There can be an interesting facet of rpg design which I’ve only lately started to contemplate: the connection between setting and mechanics. You’ll notice that many games keep carefully the mechanics and the environment separate. These video games sell themselves on their generic characteristics. GURPS is the most extreme version of these sorts of games.
Sure, in these kinds of games if it’s a illusion game there could be guidelines for magic or whatever, but the magic rules are often rather vanilla giving no particular taste or uniqueness to the environment. It could be any standard fantasy world. You can find advantages to this approach as many players and GMs usually do not want the setting that the game has supplied to them.
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They’d would rather make up their own environment. I must confess it has been my feeling about video games almost. I was much more interested in what I had in my head than the actual game’s author was looking to get across if you ask me. This feeling so predominates in the rpg field that it is a real account whether to include a default environment in your game or not.
Many of my favorite video games do not add a baked in environment. You can find exceptions: Pendragon, Empire of the Petal Throne, Talislanta, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay all contain very certain settings that I’d become more than reluctant to reduce. Removing the setting from these games would lead me to ask the question: what is the idea now? The environment in those games, for me in any case, IS the whole point. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t imaginatively own the setting and make it yours–that is, for me, essential for satisfying play to happen.
My Arthurian Britain is not going not look like yours. My Tekumel won’t be Prof. Barker’s Tekumel. That’s as it should be with a good rpg environment. The developer has, hopefully, left a lot of white space so that you can fill in. When companies tried to more tightly control their marketing campaign worlds, we saw the late nineties and eighties explosion of books with the environment “metaplot.” To find the “real” setting required that you also choose the latest product.
Both the indie video gaming scene and the OSR have eschewed this approach, as they rightly saw that these sorts of practices were both an unsustainable business model and actually dangerous to the fitness of the RPG hobby itself. I think many different methods can work when you’re dealing with environment.