Setting Specifics: Yours Is to Reason Why

Shrine

The settings of roleplaying games contain all kinds of strange and wonderful weirdness, whether that’s a travelling fortress carved out of an iceberg, or a strange bakery run by a retired spy from the OSS. The existence of these kinds of things is often what makes the world interesting and distinct from everyday life or even other realms of fantasy. But the most important thing about them isn’t that these kinds of things take up space in your fictional realm, but why they do so. Creating the reasons can give a setting depth, and ultimately make the game more immersive. 

Let’s start an example. The lizardfolk of the Forgotten Swamp often raid the surrounding villages, and must be stopped. A pretty straightforward scenario, but there’s a few Lizardman Lizardman, Lizardmanquestions it creates.

  • Why are they doing that?
  • What do the villages have that the lizardfolk want badly enough to repeatedly risk their lives for it?
  • Why do they continue to live in a swamp which is undoubtedly full of terrifying carnivorous monsters?
  • Why don’t the villages themselves just pick up and go?

These are all relevant questions which players may bring up, and having answers to them beforehand will not only help you create a more believable scenario, but will provide the PCs with a more interesting setting to engage with. There are two kinds of good answers to these questions. The first kind answers them to satisfaction and does so without provoking any more questions. For example:

  • The lizardfolk are bound in servitude to an adult black dragon which makes its home in the swamp, and are raiding the villages to offer it tribute.
  • The lord who rules the lands surrounding the swamp profits greatly from the harvesting of certain herbs or even drugs which only grow on its murky ground, and wants to retain that territory.

Callous narcissism and the desire for stuff are the kinds of basic needs which are answers in and of themselves. We don’t feel the need to ask, “Why does the dragon want tribute?” or “Why does the lord like profit?” Both of those are pretty intuitive. But another good way to answer the questions is to give satisfying answers which do provoke more questions. For example:

  • The lizardfolk have an ancient vendetta against the villages.
  • The villagers all worship at a specific shrine in the region.

These answer all of the questions, but make players ask “Why do they have a vendetta?” and “Why is that shrine so special?” You can use these kinds of answers to guide players into a deeper experience with the setting. When setting up scenarios, creating locations or NPCs, consider what kinds of why questions might be asked about them, and how you might answer them. Another way to think about it is to consider the why questions that you’d like to be asked about them. In order to prevent an infinite regress, root your final answers in basic and intuitive needs which are answers in themselves.

Now, sometimes your players won’t ask any questions. They’ll go, beat back the lizardfolk and take their reward, without a care for the shrine or what have you. And that’s okay. What matters is that there’s a deeper world waiting for them, for when they’re ready. Theirs is to do or die, but yours? Yours is to reason why.

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