Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Setting Depth

Yesterday I wrote about Setting Accessibility. Setting depth is a related, but not dependent, concept. Many deep settings are inaccessible (and here I mean require much work to access rather than impossible to access), but not all of them are. Warhammer Fantasy is a highly inaccessible setting (requiring a large amount of reading and training) with a huge depth. Shadowrun  is a much more accessible setting with a lot of depth in contrast. I'm not quite certain what makes certain settings deep and accessible and others deep but inaccessible. My current thoughts are that there is a third factor tangentially related to the way the deep parts of the setting are presented which affects how accessible it is: that is, the setting's learning curve and perhaps a fourth that we can call threshold required for play (which we can shorten to threshold).

So our definitions are...

Setting Depth: The total amount of information available about the setting. Setting depth is determined by the minutiae available, the options allowed in the setting, and all that stuff. It's the downwards information that doesn't broaden the setting (lots of places) but rather deepens in (lots of information on one place). It's a build-up of relevant info.

Learning Curve: How hard it is to learn new aspects of the setting. Shadowrun has a considerably easier learning curve than WHF or very accurate historical games (like H├órn). Stuff that is unlike our modern day or is not like any modern genres that we know tends to have a steeper learning curve.

Threshold Required for Play: How much of the setting depth you really need to absorb to be able to play comfortably. This implies a level of mastery with the basic materials good enough to pick up the deeper material simply through play (or extended study of the setting). The amount of depth and the learning curve steepness help determine the threshold, though not solely. Also of import is how much of the setting depth is actually used in day to day play.

I don't know if these concepts are at all helpful to anyone else, but I'm trying to sort through, logistically, the ways in which settings can be complex or simple, easy to learn or hard to learn, easy to pick up and play or difficult to. If others have any ideas, I'd be glad to hear them.


  1. Those seem reasonable parameters for consider. Of course, learning curve is a bit player-group depend, too. A group of teens has a different learning curve than a group of history grad students.

  2. One way of improving accessibility is by gradually revealing the setting. Take The Hobbit, for example. The book begins in hobbiton which is a generic pastoral setting without any hint of the fantastic. The reader can grasp right away what is going on. The complexity of the setting is introduced gradual as the characters travel. Kinda like how Skyrim starts in the boring town of Riverwood with only the most basic information of the game world revealed (you only know there is a war between the imperials and the nords, the king was killed and that dragons exists).

    Computer games and books can do this easily. I'm not sure how a game setting can be designed with this feature other than through a series of ever more expansive modules.

    1. I often try to do this with new people by just giving them information about a small region, and then letting them stumble into new information about ever broadening things as the game goes on. Sometimes it's more successful, sometimes less.