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Although I play many video games, I seldom blog about them here; there’s less overlap between the RPG and the video game crowd than there used to be. Still, a really well-produced video game RPG can really get you thinking about things like how to make a linear story seem less linear, how to reward players for making interesting decisions, or how to build seemingly deep characters with just a few details.

Today, though, I’d like to give a shout out to a game I wouldn’t have thought would be terribly useful from a GM standpoint: THQ’s Space Marine. I haven’t played much of it, but what I have played has left me impressed. The game isn’t an RPG; it’s primarily a festival hack-and-slash, albeit a delightful one with WAAAGHing Orks and exploding machinery. Yet the game’s visual detail has inspired me to rethink how setting can even become a major NPC of sorts, delivering a wealth of information with which your PCs can interact.

For a war-torn world, this game’s setting is astoundingly beautiful. Pulled from Games Workshop’s terrain miniatures, the empty buildings’ war-torn interiors suggest how their former inhabitants used to live, and paint a surprisingly nuanced version of 40K’s ‘grim’ setting. Details like the tiny metal bunk rooms stuck on either side of a long hallway, with only a single large turbine fan per room as a sad sort of ‘window’ to the outside world, drive home the Spartan living conditions and the emotional sacrifices of the average Guardsman stationed on planet Graia. Although many of these rooms are devoid of decoration or personal effects, their absence makes the few items that you do find all the more evocative.

I was struck at one point by the detailing on the huge shells for a giant bombardment gun; decorated by an intricate version 40K’s usual brass skull motif on all sides, the shells seemed a bit…overdone…for something you would send hurtling into the sky to explode. Yet details like this invite us to think about what a sacred position war holds to this society; of course they would decorate their shells, for honoring the war machines is itself an act of profound religious devotion. There’s something both sad and noble about it at the same time.

And finally, automated messages eerily blare over the vox casters long after all the workers in the Manufactorum have died or run away, reminding former inhabitants to “increase their productivity” as a mark of love for the Machine God, or, in a later scene, to “sign up for corpse removal duty.” Without lengthy cutscenes, Space Marine manages vividly to evoke what these citizens’ lives were like both before and after the Ork invasion that ravaged their planet.

While I have no complaints about the storyline or the NPC development–the cutscenes are beautiful and the storyline has me curious about what’s to come–I am by far most impressed by the tiny visual details in the scenery. For GMs, there’s a lot to learn here about how to use tiny details to help your players learn more about the culture than you could realistically include in interactive plot events. You probably learned about the importance of setting in seventh grade English class, but we absorb the effects of setting on such a subconscious level that we can forget to pay attention to its nuances in our own games. Most good GMs know the importance of major details of setting, so they add flavor NPCs or items that invite PC interaction, but It can be hard to give tiny evocative details without bogging down your players. Prewritten scenarios tend to complicate the situation; either they contain so much detail that you have to cull the excess, or they contain so little that you need to create it on your own.

Stuff in its largest sense can be your ally here. You’re forced to think about why these buildings are placed as they are if you must choose which models to make/use and must manipulate them physically on a play mat. You’re forced to think about what else might be found, say, on a farm; you’ve got the house and the barn, but where are the animals? In what kind of condition are they since their owners disappeared several days ago? How might your players interact with them?

Yet even without stuff, a short list of setting details that might come up in several situations can help you make your point about a particular place and time. Are the PCs traveling to a new town? Make a list before you start to play of small details that will evoke the town’s level of wealth and distinctive customs: gold-edged street signs, strange tiny wooden dolls outside most front doors from “a recent festival,” swept market streets even at the height of trading, or small but hearty gardens next to most houses. Are the PCs visiting a forest? If so, stop to consider how much traffic the forest gets, then make a list of details that suggest the marks tradespeople have left on the environment–or details that startle the players into realizing how utterly alone they are. Such details help players think up their own ways to interact with the world around them and encourage them to treat each new area of the game differently instead of as “just another town.” In fact, the players might surprise you by wanting to take the game in an entirely new direction–and ultimately, if we are trying to evoke the feel of infinite possibilities in a wide world, there’s no better mark of our success.