The importance of world-building and setting
Does a theme define play experience as much as game mechanics do? Would you go as far as saying that the setting is maybe more important and can compensate for forgettable or generic rules? Or is world-building only ever fancy packaging? Is it something to help sell but, in the end, only superficial in comparison to what makes the game work?
This month, I look at a variety of games that have made me wonder about the necessity for strong visuals and the presence of a world, or setting, for the play experience to exist in. Can a powerful concept sometimes do more than embellish and transform the game into something exceptional?
Do keep in mind that I have no expertise as a game designer, be it board, tabletop or video games. My opinions are based on being primarily a graphic designer, an illustrator and a storyteller but also an avid player.
Abstract board games
To start off, let’s have a look at Quirkle. It is a two player block game, a little bit like dominoes, that combines logic and strategy. On your turn, you draw wooden pieces from a bag and place them to create rows and columns of matching colour or shape. The rules are simple but the gameplay is deep and layered. It’s one of these games that gets more complex as you play it. In terms of visuals, it’s very simple. The tiles are black with a coloured symbol on one of its sides. There are six different shapes and six different colours. It’s nothing fancy but it’s very clear, you can distinguish the characteristics of each tile very easily. The visuals do not matter so much beyond their functionality. One could think of adding a theme to the game with a context and a story but that would not affect the experience or the quality of the gameplay whatsoever. The concept is that strong, a theme would be irrelevant.
Whereas Quirkle’s quality is not hurt by its simplistic and maybe even unattractive visual style, a game like Aquarius is not as fortunate. Aquarius is a card matching game. The cards have one, two, three or four of the following elements depicted on them: Earth, Air, Fire, Water or Space. Each player is given a goal element and is required to lay down one card per turn making a part of it match with another card that is already on the table. The objective is to connect seven cards with the goal element. The visual design is influenced heavily by the Hippie movement and the art of Peter Max. While historically meaningful, this particular style does not add anything to the game and, in fact, makes it a less attractive affair. Since its original release, the game has been re-designed and renamed Seven Dragons. Graphically speaking, it is adorned with beautiful and evocative illustrations by famous fantasy illustrator Larry Elmore. The five elements of the original game have been replaced by a red, a blue, a green, a black and a gold dragon. In terms of core concept, it’s not as powerful or intriguing. Visually, however, it appeals a lot more to fans of fantasy and gamers in general as this version has proven to be much more popular than the original.
One could say it comes down to personal artistic taste, and that is debatable. But if you design games for players 6 to 99 years old, visuals can obviously work in favour or at the detriment of the product.
So, does the setting - or theme - always play a primordial role for games that heavily rely on visuals? My answer is, you might have guessed, yes AND no!
The sandbox concept
Let’s look at a game of a different kind that I have played through and through since it’s release: The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild. It is a video game so, of course, the visuals are important. But remember that my focus here is on setting and theme, not just on mere graphics. It is, however, important to note that the visuals in this game are breathtakingly beautiful and the gameplay is out of this world.
The game has unparalleled depth for an adventure game and is very impressive in every possible way. As all Legend of Zelda games before it, Breath of the Wild basically tells the same story in a different way and at a different time in Hyrule’s history. For the uninitiated, it is basically the fight of good against evil that keeps repeating itself. Every time a new version of evil appears, a hero named Link rises to the occasion and being the main protagonist of the game, he is who you play. Every time.
It is worth noting that I cannot think of another game series that has stuck to the same story for each of its iterations. The characters are different versions of themselves in each new edition and the setting is the same kingdom, only at a different moment in time, somewhere in its very long and fascinating history. It would not be a Zelda game if it were not so and that is what makes the series so special.
Yet, every new iteration is different. Being a Nintendo product, it shatters conventions and explores new and fascinating gameplay concepts, making the most of the hardware it is coded for. So, since the setting in Breath of the Wild is such a quintessential part of the game, is it absolutely essential to making it such a landmark of modern video gaming? The answer might surprise you.
In my opinion, no it is not. Let me explain. Breath of the Wild is an adventure game with many features and aspects that derive directly from role-playing games. Today’s gaming consoles allow for experiences that I could not have dreamed of as a kid. This Zelda game takes place in a big - no, a huge - sandbox that is the kingdom of Hyrule. At present, it is the largest world you can wander in in a video game. It measures 23.7 square miles - or 62 square kilometres - that’s pretty much the size of Manhattan. You have the freedom to explore every valley, hill, mountain, castle, lake, river, cave and whatever you come across. You interact with and meet people from all walks of life. There are countless enemies to fight. You have to hunt for food, look for fruit, vegetables and other ingredients in order to combine them and cook nutritious meals that will replenish your health. There is a monetary system which allows you to buy and sell goods, weapons, equipment, etc. It is a world dictated by rules that have their origin in the real world as well as the legacy of all the Zelda games that preceded it. As a fantasy adventure it is, for me, the most engrossing video game I have ever played. The mechanics are that good. Truly great games should not punish you because they are not responsive or precise enough in their gameplay. Here, when you fail at something, it is your fault and yours only.
And as I play it, I cannot help but think: what if you stripped away the looks and replaced it with another fantasy setting, would it be every bit as glorious and satisfying? Dress it up in a Dungeons and Dragons attire, as planets in the Star Wars universe or as the foundation to the adventures of Legolas between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I can’t help but think that it would be just as good.
This does provide me with a nice segue to the next part of this post: D&D and The Lord of the Rings. Role-playing games do give us the best way to explore any setting in any way we pretty much desire. A game like Dungeons & Dragons can be played in a multitude of ways. In fact, every group that plays the game will do so in a way that is their own even if the scenario being run takes place in an official setting of D&D such as Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms or Dark Sun. What a lot of people also do is run what is called a homebrew campaign. A world made up by the Dungeon Master (DM) and the players. In these cases, the rules used are taken straight from D&D and adapted if needed to suit the fantasy setting chosen by the group.
Reading The Hobbit at a young age was for me, and countless others, an entry way into the world of medieval fantasy. Greek mythology had already captivated me at school and Tolkien’s Middle Earth sucked me right in. It was after reading The Hobbit that I started getting interested in role-playing gamebooks such as the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf series. I grew up in the french part of Switzerland and there, those books were distributed by French publishing house Gallimard as part of their Folio collection. By the time I was 13 this publisher had acquired the rights to distribute the first edition of the Dark Eye role-playing game, a german alternative to D&D. A group of friends formed around our common interest in both fantasy and this new type of game. We discovered many RPGs from then on, including the two available flavours of Dungeons & Dragons.
The thing that made D&D so approachable for us is that it was clear that Gary Gygax’s fantasy inspirations came from the works of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and other fantasy writers, some of which were being adapted to the big screen. For fantasy cinema, 1984 was an unprecedented and unequalled year (I won’t elaborate on that here, as I already did there) and all these movies also provided us with material to make the worlds we adventured in richer and more believable. Amongst the many, many games we played, one got our attention particularly. One of my friends decided to buy it and run a campaign. This game was Middle Earth Role-Playing game or MERP as it became known. It was at the antipode of games like the Dark Eye or D&D and its system was heavy on rules. Just as well that my friend was the game master and had to learn them in detail. I didn’t mind the complexity but role-playing games of old could be daunting to learn at times. The system was clunky but it didn’t matter because we were adventuring in Tolkien’s world and that was something that we had been dreaming of! Keep in mind that at the time, we only had the works of a few artists and Ralph Bakshi’s animated film to see what it could look like. The Rankin/Bass Hobbit TV movie had eluded me. I don’t think it aired much in my part of the world. But ultimately, Tolkien’s imagery and writing are vivid and inspiring. If it is in tune with your sensibilities it does fuel your imagination. Having read the books was really quite enough for us. It lined up with the focal point of playing RPGs: they take place in your imagination.
MERP resurfaced in my life a few years ago as, out of curiosity, I purchased the rulebook and a few modules on eBay, all in reasonable condition. It was like using a time machine and it played a role in reigniting the tabletop spark in my life. Would I play it again today? With my old gaming group, maybe but that is highly unlikely since we are now scattered across the globe. Does the game hold up? Well, that is definitely a matter of opinion. For me, it was a clunky system to start with. Having an excellent game master to run it made things easier for us but most importantly it became what role-playing in Middle Earth felt like for us.
There and Back Again
Does it mean that I would never return to Wilderland as a role-player? Well, no, because something quite wonderful came along. Actually, to be precise, many things happened since my last steps in Middle Earth in 1989.
In the nineties, two artists came to the forefront as illustrators of Tolkien’s works: John Howe and Alan Lee. They both had been at it for a little while but they both gradually became a reference in the matter. John Howe’s vision of the world particularly matched my interpretation as a reader. Towards the end of 1997, I went to see an exhibition of his work at La Maison D’Ailleurs in Yverdon-Les-Bains. There, upon leaving, we were told that John was signing books at a local bookstore. We pressed on to see if we could meet him in person. I’m not sure if it was the fact that we had just seen Mr. Howe’s painting in the flesh for the first time or if I was feeling a little star struck but all I can recall is only managing a “Hello, sir” or some other polite greeting. Twenty years later, I think I would have hundreds of questions for the man if I were to meet him again! What I mean to say is that John Howe’s artistry has made a lasting impression on me, in the same fashion as Frank Frazetta.
A couple of years later, word came that a movie was being made in New Zealand, the only place on earth that actually looks like Middle Earth. Peter Jackson’s movies contributed a lot to bringing Tolkien’s world to the mainstream, and whether you like the movies or not, it is undeniable that they provide the most accurate and respectful visual representation of Middle Earth ever brought to life. Having hired both John Howe and Alan Lee for all these films made that possible in my opinion. Has my own vision of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings changed since watching the movies and seeing all the artwork of the many artists that have offered their take on the subject? Maybe a little, but there is so much more to these books than what their world looks like. They leave so much to personal interpretation, which is what makes them such wonderful stories to read.
As I have now mentioned how I discovered role-playing games and Tolkien, let me tell you how they both met me at a crossroad to form the most rewarding and interesting mix between the perfect setting and great game mechanics. When I say perfect, I do mean in my view, for my sensibilities and what I look for in a game. This is by no means an attempt at a review of any sorts.
So, as I already mentioned here, I have been playing 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons with my kids since the beginning of last summer. As a DM, I have been thoroughly enjoying this new flavour of the game, it is very versatile and slick. It allows you to easily discard the bits that do not suit your style of play and, most importantly, it allows you to focus on storytelling. You can, if you so desire, use all the rules to the letter and make it much more combat and dungeon crawling centric. For a lot of gamers, this the essence of D&D. For our games, we like to do a bit of everything, but killing monsters and looting are definitely not our main activities. In terms of lore, I have personally always preferred a world where magic is not as powerful and predominant as in official D&D. This is simply a personal preference. I know that my daughter is enjoying having her elven wizard shoot fire bolts or seeing my cleric cast Scorching Ray and that my son got very excited when he found his first magic weapon. With them, I play D&D in its full flavour, which is high fantasy without limitations. It is a lot of fun and it’s a world that is easy to imagine and contribute to. But if you asked me what my favourite setting for a fantasy game is, the world of Professor Tolkien would be where I would want to go on an adventure.
So how about using the new Dungeons & Dragons rules to play adventures in Middle Earth? A British game company, that designed and published the most excellent The One Ring role-playing game, thought to do just that.
The current 5th Edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons are published under the Open Game License (OGL). This means that Wizards of The Coast, the publishers of D&D, allows other game developers to use their core rules and modify them to suit the needs of their setting (The OGL is very well defined, you can read all about it here if you are interested).
Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7 allows role-players to delve into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in a time set five years after the Battle of Five Armies all the way to the events depicted in The Lord of the Rings. That is seventy years in game time, plenty for more adventures that I will never have the time to indulge in!
So what did the game designers actually do to transform D&D and make their game a new experience altogether? Without getting into too much detail, I would simply say that they basically re-purposed some features of the rules in very clever ways. When creating a character in D&D, you choose a race (human, elf, dwarf, handling, etc.) and a class (druid, fighter, cleric, wizard, rogue, etc.). This, along with a set of attributes, helps define what you look like, what you can do, what you excel at and what you’re not so good at. Your alignment defines your moral standards and how your character fits into society and the adventuring party.
Adventures in Middle Earth does away with races and instead makes you choose a culture. For those familiar with Tolkien writing this will immediately seem like a much better fit as the cultures are so well defined and described in Tolkien’s writings. They define the Free People of Middle Earth. Classes are replaced with professions, which is more appropriate in describing what one does in a low magic setting. Alignment is scrapped altogether and replaced with a unique system that represents how the Shadow affects your decisions and moral standing. The Shadow is, of course, Sauron’s influence on the world and his growing rise to prominence leading up to the events in The Lord of the Rings. Finally the rules introduce new features such as journeys which make travelling long distances an integral part of the adventuring gaming experience.
So how do rules and setting coexist in this game? Cubicle 7 has taken a rather interesting approach in the development of Adventures in Middle Earth. It makes the most of the fluid and intuitive 5th Edition D&D rules while transforming them into something that serves the setting in a surprising and efficient way. It is both respectful of the Dungeons and Dragons platform and the world created by Tolkien.
It is a great example of how setting and mechanics become intrinsically linked to form a homogenous game where one relies on the other to form a gaming experience that is still here to serve the players and the story they want to tell. And that should always be the purpose of any role-playing game: to help you live the adventures that you want to be a part of with a group of people whose company you enjoy. The setting gives you the sandbox you need for your characters to live in and the rules give you the means to take actions and make decisions.
While board games and video games can rely solely on mechanics to be engrossing, tabletop role-playing games have to provide you with a believable world to be worth playing. Finding the one that suits you can be tricky as you will want something that plays right for your group and that takes place in a setting all will relate to and enjoy. If you can’t find the answer online, talk to your fiends or that family member who used to play, take a trip to a local game store and ask.
To be fair, there has never been a better time to play and the games have never been this good. This is true for all the types of games I have talked about, so go on. And remember: why you play is more important than what you play!