Friday, 6 April 2012

Game Theory, part 7: Setting

Continuing with the less "crunchy" topics, this week I want to take a look at how game systems can incorporate setting (background, lore or "fluff" as it is commonly called). To start with, I think I can categorize settings depending on how in-depth they are presented.

Historical: Games set in the real world can provide as much or as little detail as the authors like; players can always get more information from other sources and obsessive gamers (of which there is no lack in historical games) can find a practically unlimited amount of data. Armies in historical games are typically expected to adhere to historical fact, sometimes down to such pedantic detail as the exact colour of a general's shoelaces.

Unique: By this I mean games set in their own fully developed universe. There is no shortage of such games in 28mm scale. Warhammer 40k and Battletech are, of course, the undisputed leaders in regards to the amount of published setting material, each beating all the other games combined by orders of magnitude. But many other games, such as Warmachine and Infinity, also boast detailed worlds with their own detailed histories, established factions with their own agendas, memorable characters, and so on. Players often immerse themselves in all this background information just as much as the historical crowd, and it can play a big part in choosing a faction to play.

Generic: Some games, especially at scales smaller than 28mm, only provide a rudimentary framework of a setting, perhaps with a simple timeline and some sample factions, intended to provide only a basic sense of genre but leaving it up to the players to define the details. This is a common approach for stand-alone rulesets that are not associated with any specific model line. In the more extreme cases, there is no explicit setting information at all, although some aspects of it can be implied by artwork or game rules (if the system includes rules for laser weapons, for example, then such technology should exist in the setting).

Franchise: These are games set in a previously established universe. Sometimes they are licensed (like Mongoose Publishing's Starship Troopers or GW's Lord of the Rings) and these games provide fans of the franchise a glimpse into their beloved setting from a different angle, or allow new people to discover the property through the game. Licensed games benefit from being able to draw on a large amount of preexisting setting information, but timid game developers can also treat it as a straightjacket, unwilling to make alterations that could improve gameplay.

There are no licensed 15mm games or models that I've seen (excepting the upcoming Halo line from McFarlane) but as I've noticed since I started following the 15mm scene, a lot of gamers are determined to play in established settings (in these 8 weeks or so I have seen threads about Aliens, Firefly, Star Trek, Tremors, The Thing, Batman, RIFTS and 40k in 15mm... and that's just off the top of my head) and desperately seek appropriate miniatures. Some 15mm figure manufacturers seem to cater to this crowd, producing many obvious, unlicensed rip-offs. I know this might incense some readers, but let's call a spade a spade.

I'm not sure why so many people cling to certain franchises so fiercely that they are willing to field either unlicensed ripoffs or loose approximations. Perhaps the 15mm scene is just so starved for the sort of rich and engaging settings prevalent in 28mm but completely absent in 15mm. Or maybe it's due to the scale's strong overlap with historical gaming - re-enacting battles from an established franchise is, in a way, a "historical" approach, just not set in the real world. I don't doubt the players doing it are having fun (and I certainly won't tell anyone they shouldn't have fun), I just don't understand why.

Well, I finally got that off my chest, moving on.

Assuming a game does incorporate some setting information, at least implied, how does it affect the rules?

The most obvious factor is the setting's tech level, which can (and should) determine some aspects of gameplay, such as a force's command structure (a topic that might merit an article of its own). Then there is the inclusion of specific technologies, such as grav drives, energy weapons, force fields... and depending on the pervasiveness of these technologies, they can either be integral to the functioning of all models, or special upgrades found only on the most advanced units.

A well-developed setting can also offer different factions to play, each with its own character, goals and technological prowess, all of which can be reflected in the rules. The inclusion of alien factions typically depends on whether faster than light travel is possible in the setting.

Of course, unless we're talking about an established franchise, a setting is likely to be developed alongside the rules and designed to accommodate whatever the authors wish to include in the rules at least as much as the rules are designed to accommodate what they wish to include in the setting.

As always, feel free to tell me about your gaming preferences, your favourite settings and why I'm wrong about the ripoffs. Ta ta!


  1. I think it all comes down to individual's idea of fun; to some, it is re-fighting the historic clashes or fielding historic forces (be they real-world or fantastic), that have inspired them, to others it's creating their own armies, stories and worlds.
    I find T34s the shiznit, but I'd paint them orange and black just for the kicks, so I like to think this means I understand both camps.
    Another example; I like the GZGs crusties, or better known as prawn from District 9. While the film frames some basics like the tech level, I'd find it interesting to take it one step further; have the crusties return with an expeditionary force to kick some racist ass. Thinking about it, maybe it's the preexisting franchise material, that makes it popular; you've seen how AT-ATs walk, read about the depth of power struggles in the Sphere - these things might actually "help" people to play with miniatures that are inherently "static", makes you feel familiar with the imaginary scene, that is about to unfold.

    1. But while I understand the emotional value of wishing to re-live some aspect of one's favorite franchise, I can not attribute strict adherence to canon material (as in rivet counting) to anything positive.