Behind The Screens – Setting Fusion

Listener Andrew M mentioned in Know Direction’s Discord chat recently that he’s never gotten a good handle on the pro-setting neutral stance. I went into one of the reasons I take issue with fusing the setting into the core rules in Know Direction 174, but that’s only one of my three objections. In case anyone else would like some insight into why someone would have such an issue, here is my full list of reasons:

Serving Only One Audience

This was the point I brought up in the thoughts on Pathfinder Second Edition episode; there are those who prefer setting-based material and those who prefer setting-neutral material. With multiple in-setting lines full of setting-specific rules, Pathfinder First Edition services both. The proposed fusion setting and rules in of Second Edition services one. In video games terms, this would be like if the Unreal Engine could only run Unreal. If the Campaign Setting line will continue (and I don’t believe it’s even been implied that it wouldn’t), why not keep one line that is compatible with it but could also be used to make Arkham City?

There is the argument that the rulebooks already have hints of the setting, which I believe is based on the gods and a bit of cosmology. If there are other examples, they are either in my blindspot or generic fantasy enough that I don’t think of them as Golarion content.

Obviously I agree that the gods are in there, but I don’t believe that they have to be. I’m not sure if Golarion’s gods made it into the Core Rulebook because there were named gods in the D&D 3.X Player’s Handbooks. My D&D 3.5 games took place in a homebrew setting that used the PH gods as essentially religion portfolios with names. Had the same rules been offered with no proper names, that’s how we would have played them.

As for the cosmology, I mentioned when we first discussed the upcoming Planar Adventures that I have minimal interest in the planes. This may have a greater impact on another player who loves a good cosmology, and someone with better knowledge of these rules could make a better argument than me as to whether these serial numbers could be filed off.

My mantra as a GM, and the theme of my advice to GMs, is “different people play for different reasons”. Even if everyone’s end goal is to have fun, fun is subjective. The best options serve as many players as possible, and I believe forcing the campaign setting on people who prefer setting neutral rules goes against that.

History Lesson

Setting is to rules as history is to math. There’s a lot of math in the Pathfinder rules and I enjoy that aspect of it. I didn’t do well in math class in high school but I’ve come to enjoy the bursts of mental math Pathfinder requires. However, I know some players who see the math requirements of the game as an impediment to fun. They’d rather roll their dice towards someone else who can do the math for them. It’s a part of the brain that fires differently for different people and for people it either doesn’t fire or they don’t enjoy how it fires.

That’s me with history. I enjoy history in broad strokes, but once it comes to memorization and minutia, I retain nothing and frankly do not enjoy feeling stupid as a result. I have read both the Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting and the Pathfinder Inner Sea Guide hardcovers and I can’t say I understood anything about Golarion until I started playing PFS and reading Pathfinder Tales.

I’ve come to enjoy Golarion, but when I started dabbling in Pathfinder and didn’t know Pathfinder Chronicles were campaign setting specific, I was perplexed by the “In Golarion” sections of the books I was picking up. If Golarion content was included in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, it may have been enough to convince me to stick to D&D 3.5.

Cans and Cannots

Implied or generic lore is a fresh page in a colouring book. It’s the start of something evocative that leaves room for you to add what’s been evoked. It’s a collaboration between what’s on the page and what’s in your imagination. Maybe the person who drew the line art had an idea what colours would work best, maybe they only created it up to a point knowing that there was no one way it must be coloured.

Setting lore is paint by number. You can only make it your so much of your own. If that cape is a 3 and 3 is red, you either make it red or you make the decision to ignore the number that someone went out of their way to include.

To give a specific example, I outlined a half-orc cavalier for the War for the Crown adventure path (more on why will be revealed soon). I chose the ghost rider cavalier archetype and I thought of saying that the half-orc’s father was from the Flaming Skulls tribe as a node to Marvel’s Ghost Rider. However, even though the name of the tribe has little impact on how I will play my character, I decided it would be better to use an existing Taldan orc tribe for my backstory. There’s only one mention of Taldor in Orcs of Golarion and no mention of Orcs in Taldor: the First Empire. Now I am questioning if I am even allowed to make the character I would want to play, or if it’s inadvertently going to negatively impact the verisimilitude of someone at the table who knows why there cannot be half-orc cavaliers in Taldor.

“You can ignore what you want,” is a common retort that baffles me. I can understand ignoring options I don’t like in a rulebook but setting details are intertwined. Adding orcs to Taldor is not as simple as removing Leadership from a list of available feats. Maybe there’s a reason orcs aren’t in Taldor, and maybe that reasons is part of what makes Taldor amazing to someone. Making those changes impacts perceptions of the setting and everyone’s ability to use the setting as a shorthand for the world they share. That shared experience is the main purpose of playing in a published setting.


In the end, I am fine with setting-based options. I want them to continue to exist both for the odd time I use them but mainly because there are players who consider them important. I just dislike that making them the default mean what’s important to me can’t exist, even though there is an option that would work for everyone.

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game has turned into an empire of gamers talking about their games. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as a co-host of the flagship podcast, Know Direction.

Burst of Insight

1 Comment

  1. Joe

    Good points. I agree, and hope that the rules and setting are not fused in PF2E.