Disentangling Plot from Setting
A problem wandering around in search of a solution. Possibly coming into a room with a coat over its arm, looking both ways and doing an empty hands gesture, I dunno.
I think I’ve found an advantage to playing D&D in established settings: it’s reasonably clear what’s setting and what’s plot.
This is most prevalent in the real world, of course. You can do a game (or a story, or a film, or a play) set in the Crusades, or World War II, or where or whenever, and it is extremely unlikely that a player, reader, or viewer will decide that stopping the Crusades or the war is a reasonable direction for the plot to go. Nor do they go chasing off to find what the Real Cause of the background event is. Equally, you can set a modern-day game against a background of criminal activity or the Mafia or whatever, and nobody is going to decide that There Will Be No More Crimes, or that All The Mob Bosses Must Be Eliminated.
It’s there in the established settings in more or less the same way. Elminster is background in the Forgotten Realms, and while some players may decide that killing him is the way to go, few enough campaigns will rotate around Why Even Is Elminster. And I’m sure that a few Planescape campaigns came into more direct contact with the Lady of Pain than the designers intended (possibly all Planescape campaigns), but everyone knows she’s just there, she’s not a relevant plot point in the same way as the mysterious bariaur with the green coat is, or the wizard with the brass lantern.
However, when you’re using a homebrew setting, it’s a lot more difficult for players to distinguish. For instance, the players in Utterbaum have just had someone explain to them what the Brehon-style royalty of the Isles do: they’re an organisation who deal with high-level threats to the settlements and people in the Isles, and who maintain very capable, very combat-ready armies for that purpose by having doing mercenary work in the Blood War and other planar conflict. The deeper how and why of that is not (currently, at least) important to the plot (and I am cheating a little by hooking it to the Blood War, which is known Background from Planescape), and while they’ve interacted with some of that royalty, its structure, origins, or the like will not be plot points. The interaction with the things the player characters are doing probably will be, but that’s a different beast.
(Also, amusingly, I looked up some of my older in-world material for reference for that session, and found myself looking at commentary about dynasties and consolidating territory, and was going “wait, what, why did I write that, that’s not how it works”, and then scrolled up to the top of the document and went, “ah, this was written by someone who doesn’t know how it works, but thinks they do.” Which in and of itself is a commentary on colonial points of view on ex-colonies. Hoist by my own internal world logic petard.)
And then there’s “you described it in detail, so it has to be relevant”.
This isn’t a problem to which I have a solution, mind. Sometimes I see it in accounts of other people’s games, too - I am fairly certain that some of the problems the Critical Role players hurl themselves against were intended to be background, but with Matt Mercer’s close-cards style of game-running, we may never know. And there’s a certain pleasure in it; you’ve crafted a world so well that the players are intensely curious about what happened to the old gods, or where the antlered wolves come from, or why magic is weird in that one specific way in the islands, or whatever else.
It’s not practical (as I thought might work at one stage) to say that everything written down in advance about the game is background, and everything that happens in the sessions is plot, because some of the stuff written down in advance is plot, and some background inevitably gets expounded upon in-game. And even in the real world, there any many bits of actual history where the “plot” was people going “where did this thing come from?”. But that’s also where conspiracy theories come from; an inability to separate the relevant from the irrelevant.
One of the things I think might help with this is being clear about what the setting is about. This does assume that the setting is about something, but I think you can get there for most. So Spelljammer is about fantasy ships in space (and thereby, nobody should be trying to chase down “where did the first spelljamming helm come from” or “why is travel through the astral possible”); Planescape is about being able to go anywhere in all of reality, and what happens when you do; my own setting of Davon is about deep history and immortality; Heliomar is about the observation of empires (and therefore colonialism) and evolution; Utterbaum is about the concepts of fiends (not just the actual extra-planar demons and devils) and the nature of evil. The trouble there, I think, is that sometimes you need to be a few or a dozen or more sessions into a campaign and/or a setting before those things are clear, and maybe they’re never clear. So setting them out and saying “these are just the basic tenets of the setting” isn’t easy.
This is adjacent to the idea of the theme of a setting, as noted in Sly Flourish. But those single-word/single-concept themes might help players to establish mood, or ensure a character fits with the setting, but they don’t distinguish between the broader setting and the plot of the particular sequence of events - always assuming that the setting is meant to be used more than once. That may, of course, be where I’m tripping up; I have the idea that there is a world and then there is a campaign, and the campaign takes place in the world. There are certainly fictional settings that are so closely intertwined that once the one tale that’s there is told, there’s not much left to do. The thing is that with a very few exceptions, I don’t like those.
I like worlds to feel like worlds. I want the incidental details to be actual details, threads that you could, if you were inclined, follow up on. Why, exactly, is there a trade in tea into a place that looks like it could reasonably grow it? Why are the dwarves building in limestone there? How do the rulers of the town enforce the “no wizards” rule without getting themselves turned into toads and dropped down wells? And the trouble there is that if you leave these threads lying around, players will pick them up and try to weave them into what in this increasing laboured metaphor we can call the narrative cloth. I mean, I can see I bring this upon myself.
But I suppose I’ve kind of talked myself into a solution here. If the world-threads I leave lying around can have pieces of plot tied to them, and I lay a little more descriptive emphasis on the other pieces that are sitting around, I can - for the most part - make the plot shinier than the world. And a B-plot based on the geology of the islands, or the carnivorous bog plants, or the economic background of the tea trade is no bad thing. It’s also true that RPGs are the output of choices, and that the consequences of the choices not taken fade away only in plot terms - they’re still there in the world, waiting for another game in the same setting to trip across them. Or, if I can’t let go of them, some other narrative medium.