November 5, 2013

TFT - Setting First

The Fantasy Trip was a role-playing game that came out in 1980 with the release of In The Labyrinth, the core rule set. It also included Melee (tactical combat) and Wizard (spellcasting), as well as the Advanced versions of them. The game was written by Steve Jackson who later used the system as a base for GURPS. This series of articles is a look at the rules of The Fantasy Trip as seen through modern eyes.

The Fantasy Trip (TFT) comes with a fairly generic setting, Cidri. Many game systems now come with a default world setting described in the rule book. Within In the Labyrinth, out of the entire rulebook, about 3 pages is allotted to describing the setting and most of the information is at the very front of the book. I'll get more into the actual setting in the next post, but the question I have is...where in a rulebook should a description of the setting go?

A setting is in a rulebook for a number of reasons...

-Get the reader excited about the game system.
An evocative setting description can get a group excited about playing the game. As the readers take in the setting they begin to imagine what it would like to play characters in such a world. If the setting is "cool" then the reader wants to play the game. 

-Show how the rules can be used in-game.
Some rule systems provide unique interpretations of established gaming conventions. If a rule system provides a magic system that causes damage to the caster for every spell they cast, then the setting will reflect the ramifications of this. By showing a setting, it can highlight the differences between the game system and other systems out there. It also shows the players what can be expected.

-Let a group start playing right away.
Once someone is excited about a game system they often what to start playing right away. If time must be spent designing a setting interest can wane in a group. By providing a setting, a group can get right into the game without a long set-up time.

-The setting is the game.
Some rule systems are really nothing but a vehicle for a world setting. As an example, Shadowrun is less about the rules and more about the world in which the characters will play.This sort of game is all about the setting and less about the rules. 

-The setting is a teaser for more supplements.
After a rule book has been published the publisher often wants to make more money off the intellectual property. One such money-maker is a sourcebook detailing a setting for the rule system. By providing a default setting it garners immediate interest in future products.

As can be surmised there are times when a designer would want a setting description to come first in the game book. If they are trying to sell the setting and the rules are secondary to the setting, then having some setting description up front makes sense. However, if the rules are the truly innovative part of the book then it makes more sense to showcase the rules first and then how the setting plays into it.

There is often a synergy between a rule system and a setting. A setting can describe a new type of magic and the rules provide for mechanical means to realize that new type of magic. One trick some designers use is to slip a bunch of setting material into the rules sections. For instance, while describing the mechanics for building characters some world information is imparted as well. If the system grants bonuses to a character based on where in the setting they are from (or certain character types can only be from certain setting regions), this is a way of providing setting information and to tie it directly into the rules.

As for TFT, the setting is fairly generic, but this is a reflection of the rule system itself. The rules were originally designed to be generic and integrated into other systems. Thus pinning the rules to a specific setting would be counter-productive as it might inhibit integration. Should the setting information for TFT have been at the beginning of the rule book? If the goal was to show that the rules could be used for any setting then sure, the setting information on Cidri was bland enough to show it could easily be used in any setting. However, since the focus of the book was actually the rules, it might have been better to provide the setting information at the end of the book as an example of how a setting could be built with their rules.

Personally, I prefer the rules up front and the setting at the end. If you are going to tell be Blood Mages are a part of the world, I want to know what that means in game terms before I can fully understand their place in the setting. What is your preference?
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