Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #15 - My Top 5 RPG Game Settings

This week's Nuts & Bolts is pretty straightforward, a top 5 list of my favorite RPG settings. These are my personal favorites, and I'm not making any judgement on people for how much they agree or disagree with me. I'm also not going to be giving these in order of favoriteness (not a word, I know), after a certain point its just too difficult to judge which ranks higher, especially as taste can vary over time.

To start, let me establish my selection criteria ....

Selection Criteria:
  • The setting in question is judged without the associated system/mechanics. Just because the rules for a game were bad doesn't make the setting bad and vice versa.
  • The setting must be a Pen & Paper RPG. Licensed materials are OK, but they will be judged on the merit of the printed RPG materials and not that of the originating media.
  • I have to have played it at least once. This rule is mainly in place to a) avoid allowing me to put stuff that "sounds cool" and b) to insulate myself from "you didn't include X" comments. If I didn't include X it may be that I haven't played it.
  • Games with extensive support and those that exist in a single book get judged equally. Likewise being in print or not does not alter the vote.
I think the big two there are divorcing setting from system, and requiring that it be something I have played before. There's a ton of good stuff out there that I haven't played and the latter was important for me to keep my list reasonable.

I started out this process by just listing stuff I had played and really engaged with the setting. This formed a "short list," mostly because I limited it to stuff I have played, otherwise a lot of fine RPGs would be waiting in the wings here.  The short list was over a dozen before I stopped adding and started weeding it down. Obviously the goal was to get down to five, which was pretty arbitrary, but a top ten would have probably been unwieldy, especially since this is not a strictly ranked list.

Not Eligible, But Noteworthy

Of course there are settings that I want to play in that I haven't. They are settings that certainly look intriguing and maybe someday I will be lucky enough to give them a go, but for the time being settings like Eclipse Phase, Legend of the Five Rings, the Firefly universe, Interface Zero, and the Iron Kingdoms will all have to remain ineligible for this list.

Honorable Mentions

After culling I had a couple that didn't fit into the "top five" but that really bore discussion.

  • The Aeon Continuum (Trinity, Aberrant, and Adventure! RPGs; White Wolf)
This is technically a cheat, being three different games, but given that they all take place in the same setting over a course of 200 years it seems reasonable to treat it as a single setting. The setting was released in reverse chronological order, with the focus on three eras, 2120-2122, 2008-2015, and 1924 and beyond with each era aligning to a different genre; science fiction, super humans, and pulp. Humanity's children, people enabled with psionic powers, quantum "super" powers, and those who seemed able to manipulate time and probability itself (although unconsciously).

I'd have put this into the top five but the overall setting meta-plot suffers from a sense of a rail-roading nature with no guidance for how a party of Aberrants in the early 2000's could alter the future of the Trinity timeline. Likewise having multiple developers led to some disconnect between the eras, especially where the prime movers and shakers (who were often long lived) were concerned.

  • Freeport (Green Ronin)
Freeport probably would be in the top 5 if it weren't for a late 2014 chance to play in the Deadlands universe online. As a result that setting gets to qualify, while Freeport get's bumped out of the top 5. That said Freeport is still an amazing setting, and one I really really want to spend more time in. Originally released as a systems-free setting with supplements to support the setting with mechanics, Freeport is designed as a locale that can be added to existing settings or used with its own lightly detailed world.

The focus is on the city of Freeport itself, a city founded by pirates that has become a nation state in its own right, and a center of freedom, shipping, piracy, and trade. A fully detailed city, with dozens of NPCs, several guilds and cults, and a rich history in both text and the setting specific adventures like Death in Freeport. Its a wonderful drop-in add on for any setting, and fantastic in its own right, with touches of elder horror, swashbuckling, and high fantasy.

Top 5 (in no real order of preference)

  • Nightbane (Palladium Books)
Lemme guess, you've never heard of it? Not a shock, Palladium doesn't have a lot of bandwidth these days, and it mostly pushes on Rifts with what it does have. Nightbane is a modern horror setting where the earth is caught in a shadow war between various supernatural factions. Vampires, the darkness worshiping Nightlords, alien Guardians, and the titular Nightbane all fight for control of the earth's fate.

So why do I put this little known setting in my top 5? Well part of it is almost certainly nostalgia to my college years when I got the most mileage out of this game. Beyond that however I love how there is mystery behind every aspect of the setting. The motivations of the black hats are not clear - do the Nightlords want to rules over earth, or destroy it? The closest thing we get to white hats, the Guardians, are almost complete ciphers as well; are they people returned from the dead, aliens, angels, something else? And a later book brings up the salient point that while white is a pure color in Western religions, it is the color of death in eastern beliefs.

Throw in vampires, wampyrs (half vampires), human psychics, mages, and dream walkers, and the titular nightbane, who are apparently all orphans, and there is more than enough room for a GM to explore any number of stories and angles on who is good, who is evil, and who is "the enemy of my enemy" but not really on your side. Nightbane may not appeal to all, but the more unique aspects of the setting really appeal to me, and even after 15 years I still want to go back and play.

  • Numenera (Monte Cook Games)
There's a lot to say about Numenera, and for a deep look at both setting and system you might want to reference back to my review.  That said, here's the short version. Numenera is set in the year 1 billion (with a "B") and has a core conceit that follows Clarke's Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Numenera is a mashup of several genres, from post-humanism and transhumanism, to post apocalypse, to more traditional fantasy tropes. In place of magic is technology left behind by the eight prior worlds/civilizations that ruled earth. Society is rising once more and is currently at a state of feudalism tempered by the strange technology (magic) that people have learned how to use (though often they are using it not as originally intended).

Numenera makes the top 5 because it is a setting of endless possibilities. Player and GMs can delve into forgotten facilities of the prior ages, explore a vast new world, engage in intrigues at court, or stalk the shadows of cities of hundreds of thousands of people. The technology as magic aspect of the setting allows for characters to find flying machines, wormholes through space (and possibly time), and anything else they and their GM can imagine. Character abilities can come from subtle manipulation of the nanie field that blankets the earth, advance psionic abilities, or even strange and not entirely understood implants of old world tech. The setting is one where any idea can be used, from tried and true tropes dressed up to fit the setting, to new technology right out a scientific magazine. It's that fact that puts Numenera in my top 5 where I expect it will stay for some time.
  • Shadowrun (varies by edition)
Considering the current glut of "modern magic" novels and such, Shadowrun seems downright prescient when you consider that it first came out in 1989. In Shadowrun the Mayan Sixth Age has come and brought with it magic back to the world. And elves, and dwarves, and orcs, and trolls, etc etc., but that doesn't mean that earth has gone all sword and sorcery, no instead technology has continued to move forward and the Shadowrun world is one where magic and myth and high technology stand hand in hand.

Virtual reality cyberspace, cybernetics, and advance robotic drones mix with shamans, wizards, and dragons, and all of that is dropping into a dystopian world of Corporate nation-states, and human misery. Players take the roles of Shadowrunners, mercenaries who operate in the shadows between legal entities, engaging in activities which are objectively one part crime one part espionage, and almost entirely corporate.

The first edition started the game world in the year 2050, and subsequent adventure modules and editions have pushed the timeline along, with rules updates being made as part of setting updates. As modern tech evolved changes to the story and rules helped keep the game grounded as a plausible future. Cyberdecks got smaller as our own desktop computers got smaller and more powerful, and with the advent of wireless technology so too did the Shadowrun Matrix catastrophically fail and get replaced by a wireless system.

The current fifth edition of the game is set in the year 2075, and the twenty five real time years have seen twenty five game world years pass with major events always shaping the state of the setting. It is by far the most compelling use of meta-narratives I can think of in gaming, with no resets, no take-backs, and never a re-boot, just a continuous onward push to the future.

  • Dark Sun (TSR, Wizards of the Coast)
Has anybody out there not heard of Dark Sun? Anyone? OK, well, just in case ... Welcome to Athas, the sun blasted desert world of defiling magic, psionics, feral halflings, and dragon kings. Dark Sun is remarkably complex depending on how you like to play it. It could be a dying earth style game of survival, a post apocalyptic take on traditional fantasy, or even a game about the price of ecological destruction caused by irresponsible consumption of natural resources. More likely it's going to be a little bit of all three, with plenty of other aspects thrown in to boot.

Dark Sun is one of two settings on this list that touches on the post-apocalypse genre. Of the two Athas is clearly the more dangerous setting, and one of the few instances where the intersection of "realistically deadly" and "role playing game" feels justified. Getting by on Athas is a struggle, and rising above the rest of the rabble is nigh impossible. Deadly suits Dark Sun much in the same way that it suits Shadowrun. Let's also not forget that Dark Sun is simply miles different from most of what is out there. It was revolutionary when it came out, and still stands out today, earning itself a spot in my top 5 for sheer audacity of concept and execution.

Bonus: Also who doesn't love all that artwork by Brom?

  • Deadlands (Pinnacle)
Wild West. Magic. Steampunk. Supernatural creepy crawlies. Deadlands has all of some of my more favorite genres and setting aspects. It's a wildly unique setting much in the same way that Shadowrun is, and though it has been imitated, it hasn't ever been outdone.

I actually came to Deadlands via the CCG Doomtown, which was a huge money sink in college (though that burn has insulated me from any future relapse into CCGdom). The card game did a great job showing off all the aspects of the setting with its gunfighters and politicos, mad scientists and magic users. I loved that there was a central mechanic that involved playing poker with demons, and I thought that they had a really nice twist on undead.

I eventually delved into the RPG as a reader only to learn more about this cool setting that had captured my imagination, but until only a few months ago that's as far as I ever managed to get. It's a hard sell when you know that one of your players just isn't interested. I grabbed digital books when I could for cheap, but I wondered if I would ever get the chance to play.

Enter +James Walls who invited me to a one-off Deadlands Reloaded game. Though I knew nothing about Savage Worlds I jumped at the chance to finally play Deadlands. Pre-gen characters had already been partially assigned but a mad scientist with a lightning gun was still up for grabs; Professor Cornelius Vandersmythe was born, and the Deadlands would never be the same (ok that might be a bit of an overstatement, but still, it was awesome).

I don't know when I will get the chance to play Deadlands again, but it cannot come soon enough.

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