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    Default Highly "stylized" settings

    Having just watched a long retrospective video on the Bioshock series, I saw a lot of elements that I found simply inspiring, in a literal, non-cliched use of the word. It does not just have a unique aesthetic, but it uses it excessively and beyond what is reasonable. And it works very well.
    And thinking a bit about the implications for RPGs, many of the most famous published campaign settings do it too. Especially the 90s era of Dungeons & Dragons: Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Ravenloft. I am not very familiar with them, but I think Talislanta and Glorantha do it too. Forgotten Realms, Golarion, Greyhawk, and Dragonlance are nice and have lots of fans, and actually a lot more fans, but even as a long time Forgotten Realms fan I never would put that setting in the same creative league as Planescape or Dark Sun.

    The people who made these settings were no geniuses, nor had they a lot of existing reference works which they could simply imitate. The people at TSR were still able to get another one out the door year after year. So I don't believe it takes a genius to accomplish that, but it's something that many people with a decent amount of creativity could repeat.

    What is the key behind settings like that? I think Star Wars has it too, as do the PS2 and PS3 Final Fantasy games. This element that makes them truly "fantastic"?
    Style seems to be a very important thing. But is that something that is limited to the artwork in published books? Could Planescape be Planescape without the Di'Terlizzi art and Dark Sun be Dark Sun without the Brom art? Or is that something that you can aso evoke simply by descriptions? And if, then how?
    Another element I see with all these examples is that they seem to be much less inhibited by any pretense of staying realistic. Much of more "generic" types of fantasy are asking how the world would realistically be with magic and monsters. But the more stylized settings seem to be united by completely ditching that idea. Dark Sun and Ravenloft could not be actual places. They are obviously fake. They exist because that enables certain types of stories that also could not realistically happen. Next to the magical elements, there is no real "normal world". There are no normal farmers growing food in villages that could sustain themselves. Ravenloft is too dangerous, Dark Sun too inhospitable, and Planescape is copletely divorced from any notion of reality. Star Wars could have tens of thousands of normal planets where people do nothing but producing food for export, but then you get things like the Death Star and Corruscant, which are just completely ridiculous.

    Could that be the key ingredient that makes these settings seem so much more fantastic, evocative, and inspiring? That even with their special rules of magic and technology, many elements seem highly implausible, but are still existing because the idea is just so cool?
    Maybe it's not just a willingness to suspend disbelive, but an active enjoyment of any notion of "realism" being completely shattered?

    This is a very fuzzy and incoherent way to start a threat, but I think it's really about aesthetics and emotional reception, and it's also something I don't really know much about, so I probably couldn't get it much better than this. But what are your thoughtsThe people who made these settings were no geniuses, nor had they a lot of existing reference works which they could simply imitate. The people on this subject?
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    I think one of the most important aspects of these settings isn't the exact details of them, but what they inspire. Upon closer inspection of course these settings are ridiculous and unrealistic - but we're not actually looking at them. What we (ie the fans of a setting) see in them is the Platonic ideal of the setting, something with the warts ironed out and everything being consistent with each other.

    Dark Sun turns from an inhospitable mess where nobody would survive because cannibals will eat you if you go outside for a stroll into a grim and gritty desert fantasy where the tough survive by being tougher than the next toughest guy, and where immortal sorcerer kings oppress those not tough enough to stand up for themselves. There's all sorts of heroism at play here, not necessary moral heroism, but the sort that stands out in a crowd and sticks to their own way.

    Star Wars too greatly benefits from this. The setting is downright ridiculous if you start looking at the EU. But we only look at the ideal of the setting. We have an entire galaxy, one that is absolutely huge, with traditions and orders as old as the mythology of the setting. We have daring pilots smuggling goods and fighting off an oppressive empire that's ruled by people who use evil as their power source. There's the good side and there's the bad side, but there's room enough for so many concepts to play out from anti-heroes to shining paragons of light to characters who are literally made out of Cosmic Evil. Instead of nations, Star Wars has planets. Hoth, Tatooine, Coruscant - they're all just essentially geographical regions in a world map, but since they're planets in the setting, the world feels so much larger than it actually is.

    Are the settings impossible? Perhaps in real life, but we're not looking at real life. The settings, they're all larger than life in what they want to do and they reap the benefits from it. The realism of the settings don't matter, it's what they inspire from the platonic ideal of what they represent. As it's often said, true Star Wars fans hate what Star Wars actually is, but they love the idea of it. And that makes up for so much.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    I think that the primary division between your stylistic/nonstyistic settigs is that one has a solid premise that the background is written to support and the other is a generic/kitchen sink without that support.

    For example, Dark Sun is predicated on magic draining life from the land, the gods have abandoned the world, psionics is common, etc., etc. The background for this, all those little expository paragraphs found through the material, all pretty much says things like "magic works this way", "these are the limits of this thing", "this is how and why such a thing supports the setting". On the other hand settings like Geryhawk or FR tend to the generic kitchen sink style. The effective premise here is "like medieval Europe but with magic" and various little bits that different authors have added in to make one little thing work but are supposed to apply world-wide. Which is fine if you're writing a one-off story but when it gets incorporated into a persistant world setting you end up with this conglomeration of stuff that has no consistency. Then the fans of the various bits and bobs try to rationalize all the little things that don't fit.

    After writing that I think the difference you see isn't in highly stylized settings, but in settings that have a consistant style instead of a semi-random mash up of stuff held together by rationalizations.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Both good points. Which I think both go in the direction of "the theme comes first". Forgotten Realms and Golarion don't have a theme. They exist as detailed and consistent world firsts, but have no preference for any type of narratives or feels. You can do with them what you want and they try to provide what you need.
    The more wondrous settings have strong themes already baked in and it is made pretty clear what types of stories you can expect to find happening in them.

    The real world exist independent of any narrative you might want to apply to it. But highly wondrous worlds don't. Everything exist for a purpose, to be a supporting structure for a certain kind of story. Which perhaps we recognize as being unrealistic and makes it appear more magical. They operate by "fairy tale logic", not by real world logic.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    The settings I'm most a fan of are those settings with history. I think a structured history goes a long way toward stringing together themes within a setting, as it provides a narrative as to how and why things came to be the way they are. I think that's the "epic" in epic fantasy, and it is what is truly missing from Greyhawk or FR to unify the narrative.

    I love FR, but most of the lands and people of Faerun feel an awful lot like they just came into being from a void, rather than being organically the result of Faerun's history.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    The real world exist independent of any narrative you might want to apply to it. But highly wondrous worlds don't. Everything exist for a purpose, to be a supporting structure for a certain kind of story. Which perhaps we recognize as being unrealistic and makes it appear more magical. They operate by "fairy tale logic", not by real world logic.
    Ah, but it DOES have a narrative! The real world has a beautiful narrative to it, an intricate tapestry of migrations and conquests, rises and falls, of the steady progression of technology in spite of all the hardships and pitfalls we've succumbed to over the years! That's the theme I try to incorporate into my settings. No one was ever where they are now "first;" they always came from somewhere else, spreading from cultural core areas to diversify and conquer before themselves being conquered by the next wave of migrants. Toponyms change; etymologies become larger and larger, and every word is a corruption of something else.

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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Quote Originally Posted by Actana
    I think one of the most important aspects of these settings isn't the exact details of them, but what they inspire. Upon closer inspection of course these settings are ridiculous and unrealistic - but we're not actually looking at them. What we (ie the fans of a setting) see in them is the Platonic ideal of the setting, something with the warts ironed out and everything being consistent with each other.
    This is important, and it reflects the differences in design philosophy utilized by TSR versus WotC. TSR was very much fluff driven and DM focused. It released endless splatbooks filled with fluff with nary a mechanic in sight, books that were almost totally useless to someone who just wanted to experience the game as a player. When mechanics were developed they were often ridiculously arbitrary and totally unplayable.

    Speaking as someone who ran a considerable amount of 2e Planescape and was active in the fan community for some time - the general practice was to flat out ignore probably the majority of the actual rules the setting introduced. Things like cleric caster level falling depending on proximity to the deity and the endless variations of spellcasting rules were bookkeeping annoyances that made the setting more or less unplayable by RAW.

    Planescape has great ideas, but running it trends very hard to the Magic Tea Party side of gaming (not for nothing was there a popular conversion of the setting to Mage the Ascension rules). That's not a bad thing, and it was the kind of thing TSR supported heavily, but it doesn't mesh well with the much more robust mechanically prioritized 3.X system that WotC pushed hard.

    Heavy crunch rarely plays well with heavy style - when WotC moved towards a much more crunchy D&D the material it presented for the stylized settings was sanitized of a lot of the craziness because the mechanics simply could not render those inputs in all their glorious insanity anymore.

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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    What about settings like Exalted? It's very definitely a kitchen sink–but everything in the kitchen sink has its given theme dialed up to 11. When the story is about Sidereals, it's about plans within plans in a world where plans don't work. When it's about Solars, it's about mythic heroes and their tragic flaws. When it's about Lunars, it's about the struggle between skill and instinct, society and the wild. And so on.

    I think part of the reason that settings become memorable, too, is in their presentation in their respective splatbooks. Exalted creates a high-adventure feel with its comic book vignettes and bright colors; Nobilis has poetry and subdued-yet-weird illustrations crammed into every corner; Planescape writes everything out in The Cant and has a kind of dirty, quasi-graffiti feel to its art. This kind of thing helps put you in a certain mindset, and you pass that along to others when you talk about the setting even if they haven't seen the books themselves.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Oberon Kenobi View Post
    What about settings like Exalted? It's very definitely a kitchen sink–but everything in the kitchen sink has its given theme dialed up to 11. When the story is about Sidereals, it's about plans within plans in a world where plans don't work. When it's about Solars, it's about mythic heroes and their tragic flaws. When it's about Lunars, it's about the struggle between skill and instinct, society and the wild. And so on.

    I think part of the reason that settings become memorable, too, is in their presentation in their respective splatbooks. Exalted creates a high-adventure feel with its comic book vignettes and bright colors; Nobilis has poetry and subdued-yet-weird illustrations crammed into every corner; Planescape writes everything out in The Cant and has a kind of dirty, quasi-graffiti feel to its art. This kind of thing helps put you in a certain mindset, and you pass that along to others when you talk about the setting even if they haven't seen the books themselves.
    Exalted is probably the ultimate example of the 'great ideas, terrible mechanics' setting to ever exist.

    The fictional pitch behind exalted is glorious. The set pieces of the setting, like Nexus, are pretty awesome too. Unfortunately the setting doesn't hold together coherently (it is both impossibly huge and impossibly empty at the same time) and the system/setting combination is effectively unplayable without a huge number of house-rules, build management, and basically completely rejiggering everything.

    Exalted is a cool setting to talk about. It's even a cool setting to create material for (speaking as a guy who shamelessly wrote multiple pieces of exalted fanfiction and a 60,000 word setting expansion for exalted) but it's a terrible setting to actually try and play in any sort of coherent way.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mechalich View Post
    Exalted is probably the ultimate example of the 'great ideas, terrible mechanics' setting to ever exist.
    I think it's tied with RIFTS® on that front, but yeah, general agreement.

    I think the trick to playing either one (same as with Spelljammer, Planescape or any other big huge full of everything setting) is to pick a little corner instead of trying to play the whole setting. Sadly Exalted in particular really wants to build your characters into the sorts of people who do go sticking their noses into every corner of creation, but that's not what you have to do; focusing on one city or region can be great. Though yeah, it still doesn't fix the mechanics; that's getting a little OT, though, I think.

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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Quote Originally Posted by Mechalich View Post
    (it is both impossibly huge and impossibly empty at the same time)
    Allowing for GM creativity... is a bad thing?

    Focusing too much on particular areas is a bad point of the Compass books, but to say Creation should be entirely fleshed out by someone other than the GM is just the wrong way of looking at it.

    And the mechanics don't have much to do with the setting's value.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    I don't think I'd use "kitchen sink" and "generic" as interchangeably as this thread has been. Mystara, for example, was very much a "kitchen sink" setting but also fell pretty heavily on the "stylized" side of the stylized/generic continuum. Like every kitchen sink setting, it had its katana-wielding Samurai analogue; unlike any other kitchen sink setting, that analogue was cat people who lived on an invisible moon and rode their giant tigers through space. There was really no generic fantasy element it couldn't make super duper weird. It's also, as one of the few settings to consider even somewhat seriously the quotidian ramifications of magic, almost a proto-Tippyverse with the added craziness of that magic being radiation and the fact that magic is radiation having its own ramifications.

    Dragonlance is an interesting case in that it started out as a very stylized setting, with long-absent gods gradually returning to a shattered land and an army of weird dragon-clone abominations bent on world domination, and basically ended up sort of eating itself to feed its massive growth in popularity and ended up as a Greyhawk/Forgotten Realms/&c. analogue with the dubious distinction of having kender.

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    I agree with a lot of what has been said so far. Being selective is key. Rebuilding everything from the ground up from a few highly-tuned themes rather than just borrowing from the real world is key.

    This relates to genericness and kitchen-sink-ness, but for really stylized settings there has to be a sort of creative integrity about the whole thing.

    That is to say, you're going to be picking a style and theme that unifies the entire work. But then, as you write the setting, there's a ton of detail you need to create. To maintain the integrity of the whole, each bit of detail has to, without fail, call back to elements of the overarching style and theme - and yet, at the same time, each detail element has to be distinct from the other detail elements. Ideally, each element should itself pick a sub-theme which it explores - a particular clear facet of the overall picture. So that can be very hard to do in a very big world, because you have to generate a large number of takes on just a single idea.

    So generally, the writers will slip up and not hold themselves to the theme. They'll insert a pop culture reference or have 'this area has lots of small farms but is uninteresting' or whatnot. A setting can survive a little of that, but too much and the theme begins to feel like a lie - either that it isn't held up, or worse, that the places where it's held up are totally artificial. Dark Sun with one peaceful farming community at the sweet spot between the cannibal halflings and the burnt-out wastes wouldn't be a problem, but if there was a whole swath of land like that for the taking, you'd start to wonder 'why do people stay in these hell-hole cities?' and such, and it exposes the theme as forced rather than natural.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zrak View Post
    Mystara, for example, was very much a "kitchen sink" setting but also fell pretty heavily on the "stylized" side of the stylized/generic continuum...

    Dragonlance is an interesting case in that it started out as a very stylized setting, with long-absent gods gradually returning to a shattered land and an army of weird dragon-clone abominations bent on world domination, and basically ended up sort of eating itself to feed its massive growth in popularity and ended up as a Greyhawk/Forgotten Realms/&c. analogue with the dubious distinction of having kender.
    I think early Dragonlance have a style because it was written and curated primarily by one person. When there's one author you get a consistent style and setting. FR and Greyhawk were both more generic settings and had multiple authors who didn't collaborate or agree on a standard reference document.

    I know that sounds like a technical writing thing instead of a creative writing thing, and it is, but it's also essential when working with multiple authors if you want any coherency and consistency. You can look at Zelazny's 'Forever After' for an example of collaborative creative writing done well. Mystara is similar to 'Forever After' in that it was structured collaboration where each author had defined limits and wanted the work to mesh well with what the other writers were doing.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Many more and much more elaborate replies than I had been hoping for. Seems it wasn't just jumbled rambling with no substance after all. Lot's of really great thoughts here.

    Quote Originally Posted by Actana View Post
    Dark Sun turns from an inhospitable mess where nobody would survive because cannibals will eat you if you go outside for a stroll into a grim and gritty desert fantasy where the tough survive by being tougher than the next toughest guy, and where immortal sorcerer kings oppress those not tough enough to stand up for themselves. There's all sorts of heroism at play here, not necessary moral heroism, but the sort that stands out in a crowd and sticks to their own way.
    Quote Originally Posted by NichG View Post
    That is to say, you're going to be picking a style and theme that unifies the entire work. But then, as you write the setting, there's a ton of detail you need to create. To maintain the integrity of the whole, each bit of detail has to, without fail, call back to elements of the overarching style and theme - and yet, at the same time, each detail element has to be distinct from the other detail elements. Ideally, each element should itself pick a sub-theme which it explores - a particular clear facet of the overall picture. So that can be very hard to do in a very big world, because you have to generate a large number of takes on just a single idea.
    Talking about strong themes is all nice and good, but I think these two post really help a lot in making things much mote concrete. Themes can be very abstract and how do turn "seeking for balance between personal happiness and duty" into locations and NPCs?

    But Dark Sun is a great example. The theme of that setting could be described as "Surviving the dangers of the desert and escaping the oppression of the cities". You can stay or you can leave, but both are terrible choices. How do they turn this into concrete setting elements? By showing you all the people who failed. The plight of the slaves and the dried out remains and gnawed bones of those who got taken by the desert. By having the slavers and oppressors being very active and always present in the form of the Templars, and by having various terrifiying desert monsters. And also by showing those who did manage to escape and survive. The slave tribes and the elves. And by showing the challenges they face because of the dangerous ways they picked. Whenever you are in a city, outside of a city,or in a slave villages, you are confronted with that theme. When you are dealing with a templar, an elf, a gladiator, or a mul, you are dealing with the theme. Thanks for bringing that up. I feel that this is really wuite the revalation.

    And it really helps me a lot with developing my own setting. The theme I had decided on is "How can you be free and happy and live by what you think is right while still being a member of a society based on mutual support and respecting the sensibilities of others?" Not as snappy as "Freedom or Death!", but I love this theme which pops up all the time in many works I love. (Which happen to be existentialist sci-fi instead of the bronze age fantasy setting I chose, but so what? ) And perhaps somewhat unconsciously, I already have a few elements that support that theme very well. Being set in the Bronze Age and making the PCs members of tribal clans means they get dragged into conflicts because they are related to one party, whether they support their cause or not. Sorcery is a great power for change with huge potential to do good, but it also upsets the established order of things and might lead to disaster, regardless of the intention of the sorcerer. Some are called devils, some actually are. A powerful group tries to stop the worst offenders for the common good, but they go after everyone regardless of circumstances. And there is a large religious order that is very popular because they offer personal fulfillment and modest prosperity by abolishing castes and private property. (Yes, they are autonomous anarcho-syndicalist communes. I swear that happened entirely by accident!) But they also got a military self-defense arm that ended up as a conquering horde taking in any outlaws who want to join as equal comrades for a fair share of the spoils. All have great opportunities for characters who are struggling at keeping the balance and can do real damage if they go too far. What I think I need is to create some historical figures who can be shining examples and horrible warnings.
    Yet I also have demons, naga, and immortal fey warriors as major factions, but right now they don't really have any connection to the theme. How could demons be a force for supporting a community? How does the fact that 90% of the naga kingdoms are lizardfolk slaves who regard their masters as gods and obedience as a sacred duty affect the rest of the world? And what have the immortal fey to do with anything?
    Approaching it this way really helps me in recognizing the thematic strong points I should expand on, and the parts that don't really do anything for the setting as a whole.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    I suppose I feel a bit like the discussion in terms solely of "style" boils down the complex appreciable characteristics of well done settings to an aesthetic principle broadly applied. That seems disingenuous. There is more to the construction of a world than simply how its contents emerge from the critical "what if..." instrumental to its conception. The themes of the world must also organically emerge from the world itself. If the theme doesn't stem from the world and the events that shaped it, this incongruence can easily disrupt the novelty of the theme. In other words, the world's history should be as beholden to the theme as anything else, while the theme should be a natural extension of that history.

    That is, in my opinion, what happened to Dragonlance. The theme itself was solid, but as time went on that central theme became incongruent with the events and history of the world.
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    Default Re: Highly "stylized" settings

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Yet I also have demons, naga, and immortal fey warriors as major factions, but right now they don't really have any connection to the theme. How could demons be a force for supporting a community? How does the fact that 90% of the naga kingdoms are lizardfolk slaves who regard their masters as gods and obedience as a sacred duty affect the rest of the world? And what have the immortal fey to do with anything?
    They don't necessarily have to, even if you want to impress upon your players the intended theme of the setting. If you think of those groups as forces of nature to be adapted to, rather than factions that can be negotiated with, they become part of the environment, and the environment itself doesn't have to reflect a theme (unless you either have an environment-based theme or a truly exaggerated setting), so long as the interactions between people do. That is, don't make talking with fey or naga or demons a realistic possibility. They do their own things, as predictable as the sun or the tides, which are sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental to humanity, and the existentialism gets reinforced through other means.

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