In an earlier post I called setting a kind of rule, as it informs on what we should say or not say during play. That is basically what rules in RPGs are about: How to develop a shared fiction through talking to another. There are a few different ways how setting information might do that. Let’s have a look.

Conventions are information that everyone should respect. While playing the game you should not say anything that contradicts these conventions. For example, if elves have pointed ears, you should not describe elves as not having pointed ears. Rule. Conventions help set the tone for a game. Since people have to know them without looking them up during play, you cannot have too many of those. A good example I found is the in Masks: A New Generation. A single page describing the four generations of super heroes. You can read it out aloud.

Canons are type of rule that you should pick one from a list, when introducing an item. For example the sentient creatures in the world are humans, dragons, gorgons and sphinxes. Obviously, you should make each character a human, dragon, gorgon or sphinx. Rule. You can use this type of rule for anything that might be created by the group. These rules are less upfront than conventions. You can consult a specific canon, when you actually need such a thing.

Random tables are much like canons except that you can roll for the specific expression. They can be therefore longer, as they don’t have to be perused on short notice.

Regions are a special type of canon. When you make an adventure, choose a region where it takes place. Rule. The region colors how things might look and feel, even if the adventure structure is otherwise the same. A whodunnit in the Widowlands will feel different than in Wild Reaches (two regions from Agone).

Patterns are about what a certain thing typically includes or has. For example a vampire city typically has Prince. When you make a new city, invent a Prince for it or some alternate type of government. Rule. A pattern is not a convention as it may be broken, but it still sets a baseline. Vampire cities without a Prince are atypcial. It is also less upfront than conventions. You can play without knowing the pattern, if you are not required to fill it in, even though it might lessen your enjoyment.

Examples are the loosest form of setting. You might put them wholesale into your game or make something like it. They can be very useful though, especially if they are easy to plug in.

The important thing is that good setting information should have a notion on how to incorporate it into the game. Who shall know this information? Who shall use it? How? Setting details without such a use become useless and people will likely complain about it. Histories and calendars are typical candidates.

This is also how designing an RPG is different from world building. It is one level higher. When you design a game, you give the playing group tools to build their own world.