Lessons from a TV series bible. #4: setting

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

  1. Statement of your show’s setting in terms of both where and when . For example, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a single-camera episodic comedy set primarily in a Brooklyn, New York, police station. Grey’s Anatomy is a serialized medical drama set primarily in a private teaching hospital in Seattle, Washington. AMC’s Mad Men was a serialized period drama originally set in a mid-sized Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960. FOX’s The Orville is an episodic science-fiction comedy-drama set aboard a starship in the 25th century. Settings are extremely important to a series as they tend to not only reflect the show’s genre, but also its style and content. We know that shows set in police stations are going to involve crimes and mysteries. Shows set in hospitals are going to involve life-and-death medical issues. Shows set on starships are going to involve fantastic alien encounters and cosmic phenomenon. Settings are often as much a character as the people themselves. And having an unusual setting can help distinguish your series from its competitors.

Setting is a subject that roleplayers have already discussed at great length on forums such as this, and I’m not sure that i have anything fresh to say about it now. It’s the Z in “the PCs are X who do Y in Z”. Even Dungeon Fantasy is making a statement of its setting when it says that it is set in the Dungeon and that Town exists only as an abstraction.

Many RPG systems are dedicated to a particular setting, such as RuneQuest to Glorantha, Paranoia to Alpha Complex, CyberPunk 2020 to the Earth of a future past.

Ken Hite says that if you want to make a setting for an RPG you should first consider starting with Earth because it has been really well play-tested, has a huge amount of reference material, and has truly outstanding maps. Nevertheless far more RPG campaign than TV series are set in wholly fictitious settings.

RPG campaigns have the advantage of very, very cheap location shooting, sets, props, and wardrobe.

Distinguishing your campaign from its competitors is I think not so important for RPG campaigns as it is for TV series. And there is a very definite advantage to setting RPGs in a setting that is familiar to the players. Quite aside from the comfort of familiarity, a familiar setting gives players extra agency, more capacity to participate meaningfully in the collaboration, because they know about setting features that their characters can exploit and manipulate.

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RPG campaigns can indeed very cheaply create an alien world… but they don’t, unless the GM is also a poet, induce the sense of “oh, wow” that a really great visual presentation can manage. There’s no RPG equivalent of the nearly-five-minute ship fly-around in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (Or if there is, tell me about it!)

I think Ken is right except when he isn’t. Sometimes a campaign concept just doesn’t fit on Earth-as-we-know-it. It’s traditional to pluck out the historical elements one wants and paste them into a fantasy world, but this leads to very “thin” settings, ones that don’t stand up well when someone leans in the wrong place.

There’s also room for tweaks and shuffles: Metamorphosis Alpha is a dungeon crawl set on a starship. It’s still a dungeon crawl, but that setting informs the monsters and treasures you’ll find.

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In an essay on science fiction, C.S. Lewis writes about John Collier’s novel Tom’s A-Cold (now out of print and seemingly unavailable),

“He could, of course, find an historical situation suitable to his purpose, somewhere in the early Dark Ages. But that would involve all manner of archaeological details which would spoil his book if they were done perfunctorily and perhaps distract our interest if they were done well. He is therefore, on my view, fully justified in positing such a state of affairs in England after the destruction of our present civilization . . . This supposition is equivalent to the rules of the game; criticism applies only to the quality of his play.”

Though the same argument can apply to purely realistic fiction. Jane Austen sets Pride and Prejudice in a fictitious English village rather than studying up on a real one, and Sinclair Lewis went to the trouble of making up an entire fictitious midwestern state for his realistic novels about American life.

On on hand, I suppose there’s truth in that. But on the other hand, I find that offering a novel and unfamiliar setting can be a lure for some players, and indeed I think I built up my coterie of players partly through developing a reputation for such settings. Tapestry, for example, is in its seventh year of exploring a fantasy world created de novo.

For fantasy, at least, there seem to be at least three degrees. The first degree puts a fantastic object or creature in the mundane world and explores the consequences, as in some of E. Nesbitt’s and Edward Eager’s books. The second puts a mundane person in a fantastic world, as in the Narnia books or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The third takes place in a fantasy world that the characters have to grow out of organically. That’s the hardest and requires a lot of buy-in from the players. Note for example that Tolkien dodges around it by having his protagonists come from the comfortably familiar milieu of the Shire, which is more or less Edwardian England. On the other hand, his stories are about their going away from home into an unknown world; had he written social comedy about the intermarriages of the great families of the Shire, or shown Sam Gamgee making his social ascent through conventional career moves such as learning to read, the result might have been amusing but it wouldn’t have been epic fantasy.

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I do love that scene, not least in its eroticization of Kirk’s relationship with the Enterprise, leading up to the climactic moment when the shuttle docks with the port; and it fits perfectly into the overall theme of that film. But on the other hand, I know almost no one who has any praise to offer for the film, so moments of awe may not have so wide an appeal.

I’ve had an “oh wow!” reaction from my players precisely once, when I was running DC Realtime: The protagonists were entrapped in a magical circus of illusions (a classic superheroic adventure), for which I used a White Wolf supplement, Midnight Circus, that specified that the circus travelled through the mundane world screened by the Veil of Delirium. One of the PCs had connections with the Dreaming, so he made inquiries. This ended with my describing how Delirium came back with him, took a look, and said, “You found it! I didn’t even know I lost it!” and reached out for it—and her eyes became the same color as Delight came back to the cosmos. That got me a minute of utter silence. I don’t imagine I will ever achieve any higher accolade for my GMing.

But that wasn’t a reaction to setting pure and simple. I’m not sure setting as such is very good at evoking such reactions, thought that may be simply my insensitivity to visual appeal. The scene that best did this for me in all of SF was from a novel, Courtship Rite, at whose climax Oelita the Heretic surrenders to the God she has spent her life denying, for reasons that make perfect sense if you have figured out the book’s cultural milieu. I don’t recall any visual presentation, or any portrayal of pure setting, that has come close to that for me.


It’s tricky. The smaller the thing, the more you can say “there are so many places like this that nobody would bother to list all of them”, the better it works; the more the location is tied down, the worse. So in P&P it doesn’t really matter what the farmers are growing/herding/whatever because this isn’t a story about farmers, and therefore it doesn’t matter where in Derbyshire it’s happening.

I haven’t read Sinclair Lewis, but from a quick skim of the Wiki of a Million Lies it appears that the stories are largely set on a fairly small scale, not for example dealing with state-level politics where one would have to consider how Winnemac’s senators and representatives affect things at a national level. (Also that he did this after he got negative feedback from the inhabitants of the real place he’d used in a previous book – which I suppose would be a consideration for published RPGs, but generally not for one’s private campaign. Though I have had feedback from people who’ve found my occult WWII game writeup out of context, and want to know e.g. “did my ancestor really have an interest in the occult, I believe so but I haven’t found anything about it elsewhere”.)

The long-running radio soap opera* The Archers is set in the fictional English county of Borsetshire; it’s meant to be generically West Midlands rural, but inconsistencies abound. There just aren’t that many English counties, and since the characters sometimes travel outside the enclave it becomes clear that stuff doesn’t quite fit together.

* it claims not to be but really that’s what it is

A great thing about putting a vaguely modern game in a real location is the availability of maps and business listings – chunks of Hurricane Season were inspired by virtually cruising round Jacksonville FL with Street View and getting an idea of what the place looked like, and I posted elsewhere about turning a geodata file of significant game locations into a map players could look at.

In whswhs’ fantasy taxonomy I’d put most urban fantasy in the first category (“it’s the real world, but with vampires” etc.) – though longer-running series, where the existence of supernatural beasties has become public, have to do sudden world-building to consider how everyone would react to this. (Or, as in the Kate Daniels series, set the world post magical apocalypse, which bumps it into category 3 even though significant bits of it are still familiar.) But of course classic fantasy RPGs are category 3, but cheating by invoking archetypes: your character may come from Sillynamia, but you still know how a knight or a barbarian or an elf works.

The moment-of-silence I particularly recall was only partly my doing; I wasn’t the GM. We’d had a long-running but intermittent game (we only saw each other 1-2× a year) of alien invasion. The PCs had found and infiltrated the aliens’ master base, with the plan of getting key intelligence data, but realised that we’d got trapped and didn’t have any chance of escaping. But we did have communications, so we called on our allies to launch their nuclear missiles at our position.

My part in this was that, during the fighting through the base, I’d been playing various bits of a sound effects CD in the background for atmosphere, so I was familiar with the track listing. So when the GM said something like “there’s a sudden overwhelming noise, and everything goes white”… I switched to the Last Post.

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Sure. And Graustark and Ruritania and Grand Fenwick and Latveria are tiny countries that don’t greatly disrupt the map of Europe. Though both Grand Fenwick and Latveria have had a big impact on global politics.

In visual media there is also a kind of opposite effect. For example, when C and I watched Veronica Mars, we couldn’t help noticing that Keith Mars’s office was shown as being in a building a few minutes’ walk from our apartment, on the same street as a coffee shop where friends of ours performed regularly. And we certainly did not live in Neptune, CA!

I do want to note that it’s possible to get bad reactions from an audience by getting a larger milieu wrong even apart from specific locations. You’ve commented on Connie Willis’s portrayal of England, I believe, and I find some of Charles Stross’s Laundry novels hard to read because his portrayal of the United States doesn’t convince me.

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There are people who watch a lot more film/TV than I do who have got to know specific streets in Toronto that are used to stand in for American cities…

(Of course now there’s Stargate Studios and other companies in that area, and with enough money you can do convincing virtual backdrops for places that are too inconvenient or expensive to film in. But it does take more money than going out to an actual street near the studio.)

I do think that if the setting has something distinctive about it, it’s worth harping on it a bit even if it’s not a big part of the story. Batman does his thing in Gotham, Superman does his thing in Metropolis, and in my very limited experience neither is as much fun outside their native environment. Cyberpunk Chicago shouldn’t feel like 1930s Chicago even if the shapes of the plots are basically still noir.

I’ll come back to this a bit with point #8.

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I found it rather strange in watching The Matrix to recognise that many of the exterior scenes were shot on streets I knew in Sydney and Canberra (such as Eddy Avenue, Martin Place, and Capital Circle) with all the traffic and parked cars on the wrong sides of the roads.