Richard Cobbett on Unique RPG Settings

Richard Cobbett laments the lack of originality in RPG settings in his latest RPG Scrollbars column on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In an 'exception proves the rule' sort of way, he lists a number of games that do have unique and memorable settings. Here are a couple of them:

Fallen London

A game close to my heart, and not just because I’ve had the privilege of having the keys to its kingdoms now and again (translation: I’ve written for it, and its nautical spin-off Sunless Sea). While it gets a lot of praise for its sense of mystery and the deep lore, and that’s all obviously great, the raw setting would be one of my favourites even without that. It’s one of the best cases I’ve ever seen of taking the familiar and twisting it approximately 32 degrees. In particular, the gap between the big incident of London being stolen by bats and the period in which the game takes place allows for a wonderful melting pot of old and new, but presented as completely normal. My favourite bits are actually the relatively early stuff, where your character isn’t involved in the machinations of the Masters or launching epic zee-journies, but simply tipping their hat to eldritch horrors while trying to write love poetry, or concerning themselves with whatever delightful fancy lay happens to be taking place between the paragraphs. No other universe is so comfortable playing in that margin where the mundane meets the magical. How I’d love to see a big budget TV version of it someday.


There are of course three kinds of people in this world. The ones who praise Darklands for being a scrupulously historical RPG with no fantasy elements, the ones who go “Wait, it has witches and thing…”, and those who’ve never heard of it at all. Either way, the idea of a historical RPG with a few tweaks still has much potential. (A good start being to find a copy of Lionheart and then not do anything that it does.) We’ve occasionally seen dips into this territory, often tied to Robin Hood or King Arthur, but nothing that really fuses the potential of RPGs with a sense of historical veracity. That said, to a generation brought up on Assassin’s Creed, I suppose much of the tutorial would have to be taken up by explaining why everyone isn’t currently doing parkour.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura

Steampunk. Love it or hate it, it’s underused and rarely done properly when it is. That is all. The fusion of magic and technology is also always a fun experience.

Vampire: Bloodlines

Okay. I would love a Vampire: Bloodlines 2. I make no bones about it. However, this one is here primarily so that I can ask – where the hell is all the urban fantasy? It’s the perfect genre for RPGs, and you don’t need to put it in the cyberpunk future just because it’s easier to justify people wearing stripper clothes and wielding Uzis. It’s ridiculous that we haven’t seen more adventures on dark nights where monsters tread and occasionally stop for a chat. Yes, as with other examples here, there are non-RPGs that offer the vibe and the aesthetic. However, there’s a big difference between shooting the hell out of secret societies that control the Earth in secret and actually being part of them and living that life. It’s such a strange open goal, with even the likes of The Secret World largely side-stepping it in order to focus on locations with open mysteries and no sense of masquerade.