign for years in Sharn. The best thing about it is that it is endlessly creative – reading it cover to cover will get a bit repetitive, but dip in here and there and you will find evocative details and fascinating stories on every page. This is microcosmic setting planning done brilliantly.
More importantly, this book draws you into the setting further rather than alienating you. It is filled with possibilities of places to explore and adventures to find, and even the pictures add to the wonder of Eberron. For city-building done right, this is the place to look.
Plus it came with a fantastic CD of music to set the tone for Eberron. If you get a chance to listen to it, it really is genuinely cool.
OK, I have covered this before as well. In fact, in my second pick for the month. However, that was about a specific campaign. While the other two setting guides I’ve mentioned are remarkable for their evocation of a genre and their inspiring detail, Unhallowed Metropolis creates a setting with a history, a tone and an implied destiny. The default setting is London, because it is the most populated city since the zombie plague, and while there isn’t much detail about the places in London themselves (though it does give a rough breakdown of the districts), the core rulebook gave such an atmosphere of forboding and decay that it was impossible not to understand the nature of the city all of this took place in. Unlike my other picks for favourite setting guides, it’s unrelenting nihilistic and even the presence of Undertakers and Mourners (the monster hunters of the setting) and the ridiculous lists of equipment just serve to show that if an outbreak happens, no amount of mad scientist weaponry will save them.
There are some amazingly grim details and the setting reinforces the themes and tone of the game throughout. The section on the anatomy and science of zombies is gruesome and brilliant, as it describes the detailed dissection (obviously vivisection is, by definition, not appropriate) of a zombie in a doctor’s note. There is a sense of London as a place that is only a few mistakes off spiralling as quickly as the characters themselves do. I also found it very compelling that while the zombie plague is, obviously, the main threat in the world, now that London has been reclaimed and fortified, most people have got caught up in their petty rivalries and street wars. Even vampires are rich people’s trouble. The city is steeped in plotlines and history that emphasise the moral and physical corruption that the protagonists and their setting share. It is this that makes me want to play and run games in Unhallowed Metropolis and I hope that I get a chance to again, because this setting deserves to be shared.
So, three examples of good setting guides: a world where the setting and genre work beautifully in tandem, a city full of enough detail to run a thousand games within its walls and a London that is as doomed as the characters who live within it, filled with tone and atmosphere. I’m curious to hear which setting guides other people would highlight as really good. By ‘setting guide’, it clearly doesn’t have to be a dedicated book on the setting, as two of these are core rulebooks, but it should have something that sets the environs of the game apart from your standard game.