The second law of RPG setting history

According to Ken Hite the first law for designing SF or fantasy settings is to start with Earth. I suggest that the second law might be “…but not right away”.

In the many years that I have been fooling around with Flat Black I have found that the number one cause of walls of text is trying to meet the objections of nitpicking players and playtesters. Flat Black is made up of thousands of human colonies on hundreds of naturally habitable planets. It is intended for serial encounters between PCs and bizarre Vancean societies. PCs have to be able to speak to the locals most of the places they go, which means that the history has to feature the loss of current linguistic diversity while social and cultural diversity burgeon. I can make that plausible! But because asking players to read 50,000 words of narrative history is a fools’ errand I would have been much wiser not to try.

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Could you opt for a “history is written by the winners” attitude, and give them The Reader’s Digest version, with boldly stated caveats that said winners may be lying, bullshitting or not mentioning where the bodies are buried?

For the Squaddies setting I did a TL;DR bullet point summary of the history, then a long, rambly version for folks who like reading that sort of stuff. Of course even that long setting history (and the planetary data and alien species info) only contains stuff which interests me, plus the answers to a few specific questions my beta readers asked. So there is, for instance, stuff on the reproductive strategy of the aliens 'cos I trained as a zoologist. But if you want to know about their economics, you are out of luck!

Most of the time, I think, if player’s don’t need the truth of what happened 750 years ago, they don’t need the details at all. My players, including the linguist, were completely unperturbed by being able to speak with all the NPCs until I explained what made it possible.

The bullet-point version was vital to making the longer version comprehensible. Lengthy invented histories tend to make the reader wonder why they’re bothering, unless they have some extra way to relate to the material.


Yes. I’ve written my share of future histories that don’t particularly contribute to the game’s “present day”, and others have been published – if anyone remembers Iron Crown’s Cyberspace, that had a year-by-year history that was essentially unrelated to the gritty street-level stuff that was the main business of the game.

What is a setting history for? (Which comes back to @Agemegos’ initial point.) I think the main useful purpose is to show how we got from here to there: why is there an Emperor of Earth, and what happened to the nation-states? If my character is from a certain place, does he think of himself as a German, or an Earthian, or just an Imperial subject?

Theory: an SF game set in past or present Earth is necessarily a secret-SF game, which may be much the same sort of thing as a secret-magic game. As things get less secret, the world changes. First edition Victoriana tried to say “yes, there’s magic, and miraculous engineering, and elves and dwarves, but somehow it’s still recognisably Victorian England”… and it just wasn’t credible.

Writing future histories is likely to be overtaken by events. I think I’ve said in the podcast that a few years ago I set up a grim cyberpunk setting that was deliberately projected from the present day. I never got to run it, because the potential players found it too depressing. It now looks a bit too optimistic.

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Succinctness is indeed key to writing RPG setting bibles — its importance is not limited to histories. Likewise, to provide a summary of essentials that is separate from a longer, more discursive document can be very useful. The most recent version of the setting I mentioned in my original post now includes a brief history, a long history, and a timeline, besides an incomplete section on what the histories of colonies tended to be like. Again, that’s not a method that is peculiar to history. The determined inquiries of players have driven me to generate far too much detail about the Imperial Marines — to describe other more prominent features of the setting in so much detail would be impossible and make the description inordinately vast and quite unreadable — so I’m going to have to do something the like with that material too.

The reason that I think “Start with Earth” “but not right away” might be laws of setting history is what @RogerBW said above: you get overtaken by events. Last week I looked over (and scanned) the first draft I wrote of Flat Black material to distribute to players: it mentions the Soviet Union doing something in 2050. My current draft has the USA doing stuff in 2117, and now I’m getting worried about that.

The near future and present institutions get overtaken by events.

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I’m going to offer a slightly different take. I suggest setting history is chiefly important as a succinct way of conveying where “there” is, and that it is often unnecessary or even unhelpful to fuss the players about how we got “from here”. In the first draft of Flat Black I had at passage at the beginning of the history explaining how we got out of what was then our current predicament (the Cold War and the nuclear stalemate). Appalling soon we did get out of it by a means that startled all but very few of us, and that would have anti-satisfied my players if I had described it in 1987. But even before it was overtaken by events it provoked argument and probably some disengagement from some players , who found it unrealistic and a reflection of my repellent neo-liberalism. Now our “here” is a different nasty predicament. My setting history could describe the world getting out of it, but any description would be controversial among readers and soon overtaken by events. And none of it really makes any difference, since Earth is destroyed anyway in 2353. For a campaign set in 2959 it matters little how the War on Terror ended and whether the USA was still a world power in 2117 or a recrudescent world power in 2117.

@RogerBW makes a good point with his example about the German citizen of the Earthian Empire. History does a great deal for creating attitudes and situations, and as even a fairly straightforward history creates a number of spectra of attitudes, narrating the history can imply the spectra far more succinctly than they could be described. So three cheers for recent history that describes the state of affairs at the game date. And a few cheers for broad-scale history that implies which sorts of people are where. Not so many cheers for mere corroborative detail intended to add an air of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing tale. And finally, a warning against anything that unnecessarily describes the near future or involves current institutions.

How we get “there” is important, especially as it defines where “there” is. How we got out of “here” does not matter as such, and is soon overtaken by events. So start with Earth, but not right away.

Languages… I think being able to speak to everyone despite common sense telling you there should be language barriers is one of the unspoken tropes of RPGs. Not being able to communicate with the NPCs (or all the other PCs!) because you don’t speak Italian, or Orcish, or Klingon just grinds the game to a halt, and is frustrating for both players and GM. Hence the ‘Common Tongue’ or ‘Universal Translators’ of SF&F.

I’ve certainly been in games where we’ve started with languages-as-skills, then after a few sessions said “This isn’t working” and fudged our way around it. For instance in Stargate, we decided that the Stargate (combined with the scent of resin in the air from pine trees!) generated a universal translation field over a distance of 25km. Which ‘proved’ to the locals it was made by the Gods! All those skill points the Archaeologist had spent on languages meant he could read them, whereas the rest of us were pig ignorant of what the funny alien squiggles meant.

@Agemegos: the reason I talked about “getting there from here” is that I think if what you primarily want to convey is “here” then it’s easier to do by means that aren’t history: simple declarative “this is how things are” is often more succinct.

I like the idea of communication difficulties, and I’ve even written an article for Pyramid bringing language-as-skill back into GURPS 4th edition. That said, I agree with @DrBob that it’s frustrating. (An early episode of the Stargate SG-1 series has translation difficulties, and then they conveniently forget about them after that.) The main place I’d use my own rules is in a game about language: where people are translating French poetry, or trying to write propaganda in German.

Absolutely. I’ve seen a couple of RPG ruleset with good, even excellent rules for languages and partial mutual comprehension (Hero System has the best, I think). But I’ve never come across an adventure, let alone a campaign, in which actually dealing with lack of a common language was fun.

The weird thing about my experience in Flat Black is that my players made no demur at being able to speak freely with everyone in the setting until I issued a version of the history that explicitly described how the situation came about. Then they objected vigorously. They were more than happy with an unspoken convention so long as it remained unspoken.

As for Stargate, I seem to recall that the movie treated languages realistically, with Dr. somebody played by James Spader along as a linguist, and able to learn the local language quickly because of its descent from Kemetic, which he knew. Then in the first TV series, SG-1, they switched to everyone speaking English and Dr Whatsi (played by somebody else) was mostly an archaeologist and expert in far-fetched theories.

Yes, well, this comes into lots of things. My rant about reactionless drives, for example: if nobody ever thinks of using them as weapons, everything’s fine, but once the idea is out there it seems implausible that nobody in the setting will think of it, and then you have to try to patch round it and it doesn’t really work any more.

Present declarative is often more succinct, and I am resolved to write more of it. But it is not always more succinct. Sometimes a few historical facts imply a vast array of attitudes and of correlations between attitudes and nationality, class, religion, and family that could not practically be described as fully as readers can extrapolate them. Those instances are, I believe, the best argument for including history in a setting bible at all, and the best guide to what history should be put in an what should be left out.