Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Minimalist Setting

It's not a particularly controversial statement to say that standard D&D has an implied setting. Where does this implied setting lie? Firstly, it is in the races and classes: we are in a post-Tolkenian fantasy universe. Secondly, it is in the equipment lists: we are in a high-medieval technological era with some anachronisms (mainly anachronistic lack of development of firearms). Thirdly, it is in the bestiary: we are in a world where there are lots of other humanoid races, lots of monsters, and also creatures from fairy-tales. Fourth, it is in the magic: this is a place where magic is relatively common, utterly practical (you might even call it mundane), and oriented towards adventuring magic-users.

And that's really all we need, isn't it? Only a blithering idiot could fail to run a D&D-flavoured game in a D&D-esque setting based on the core rules alone, nothing more. We've all done it.

It should be possible, then, for any non-standard D&D campaign setting to have absolutely no setting "fluff" whatsoever, being composed only of race and class descriptions and rules, equipment lists, a bestiary, and spell and magic-item lists. A zen approach to setting design, if you will, in which everything that a DM and players need to know about the setting (sufficient to run a game with that flavour) is communicated to them impliedly.


  1. I like this quite a bit. Today I wrote an NPC for Pathfinder. As I looked through the setting book for a place to put her I felt myself getting so overwhelmed with all of the Inner Sea details. Eventually - and after an hour - I simply stated that she lived in a mouldering, decaying city where monuments to the dead outnumber the living. As you said, what more is really needed?

    1. OK, wait, I gotta ask...wasn't going to but it's bugging me.

      Why would you create a NPC and than need to find a place for her? You wrote up a NPC without having a particular purpose or need for it?

      Maybe it's the way I read it. It sounded odd.

  2. Well, you CAN but without the setting "fluff," folks might (probably "will") jump to different conclusions than what you meant to imply. Not that this is implicitly BAD or anything...just saying.

    However, why we can infer a "setting" from the information found in the D&D books, my understanding is that most of this stuff was thrown together withOUT any rhyme or reason, just based on "what seemed fun" to have in the game. This more than anything is the reason for the missing "setting fluff/info."

    1. Well, if they jump to different conclusions, so be it, but I think if you do it well and coherently there should be no reason for them to. As somebody said in the comments below, if you have pseudo-Arabic style classes, equipment lists, spell lists, magic items, and monsters, why would a DM run anything other than an Arabian Nights style game?

  3. Correction: maybe not "most," but certainly large swaths of the elements found.

  4. OK, I am find this idea intriguing but I'm not certain I completely get it because of one line...

    "It should be possible, then, for any non-standard D&D campaign setting to have absolutely no setting "fluff" whatsoever, being composed only of race and class descriptions and rules, equipment lists, a bestiary, and spell and magic-item lists."

    Am I to understand that what you mean by a 'non-standard setting' is non-standard in its mechanical components parts? That is, if I have different races, alternate rules for armor, some classes are missing or whathaveyou, that's all the players need to know to make the game work?

    OK, I can see that. I'm not sure it would work with my group but it makes sense.

    But what if the feel is non-standard or if the fluff matters to the play of the game?

    I ask because of two approaches I've seen with D&D that always baffle me. The first is tons of fluff that has little to no bearing on actual play mechanics. For example, someone has this complex backstory about the dragons of their setting or how magic works but than you fight a dragon and its, you know, a standard D&D dragon. They've explained the crap out of magic's working but it simply amounts to normal magic in D&D.

    The other approach is when the fluff does actually matter, actually effect the game and they pitch it like its standard D&D. So if you didn't read their 15-20 page booklet of rule alterations and notes you end up getting your butt handed to you by goblins because you didn't realize they can only be hit by cold iron weapons forged near a river or something.

    I really like the thinking you're implying above but I also know very people who play bog-standard D&D. Personal feelings about the game aside, it might almost be refreshing to see this approach in action.


    "Only a blithering idiot could fail to run a D&D-flavoured game in a D&D-esque setting based on the core rules alone, nothing more. We've all done it."

    Welcome to my world. There is a reason its one of my least favorite games.

    1. I mean the feel is non-standard, not the rules. I think the rules (races/classes, spells, magic items, monsters, equipment) communicate "feel", and if you want to communicate a different "feel" you should be able to do it through those rules alone.

    2. It's like Zak's "How I Want To Hear About Your Setting" thing. I'm totally on board - I hate having "should" and "ought to" fluff bits within class or race descriptions. I feel strongly that the mechanics, and players' reactions to those mechanics, is all that's really necessary for flavor.

  5. This is an insightful and inspirational blog post. I like to kill "fluff" when I see it. This way of presenting a setting manages to do it with zero fluff. Awesome. My own Carcosa book went pretty far in this direction, but not all the way. It should indeed be possible to do precisely what you've described with no fluff whatsoever.

    1. Thanks. Why not take up the challenge?

    2. I don't know that you can avoid fluff. When you say "elf" your prior knowledge kicks-in, and you will raise some expectations before play. So you will either be forced to tell your players that "this is not the elf you are thinking about" (like in, say, Dark Sun) or that indeed that is the Platonic exemplar of elf, which carries with itself a huge baggage of preconceptions, which will need to be either confirmed or denied at the table.

    3. @Antonio

      I believe Noisms is arguing that the implicit associations are meant to shoulder the semantic load here. The point of using "elves" is exactly to invoke that general knowledge. If you don't want that, you don't include elves.

    4. But then the framework is different from the one he advocates in Pars Fortuna. I skimmed those rules, and they feel totally bland, much more bland than D&D out of the box. Having a weird name attached to weird stuff with zero background means a slate to blank that it's like not having anything at all.

    5. Drat I wanted to add more.
      So, it's one thing to have something "generic" like D&D, but quite a different thing to have something "generic" like Pars Fortuna. It's two completely different shades of generic.
      So I think the zen approach works for D&D, but not for PF. Reading PF, I don't get the "play me" vibe; the setting detail implied in the rules is simply not enough.

    6. If the result is bland, so be it. The trick is creating a vibrant implicit setting with strong themes.

  6. Spot on, and it's how I'm thinking too. Change all the listed things to Arabic-flavoured things, and you get Al Qadim without all the fairly boring fluff, and no one is confused about the setting they're jumping into.

    1. It reminded me of this post:

  7. Good post. I'm running Pars Fortuna tomorrow for the first time, and it seems to me what you describe is pretty much what that game does. Apart from the short sample hexcrawl and dungeon level in the appendices, there's no chapter (nor even so much as a paragraph) describing the setting, which is instead fully evoked by the all-new PC race/classes, spells, monsters, magic items, etc.

    The question is, can I remember a hamazak from a haloot? Wish me luck.

    1. I've not played Pars Fortuna - am I right in thinking it is Matt-Land-of-Nod's randomly generated version of D&D? I think that's a brilliant idea and I wish I'd thought of doing it first. My idea here is slightly different in that you start off with a concept and build from there, rather than do it randomly, but yes, the result is largely the same.

    2. I keep forgetting about Pars Fortuna. I need to get a hold of that, especially after reading ClawCarver's note.

    3. Aye, that's the one. I can't agree with Antonio's remarks (above) about blandness because when I got hold of the Pars Fortuna book and read it, I couldn't stop grinning, and I've been itching to run it for ages. Seems to me it has all the benefits of deviation from "standard" fantasy fodder that you might get from Empire of the Petal Throne or Skyrealms of Jorune ("We've never encountered this thing before and we're not sure how to deal with it") but, crucially, without the reams of canonical setting data that can be off-putting to potential players and especially GMs of those games. Anyway, the proof of the pudding, etc., etc. We'll see how it goes tomorrow.

    4. I suppose this means you are totally willing to build up some "raison d'etre" for all those weird races, or are you going to leave them in a "void"? The appeal of using elves, dwarves and halflings is that with just a few lines of explanations in the game ("this is an elf") you have conveyed a boatload of information, and generated expectations. With just a few lines of Pars Fortuna racial descriptions...you have told me nothing. This means that YOU as a DM have a potentially huge burden in devising a proper setting. If this is what you want from the game, then it's a win. Personally, I find such an approach distasteful, and not very useful, as I usually DON'T want to waste time creating a setting if I can find something else ready for use and adaptation.

    5. I agree with Antonio -- noism's idea is interesting, but it only works for people who overflow with creative energy. Those of us with pathetically withered creative abilities are often not capable of effectively doing the same job.

    6. Well, Pars Fortuna is different because let's not forget, it was assembled at random.

      I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a writer implying a setting that he has put a great deal of thought into in terms of theme. Somebody else cited the obvious example of Arabian Nights. Replace the standard D&D classes, monsters, spells, magic items, etc. with ones more evocative of Arabic culture (you could literally just change the names) and, hey presto! you have a core ruleset which implies an Arabian Nights setting, rather than a pseudo-Tolkienesque one. How would that be any different for those of us with "pathetically withered creative abilities" than standard D&D? Create a dungeon with a town next to it. Except now it's an Arabian dungeon with a djinni at the bottom rather than a dragon, and the town is a tent-town around a desert oasis. Bingo.

    7. Firstly, I think it's a fallacy to suggest that D&D provides a "raison d'etre" for its elements to coexist. Why do humans, Tolkien-based elves, halflings, and orcs, Poul Anderson's troll, monsters from Greek mythology like centaurs and harpies, not to mention golems, owl bears and black puddings, all share a setting? D&D doesn't explain. You have to figure out how all these things relate to each other in your campaign, if that matters - because it can still be fun if you don't bother. The implied setting of D&D was created by chucking a load of disparate ingredients in a bowl and mixing well. Pars Fortuna was generated randomly, but frankly its constituent parts make just as much sense and hang together just as well. The only difference is that they're unfamiliar. Which I'm saying can be (but isn't necessarily) a good thing.

      Secondly, I'm happy to start playing without establishing a "raison d'etre" or a "proper setting". I'm not even sure what a "proper setting" is. I wouldn't classify the game world as a "void" because I'm human and my mind is hardwired to make connections and patterns, but I don't feel the need to force it. The setting, like the story, emerges from actual play, and from interaction with the players, rather than a lot of a priori work on my part that may or may not turn out to be relevant to the game at the table. (I didn't always think this way; it took the OSR and especially things like the gloriously spartan yet richly evocative Towers of Krshal to make me appreciate the advantage of "much-in-little". It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that the foregoing is purely my personal preference.)

      Thirdly, and most importantly, we played Pars Fortuna tonight and I think it's fair to say everyone enjoyed it tremendously. I'll probably say something about it on my blog presently. Right now, for fear of straying too far from noisms's original topic, I'll stop my blethering.

    8. I wasn't implying that the elements need to coexist in any way, shape or form; I was only speaking about their existence in the game. In this sense, the core D&D rules don't provide anything at all (are orcs allied with hobgoblins? do dragons like to eat elves?)

      BUT the fact that all the pieces come in one way or another from myths, legends, and in general from "common" popular knowledge, provides a substantial depth which you don't get "out of the box" with a random approach like Pars Fortuna, or even something like Tekumel (without any explanation about the setting.)

      I think D&D is so good, and was so successful, because it pays lip service to this shared common knowledge. So it makes totally sense what Noisms suggest to replace the D&D mythology with an Arabic mythology, and the game would still work "out of the box." But that's as good as core D&D only insofar as the people at the table share knowledge about Arabic myths and legends. Try selling such a game to, say, a Chinese audience, whose mind is "programmed" to find patterns from the Chinese legends.

      Can you do the same with a random game, without this "shared language" about elves, djinn, etc.? Sure you can, as your mind "fills the gaps" but I believe the result will be far less "powerful." Information must have some value.

      What's a setting, then? I think it arises the moment you create relationships between the elements described in the rules, and how these relationships have the potential to affect the players' actions.

      Now, whether the setting emerges during play, or you have something prepared and go on from there, it's more a matter of taste, I'd say. For example, I enjoy the Dragonlance setting because it provides a specific mythology for the existence of all the races (ogres are the firstborn, not elves!), how they came to be (many races are the result of Chaotic sorcery,) their relationships, historical events that shaped those relationships (the human Kingpriest almost destroyed the world,) a particular view of the supernatural etc.

      I was intrigued by that article written by Gary, since I have been thinking about creating a more S&S-ish campaign based on B/X, and I didn't want to go the route of changing the rules, since I want the game to still be recognisable as "D&D", rules-wise. So, following Noisms' idea of a minimalist setting, how do you change the themes? In the end I chose Leiber's Lankhmar, so the game will still be D&D, with the following elements picked from D&D:
      - Magic-users practice Black Wizardry; they are always Chaotic. At some point sorcery corrupts their bodies and spirits. They are commonly known as Black Wizards.
      - Clerics practice White Wizardry; they are always Lawful. They are commonly known as White Wizards. They don't get their powers from communion with Gods, which, as far as people know, may simply not exist at all. You can be a priest without being a cleric.
      - Demihumans do not exist. I was thinking of "reskinning" them to actually use the classes in place of other human cultures, for example elves could define the Lords of Quarmall; halflings could be Mingols.

  8. Sounds like the RPG equivalent of the fiction writing maxim "Show Don't Tell." I like it.

    Also, the value system of the setting will be implicit in what kinds of activities confer XP.

    1. Yes, that too, and it's an interesting point. I'd really like to come up with an "XP for knowledge" mechanism to be used in settings where learning is valued more than gold.

    2. XP for knowledge

      You could riff off Jeff Rients' eXPloration idea.

  9. This is weird; I have been thinking exactly about this since yesterday.
    My thinking was along the lines of "what science/fantasy genres are implied in D&D?" in particular after reading the following article by Gary Gygax (there is a pdf):
    Now, when Gary speaks of "The overall setting of the campaign" he qualifies as follows:
    "[this] is something you do in your head. Now fantasy/swords &
    sorcery games need not have any fixed basis for the assumptions made
    by its referee (my own doesn't) except those which embrace the whole
    of fantasy. This sort of campaign can mix any and all of the various
    bases which will be mentioned below - and then some. Regardless for
    what setting you opt, keep it secret from your players, or else they can
    study your sources and become immediately too knowledgeable, thus
    removing the charm of uncertainty. Settings based upon the limits (if one
    can speak of fantasy limits) can be very interesting in themselves providing
    the scope of the setting will allow the players relative free-reign
    to their imaginations. Typical settings are: Teutonic/Norse Mythology;
    Medieval European Folklore (including King Arthur, Holger the Dane,
    and so on); The "Hyborean Age" created by R E Howard; Fritz Leiber's
    "Nehwon" with Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser; Indian Mythology; and
    Lost Continents such as Atlantis or Mu. Regardless of the setting you can
    have it all taking place on an 'alternative earth' or a parallel world. In
    this way minor variations can easily be explained/justified. When the
    setting is decided upon some good books dealing with it should always
    be kept handy. The time has come to begin working on the campaign."

    Now, is he saying that you could have elves in your Hyborian Age or Nehwon campaigns, or that the game, through "limits (if one
    can speak of fantasy limits)" is really more of a toolbox from which you can pick and choose?

    I admit that, after 30 years, I am quite tired of the "fantasy soup" provided by D&D. If you look at the major AD&D settings, from Greyhawk, to Dragonlance, to Forgotten Realms, they only differ in how setting elements are framed and how they are represented, but mechanically - syntactically - they are 99.9% the same (this takes into account very minor variations, like orcs not being present in Dragonlance, say.) Some later attempts were made to change the rules to fit the setting, but the original ideas worked as well (the Greyhawk Folio, the DL series of modules, the Grey Box.)

    Given the nature of the game, is it even possible to separate the water from the wine, metaphorically speaking? I am interested in humanocentric sword & sorcery; do I simply eject the demihumans, and still claim to play D&D?

    The reward cycle inherent in the game (at least in OAD&D and B/X) is definitely rooted in the S&S genre, where the "heroes" are simply driven by greed and acquisition of riches, much in the vein of Leiber and Howard; yet the Tolkien demihumans seem somewhat out of place.

    Anyway, food for thought; thanks for bringing this up.

  10. Two points:

    1. It seems to me that this is much easier to do when you're working from clichés. Tolkein/medieval/monsters and fairy-tale creatures/practical magic is probably an easier template for players and GMs to grasp than if you went for anything more exotic. I'm happy to see Geoffrey McKinney weigh in above: I feel like Carcosa does a great job of this, but the truth is that "elf" carries a lot more descriptive weight for a novice than "bone man". Which I consider largely a feature, not a bug, of Carcosa -- I think McKinney did a great job of giving GMs and players the same kind of freedom we had in the early days of the hobby to figure out what these things meant in our own campaigns, while still providing enough structure that you could talk to other Carcosa players in other campaigns meaningfully.

    2. I think it's important to remember D&D's history: historical miniatures wargame (Chainmail), THEN add the "fantasy supplement" which let people spice up their wargames with monsters and wizards drawn from the pop fiction of the time (primarily Tolkein, Moorcock, and Burroughs), THEN flesh it out with all the stuff we've gotten used to in actual D&D (equipment, utility spells, clerics, carrion crawlers). So the setting really started as historical verisimilitude (including firearms and cannons), THEN added the game of "could a Balrog defeat an entire cavalry brigade armed with Excalibur-type swords?", THEN added all the stuff that made up the "setting".

    1. It seems to me that this is much easier to do when you're working from clichés.
      ClawCarver already mentioned Matt Stater's Pars Fortuna.
      It is a Talislanta-like mix of weird semi-non-human race-as-classes without setting description. And it works.

    2. I don't like the idea that we can only communicate flavour through cliche. Doesn't that feel a bit defeatist to you?

    3. I think the problem/feature is that the most cliché things are the ones most easily communicated. Because the implied setting is based on the "common knowledge", things without proper explanation (for example a setting) tend to gravitate towards cliché or catch-all or both.

      That's the reason there are zombies everywhere, but the "original concept" of zombies as servants and/or dangerous but compelling strangers is lost. And that's why we have fantasy full of tolkien-esque trappings, but none of it's moral or philosophical qualities/flaws.

      As far as I can see, standard D&D displays all the reasons WHY setting is valuable - for one by the ways it's been used (or misused, if one adheres to the notion that standard D&D tells us enough by implications to make us play in fantastical and rather similar worlds straight out of the box).

      So no - we cannot only communicate flavour through clichés. But if we say nothing, worn ideas and concepts will do the rest of the talking. And that's the problem.

    4. I take a less bleak view than that. I think a good, imaginative writer will be able to imbue his rules with flavour in such a way that nobody will use them to create worn ideas and concepts.

  11. >>It should be possible, then, for any non-standard D&D campaign setting to have absolutely no setting "fluff" whatsoever, being composed only of race and class descriptions and rules, equipment lists, a bestiary, and spell and magic-item lists

    What's 'fluff'? Maps with places on them to find adventure?

    >>everything that a DM and players need to know about the setting (sufficient to run a game with that flavour) is communicated to them impliedly

    Sounds like a boardgame to me, or how the game was played aged 11 when we hadn't read any books.

    I prefer richness to contentless simplicity. My players enjoy exploration.

    1. I don't understand your point, Kent. Do the core D&D rules in any edition have maps in them and places to adventure? No; that's for individual DMs to create. Why not take the same approach with setting? Give individual DM's the toolkit to create a world with the flavour you want, rather than the actual world itself.

    2. That's roughly how the recent 13th Age rpg works. They give you a bare-bones setting/toolkit, with "icons" (i.e. relevant NPCs) which polarise the conflicts in the setting. But there's a catch: to make the toolkit fully usable, they have resorted to icons which ARE cliches: The Emperor, The Dwarf King, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, The Diabolist etc. Everyone familiar with fantasy tropes will already have a clear idea of what these might be. This makes it far easier for the DM to create a setting; and I suppose that's the point of a toolkit: make things easier, not more difficult.

    3. I thought the reason most DMs buy gaming stuff is that they can't give life and depth to a campaign setting themselves, for time reasons or because they don't read books and don't know anything.

      What is the definition of 'fluff' separate from implications of shit quality in writing and ideas?

    4. Perhaps, but that's like saying most people read Harry Potter so what's the point selling books by Jack Vance?

    5. No, I really don't know what is meant by 'fluff' or the vast majority of gaming jargon. Some people use fluff as an instant insult, others give the impression it means padding or longwindedness, like the Necromancer Wilderlands versus the Judges Guild version but it seems also to be used by experienced gamers who just are annoyed if they read anything more than bullet points in a supplement as if they want an author to go half way with ideas at most.

      Personally I am interested in high quality writing in games regardless of whether it is dense or lengthy and atmospheric

    6. That's not what I was referring to. You said "most DMs buy gaming stuff [because] they can't give life and depth to a campaign setting themselves", with the implication being that only fully fleshed-out campaign settings are worth producing.

      I'm saying that attitude would lead us to assume that if "most people" like the lowest-common denominator thing, there's no reason to aspire to anything else.

      My definition of "fluff" is simply that it is the non-rules portion of a game book: the background, the descriptions, the fiction, etc.

    7. We are in topsy turvy land here. You appear to be claiming that a setting like Glorantha and Paul Jaquay's Modules because they are rich in detail are therefore 'common denominator' or for most people - Harry Potter stuff - and yet some bare bones crap that anyone could produce which doesn't offend experienced gamers by having too much detail or 'fluff' is something to 'aspire to' - Jack Vance stuff.

      The so called experienced fluff-intolerant gamers who need someone else's bare bones material to be creative sound pretty incompetent to me. It also comes across that a 'campaign' for them lasts about six hours of game time before they need to get another fix and start up a new 'campaign'.

      The main reason to read detailed settings is to see what others have managed to achieve to push your own creativity, not to use the material directly.

      >>My definition of "fluff" is simply that it is the non-rules portion of a game book: the background, the descriptions, the fiction, etc.<<

      Setting material and even bare bones random tables are usually published supplementary to rules. Are these all fluff?

    8. In what sense am I talking about "bare bones crap that anyone could produce"? Why do I need to caveat everything with the phrase, "If it is done well"? That's obvious.

      As for the rest of your post, essentially you're saying that everybody who uses only the core D&D rules is pretty incompetent, because they don't contain fluff. This after you've just this week put up a piece by Gary Gygax on how to start a D&D campaign. Either you're just literally typing without thinking or you're being deliberately obtuse for your own satisfaction - I can't work out which it is.

  12. I'm a big fan of combining setting with other trappings of the game: monsters, magic items, spells, etc. I also think laying out a set of classes that's just for this campaign is a cool idea, and it's the fulfillment of the promise of 2E kits and 3E prestige classes: you have a big binder of classes but for THIS CAMPAIGN you pull out about a dozen and say this is what we're using this time.

    I think the villages and towns, the adventure sites, NPCs, all that can be constructed from tables and dice rolls using the structure and content in the rules and trappings.

    Heck, think about what Shields Shall Be Splintered does to your equipment list and the armorer's shelves. Add a rule that allows thrown weapon fire before close for melee and everyone will carry around some hand axes or spears. Some people think "let's grab some hirelings to carry our extras" and the tone has totally changed.

    Someone had some posts about M-Us being able to steal spells from other M-Us by eating their overdeveloped throbbing brains, so M-Us would wear big old turbans full of scorpions and trapped jewels. See how changing the rule from "get his spellbook" to "get his brain" changes the setting dramatically?

    1. Yes, you and I are singing from the same choir, my friend.

    2. I know what you mean. I once ran a Gamma World campaign in which metal was extremely scarce (pre-dragonlance), based on the idea that once it rusts away, it's not like we're ever mining more in a post-apocalypse world and lot was tied up in futuristic alloys, etc.., Sounds like a cool idea, right? It'll turn a good long sword into a real prize. Take ten minutes to revise the weapons list and come up with a rule about bone and stone blades shattering on a 1. Except that is a lot of shattering. All of a sudden,characters are scavenging weapons like gold, carrying backpacks of bone swords and flint knives.

  13. Also, I'm coming from a perspective of reading supplements that have excessive fluff. You've got a huge writeup on some minor garrison where the captain doesn't know whether he wants the men to love him or fear him, and as a result, they do neither (the 1E or 2E Amn setting book from the Forgotten Realms I believe). I don't care about that! Two pages spent detailing this boring guy and his +1 sword when you could have just as easily left it as a "small fort" on the map and let me figure out he's a Ftr7 or whatever.

    Secondarily, it's poorly-written fluff. It's boring and formulaic, like the stuff I come up with when I'm not very creative.

    Thirdly, it's loose fluff. If I get fluff I want dense-packed, rock-hard fluff. I want a page of single-line adventure hooks. I do not care what the village idiot ate for lunch, Hommlet. I want an NPC to have one line of stat block and one line of motivation. Here is Elminster:

    Elminster (Human Male LG M-U 20) Gandalf-like world-hopping sage of Shadowdale. Harper.

    Shadowdale and the Harpers would have similarly short descriptions because honestly who cares about what happened in 95 DR on Haptooth Hill. You've got a map that says Haptooth Hill and it has a village, you're good to go.

    The next time you read a setting supplement, consider putting a sticky note over any paragraph that didn't have gamable information in it.

    I think there is a place for fluff. But that place is packed in with rules and trappings. Most of it is just to give the DM inspiration and understanding of the setting so he can run it on his own.

    As another example, instead of describing a forest, how about just making the random encounter table for it, like Superhero Necromancer's Rainy City. Don't describe the things that COULD happen to the PCs - the things that DO happen will describe the environment sufficiently.

    1. I think part of the problem is that many such supplements aren't really supplements, but poorly disguised campaigns. So parts of them are precisely focused, because that was a keep the GM actually used, and like a Son of a Tolkien he isn't going to just throw that stuff out when he can sell it.

      If you've ever designed your own world from scratch, you find it's a constant time struggle between big picture and what you need by tonight. So for instance in my Insane City Mark II, I have some neighborhoods where literally every NPC is fleshed out, because a party used to shack up there. I even have a sketch of local street urchin politics, as it mattered when a cult attacked them one dark night in revenge for some casual looting they'd done. Others are as vague as "Wizard Order, Dickheads, like fire." I needed that neighborhood detailed, so when some long term feud degenerated into a riot or whatever,I was ready. The brief description was just for what happens when someone decides to cut down that alley to lose pursuit. The same is true for the greater land it's set in. Sure I made an effort to sketch out each kingdom and even produced a number of absurd political alliance maps, but most kingdoms are hazy places with the only map being a blow up of the over map. Some have gotten used for quests, so they're detailed.

      So what you see there is just someone using his personal game as filler, rather than a professional attempt to craft a usable product.

  14. Arguably it should have explanations of why the rules are the way they are. For example, explaining that not having non-human PC races is an attempt to mimic a particular kind of fiction.

    That way people won't think a particular feature is an omission or mistake.

    1. I'm not against game designers including an introduction or epilogue explaining why they designed things the way they did. In fact I prefer that.

    2. You should like 13th Age, then. Almost any single facet of the game is commented by the designers.

  15. I've revised my reply to this more than once now and decided that by bone of contention is your decision of what is fluff. The problem is partly that it is all fluff. That what you lay out as being the bare bones of D&D can just as well be labelled fluff. Remove the races, it's no longer Tolkienesque, you can easily claim it's all post Howard then. Weapons? Well the weapons are only a suggestion, really who has ever enjoyed the more obscure polearms? Trim those down to ten weapons, you can just as easily use D&D to run an Og the caveman adventure. Trim down the monster list to the mundanes and the occasional supernatural, trim the spells lists and magic items, you can just as easily run a campaign centered about Brother Cuthbert of York, Spiritual Franciscan Ghostbuster and freelance exorcist.

    D&D can be a pretty versatile game system, if you choose it to be. At it's heart, under the tables which declare 70% of all magical swords to be long swords, it's still just Chainmail, a set of rules for pre-gunpowder combat coupled with a fantasy setting supplement.

    All of what you describe as fluff is just basically short cuts. A Cliff notes version which lets someone run, as example, a cyberpunk themed game, without submerging themselves in the sub-genre. The thing to realize though is that the fluff is always just suggestions, it's not engraved in stone. It's just that handy crutch we all need sometimes. Most of that fluff is just a way to sell product, to justify you paying the cash. The reality is you can play D&D off the average Dungeon master's screen, and at least one of those six panels usually just has a big dragon on it.

    If you run campaigns, it's always a unique world, with high or low levels of magic. Wizards as common as cobblers or as scarce as neurosurgeons. Sometimes it is continual light sticks for sale in the markets along side an assortment of dried unicorn parts, other times that Ogre in the Woods has never been seen before. You've got pages of your own fluff, because god damn it, you have a reason for all those brigands in the woods who keep showing up in random encounters. So you need to have your list of local heraldry, because you want them to pick up that the Big Boss is moving his way towards the city.

    Then there are the games where you run everything stock, because it's that night and well everyone knows the setting, so we can't be bothered with why there are no halflings in the world, because well Bob has a halfling character he wants to play and he's in town this weekend.

  16. The Mazes and Minotaurs retroclone (complete with faux history of the game) is the perfect example of your point. The class-list, races, monsters and magic of this game alone will make a greek mythological fantasy setting implied for all DM's running this game: http://mazesandminotaurs.free.fr/revised.html