But where's character, you ask? Well that gets into what I want to do with this post. I'm going to focus in on setting here. I may explore situation at a later date, but for now, I think Chris Chinn has got it covered. And player? Well, I think that's all over what's happening in the Indie blogosphere and at The Forge. But maybe we'll revisit down the road in a more focused way.
So let's look at Setting. To continue our little RPG algebra: Color + Character + System = Setting.
Before I do anything else, I need to define what I mean by color. Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location and how it works. It's the stuff that makes us feel as if we're there. When we describe the leaves of the trees in the elven forest, the population of a village, the creaking churn of the watermill wheel, the clothes your character is wearing, or the manner of succession for the kingdom, that's color.
One of my favorite Robert E. Howard Conan stories is Red Nails (if you haven't read it, I urge you to follow the link and read it now. It's good stuff!) Howard is a master at throwing in bits of color that flavor everything: the dragons in the forest, Derketa's apples, the roofed city of Xotalanc, the Door of the Eagle, and the black pillar with its red nails. The details are cool, but they're not the soul of the story. We could remove those details and completely replace them and it wouldn't alter the core story, although it would affect the feel.
In RPGs, color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together. Those details are integral to making the play environment feel real to us, but they don't really serve any other purpose and the game won't fall apart if they're not there, though parts might feel a little flat. Situation can grow out of color (like the method of a kingdom's succession), if the players become interested. That's the point at which we stray over into Chris Chinn's Flag framing. Mostly, though, color remains color.
The shot took the form of his technique for Relationship Mapping, in which you graphically map out sex and blood relationships between NPCs in a game (with lines of obligation as secondary ties). While Relationship Mapping's primary purpose is to prep for scenarios (for which, see Chris' excellent work), it also makes a strong statement: Characters are the most important aspect of setting in a session (mostly).
Not the description of room 21, not the population of the village of Mistmere, and not the type of trees in the elven kingdom. That's all color. But the stuff that really sees use is all about characters.
In "Red Nails," Derketa's apples, the dragons in the forest, the roofed city of Xotalanc, and the rest really set the atmosphere. But the meat of the story stuff is about Valeria, Techotl, Burning Skull, Olmec, Tascela and Tolkemec. Everything else is incidental, dashed off in just a line or two of prose. Those characters and the ties that bind them are the elements that make the story work, and are also what would make "Red Nails" a playable and awesome RPG scenario (I've done it and it rocks!).
The relationships between characters draw us in as people and they make situations "grabby." Spoiler alert for those that didn't take my advice and read "Red Nails" earlier: When it is revealed that Tascela has ordered Olmec killed in a horrible way, it kicks us in the guts because they were lovers. When Tolkemec takes his vengeance, the depth of his hatred makes sense to us because of his love ties to Tascela. The whole feud fills us with horror when we realize that the two tribes are essentially one large, dysfunctional family that has spent decades murdering, raping, and torturing each other in the dark. And to place a protagonist in context: When Conan and Valeria arrive, their very presence throws this whole crazy, fucked up culture into a frenzy because it topples the status quo.
Or, if we look at The Lord of the Rings, relationships are what drive our interest in Aragorn-Arwen-Elrond, or Boromir-Faramir-Denethor, or Arwen-Aragorn-Eowyn-Faramir, or Eowyn-Eomer-Theoden. Layer on obligations and the tensions leap out at us.
In protagonist play, dealing with this stuff and the way situation affects the web of relationships is the core of play.
I believe this stuff points to a failure in many of the RPG setting books that so many gamers buy. Mostly, they seem to be pure color. In order to become more than that, they must generate investment by all the players involved (it's not enough to just get the GM invested), and the group must then see the way to translate that color into situation.
I suspect but certainly can't prove that only rare groups are able to generate anything more than casual investment from details provided by such setting material. I think some Tekumel, Glorantha, Harn and Middle Earth fans who are really, really jazzed about the settings and make them core features of play may be able to do it. For the most part, though, I think those bits of color contained in such books are not enough. In my experience, only the broadest strokes of color from such books get used in most actual RPG sessions. The rest never actually enter the shared imagined space (SIS), but get filled in retroactively by individual players according to their investment in the setting. (This paragraph and the one preceding it are all conjecture, by the way. Feel free to tear them apart -- as if you need an invitation.)
Can you sense the big, fat except lurking here?
Mechanical details bring setting color to the forefront in a way that color introduced by players and GMs alone does not.
For instance, in Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, buttes and snowy mountains are pretty easy to forget about when playing, but the fact that life is never more than a few words away from the greasy smoke of black powder is in your face at all times through the escalation mechanics. The fact that these people are your kin is in your face at all times through the spent (and unspent) relationship dice. Your authority and stature as a Dog is in your face every time you call on your Coat's dice in a conflict. That stuff is potent setting.
In Burning Wheel, life is cheap and blood spills easily because of the Fight! and Injury mechanics. Magic is potent as hell according to the spells and dangerous to the caster according to the Tax rules. Miracles are incredibly potent and extremely rare, according to the Faith rules. Grief crushes elves who see too much according to the Grief rules. Words are weapons as potent or more potent than steel, according to the Duel of Wits. Nobles and others who actually own land are wealthy and privileged, while peasants are poor and probably half-starved, due to the Resources and Lifestyle Maintenance rules.
In Conspiracy of Shadows, everyone feels the weight of impending doom that hangs over everything, due to the Doom mechanics. We all know that trust in your fellows is essential for survival and will lead to an inevitable knife in the back, due to the Trust mechanics. We know that dark, ugly magic lurks just below the surface, and Taint will inevitably corrupt those who use it, due to the Witchblood and Taint mechanics.
These bits of color are reinforced over and over again as we turn to the rules to resolve what's happening in play. They become the most potent color in the game.
For players of RPGs (including GMs), I think it also provides a few core principles: