They say (whoever they might be) that location is the single most important factor in the value of a property. You might very well say the same about a role-playing game! In fact you might argue that there is nothing more important than the setting.
Let’s consider three old school RPGs; D&D, Traveller & Call of Cthulhu. I say old school because these are all originals, they have pedigrees which I doubt we shall ever see again.
So what is it about these three Leviathans of Let’s Pretend that lets them endure so? Could it be their settings? It is my contention that it is, allow me to elaborate.
D&D has famously had a troubled history regarding its true home, should it be Blackmoor, the Forgotten Realms, the The Grand Duchy of Karameikos or Greyhawk? I would say that it doesn’t matter, the thing about D&D, in whichever iteration it is in, is that it is set in the quintessential Fantasy World. Why is this so important? Why has D&D survived despite it’s continued virtual relocation though the years? Because no matter which name the setting has held, no matter which minds where behind it (Arneson, Gygax, Hickman, Weiss) it was always that, the fantasy world of pulp fiction and films only a fan could love. It was a world that we all knew, even before we’d been there. It was the land of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, A. Merritt, and, fascinatingly, H. P. Lovecraft. The setting already existed in the imaginations of readers of fantasy, we didn’t need to acclimatise, we didn’t need to check to see if steam engines had been invented yet, we already knew everything about this place. It was ours from the start. Let’s face it, it wasn’t great layout and ease of use, or the dice mechanics or even the early artwork that made D&D accessible! It was this common-land that let D&D become the greatest success (and some would argue greatest game) in the RPG sphere.
Traveller was another story. It was build around a reasonably rational and well thought out game mechanic. It felt measured and logical; in Traveller the system, the dice you rolled and the tables you consulted seemed to be a more significant element than in D&D. For those of use with a fetish for rationale, for numbers and for patterns, this was an exciting development. That, however, could only hold one’s attention for so long, a game can have gorgeous and elegant mechanics but still fail. What else about Traveller was it that made Marc Miller’s creation so strong? Again, it was the setting. Like D&D it managed to take us into a reality we already knew relatively well, although this one was slightly more dependent on having accessed a slightly more eclectic reading list. Traveller was inspired by the works of Poul Anderson (again), Harry Harrison, H. Beam Piper, E.C. Tubb and many others. This time though, while we were familiar with the universe of Traveller, we were not so assured about details. That was were the setting provided was so brilliant, it built on the familiarity of the Sci-Fi of books and added all the details we required. Need to know what tech was available on a world peopled by hunter-gatherer tribes? No problem, just look it up. Need to kit out a task force for a raid on an ancient temple that was being used by interplanetary drug runners as a base of operations? It was all there, from automatic pistols to plasma rifles to gauss guns (whatever they are). While you stepped into the worlds of D&D with your own details to hand, Traveller created a coherent play-space that was so detailed and real that it was almost as though Miller was a traveller himself, from the future, sharing his everyday experiences with we poor ghosts of the past . . .
It is interesting to note that D&D, especially early on through Gary Gygax, did not make a significant nod towards Tolkien’s work and Marc Miller has never indicated that Tolkien’s Sci-Fi counterpart, Arthur C. Clarke and his masterpiece 2001, influenced him.
So D&D gave us a shared consciousness reality, one we knew intimately from the start and Traveller did the same but with bells on! What of Cthulhu? The genius of the setting for Call of Cthulhu was that it was here, it was real, it was now . . . minus 50-60 years or so. D&D, Runequest, Tunnels and Trolls, Harn, Chivalry and Sorcery, all these games has conditioned us to think that role-playing took part in the fantasy realm. That realm might differ a bit, but it was the one we knew. Traveller, Star Frontiers, Gamma World and Space Opera taught us that you didn’t have to be earthbound, Space was an option too. Then along came Sandy Petersen to blow all our minds by saying, y’know what, you don’t need to go underground, or into space to find horrors. Just take a walk in the woods, or check out that lighthouse or perhaps spend a night in the big house on the hill. You’ll find terror aplenty. Call of Cthulhu finished it off, there was now no place that we couldn’t play. We has portals to the fantastic, the scientific and the horrific. Everything which followed would simply be iterations of those three.
And in the end, that is what makes setting so integral. It isn’t the system, it isn’t the artwork and it isn’t the professionalism of the layout and editing which makes an RPG worth playing. It’s the ease with which you slip into the world of that game, become part of the world of that game and begin adding to the world of that game which matter.
It is, location, location, location.