Why Less is More #03 - Setting

This 3rd article in the Why Less is More series will unpack the SetUp Phase world building section, as it also represent an important staple of FateLess underlying philosophy.

To Build a World

FateLess approach to world building could be defined as sedimental.
You have nothing, and then you lay down just one small thing, and then the need arises to lay down another small thing next to the first, and then another, and another. This might seem random and lacking a predefined grand scheme of things, but the end result looks and feels very deep and solid and “purposeful”.
Why? Communication Rules!

Overwhelming? Easier said than done? Not at all, because there is a trick to it. If it’s true that anything might be simply described and added to the game fiction, it is also true that everything has to pass through the communication rules. This means that it all has to make sense in the context of whatever was described from the beginning of our game up until this very moment. Scrutinising the internal coherence and consistency of a whole imaginary world is no easy task, so we don’t do that. Instead FateLess Players only need to check if the latest thing they are describing right now makes sense in the context of what immediately surrounds it. Also, instead of a single person being the keeper of such coherence, every Player constantly functions as judge and censor of the overall fiction. This happens with no real effort because it is a byproduct of how people normally communicate in this game. This is why world building in FateLess is all about setting up an interesting starting point, a small initial kernel, and nothing more. A pitch. Then the Players are instructed to chat briefly about it, to set the most basic elements that will define their new world. Then things get a wee bit more problematic... but in a good way!

Huston, we have a problem

Saying that we are going to play in a world that has dragons and cyborgs and crystal-magic and where PizzaHut has become the new form of government usually seems very important ... but it is not.
A world is a big thing, with lots and lots of possible stories and adventures for which it might be a perfect backdrop for. Defining this kind of anecdotal details does very little to help people play the game together, to make everyone’s desires and ideas fit at the same table.

For this reason the initial pitch is just a way to define what square one looks like, and nothing more. After that, FateLess lifts a page from Fate Core by relying on the mechanic of Issues.
By focusing the group’s attention on just 2 or 3 very specific and very concrete problems the game is able to offer the Players a starting point that will for sure be of interest to them. This is done through a brief and “loaded” chat, so that the process can be as expedite and easy as possible. This is extremely important because it also helps Players to avoid blank page panic both now and later, when they’ll have to create their own protagonist characters.

In terms of world building this is also the moment when the first real details start appearing in your setting, as each Issue will be used as inspiration to create an Aspect. This brings into existence one to three things that are specific and tangible within the game fiction: a Place, a Person, an Event, an Item, a Group or an Organization.

Bonus: ss one of the core rules of the game states that anything that is described in the fiction has to be known/perceived by at least one of the PCs (more on this in a future article) all elements outlined in this stage will later become powerful tools to define who the PCs are and how they are involved in the chosen Issues.

Inverse Canon

FateLess is built to support Players in creating and defining a whole setting on the fly by just planting a few seeds and then growing them bit by bit, in a sedimentary way, during actual play.
But can FateLess work the same if the Players have a specific setting in mind? Don’t they need hundreds of pages of anecdotal info about geography and society and races and everything unique to that one specific imaginary world? Yes it can. No they don’t.

A core element here is the idea of “canon” and how the adherence to it works as an experience at the table.
For roleplayers it is obvious knowledge that different gaming groups always conjure their own version of an imaginary world, even if they use the same setting, even if they reference the same books. The large majority of what is said at the table is an original product of the participant’s imagination, more or less inspired by a few flavourful elements from the source material, of which only a small part is used verbatim from the source: a famous character here, a unique place there, etc.

Yet, because of this small but highly flavourful percentage of elements, we can recognize that a game taking place in a modern city is part of the world of KULT rather than Cthulhu rather than Dresden Files. We recognize the canon material and this makes everything else feel official-like.
FateLess reverse engineers this principle with two possible tools: the Human Wikipedia, and the Setting in a Box.

Eddy Knows!

Simply put, the Human Wikipedia works on the principle that someone at the table is familiar with the desired canon material. This person is then tasked with the job of offering answers and suggestions to the whole group whenever the natural sedimentation of the fiction might touch on a unique, characteristic and flavourful element. Sounds complex, but most of the time all it takes is the use of a specific name rather than a generic one: take a generic cyberpunk setting and have your “heavy handgun” be called “Ares Predator” and you are suddenly playing Shadowrun, people in the know will recognize the element while anyone new to it will learn that this specific thing is part of that specific setting; name it “FEN-603” and you are in SLA Industries, name a famous NPC “Netrunner” instead of hacker or decker or diver and you know we are talking CP2020.
This method only requires a single person to be in the know and then becomes increasingly effective as more people get to know the source material through play. It also involves no pre-game rules hacking. And offers the quickest and easiest way to summon a pretty canon-ish version of the original source material.

All You Need ... in a Box

A Setting is a Box (SiaB) is a collection of elements that someone has prepared before the start of the game to allow a group of Players to achieve a canon-ish experience even if none of them has any familiarity with the source material. Think of it as a classic source book of hundreds of pages, but in a super condensed and hyper functional form that only takes up a few pages.
It is made up of three main components: a Setting Seed, a bunch of Crunchy Bits, and a World Deck.

The Seed takes the place of the normal pitch, expressing in an extremely brief and pragmatical way what the point of the setting is; it is usually half a page of text. This is both because the people using it will have an easier time understanding and assimilating it, and because the people producing such Seed will be forced to really think about what are the unique, distinctive and important elements of the setting they want to work on.
Not only this, but the info offered by the Seed needs to inform the Players about what the game is about in a functional way ... what kind of characters could they imagine? What kind of activities and problems and motivations could be present in this (yet) unknown game world?
By its very nature this activity will lead whoever is preparing the SiaB to make some very important thematic choices about the setting they want to represent. This will help immensely in the other steps.

The Crunchy Bits are a small collection of pre-cooked mechanical content that is typical and unique to the desired setting. They can be used to introduce new or modified rules into the game, but most of the time this is not even necessary, and Bits end up being a simple (yet incredibly useful) list of Aspects.
What exactly is translated into a Bit, and how, is of course a matter of personal taste. But the Seed helps in choosing what is important and what is secondary, what should become a Bit and what can be covered by the basic rules of the game. Again, briefness is of the essence; to this end it is often a very good idea to not go into excessive detail by producing endless lists of similar things, and rather use each Bit as a practical example of a core element of the setting. This way Players will start by using the listed Bits, and will soon come up with a wider variety of new ideas inspired by those initial examples, thus producing canon-like material of their own.
In general, the less Crunchy Bits there are, the better.

The World Deck is a small deck of cards meant to further shape and expand the “virtual” knowledge base of a setting that the Players do not yet know. In practical terms it is a short list of unique / evocative / flavorful / inspiring / iconic People and Places and Things. It usually counts about nine cards for each category, simply because nine cards are an easy fit for a common A4 page :P
No rules involved here!
This is 100% fictional content.
This material follows the same principles as the Crunchy Bits: you have a very limited amount of space to express a lot of setting information; this forces you to pick and choose only the essential elements of the setting, and among them only the ones that can work as a functional example to inspire the Players.

But why cards?
There are various practical reasons...

First, an A4 page can host 9 cards of Magic:TheGathering size. This translates to a pretty limited amount of text. Such constrain applies a second layer of “squeeze” to your text. No useless fluff, no frills, no bullshit. Go to the point, to the useful info, to what is inspiring rather than merely descriptive.

Second, although one can easily read through all the cards in one go as if they were a broken down sourcebook, the card format also allows Players to draw a random card for quick inspiration and surprise effect.
No rules involved here, just draw a card and take whatever you want from it:
We follow the bandits without being seen, where are they going?
Let’s draw a Place ...oh my! The Jade Palace?! DAFUQ?!
Makes perfect sense, I TOLD YOU we were being double crossed!
Or maybe:
We follow the bandits without being seen, where are they going?
Let’s draw a Place ...oh my! The Jade Palace?! DAFUQ?!
Meh, makes no sense, but it gives me an idea... the place they lead us to is...
Third, presenting cool and interesting setting elements in such a bite sized and tactile fashion helps the Players to think about the setting in the same bite sized way, making it easy and spontaneous to create new cards, fixing in a more permanent and official-looking way the things explored and discovered during the course of the game.
This in turn is a powerful emotional tool that helps Players to feel more involved and to care more about the world and its inhabitants. Oh, and it’s mighty fun too!