2012-01-18

DnDNext, Modular Games, and Setting

When a new edition of the world's most popular role playing game is announced, people react. Boy, do they react...

I'm uninterested in stoking the fires of the edition wars with this post. If you're looking for flaming of a given edition or play-style, you're going to be disappointed. I was curious about another aspect of releasing a "modular" game system.

To be sure, the concept of a modular role playing game system is not a new idea. Take a look at Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying core rulebook, any edition of Steve Jackson Games' venerable GURPS, Hero Games' HERO System, Green Ronin's True20, or Savage Worlds. Each of these are useful and entertaining games.

My question: Should a core rulebook for a game include a default setting?

Several of these previously-mentioned games do not have settings included in their core books. (I think HERO might be the exception there.) Would a modular RPG benefit from having a solid, well-defined setting in their core rules books?

I feel that, given DnD's tremendous popularity, it will need somewhere solid into which the casual tabletop gamer can drop their spell-slinging mystics and thugs with axes. DnD4e's default setting was the Nentir Vale (borrowing heavily from previous editions' settings later in their development). DnD3x's default setting was Greyhawk, but it seemed to suffer from an editorial push to be generic enough that it didn't outshine the rules the game presented in the three core books.

Regardless, I'm curious about the kind of balance that authors feel should be created between a system and setting in a "generic" or "modular" game.

All the best games integrate elements of the setting into their rules. The things on your character sheet should mean something in the world your character lands in. An Orlanthi shaman won't have spells to summon fire elementals. The Knights of the Blue Rose will be expected to arbitrate disputes in the outlying areas of the kingdom, regardless of their arcane or martial abilities (or even their ability to speak the local language). You can tell how successful an Investigator in Call of Cthulhu is by comparing their number of encounters with the Mythos and their Sanity score.

To get this level of detail, in a potentially "generic" rule set, could be an editorial challenge. Done well, the integration of these two parts of game-craft should show inventive / creative types how to apply the core rules to their own settings.

At least that's what I'm hoping for.