The last few weeks I have been working on writing the setting of Hydro Hacker Operatives. For an RPG with a defined setting, this is an important task. You need to be able to teach the setting to the GM and the players, so that they can share in the world you created, and give them enough interesting elements that they can go off and have their own adventures. Previously in this series, I talked about designing worlds. This week I want to talk about the ways that this information can be presented, and the approach I decided to take.

Games With Setting

Settings are not an absolute with RPGs; some games have them and some games don’t. Some games have incredibly detailed worlds, and some have them loosely defined. Let’s take a quick look at a few games and how the setting is handled:

  • Dungeon World – does not have a formal setting, but does have a theme (i.e. Dungeons). The world is often created as a collaboration between the GM and the players and details emerge through play.
  • Night’s Black Agents – Set in the real world (a Ken Hite favorite) it has a loose setting about spies and vampires with a European backdrop. The game puts up the constraints but leaves the details more in the hands of the GM to define. (Not to be confused with the Dracula Dossier, which has a far more detailed, yet open setting).
  • Legend of the Five Rings – This is the PhD dissertation of settings. It is detailed, and its understanding is necessary for successful play.

A detailed setting is a double-edged sword, in a number of ways:

  • It’s a treasure trove of ideas for a GM, but all that detail can sometimes be more constraining in that adherence to canon can trip you up.
  • It means there is more material that needs to be read, digested, and recalled. This means more work on the GM (who has to really understand the world) and to a lesser extent to the players.
  • It can be an inspiration by providing ideas and hooks, but it can also stifle creativity because the world has a distinct feel.

Light settings also have their pro’s and cons:

  • They are less reading, but it’s more work for the group to come up with something fun to play.
  • They leave the world open for all kinds of ideas, but sometimes the lack of constraints produces either analysis paralysis or a blandness of ideas, as people retreat to their safe places.
  • They can be somewhat incongruent as it becomes a collection of ideas without a thought-out setting

Needless to say, there is a lot going on with the setting.

Teaching Setting

As a game designer, setting becomes part of the game design process, and it brings up a lot of questions:

  • Does my game need a setting or not?
  • If yes
    • How much detail needs to be in my setting?
    • What are the crucial events, places, people, etc that define my setting?
    • How much do I include, and how much do I let the players create?
    • How should this information be presented (factual, through a narrator, in lists, maps, etc)?

 It’s a daunting task, and akin to the children’s game of telephone. 
If we are going to have a setting in the game, then our job as designers is to convey and teach the setting to the GM and players. We need to take this fantastic world in our head and find a way to express it to someone that we may never meet, with whom we may or may not share common experiences, and express it in such a way that they can sit down at a table and explain it to their friends. It’s a daunting task, and akin to the children’s game of telephone.

In order to convey setting we often find ourselves describing:

  • Environment & Geography
  • History
  • Culture
  • People and/or Creatures

There is a design question of what do you include and not. How much detail should each element have? And then finally, how do we convey this to the reader?

As a designer, we need to design how we want to teach our setting. There have been many approaches over the years. In the 80’s boxed sets were popular, with their gazetteers and fold-out maps; settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. Other games like Vampire and Underground took the approach of having chapters of the background right at the front of the book, to immerse players into the setting before having any rules come up.

In addition to the written word, art and cartography are also ways to convey setting. That statement about a picture being worth a thousand words is quite true. An evocative art piece can do wonders for conveying setting. The problem, especially for us small publishers, is that art is far more expensive than words, and having an art-rich book is costly to publish.

My Approach

Hydro Hackers is definitely a game that has a setting, and it in some ways runs counter to other Powered by the Apocalypse games, where settings are often less defined. In this case, I am holding hard to that. I have a vision of what this world is like, and I want it expressed in the game.  Here is the elevator pitch for the game:

You are hydropunk Robin Hoods stealing water from corporations to save your neighborhoods.

That is a great premise for a game, but not good at conveying setting. In fact, in explaining the game to people, some people thought it was a Mad Max-like setting, with tankers of water being transported over wastelands. It’s not. In fact, the setting is more Neuromancer than Mad Max. The world is a sci-future, with Sprawl cities, and artificial intelligences, drones, and printed weapons. The roots of the game are in cyberpunk. It also has this crazy premise that drinkable water is the rarest substance on Earth. That brings up a lot of questions and speculations from people.

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me.

So after some thought, I decided to take a two-pronged approach. First, a brief history. I feel like there needs to be some explanation about how drinkable water became the rarest substance in the world. Clearly, some things happened for the world to get that way.

Second, a tour of how the world is different–because the lack of drinkable water has changed the world, and the players and GM need to have a good grasp of those changes so that they can act appropriately in the world. In this section, I have selected some major topics like: Water, Technology, Government, and Travel, and I am writing five things about each one (e.g.five ways water is treated differently in this world).

The history will help fill in some of the “how did we get this way”, and the tour will give the players an idea of how the world deviates from our own. My intent is that the combination will give the players some context about the world, and some things they can immediately interact with in the game.

I have finished writing the history and I am in the middle of the tours. I finished the water tour, and I came up with six, not five things, but I will re-visit that in editing.

In case you are curious here are the section headers for the history of the world:

  • Heading for Collapse
  • The Collapse
  • The Great Lakes Renaissance
  • The Second Collapse
  • In Too Deep
  • The Rise of the Authorities
  • The Canadian-American Water War
  • Post War
  • The World Today


And here are five things about how water is different in the world of Hydro Hacker Operatives:

  • Water is graded
  • Water detectors are everywhere
  • Water does not taste the same
  • Water is rationed
  • Water collection is highly regulated
  • Purification is expensive and unreliable

Setting The Setting

Settings are tricky. For games that use them, there is a balancing act between providing enough information to empower a group to play in the world, and burying them in details. After figuring out what to convey, you still need a method to convey it quickly and effectively. There is real art in making a detailed setting accessible and playable.

Next time, we will talk a bit about revising rules and adapting mechanics from other games into your design.