Settings, Systems and Stories

I have my own setting. Many GMs do, that’s hardly newsworthy. I’ve developed it over the course of several campaigns, starting with D&D 3.5, then 4e, and now a 13th Age being run by one of the past players (exciting, seeing it take on a life outside my own head). It’s a D&D setting, is what I’m getting at. But as I’m recovering from D&D’s influence and considering using other systems to tell different stories in that setting (or, hell, telling non-interactive stories in it), I’m realizing just how much it has been affected by D&D. It is heavily based in D&D mythos, and I’m fine with it. But the setting itself is post-apocalyptic, with one of its core ideas being the construction of a better world out of the ruins of the old one, and actively rejecting some of the old ways. It’s been distressing, to find just how much the new world resembled the old D&D world, in ways I didn’t even think about.

It goes beyond heroic violence being a social norm. There is a pantheon of gods, most of whom have not featured in any game we’ve played, and even I’ve started to forget their names; a confused and confusing afterlife semi-attached to these gods; all the races from all the rulebooks; huge differential of power level between individuals. None of these things are bad, per se. But they haven’t been put in with a purpose behind them. They are not there to serve a greater vision, but because that’s the way things are, or D&D is, to be more precise. So while I take a scalpel to my setting and carefully consider which parts to excise, I’m also pondering the role systems play in our stories (quadruple points for namedropping both blog and post names in the same sentence!). And yes, I’m aware of the fact that System Does Matter, that’s not quite what this post is about.


What is a setting? The context for adventures. What exists, what doesn’t, how people and cultures behave. Settings provide an inspiration for stories. You may never have thought of being double-crossed by a dragon running a corporation before you’ve heard of Shadowrun. In D&D, many stories feature eponymous dungeons and/or dragons, as that’s what heroes are supposed to be doing there. Setting suggests stories.

Ideally, a setting also provides space for your own stories told within its bounds. A good knowledge of the setting will help you find the home for a story you wish to tell, place it within the context of the larger world. Want to explore alien planets in Eclipse Phase? Go gatecrashing. Want to explore a clash of cultures and racial prejudices? Be a half-orc in a D&D world. However, not all stories fit a setting without being reshaped by it. If you want to explore alien planets in a D&D setting, perhaps you’ll be satisfied with exploring the outer planes instead. Setting shapes stories.

It is up to your group as to how much you’ll let these two roles of the setting come into play. In addition, settings themselves differ in how strongly they affect the stories told in them. Some mostly providing background elements, others are basically made for a specific activity. And, of course, people change settings. You may decide that alien planets are just what you want in your D&D (Spelljammer!). Or disregard the survivalist angle of Dark Sun and just be psionic dungeoncrawlers.


If the setting suggests what’s to be done in it, the system handles the how of it. What the characters are capable of, what obstacles the rules support and how they are to be overcome. This has a direct impact on the games you’ll be playing. If the setting features flying ships, but the system offers no rules for interacting with them, you’re less likely to do so. If the rules emphasize combat, you’ll likely be fighting a lot. It’s not that the rules or lack thereof will prevent you from flying ships or finding peaceful solutions. But mechanics encourage behaviors, and behaviors make up stories.

If you’d indulge my waxing metaphorical, imagine the potential narrative of the game as a forest, and the game itself as a traveler in the middle of it. You can take the game in any direction, climb any tree, explore any aspect of the world. Rules are the pathways running through the story-forest. They will take you to some destinations faster. They’ll focus your experience, help you overcome some hurdles along the way. It’s easy to feel like a kick-ass wizard, when the rules tell you you can shoot fire out of your fingers.

These rules-pathways will also limit the story by their very nature, as long as you adhere to them. There often are beautiful plot-lakes just off the trodden path: you may wish to see your villain escape, but that may not be an option on the battlemat. You can always depart from the rules-path, but the more well-developed the rules, the harder it is to then climb back onto it. Hopping off the D&D 4e tactical combat highway is perilous. All of this is to say: pick the rules that will take you where you want, to the stories and experiences that you desire. System encourages stories.

It does more than that, though. Built into many systems is an expectation of not just the stories that’ll be told using them, but the overall direction these stories take. Characters advance in power, wealth and influence. They go from fighting orcs to slaying dragons to vanquishing demons princes. There are story arcs implicit in the design. System affects dynamics of stories.

Coming back to flying ships, if they are a major part of the setting, it makes sense to pick a system that can support them, either on its own or with some extra setting-specific rules. It’s a standard practice, to provide rules for new ideas introduced by the setting – whether these rules are official or homebrew. However, this is only an issue if your story has been affected by the setting in such a way as to include these elements. System supports setting.


A more fitting name for this element would have been “experience”, but alas it doesn’t alliterate. Either way. Story arises out of setting and system (and players, obviously), so it can’t affect them directly. Instead you can base your choice of setting and system on what you want to see in your story. Story determines setting and system.

Except sometimes, the setting is created to fulfill a story. Rules are written to provide a specific experience. This is particularly true of indie mini-games. Don’t Rest Your Head’s Mad City and mechanics all serve a single goal: to let players experience the plunge into insanity and insomnia. At other times, the setting doesn’t really exist before the game, it is a map full of blank spots. That’s the way Dungeon World functions, filling out the blanks as the story progresses. Sometimes, story creates setting and/or system.

Unintended interactions

As you can see, these three elements are in constant interaction. Not all of these interactions are beneficial or intended.

A story event could utterly unbalance the system: it may be a fine plot for 1st level PCs to find Mjölnir (a +5 artifact hammer of awesome) on their first adventure, but D&D 4e would not handle it well. A setting may not anticipate the special breed of awful that are PCs, allowing them to demolish a significant chunk of it for fun or profit. Similarly, a setting may not actually match its rules implementation: once gods and kings have stats, sufficiently dedicated PCs can kill them, and not necessarily when you anticipated or wanted them to.

More insidious, perhaps, is the influence the system can have. There’s a reason D&D PCs are sometimes called murderhoboes. You may wish to play a game about gallant knights, but if the system provides incentives to kill and pillage, results may be mixed. Often only by looking back at your story can you see just how off-track it’s gotten. Which is restating the “system encourages stories” point – it’s that important.

And, finally, the system can warp the setting beyond recognition. Using D&D4e? You may expect high-magic heroic fantasy. In addition to that, you’ll get a high proportion of population capable of teleportation, resurrection, warlock pacts, primal spirits, etc. All explorations of high-magic heroic fantasy. Not necessarily a part of your fantasy. You can reflavor or make fit some of these, remove others. Still more will remain, embedded within the system, hidden. Those teleportation powers? Eventually, PCs will figure out they can drill holes everywhere to gain line of sight (and therefore teleport access). From that moment on, there will be holes and hole plugging in your setting.

It’s very important to recognize that most systems have been made to simulate the life of protagonists. They are focused on a specific set of activities the PCs might do. What’s more, they are designed to evoke the setting as seen by PCs. The further you go from these activities and this point of view, the less thought out and functional the rules will be. It follows, then, that it’s dangerous to apply system rules designed for protagonists to the larger reality that surrounds them – the setting. Results of taking this to the extreme (as well as attempting to rationalize the setting through the rules), while fascinating, are infinitely far from the setting you started with. And of course it didn’t help that for the longest time, game designers did their best to do just that.


So what’s the moral, after all these ruminations on things that seem obvious as soon as you state them? The moral is obvious too, and one that I’ve been pushing for some time on this blog. Know all the elements that go into your game, including, yes, setting, system and story. Know how they affect one another, know that they will, and consider how to limit the effects you don’t want. Choose these tools such that they work together in harmony, not struggle against one another and yourself.

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