Many people start out knowing what setting they want to play in, so choosing the setting isn’t an issue. If you know you want to play “Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition,” then you’re probably aiming to play a fantasy game. If you’re playing “Vampire: the Masquerade,” then you probably know you’re going for modern-day horror.*
For those of you who haven’t decided on a setting yet, you can approach it from several directions:
- What do your players want to play?
- What sorts of plots do you have an easy time coming up with ideas for?
- What sort of mood are you going for?
- What sort of genre gives you that thrill along your spine when you roleplay?
- What kind of preparatory work do you prefer to do?
Effect of Setting on General Research
Different genres and settings require different types of research; here are a few thoughts on the differences between genres. Use them to help you choose your setting or to give yourself a starting point for your research.
Modern-day settings are, in some ways, the easiest to prepare for. No need to do lots of research, right? You already know what the world looks like and how it operates. You know what the law enforcement is like, you know what computers look like. Your players do, too, so you don’t have to go into lots of detail describing or getting across the idea of a computer. All you have to say is “and there’s a computer on his desk,” and they know most of the relevant details. They know it has a monitor they can look at, they know it probably has a CD drive, and they know where to look for the power switches. They know they can sit down and try the keyboard, and they have some idea of how to go about trying to use the thing. You don’t have to create all of those details–they’re already there for you to make use of.
Modern-day settings are also the most difficult to prepare for. If you delve into the mysteries of the armed forces and it turns out that one of your players knows more about them than you do, you could be stuck in a tough spot. In some ways playing in a modern-day setting forces more research rather than less, because making up details can cause problems. If your players know that army procedures work in a certain way and assume things work the same way in the game world, they can get screwed over for no better reason than that they knew too much. And you’re left trying to decide mid-stream whether to let them re-choose their actions, or to leave them screwed, or to change your world to reflect the way the army is really supposed to operate. Not to mention that there are a few players out there who rely on knowing more than the GM does in order to out-maneuver him.
Depending on the fantasy setting, you may be able to take some details from history books. Many fantasy settings are at least loosely based on actual historical periods. History books and web sites can give you details like city size, tech level, clothing, and so on. Since it’s fantasy, your players are less likely to call foul on details than in the modern-day setting. Fantasy is just close enough to history that you may have players trying to use primitive science, or knowledge of things like how primitive locks operate. You’ll need to decide ahead of time how to decide where to draw the line: between things they can and can’t do, things that are possible and aren’t, and things that are historically accurate (and not).
If you really hate research, futuristic science fiction might work well for you. Each writer’s version of the future is very different, so it isn’t really possible for your players to say “but things in the future will work like this.” However, the more you base your science fiction in real-world theories and principles, the more your players can try to extrapolate how things should work in your world. If you think you can keep up with them this can be a lot of fun. But if you just want to make things up and not have to worry about it, then keep your scientific principles as abstract as possible.
“Hard science” science fiction requires a GM with a good head for scientific principles and extrapolation of theories. Or, it requires a GM who’s willing to read lots of science or science fiction, allow his players to get really creative, or “just say no” to players who try to extrapolate in directions that he doesn’t want his game to take. “Soft” science fiction can rely much more on GM imagination and intuition.
Horror relies more on the GM’s ability to create certain moods and emotions in the players than it does on research. However, there’s nothing saying that a GM can’t pick up this ability through research: usually through reading horror, watching horror, and reading articles and books on GMing horror.
Effect of Setting on Other Types of Preparation
Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Here a modern-day setting may make your job as GM easier. It’s often less difficult to come up with NPC after NPC from the modern world, if just because people are all around us, and we don’t have to muck with them much to make them fit our games. It may be easier to extrapolate from your neighbor to your neighbor as modern-day vampire, than from your neighbor to your neighbor as elven mage.
NPCs in science fiction or fantasy worlds may take more work and imagination. You can borrow them straight from books and movies, but unless you change them around a bit you run the risk that your players will recognize them (this may or may not bother you depending on the situation). For unusual time periods and genres, I recommend taking those “normal” people from your everyday life and twisting them to fit the setting, even if it takes a little work. Try combining them with characters from movies and stories that you enjoy.
Adventures and Plots
When it comes to the creation of adventures and plots alternative settings may take a little practice, but they quickly become fairly easy. Once you’re in the mindset of coming up with fantasy or science fiction plots, they aren’t all that much different from modern-day plots. Besides, all you have to do is go to a bookstore and read the backs of a few books to get ideas.
If your games are mostly story-based, you may have a perfectly fine time coming up with good science fiction or fantasy adventures. If you like to run a game that’s more of a world for the players to run around and do things in, then something set in the modern world might be easier. You can trivially populate such a world from people mentioned in newspapers and locations you find described in magazines and travel books.
Maps and Names
Maps and names may be more difficult. If you don’t want people to have completely normal names, then you can’t use the normal modern-day sources (baby name books, phone books). Try using odd names from other languages that your players won’t recognize. They may be a little harder to find, but they are out there. For maps you can’t just grab touristy map software, add labels, and print if you aren’t playing a modern-day setting. There are, however, some rudimentary map generators out there on the web at some RPG sites. And maps don’t have to be spectacular things; you can always grab a piece of paper and do a rough sketch, even if you have no real artistic ability to speak of.
Reading for Pleasure
Your preferred setting may also depend on what you like to read on the side. If you experience a guilty pleasure in reading reference books, like newspapers, and read magazines that suggest all sorts of modern-day plots, then modern-day settings may be easier for you. If you wouldn’t touch a newspaper with that ten-foot pole and prefer fantasy or science fiction novels (or short stories, TV shows, and movies), then those settings may be easier for you to come up with material for. Horror tends to be more a matter of mood, so it may depend on whether the things you keep around you and involve yourself in inspire you in that direction.
I hope this gives you some idea of the differences in preparation required for different genres and settings. Good luck!
* “Dungeons and Dragons” is a registered trademark of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. “Vampire: the Masquerade” is a registered trademark of White Wolf Publishing, Inc.
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