On Setting Secrets

Today’s topic is the presence of official secrets in game settings, and when having them can be, if not a bad thing, something really obnoxious. This isn’t the regular small mysteries that provide room for games, mind, but when a developer has a secret or a mystery which comprises a significant chunk of the setting.

The two primary examples I’ll be using for this both use the Pathfinder system; the example of a mystery done well, in my opinion, is the Aethera setting, with the mystery of why there’s no connection to the Astral and Outer Planes being a dominant one for anyone paying attention. The one that I feel has been done somewhat poorly is Golarion, and the mystery of Aroden’s death. We’ll tackle the bad one first.

On the face of it, the world of Golarion is perfectly fine; it has one great big mystery at the heart of it, which set in motion almost everything currently plaguing the world, or at least the Inner Sea region. Aroden, former major god-guy god, ascended last scion of the entire Azlanti people, and major rockstar of the pantheon went and died on the eve of his supposed rebirth. This broke prophecy, caused a massive eternal hurricane to form, and permitted the rift to the Abyss that became the Worldwound to form. He’s dead, but no one knows how, why, or what happened to his power and corpse. So far, so good, right?

So we have a setting that has a grand mystery, and there are two possibilities: it has an official answer, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, cool! Individual GMs can resolve the mystery in their own campaigns, confident that nothing will ever contradict them and lead pedantic lore-hound rules lawyers to give them grief. This would be fantastic. Likewise, having an official answer eventually published would be great – it gives closure that GMs can build things around, like a journey to some far-flung plane to retrieve his divine essence and empower Iomedae to fully claim her mentor’s mantle. This would be just as good!

Instead, to the best of my knowledge, it’s been said that there is an Official Answer – but only two people know it: the lead developer and the company’s CEO, the latter because she wanted to know if there was an actual official answer. While this has certainly driven some fans mad with speculation, it’s grown to leave a sour taste in my mouth, because an official answer that’s intended to never be revealed isn’t an answer. It is, at best, a taunt. There’s an eternal chance that it might be revealed, and make a nuisance of things for GMs, while never actually providing definitive information for anyone.

It’s easy to deal with, of course – assume that the answer will never be revealed and devise your own, because an answer that’s never revealed is functionally identical to no answer actually existing.

On the flip side, we have Aethera, with the mystery of the Astral; in the book, nothing is set in concrete – and, to the best of my knowledge, while the developers almost certainly have something in mind, they’ve done none of the “There’s an answer but we’re not telling!” that happened with Golarion at a few points. I’ve even speculated about it on here, in the past.

Aethera’s mystery is one that has no hint of a Definitive Answer in the setting book, although they lay down plenty of hints that could be woven into a variety of possible answers. While they haven’t outright said that there won’t be a definitive answer, if it comes I’m expecting it within 1-2 sourcebooks, and really I fully expect the people who’ve taken this much time and effort to build a detailed, comprehensive setting to not include an official answer, ever, if it isn’t in the core book.

Either way, I don’t expect Aethera to have someone who proclaims that they have The Answer and then refuse to share it, unlike Golarion.

It should be noted that I remain wary of Starfinder’s official setting for the same reason that I’m irritated about Golarion’s Official Mystery – the existence of the Gap, with the history Paizo has with Golarion, suggests that the Gap is going to be something that has an Official Reason that we’ll never hear that will supposedly inform official products as long as they pass through the domain of whoever knows The Answer.

I’d like to be pleasantly surprised by them either saying that they’ll let GMs decide for themselves what happened during the Gap (and to Golarion) or to have it included in the GM material for the game early on, but I’m not holding my breath.

So, if you’re developing a game setting? Try to either provide an Answer up front, or tell everyone that there is no official answer, up front. Doing otherwise is just going to sour the flavor of the setting a bit.

At least for me! I recognize it may not bother others, and that’s fine. It’s WrongBadFun for me, and might not be for you. And that’s perfectly cool.

Until next time, dice nerds!

On Setting Secrets

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