Setting is characters, the rest is just color. Figure out how to express what you want from the period through the people.
– Rob Donoghue
That’s what Rob Donoghue posted over on twitter a while back in a discussion about historical settings and I’m kinda conflicted about it. I was trained as a historian, so I can see both sides – I appreciate how historical characters, traditionally kings but in recent times more common folk, are great at providing a lens through which we can examine an era. Conversely, I dig the historical events and setting themselves – the battles, as it were, or the colour as Rob puts it. To me, they’re more than just flavour, they are the setting.
Yet it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of a setting, providing the readers with tons of needless details in the hope that you’ll bring the setting alive, but in reality running the risk of burying any sense of flavour or interest they might have had.But of course it’s possible to go too far the other way, instead of providing a setting overview just providing a series of character descriptions and hoping readers can infer what they need to for the biographies. I think the right mix will vary from game to game – to me games like Polaris and Hot War get it right, providing enough setting to spark my own imagination, and enough characters to give me an idea what to do with that setting.
Looking at the game I’m currently working on, Lost Days of Memories & Madness, I can see room for both styles. Consider these two takes on the same piece of background, about what happened to all the dragons. First up, battle style:
Here be Dragons
The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. As mighty as the dragons were individually, they were few number and overpowered by the armies of the elves. Those rare creatures that still live are as shadows of their former selves, broken and bound by elven magic to serve as steed or pet, their memories of past glories long since stolen by the elves. But it is whispered that, somewhere in the hidden corners of the world, true dragons still live. For the memories of such a beast – full of simmering rage long harboured – to be harvested would be a treasure highly prized indeed.
And now from a ‘king’ perspective:
Kesar, the Last Dragon
The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. Kesar is the last of his kind, saved from a life of slavery by the draconic magic that changed him from dragon to elf, allowing him to bide his time and plot his revenge from within the Eternal Court. That the elven memories that crowd his mind alongside his own threaten to drive him to madness is of no concern to Kesar – his thirst for revenge drove him insane long ago.
Now, both pieces have their own advantages and disadvantages. For me, I think the former just edges it, giving me a glimpse at the world and allowing me to fill in the blanks myself. The second piece offers me the same glimpse, but I find a little too focused, a little too ‘zoomed-in.’ In focusing the lens through the eyes of a single character, there’s the danger of it just saying something about that character, not the setting he inhabits.
Which do you prefer? Are you more a fan of ‘kings’ or ‘battles’ when it comes to background? And what settings have got that balance just right?