The Problems and Promises of Real-World Settings

When we’re creating our stories, or choosing our game systems/settings, we’re generally given a choice: create a world of our own/use a fictional setting that’s already there, or use a variation on the world we actually live in. Real-world settings provide a certain familiarity and an existing structure, but while they have their benefits, they have their disadvantages as well.

The first advantage to a real-world setting is that it comes pre-created. Instead of having to take the time to figure out all the geography, all the cultural details, and all the—well, everything—one can just take what exists and choose how to treat it and what to embellish. Add all, or even a subset, of the existing mythological creatures out there, and you have a lot of ways you can go. If you’re the kind of person whose best work is done taking things that are already there and coming up with explanations for and variations on them, rather than making things up from whole cloth, this is a major bonus.

The second is that a lot less requires explanation. People may not perfectly understand the concepts you’re playing with, but they’ve probably run into the basics in their everyday lives, and have a whole lot more to extrapolate from. This way, you don’t need to spend near as much time expositing; if your audience is already familiar with it, you won’t need to talk them through it. And hey, you’re pretty familiar with it as well; you won’t have to spend near as much time hitting the books to get the basics either.

Speaking of explanation, you never really have to explain why you’re using the real world, unless you’re playing with a load of non-real-world elements.

On the other hand, since you’re not making up the details, and they are well-known, it’s a lot easier to get something wrong. (This, I admit, is why I’m a little leery around real-world settings.) Just because we live here doesn’t mean we know everything, nor even that our impressions of the world gibe with those of our audience—and that’s before we even get into politics.

Similarly, there’s a chance of people getting a bit pickier about suspension of disbelief once the real world is involved. We may not know how various species of fantasy creature work, but people? And physics? Those we know from.

It’s also somewhat limiting; while adding magic or messing with the timeline will give you a few more options, there are only so many cultures and concepts that fit with a not!Earth.

Real-world settings are, when it all comes down to it, a matter of preference. Do you embrace them or avoid them?


  1. Shinali says:

    I sort of do a mix of real world and not. By real world I mean I usually have humans or near equivalent, you could probably guess my setting to at least a region (except when off-Earth), and when set on Earth I follow most Earth rules. However, magic is usually involved (even in my scifi, but that’s implied), and there may be sentient nonhumans (or more likely nonhumans ascribed sentience/thought/abilities/will beyond what they have by the characters. Of course, for the most part this may not even be Earth, leaving me both room to play and set things to draw from (like my story in a particular desert very like a real one, meant to buck the “all deserts…” trend. This reads to others familiar with it as that desert + new timeline + magic. To others it’s just any very wet desert)

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting question. I tend to favour the real world in writing and reading, but avoid it in gaming. I am, as you described it, “the kind of person whose best work is done taking things that are already there” etc. — it’s why I’m so drawn to fan fiction; I get a lot of ideas and inspiration from reading and watching other works. But even when it comes to writing original works, world-building is definitely my weakest area and one that I’m least comfortable with relying on. Even for my Nano novel, I reused the Adventures of Athribar world, and *that* developed piecemeal from a short story that was originally nonsensical. I like the familiarity of a real-world setting, and the contrast of modern urban life and fantastical elements (not all my writing is fantasy, but I’ve definitely started to lean that way).

    In gaming, however, I like the freedom that comes from a wholly imaginary setting; and I get around my dislike of world-building by doing it a little at a time, when new details are needed or new areas are explored. Yes, in the Drahn game I rush-jobbed the initial creation of the world in three days, something I’m still rather proud of — but there was still a lot I had to fill in later, and a lot that I never found out that I would need to know if I wanted to reuse the setting, never mind if anyone else got curious and started asking questions about it.

    As for reading, my preference isn’t very strong, and I mainly require that the setting, whatever it is, is sufficiently well realised to hold my interest, so that I don’t feel the characters are just acting out their roles on an Elizabethan stage devoid of scenery. I loved, for example, the very first chapter of “Cryoburn”, where the unfamiliarity of the setting added to the emotional tension of the main character being lost and trying to survive. But when it’s just characters inhabiting a setting that’s familiar to them but new to the reader, I do sometimes get a bit tired of having to figure out how everything works, and adjusting my perceptions of the story and the characters accordingly.

  3. Black Vulmea says:

    I have a few thoughts (!) on the subject.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Shinali, Michael: good points, and I’m sorry I don’t have the brainspace to respond to them more thoroughly.

    Vulmea: If your blog had a Name/URL option I’d be responding over there, but let me just say that you make an amazing range of points.

    I consider the real world issue more a potential difficulty than a guaranteed one; this comes partly from a massive mental block when it comes to writing or playing anything in the real world, let alone running it (my best guess is a combination of perfectionism in general, several bad experiences in a row with games set in not!Earth settings, and an inability to hide behind the “Look, when I started this game I didn’t have that book, and THAT book didn’t even exist, now deal with it!” that I ended up having to use when dealing with a nitpicky player who joined my game about three years in–that dynamic didn’t last), and partly from a recognition that it’s better to get all the potential issues out there in the beginning and let everyone else decide individually whether it matters to them or not. I tend to want to know everything about my worlds, to make them as authentic as possible, and most of the preprinted settings I’ve worked in have left me enough wiggle room that I could fake the living daylights out of it, sometimes even as a player. There’s something nice about being able to pull cultural or subcultural details out of nowhere while you reorient, rather than ending up in a situation where the entire table is looking at you funny because you somehow managed to make it all the way to college without realizing that not everyone’s first association with the word glock is that small metal thing people keep getting confused with a xylophone.

  5. Wastrel says:

    Sorry to interrupt (I will say: I wouldn’t distinguish so absolutely between real world and non-real world settings; also, it can be worth in a near-real setting including some egregious irreality, to signal that it is not completely real – that way, any further irrealities can be more easily accepted as features, rather than as errors), but just had to say, on the off-chance you see this post:

    Hey, Nuntar. You should come back to the ZBB, at least to visit. One or two people would still remember you.

    [And is that Dazi there, by any chance? If so, you should come back too, unless you already have and I didn't notice]

  6. Ravyn says:

    Hey, Wastrel! Welcome!

    Do I know you? They’re not the only ex-ZBBers around here; I was on the board for a while as well, between late 2004 and mid-2006 and under a different name. Not sure I had quite the recognition of either of those two, though.

    That being said, I mainly distinguish between types of settings in terms of how much I can expect my audience to expect of me–real-world being “This is definitely our world with modifications”, as opposed to something like the new metaphysics and altered history of Girl Genius, or the most-definitely-not-Earth but heavily borrowing a lot of its anthropology anyway elements of Digger. If it shares the place names, and it shares the cultural expectations (modulo metaphysical alterations), it counts. (Or you could say–if it has enough expectations that it triggers my mental block on the subject, it’s a mod real-world setting.)

  7. Wastrel says:

    You may, unfortunately, know of me. I’m Salmoneus, and I frequently don’t make a good impression.

    Oh, wait, don’t tell me, are you Amaya? If so, hi! (I’m hoping you are, because that might count as the first time I’ve succesfully used deductive skills and the internet in combination with each other). If so, I think you were once interested in an RPG I was going to run, but it never happened. [Alas, so many of my anecdotes end with 'but it never happened...']

    Anyway, I wasn’t trying to creepily stalk anyone, but there was another of those little nostalgia-moments on the ZBB recently, and some people asking what happened to ahribar (both newbies and veryoldbieswhoweren’tpayingattentionatthetime), so I had a look for him. You know, Michael, you’re a hard man to find!

    Well, you’re probably not, but I have the investigatory powers of a myopic lemming.

    Well. Even if none of you decide to pop back for a look around, it’s good to see you all again.


    On topic, I’d mention two things. Firstly, the general ‘magic realism’ field, in terms of the problems of a real-world setting. That is: you can sometimes get around the problems of making errors, and of suspension of disbelief, if you adopt the write type of writing tone. If you making the TONE (or ’style’) of the work sufficiently detached from reality, you can have the CONTENT be very close to the real world while still having your audience keep hold of their suspension of disbelief.

    The other thing is: have you read “Ash”, by Mary Gentle? I ask because it’s a very good example of the grey line between real and unreal. It starts out seeming to be a plain history story, or an alt-history very close to real history (set in the late middle ages), but as you go through the story more and more hints and allusions are dropped, so you go from expecting real history to expecting slightly modified alt history, to expecting majorly modified alt history, to maybe thinking it’s actually fantasy that just looks like alt history, and maybe even deciding it should probably be called ’science fiction’. It’s the sort of thing it’s very hard to pull off, but it reminds prospective authors (and even more so roleplayers, I should have thought) that setting itself need not be static, but can be a part of the plot – the setting can be set but then change, or the setting can be sufficiently undefined (as all settings are to begin with) that fairly drastic changes can occur in our IMPRESSION of the setting without any obvious contradictions having been presented.

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