Reading fellow Gnome Scott Martin’s article on “Setting vs. Cast” made me realize that I generally don’t enjoy RPG settings borrowed from books, movies, or television.  (For the sake of this article, let’s call them literary settings.) Asking “Why not?” led to this article, which includes advice for using literary settings.

I recognize the popularity of literary settings; entire systems are written for them. But they also have some shortcomings, at least in my experience.

Removing the cast changes the dynamic of the setting.

In good fiction, the setting is like another character that the rest of the cast interacts with. A good gaming group can use a literary setting to its potential. In my experience, however, most groups either end up aping the original story, or make so little use of the setting that any setting would suffice.

Gaming is not storytelling.

Many literary settings have elements in place to facilitate the original story. These elements may not fit gracefully into an RPG environment. Powerful archetypes like Jedi Knights and Tolkien’s elves wreak havoc with game balance. Chain-of-command tensions common to Stargate or Star Trek can implode a gaming group.

That story’s been told.

No matter how evocative your version of a literary setting is, at some point, everyone at the table will have to resist thinking about the book/movie/TV show that the setting is based on, and not about their own story. Literary settings risk cloned characters, metagame knowledge, and the entire campaign echoing the original story.

It’s never as cool as the original.

No matter what the party does, someone else has done some really cool stuff in that setting, and the comparison is inevitable. Do you go for bigger and better, and end up with “Star Wars, The Director’s Final And This Time I Really Mean It (Shut Up About Han Shooting First Already) Edition, With Even More Fractal Explosions”? Or do you give up and acknowledge that your NPCs will never be as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks?

Not everyone is on the same page.

Fellow Gnome Matthew J. Neagley touched on this in his controversial Star Wars article (45 comments and still growing!). Picking a literary setting means that some of your players know far more about the setting than others, possibly even more than you. This can happen with any setting, but I find that players tend to expect more customization from a traditional setting.

It’s someone else’s house.

For me, gaming in a literary setting is like living in someone else’s house. Sure, everything you need is there, but it’s neither the house nor the furniture you would have bought, and it’s not arranged how you like it. The GM can always rearrange things, but that can feel presumptive in a literary setting (at least to me). 

OK, now what?

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from using a literary setting, but these are some possible pitfalls. Some techniques that may help:

  • File off the serial numbers. Change the names, but keep the tropes. This allows for more elbow room, and sends a signal that it’s similar but not identical to the original setting.
  • Beg, Borrow, and Steal. I’m a huge fan of ‘drifting’ elements of established settings into mine. You don’t need all the complexity of Star Wars to have a Muppet-led clan of laser-sword-wielding mystics.
  • Claim it as your own. Okay, so you’re going to use a literary setting. But do something drastic that will send a clear message that your game is not identical to the original source. (Don’t go any further until you read that link.)
  • Move the action elsewhere.  Find a relatively unexplored time or place for your game. That Other Cool Stuff still happened, but it happened a long time ago, and/or in a galaxy far, far away.
  • Challenge the established roles and motivations. Don’t let the campaign mimic the original storyline. Instead of another Firefly-class ship “out on the raggedy edge”, perhaps your players are active rebels against the Alliance. Instead of military officers with their own warship, perhaps they’re rogue traders working the periphery of the UFP.

Whatever you do, don’t let the setting get in the way of the fun. We play in these settings because the original stories are awesome, but we should not assume that a game in that setting will be nearly as awesome.

Agree? Disagree? More advice or questions? Sound off in the comments and let us know!