Worldbuilders- A Discussion About Setting in RPGs

by Christopher Helton

Let’s talk a little bit about a topic burning up the discourse in role-playing game circles: having built-in settings in your games. Whether built to facilitate a specific setting or not, a lot of role-playing games are published with settings either as part of the core rules or rolled out through supplements.

There are basically two ways to approach introducing a setting in a role-playing game: implicit and explicit. The explicit setting is what you are probably most familiar with, but the implicit setting still has its fans among gamers and designers. So, what’s the difference?

A game having an explicit setting doesn’t mean it is inspired by Cinemax After Dark. Though there are those, to be sure. An explicit setting means the game’s setting is directly spelled out in the game text, either in the core book itself or through supplementary materials. Examples of games with explicit settings include any incarnation of a Star Wars RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, and Numenera by Monte Cooke Games. But there are many, many other RPGs out there with explicit settings.

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Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Core Set

An implicit setting is more subtle, because any setting material is more tightly integrated with the game’s mechanics and text. Nothing explicitly says “This is the setting of our game;” rather the game’s text gives you ideas of the setting and lets you flesh out details or even develop whole worlds during play. Examples of the use of implicit setting in a game might be the inclusion of elves as playable ancestries or NPCs showing there are non-human character options within the game’s scope, or the Dungeons & Dragons spells of Bigby's Grasping Hand or Leomund's Tiny Hut implying great wizards in the “setting” named Bigby and Leomund who have created their own spells exist in the world.

Another feature to an implicit setting is it tends to emerge during play. Details of the world emerge through play while your characters are exploring and even through the backgrounds of the characters themselves. This means worldbuilding centers the setting more on the actions of the players and their characters, rather than on outside factors.

With emergent play you start with the ideas of an implicit setting, like the “this world has elves” as mentioned above. Then players establish things like “the setting is a small settlement many days from the nearest city” as the starting point to the game’s setting. Then details are added as you go, maybe something like this: The adventurers need to speak with a high-ranking Cleric in the settlement. The GM establishes a name and a few details. The party has more encounters with the Cleric, because it is an NPC they now know, and thus his backstory grows. Over time, as the group plays the game, more and more pieces of the setting emerge as they are needed, and the setting grows organically.

There really isn’t a better option between explicit and implicit settings; what people are pulled towards is a matter of personal preference. But explicit and implicit settings aren’t a dichotomy; they are on a spectrum stretching from less to more starting detail. For instance:

Champions from the various incarnations of Hero Games have moved back and forth on this spectrum over time and different editions. Champions started closer to an implicit setting, with a few example characters and a little bit of a setting, along with the idea groups would develop their own worlds as they went. Over time it became more of an explicit setting as the Champions Universe grew through supplements and eventually setting books.

The big gold book of Basic Role-Playing from Chaosium Games started as a system that powered games with strong, explicit settings like Glorantha in the various editions of Runequest or the worlds of the Cthulhu Mythos in Call of Cthulhu, and it became a virtually settingless system over time (although the Runequest and Call of Cthulhu games are still going strong).

GURPS from Steve Jackson Games is settingless at its core, but it has had a number of books that adapt various settings, both original to Steve Jackson Games and adapted from novels and comic books, to its core rules.

This explicit/implicit hybrid of many games inspired the creation of my upcoming Action-Heroes through Outland Entertainment. I developed Action-Heroes with an implicit setting approach as “ rules for settings you already have.” There are sample iconic characters and even a section of the game with setting examples, but more to show how you can use the game to create your own worlds. So, for instance, through a sample character like Magic Agent you can learn the implied setting of the game has magic and is more or less in modern day world outside your window. But the idea behind Action-Heroes is to give your group a system they need to explore existing settings, bits and pieces in the core game jump start your own worlds of play.

As a game master, I have a lot of settings bouncing around in my head, both original to myself and from things I have read and watched. I have more of a need for a system to run ideas I already have than I really need more settings. I may be in a minority of GMs on this, but I suspect once the game is out, we’ll find other game masters looking for something similar. Action-Heroes is like a toolkit for gamers who already have a setting in mind.

Alan Bahr’s Tombpunk, also published by Outland Entertainment, is another hybrid of explicit and implicit setting. And because it’s so adaptable, Outland has been able to develop games using this system in our various worlds, including Rogues based on the Blackguards anthologies, Chronicles of the Long Night based on the Nightfell comic, and Hopeless, Maine based on the novel(s) and graphic novel(s) in the Hopeless, Maine World.

In the future, Outland looks to adapt Action Heroes to some of their Worlds. So, like Tombpunk, we’ll have a core book to be released this year, then we’ll adapt the system for… maybe… say… one of our highly anticipated comic series. And then maybe we’ll adapt it for one of our more colorful novel series (we’ll let you guess, for now). So even if you don’t like the ambiguity of the Action Heroes core book, you’ll find the opportunity to play the system within more explicit settings.

The difference between Tombpunk and Action Heroes and why they are better suited for different Worlds? Well, that’s for another time.

If you’re interested in staying up to date as Action Heroes develops, you can join my Patreon where you’ll get more about this and other games I am working on. And sign up for Outland’s Newsletter below, so you know when it launches (on Kickstarter and then for purchase).

What are your thoughts on RPGs, explicit and implicit settings, and player-driven worldbuilding?

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