Examples of Good Setting Design as Game Design


I’m a big fan of using setting design to shape the game in an unobtrusive way, so that the shape of the fiction naturally makes the game flow a certain way. The best example of this I have is from larp, the way Harry Potter has accidentally excellent larp setting design, as seen in College of Wizardry and similar games. The way Harry Potter organizes it’s world doubles as good larp design, and thus gives games a lot of structure.

I’m looking for examples of good setting design that does something similar. What games do you think have good setting design specifically in terms of setting design doubling as game design?

A trpg example that comes to mind is Blades in the Dark and the way every single detail in the setting is geared towards exactly the kind of action the game is about.

For me, the creative goal here is that if parts of the design can be sunk into the setting’s structure, it takes away pressure from mechanics.


So I actually think the best “generic” rpg systems are good with this. It’s not my preference, but a setting like Numenera MAKES the game for folks who enjoy it. Same with many FATE settings.

I prefer the more loose but evocative settings of something like Blades, as you mentioned. Something like Dogs In The Vineyard also comes to mind as you only need to hear or read about someone else playing the game to really get why it would be an intriguing setting to play in.


3:16 is right on the money on an even metalevel. The game has two rolls: combat or non-combat. It’s supposed to be very clear what and how simple the game is. Operative word there is supposed.

Because through play, you realize the goals of each officer isn’t keeping your fellow marines safe, necessarily.

It’s a very very good take on war. It does the subtle “hiding the bad things in plain sight” that really don’t show up until you’re already in it. You got bamboozled by the advertising to join up!

The best example is characters get strengths and weakness traits in game, right? Well the final weakness of every single PC soldier is the same “hatred of home.”

It doesn’t make sense until you play more. You start to think about stuff marines shouldn’t be asking, like, “what threat did those red panda looking aliens have on Terra?” or “hey when do we get to take a break and go see earth?”

The entire game is like this long con of catch 22 and Mitchell and Webb “are we the baddies?”

The text of the game, the rules, and how it plays… It’s brilliant. Perfect example of Jared’s three questions “what’s your game about/how does it go about that mechanically/how does it reward players for doing that merchanic”


+1 on Blades.
I’d like to also bring in Unknown Armies. The setting is genius and it basically plays itself.
It also works on street-level where your PCs have no clue and discover a world of gritty magic as well as on a god-like level where PCs decide the fate of the world.
I’d suggest starting off with 2nd edition, it’s more accessible than 3ed in the beginning.


Fall of Magic’s setting is beautifully rendered, both physically and fictionally, and tells its own open-ended story that literally unfolds before you.


Fall of Magic looks absolutely lovely. I’ll have to see if I can scourge up a copy. With this question of settings, I’m trying to figure out how much design could really be crammed into the setting. The larp example of Harry Potter and College of Wizardry suggests that potentially quite a lot.

A characteristic of “big settings” seems to be that they’ve served so many purposes that the design is not really inherent anymore. For example, reading a Forgotten Realms book, I don’t think it automatically provides the framework of a D&D game. It needs the mechanics.

(Or maybe I just remember the Volo’s Guide series so vividly that my view of a Forgotten Realms adventure is mainly about comparing bards, taverns and festhalls on a kind of a fantasy pub crawl.)


I think that Tales from the Loop does something really beautiful and haunting in its design. It’s all geared towards a broken, stranger 80s cassettepunk aesthetic and I think that the setting they built can only lead to the game they created.


I agree about Tales from the Loop. I’ve just been reading the corebook, and I really like how they manage to create a lush setting full of possibilities for the type of action the game contains. It’s quite economical in the sense that there isn’t too much to read but thanks to the beautiful visuals the world really comes alive.


One of the things I love about games on the Indie Spectrum is the way the setting design and system design support and reinforce each other. Taking @Jmstar 's Night Witches as a great example - the setting is tight and clear and the mechanics reinforce what the setting feels like at every step.


Absolutely! I don’t know I have it in me to create such a well fleshed out setting as Tales From the Loop boasts (the production values $n$) but I can emboss the setting of my world into the ruleset that I write and the rituals of play.


I guess I’m trying to get a handle on what’s the opposite of that! I’d like to emboss the mechanics into the setting in such a way that by learning the setting, you’ve already learned much of the organization of the game.

But I still feel I’m stumbling in the dark with this goal…


Maybe I should open up that a little more, and the reason why I started this thread. My specific player community has a lot of folks who don’t really want to engage with game mechanics while playing roleplaying games. Because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of how to make games that are accessible and approachable for this type of player.

As a solution, I started to think it would be desirable to build as much of the game’s structure and mechanics into other areas of the design, such as setting, visuals, genre, and how the progression of play is explained. This way, a player can grasp much of how a game works from understanding the world and the role of the characters in it.

I then started to think about different existing games and how their worlds are designed, whether I could learn from them.


Stephen Dewey (of Ten Candles fame) is working on Gather: Children of the Evertree, and (like many of his games) takes advantage of ritual - and the first steps of the ritual cards which are drawn explain the rules of the game entirely within the game itself. It is a really neat effect.


I would nominate Fiasco for this. No, it’s not a setting as in a specific time and place, but if the setting is “in a Coen bros or Tarantino movie,” then yeah.

The game borrows the structure of these films in a really brilliant way, understands the characters and what makes them up, what makes the stories interesting, etc. Every roll and every action in the game only makes sense because we understand these “job gone wrong” tropes.


Sorry to dig up an old thread, but…

I’d also add The Clay that Woke by Paul Czege to the list of games that blend setting, themes, and rules. It has some really great prose sections that are written like a novel, but they cover the kinds of actions that the characters would normally do.

Then, the text gives explicit rules for how to resolve dramatic actions. Then, it dives back into novel-like prose. Then, sprinkled in the prose are kind-of asides about how the rules mechanize the themes. The text is trying (successfully, I would add, I’ve run it a few times) to inspire you to play the game, rather than being an inventory of the tools used to play.


I think good OSR modules do this by having bespoke mechanics built into certain game situations. We increasingly see modules like Silent Titans that are a game system built into a game setting. There are also modules like The Gardens of Ynn that are basically procgen engines built with one very specific setting in mind. I have tried to follow this setting-driven approach in the modules I’ve written as well.

In my opinion Blades tried to do a setting-driven design, but it ended up pushing more towards a setting-agnostic design in the interest of being very hackable. In that sense it was hugely successful, but I think the number of people who say “I like the system, but I don’t care for Doskvol” shows that they’re not as integrated as they might otherwise be.


This seems to me to be the design goal of games Powered by the Apocalypse. I wonder what it is about the mechanics that players don’t want to engage with. Is it rolling dice at all? Or is it adding up modifiers, pausing for dice rolls for just about everything, adding up XP and making character advancement choices, …?
Ideally, in PbtA, the mechanics should be invisible until the point in a narrative where it is unclear where the fiction should go — then the dice are rolled not as a resolution mechanic per se but as, like, a way to automate the “choose your own adventure” aspect of emergent fiction.


I jokingly say “well, the dice help tell the story” when someone biffs a roll, but I’m not really joking.


Gonna go out on a limb and say early Traveller. Before the “official” setting came out and got decades worth of lore and stuff, the game provided a pretty lean toolkit for building a particular type of universe.

It’s mostly expressed in tables and procedural generation, but you get a world where ideal planets are rare, authority is distant, and opportunities for profit abound. There’s a lot of harmony there where the generated universe provides fictional fodder that plugs directly into the mechanics of a session.


Hard agree on LBB Traveller; it established a whole universe through the smallest of details. It was a little heartbreaking to see that aesthetic eroded into suffocating canon.