You find yourself in a small, pretty village. It smells nice. It’s very clean. The goblins skip around singing joyous songs of friendship… Hold on, what?
The setting is an incredible little thing, and it has a huge impact on any story. The images, scents, temperature, lighting, and general feel of an area can greatly impact a player and their experiences. It does, however, have to make sense within the world. In the example above, the goblins are in a beautiful village of happiness and joy… a place goblins would never leave joyous for long. But you wouldn’t know that based on the setting described. It sounds bland, boring, and overall uninteresting. We’re going to take this example and turn it into a compelling and realistic place for a party to see and invest themselves in. Without further ado, these are the three biggest reasons why the setting is so important in a tabletop RPG, and how to implement them.
1). Setting provides ambiance
Ok, so this one is obvious. Your setting provides the players with a world to travel around. It allows them to get a feeling for what the world is. A desert is going to be hot, a tundra will be cold, etc. Beyond all of that, however, lies the actual tone of the world around them. Maybe everything is seen in gray scale because of an evil mage’s spell, or everyone you meet is paranoid. Things like that, whether they be large or small, go a long way toward providing a certain thought process for your characters to follow. Now let’s apply this to our earlier example. Instead of saying:
‘You find yourself in a small, pretty village. It smells nice. It’s very clean.’
Try something a little bit different. Let’s show the characters why the town is pretty. Why does it smell nice? What are some things they might be able to find here just based on their initial view of the town?
‘You find yourself in a cozy, beautiful village. The streets are very clean, very well crafted cobble that winds through the quaint homes and shops. Flowers are blooming in the numerous gardens down the path, blending perfectly with the aroma of freshly baked sweets coming from some of the shops.’
Now we have a detailed village that provides the characters with some idea of what the people and culture of this place will be like. The residents are probably very clean and very personable. They enjoy beauty and kindness above all else. Side note for GMs, setting up a situation like this can also allow you to contrast that setting to great effect. Maybe in all of this beauty, there is a large manor that is dark, dirty, and unkempt. It will stick out like a sore thumb and get the players talking. All of that power is lost if the players don’t clearly see the nature of the setting.
2). Setting offers investment
Next up is the investment. Why should a player care about what is going on in this place? There needs to be something to catch the eye of the players and draw them towards the ultimate goal, or maybe away from a certain place. It could be a location, a monster, or even just the whispers of something unknown. Anything can hook a character if it is done right and fits within the setting. Either it matches the tone of the area or contrasts it to an alarming degree, the hook will cause instant investment from the players. Let’s go back to our example now.
‘The goblins skip around singing joyous songs of friendship.’
This is not a very good hook. Why would the characters want to stop creatures that are just being happy in a very happy place? No one else seems alarmed. It might be a little odd, but there’s not much here. Let’s take this and turn it into something that players would actually care about.
‘Goblins fill the street singing songs of joy in their native tongues. You notice that the human populous of the town, which is the majority, have haggard looks on their faces, and they flinch every time you catch their eye. Some are trying to force smiles, but all of them are obviously tired and afraid.’
Now the players have a reason to care. The goblins are probably doing something to this place to control it while they live happily. What are they doing? How do the players stop it? They can’t fight the goblins head on so they need to find another way around the issue. Consider your players invested.
3). Setting indicates conflict
And finally, we come to this. The MOST important reason to have a detailed setting. The setting will indicate what major conflict the party will face. The conflict won’t always be immediate, but the setting MUST be set up to support the investment in the battles to come. In our example, it’s pretty easy. Whatever is leading the goblins will be the main conflict, and the party knows this because GOBLINS ARE EVERYWHERE.
But feel free to throw a curveball at your party. Maybe all of the goblins are the illusion of some powerful warlock the party must defeat. Before they can get to him though, they need to find a way to break this powerful illusion. There is a lot of power in a good setting as far as setting up a conflict goes. We’ve already covered how setting provides ambiance, sets the tone, and hooks the player. This final step is the culmination of all those things that really kickstarts an amazing story. Finally, let’s look at our full setting.
‘You find yourself in a cozy, beautiful village. The streets are very clean, there is very well crafted cobble that winds through the quaint homes and shops. Flowers are blooming in the numerous gardens down the path, blending perfectly with the aroma of freshly baked sweets coming from some of the shops. Goblins fill the street singing songs of joy in their native tongues. You notice that the human populous of the town, which is the majority, have haggard looks on their faces, and they flinch every time you catch their eye. Some are trying to force smiles, but all of them are obviously tired and afraid.’
This setting, as opposed to our original example, is a living, breathing place that the characters can run around in and explore. While very simple, it provides not only direction and purpose but also emotional draw from the people they are trying to save.
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