Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about Studio Manta, and the question naturally came up "what's it about?" This question floored me, because while I've been doing a lot of thinking about the project, and been writing the rules, I hadn't actually stopped to consider this question. It's been floating around in my head, of course, but I haven't designed a setting.
This may sound odd to you. A game is about something, whether it's Monopoly or Mass Effect. So you'd think that I'd have an idea what the setting is. I generally believe this to be true: Most games start out as a setting/story (an intellectual property). Oftentimes, they're simply the designer's setting for his own private weekly game. You like Westerns, but you want your world to include the supernatural, so you grab Boot Hill and Call of Cthulhu and kludge them together. Viola! You have Deadlands. Other times, the designer has an idea in his head -- Vampires in space! Lost underwater kingdom! -- then starts to flesh out the world.
The rules come second. They have to conform to, and reflect, the setting for which they are being designed. Deadlands has that really cool playing card mechanic, because Poker features prominently in Westerns. Call of Cthulhu wouldn't be the great game it is without the Sanity rules. You get the point. And what makes my not having a setting in mind so odd is that I'm designing a game backwards.
I'm working on a ruleset first because I don't intend to market just one game. I want to have a space setting, a Western setting, a contemporary setting.... And I want them to all work off the same rules. I'm not designing a game; I'm working on number of them. This hampers a great deal of the work, because I have to leave holes in the core mechanics in which to insert the setting-specific mechanics. The rules for magic have to plug into the basic rules (or I must create those rules as I design), for example. Similarly, it's hampered my thinking about a setting (because I'm not thinking about one setting, but the possibilities of many).
It's not like I haven't thought about creating an IP, however. It's floated around in my head, but I haven't really committed it to paper (or, in this case, electrons). I know what I want to do in a vague way:
Naturally, I want it to be popular. I've seen dozens of roleplaying games come and go. They've even had interesting settings and mechanics. But I don't want to be Hong Kong Action Theater or Everway. I don't even want it to be Shadowrun. I'm looking to create something I can build upon, like Vampire: The Masquerade or even Legend of the Five Rings. Something with a large following, to whom I can eventually sell a metric ton of useless crap (hats! T-shirts! Soap!).
I also want to model it on Japanese Anime. This is for a practical reason: Games based on lone heroes don't make good games. James Bond is a terrible IP for roleplaying games. That's because everyone wants to play Bond (or someone Bond-like); no one wants to play Felix Leiter. The same goes for Dr. Who, Elric, Solomon Kane, Conan the Barbarian, or any other hero who appeals to the American sensibility. Roleplaying is a group activity, and everyone should have an opportunity to contribute, a chance to shine. The Japanese generally create stories involving groups (given its group-oriented society). The Seven Samurai, for example.
Even if the star of the show is the teenaged boy who is the only one who can pilot the alien giant robot, he has friends. And they have giant robots of their own. They often have to save the prodigy's ass, from time to time. Cowboy Bebop tells the story of four bounty hunters. Inu Yasha has his companions. There are five Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.... You get the idea. Also, since I intend the game to be highly visual, it helps to model the project on anime.
But I also want it to appeal to my sensibilities. For this, I find James Malisewski's observation on his blog quite helpful. "[m]any… pulp fantasy worlds have a strongly "autumnal" feeling to them. The best days of the world are over and "Winter" is coming. [I]t is coming and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.” That about sums it up for me, too. I also tend towards the “post-apocalyptic” in my tastes in movies and books. Additionally, it meshes with tropes in Japanese anime, which often focus on life after a cataclysmic war (because of, you know, the whole atom bomb experience).
So it’s not as though I don’t have a set of criteria to use when designing a setting, I just don’t have a setting yet.