This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. The first post has to do with the big picture concept of “setting.”
One of the first questions I often ask about a work of fiction (be it a movie, a book, a video game, or a roleplaying game) is deceptively simple: “What’s the setting like?”
Now, that seems like an easy question to answer at first, but it’s harder than you might think. In very broad terms, the question is trying to place the work somewhere in an elaborate taxonomy of genres. But that’s not really all that helpful in describing what makes the work unique. As an example of this, think about the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, they’re both works of science fiction that take place in space and feature a wide range of (conveniently) humanoid alien species, faster than light travel, and exciting adventures on distant worlds, but they utilize these common traits in vastly different ways that make them totally unique.
The “setting” question gets not just at the features of the fictional world, but the tone in which those features are utilized. Keeping with the Star Trek/Star Wars example, I recently saw an argument on Twitter about whether or not a Star Wars roleplaying game needed to have a skill dedicated to, broadly speaking, “Computer Use.” At a glance, it might seem obvious that it would. There are computers in Star Wars, after all, so it stands to reason that people would have skills necessary to use them. However, if you really think about it, how much does the use of computers actually play a role in the world of Star Wars (as presented in the movies; let’s keep Expanded Universe/Legends/whatever it’s called these days out of this)? As a setting, Star Wars really doesn’t care about technology unless it involves an impossibly huge weapon system of some kind (Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, Death Stars, etc). Sure, it has tons of computers and advanced technology, but all of it pretty much operates on the principle of “press the button and it goes.” Star Trek, on the other hand, is almost comically preoccupied with the way its technology works. Fixing a malfunction in the ship’s computer or using computer simulations to figure out how to escape some temporal anomaly is a common challenge in the Star Trek universe.
The distinction is important. You’ll notice that Star Trek tends to be at its worst when it tries to emulate aspects of Star Wars and that Star Wars stops feeling like Star Wars when it tries to be more like Star Trek. Setting doesn’t just describe what the world looks like; it also establishes what it feels like to inhabit that world. It’s an aesthetic as much as a description. If you stray too much from that aesthetic, you start to lose the very things that make a setting distinctive.
Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t explore new territory within a setting and redefine what’s possible. For Star Wars, Rogue One pushed viewers beyond what we’d grown accustomed to seeing from the setting, but it remained in keeping with its core identity. Every new thing it gave us felt like something we’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie, even if it was different from what we’d seen before. At the same time, it hit many of the fundamentals we did expect from Star Wars, which made the newer aspects easier to incorporate. The best example on the Star Trek side is probably Deep Space Nine, which took an aspect of Star Trek we already knew and pushed it into a less familiar context. It felt very different from anything we’d seen from Star Trek before, but it still felt like Star Trek because the core elements of the setting remained constant.
When you go about building a fictional world, the “setting” question might be the most important decision you make. It establishes the ground rules not only of what is possible, but also of what is expected. Most of the time, those expectations have more of an impact on the world than any features you might build into it. Knowing what the world “looks like” is important, but you can’t effectively tell stories in that world until you know how it works and feels when all the elements you’ve built within it interact with one another.
Check back here over the next few days for more on the subject of worldbuilding.