Setting, Background, and Transitions Therebetwixt


We call it by many names, and what we call it reveals a lot about how we think of it.

In roleplaying, we call it ‘setting’, and that’s a telling choice.  When something is set in something, it is embedded in it, grounded by it, part of a whole, and yet framed by it, presented as the key component, the eye-catcher.  I quite like the perspective of Tim Leary, which distinguishes the mindset of a person entering into an experience from the physical setting of the experience, evoking a kind of tension or harmony between character and nature or character and society and indicating that a fictional reality is what character and player make of it.

In wargaming, when showing any sort of reverence toward it at all, we call it ‘background’, and that’s a telling choice.  Background is there, but it’s not the point of the endeavour; it can aid immersion if that’s your goal, but it can also be too busy and intrude on the foreground, distracting from and frustrating progress in the business at hand.  That intrusion could be mechanical – too much flavour text cluttering the rules and making them unworkable – or it could be technical, with a player’s beliefs regarding it turning into hangups that prevent them from operating effectively within the boundaries of the game.

Those who show it no reverence at all call it ‘fluff’, and that’s a telling choice too.  What does the word ‘fluff’ signify to you?  Does it represent anything of consequence or value?  Does it suggest that anything will be devalued by its absence, or that that absence will even be noted?  Does it imply worthiness, or wastage?  How often do you see it used dismissively, as in the oft-repeated manifesto “fluff ain’t rules” – and how often do you hear the counter-term ‘crunch’ used to indicate something stodgy, resistant and unpalatable, or indeed used at all?

The words we use to describe the narratives and settings of our games reveal a lot – about us, about our priorities, and about the games we play as well.  Contrary to what you may be thinking, this isn’t some sort of goggle-eyed manifesto of Background Uber Alles – I detest rules which are burdened by background/setting instead of evocative of those things.  That said, I do think there’s a difference between what background is and what setting is, and the games that those terms emerge from and apply to.

Take the Iron Kingdoms, which I bang on about rather a lot.  They first emerged as a roleplaying setting, and I’d hope that the previous post on the matter indicates the depth and breadth that I feel is possible in the setting (even if it phoned in its elves and dwarves to a certain extent, it does some damn interesting things with goblins, ogres, trolls and dragons, some of which elevate the first two by association).  The charm of the Iron Kingdoms to me is that they exist in a state of cold war – there are tensions and border raids, with deniable assets striking out from one nation to another, and there are secret societies and cults at work beneath the surface, and sprawling ethnicities and diasporas that cross the boundaries of nations.

Warmachine and Hordes change that by updating the ‘storyline’ of the Iron Kingdoms from what was presented in the books.  The nations move into open war and the boundaries reshuffle.  Lesser ‘evils’ are marshalled into factions, with the Circle Orboros definitively acquiring the Tharn, the cephalyx joining up with Cryx and leaders emerging among gatormen and farrow that define them as military factions with an agenda and an organisation.  The trollkin diaspora becomes represented and defined by its wilderness, rage-against-the-machine face than by tension between that and urbanised trolls who live down the road and want your job, and the inner tensions with them as they struggle to retain their identity.  Ios becomes defined by the Retribution rather than by the Retribution, the Seekers and the expatriates who don’t care; the Nyss are subsumed by Everblight and those that remain are defined largely by their opposition to that case of affairs.  The Protectorate ceases to be part of Cygnar, in fascinating contravention of its laws, and becomes an open enemy.  Breadth and depth become definition.  Interplay becomes opposition.  Setting becomes background.


The game is one that relies on these definitions to justify its conflicts, so the change is natural, and not something to be deplored.  However, mapping these developments onto the RPG means the lines and tensions between troupe members suddenly become much more explicit, and there are limitations that emerge with that.  Consider, for example, the presence of a blackclad druid in a party when the Circle is at open war with civilisation at large.  The druid is an Enemy of the State.  The expected response of informed civilised people is to attack or imprison the druid.  The character has shifted somewhat in its context and now feels implicitly more like an adversary to civilised player characters.  However, when the Circle is at cold war with civilisation, manipulating and controlling it, the druid can move among civilised people – mistrusted and in tension but capable of earning or losing respect, debating and defending a perspective, able to move in the same spheres.  The move from roleplaying setting to wargaming background draws lines between party members that it feels unrealistic and inapproriate to blur.  If I ran the IKRPG for people who were used to Warmahordes, I’d bet good money they’d all want to be from the same faction, because that’s how the world’s constructed for them; defined, delineated and adversarial.

Movement is possible for player characters, within the context of the Mercenary/Minion sub-factions – I find it interesting that the roleplaying miniatures have been working their way into this context as they appear in the wargame – but I still feel the nagging obligation/expectation that the world in which they move be factionalised and the multicultural troupe of PCs be the exception rather than the norm.  They’d probably be surprised to find Menite Knights Exemplar abroad in Cygnar, as the Exemplars in Warmahordes are soldiers of the Protectorate rather than the armoured heretic-hunters whose presence can be understood and contextualised that they are in the IKRPG.

Now there’s a defined lull in the Warmahordes storyline and a new map of semi-settled national boundaries.  The quiet of guns and the momentary calm before the greater storm affords an opportunity to breathe, to update the RPG world to take into account the conflicts of the wargame, settle things down again, blur some boundaries.  I sort of wish I’d thought of this sooner: Wrath and Domination are out for the wargame this year, and things are bound to start moving again.

The IKRPG has a somewhat tense and charged relationship with Warmahordes – a quick look through the official forum will reveal the nature and extent of that relationship, and the angry, entitled footstamping that sometimes goes on there is not something I particularly wish to align myself with.  To mitigate that somewhat, I want to give other examples, particularly looking at WFRP, which has far greater compatibility and plausibility issues with the WFB game, and also at 40K, which has a more complex interplay between the functions of setting and background in its created universe, but time and space are both short; this is a long entry and I have work to do.  Maybe I’ll make a series of it.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

You may now commence belching

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