[GMing] Introducing People to Complex Settings

Posted: February 12, 2014 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
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I love and hate complicated settings. The upside is that complex settings have a massive amount of things to work with, and as a GM, I love the sheer variety of options I have to pull in order to make a great story. People, places, events and things all form a solid culture that makes a game feel real.

The down side, on the other hand is that it’s a pain to get it all to the point that you can run it and make it feel that way. This is because of the inherent difficulty of getting comfortable with a setting enough so that players can act like natives.

It’s a common issue, honestly. I’ve been running Legend of the Five Rings for a while, and Rokugan is probably one of the harder settings to acclimatize to. It’s not western fantasy enough to be comfortable, and not japanese enough to be historically accurate. It exists in a funky fictional middle ground, and I only came to understand it because I got into it early into the life of the game when it was still a collectible card game.

So how do we go about getting people to settle into a complex setting?

For this, I’d like to turn towards the wisdom of sandbox gaming: Start Small.

While it would be nice for everyone to get the full experience of a setting right away, it’s always best to introduce people new to a setting to a tiny snippet of it first.

Often, this works best in a location that they can explore with relatively little risk. Videogames tend to do this with the first location that the players are let loose in. In the Mass Effect videogames, this is onboard the Normandy spacecraft where the players get a handle on just enough of the setting by talking to the NPCs on board.

By doing this, you’re establishing the bare minimum that people need to know without overwhelming them with the minuitae of the setting.

GMs can follow this example with their own first sessions. Rather than tossing the players in head-first into the game and expecting them to talk and think like the locals do, given them a chance to get a feel for it first. It might seem slow, but it pays off.

I implemented this when I ran L5R again after a while with a group that was largely new to the setting. I picked a single Clan first, as it was easier to talk about the mindset and philosophies of a single faction first, and branch out in time. The game began as a simple murder mystery, tackling issues of culture, religion and society.

Once the players finally found their sea legs with baseline Rokugani societal norms, I began to introduce other elements, from military structure, superstitions and finally foreign relations with other Clans.

This form of layering allows players to broaden their knowledge of the setting organically, without punishing them for knowing something that they haven’t figured out yet.

I think that it’s really a matter of restraint. Like the old metaphor of a butterfly struggling out of a cocoon, players thrive in a setting if they’ve had a chance to really come to understand it gradually rather than be thrown off the deep end of a pool.

  1. Haxar says:

    I think that’s really good advice, there aren’t many settings that don’t have at least some common ground with the real world so start there and gradually introduce the more unusual aspects of the world.
    What also helps is if players are familiar with settings that are similar to the one they’re now playing in. For example, Mass Effect has enough similarities to Star Trek that a group of players who all like Star Trek could get into it more quickly. Whereas Eclipse Phase or Dark Heresy would be more of a challenge.

    • Hey Haxar!

      Good point, drawing from similarities from setting that the players are familiar with is a good way to get started, though there’s the risk of having cross-contamination of expectations. If handled well, it’s a great way to jumpstart setting acclimatization. 🙂

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