The Significance of Setting


Dungeon Master/Narrator (I’m paraphrasing):  You peak through the door and see that there is a cage with a wild boar in it in the center of the room.   Animal dung and straw cover the floor.

Druid: Can I just throw a torch in and slam the door shut?

Dungeon Master (DM): Sure.

Druid: Okay.  That’s what I do.  Druid walks up, throws a torch in and closes the door.

DM: The hay and the dung are now burning.

Paladin: Does dung really burn that easily?

That conversation REALLY cracked me up.  There were a lot of similarly funny things that people said during my first Dungeons & Dragons adventure:

Druid: My pet dinosaur bashes in the door.

DM: The door was unlocked.

Also…

Druid: My spider is the same size as you.

It was spectacular.

One of the really interesting things about D & D is that it’s story-based.  The DM (Dungeon Master) actually narrates the scene & describes what’s happening & what your character sees & experiences.  As a writer, that intrigues me, & it reminds me of the importance of setting in any story.

If you reread the opening dialogue, you see that even in a narrative-based tabletop game, everything starts with setting.  Had we not taken the time to sneak up to that door & check out the setting, our druid would never have known that there was a wonderfully efficient way of handling the situation that didn’t involve any risk to our characters.  In order to be effective in the setting, we had to take the time to understand it.

Now, I’m going to be honest.  I’m REALLY bad at writing settings.  I’m a ridiculously plot-oriented writer, & writing about setting for very long makes me feel exhausted.  The thing is, though, that setting functions in a million different ways in a story.  It informs us about character because one of the most basic rules of writing is to put your character into an unfamiliar setting, if not one that is completely hostile towards him.  That’s why you end up with all of those YA books about teenagers who’ve just moved to new towns.  You learn more about the character by the way he/she responds to setting than you do by just telling the audience what the character is like.  With D & D, you put adventurers into a foreign setting (most of the players haven’t really been inside a lot of dungeons inhabited by bugbears) and you pit the character’s skills & weaknesses against that setting.

Now we’re going to do something weird… we’re going to analyze my D & D experience the way we would a story.  I will be the protagonist.  I will spend a little time giving you a description of me.  Then, we’ll cover setting & peripheral characters, & we’ll emerge somewhere & bring everything together.

Protagonist: Katie is a 25-yr-old teacher/writer who has recently rekindled a love for all things geeky.  She has been a Christian since she was 17, hosts Bible studies at her house, & attends a small, coffee-shop church consisting of mostly people her age.  She is not the most attractive girl in the world, but has lost 20 lbs and is pretty jazzed about how she looks right now.  She’s been spending her summer vacation writing a manuscript she hopes to publish, catching up on reading, & exercising.  She is really excited about getting to play D & D for the first time.

Setting: The home of a middle-aged professed atheist/skeptic, prior Muslim who lived 25 years of his life in Pakistan.  His apartment is the location where a group who are all professed atheists meet for their own “bible study” in which they read works written by Friedrich Nietzsche.  The living room sports several shelves of DVDs, a white board with notes on it about logical fallacies of various philosophies & paradigms, and some shelves featuring books about religions.  Propped up against one of the walls is a gorgeous picture of nighttime New York, with the twin towers all lit up.  It isn’t the cleanest apartment ever, but it’s nice.  There are some wonderful smells wafting out of the kitchen… smells of tomato sauce & pasta.

Nice set-up, huh?  We haven’t even put together a timeline of events, but we already know our protagonist’s dilemma: is she going to be able to cope with this setting that so completely disagrees with the most basic pieces of her identity, & how?

Timeline:

7:00 D & D is supposed to be starting

7:30 Katie & friend arrive

7:40 the DM helps Katie create her character – White Mocha – a Human Monk who fights unarmed

8:00 Character is finished, but the guys decided that they need to finish up one more paragraph out of Nietzsche.  Katie studies the player’s handbook in the hopes of avoiding saying something stupid

9:30 Everyone who is going to play shows up and things start.  Druid drops the first of many F bombs, then apologizes, then proceeds to drop FBomb #2, & #3, & #4, etc…

10:00 Katie has moved successfully twice & killed off bad guys both times.  She’s a natural 🙂

10:15 They bring out a shirt that says something about Jesus.  Katie identifies the shirt’s negative theme and looks away.

10:30 The first mention of evolution occurs “We are primates.”

10:45 Druid tells the story of the first time he was physically attacked on campus… purely because of his sexual orientation.  Katie is appalled at what happened to him, but glad that he came out victorious – Hurray for warrior scholars!

11:00 Katie’s friend is encouraged never to go into Fascinations alone, but still to go & to enjoy it.

11:15  EVERYone there except 2 of the guys who know that Katie is a Christian began making fun of Christianity & Jesus Christ.  The two who know chivalrously step in to make it stop, but are shot down.  They eventually succeed in joking it off & changing the subject.

12:00 or so The game ends & everyone eats

1:00 or so Katie & friend leave

Friend: What did you think?

Katie: There were things that I really liked about it.  I think I’ll go to the game store & talk to the lady there about finding a group I can play with more regularly.  It’ll be really hard to find the right group, though.  I guess I can just tell her that I’m a Christian & I can deal with a little profanity, but that I need a group that’s going to be…

Friend: What do you mean?  Why can’t you just join any group?  Not all gamers are like those guys.

Katie: Most of them are, & I can’t be in a weekly game like that.

Friend: But maybe you can help them get better.

Katie: That’s really unfair, though.  I can’t go into a game thinking that I have to change everyone.  They wouldn’t like it, & that’s not genuinely caring about them as people.

Friend: But you make it seem like you’re too good to play with atheists.

Katie: That’s really not what’s going on.

So, what are Katie’s options?

Option 1: Continue playing D & D with people who insult her and her God.  Katie rejects this option & thinks about it in terms of the tv show The West Wing: Leo, the Chief of Staff says about the President… “I take a bullet for him.  He doesn’t take one for me.”  Katie takes a bullet for God.  He doesn’t take one for her.  Update: I think I need to explain why this option doesn’t work.  I’ve taken a lot of heat for my beliefs about this, because people view them as judgmental.  However, let’s say that we have a homosexual friend.  He really likes playing the game fishbowl and wants to play regularly, but the only groups that play regularly are hostile towards homosexuals.  It would be uncaring for us to urge him to go to these games because it would hurt him too much to always be insulted.  The thing is, though, that it’s politically correct to insult Christians, so I think people sometimes forget that it hurts me in similar ways when they insult Christians and God.

Option 2: Try to find a group that will not be so vulgar, critical, & self-righteous.  Update: I probably should have chosen words with gentler connotations here, but I can’t think of any that work.  I think critical is a perfectly acceptable word.  Vulgarity is really subjective, so what I find vulgar is acceptable to others… so let’s say that I could try to find a group that perceives vulgarity as I do.  Also, self-righteousness is not limited to Christians.  We link it to Christians all the time, but others are capable of it as well.  That being said, that part of option two is about finding a group that doesn’t look down on Christians as somehow intellectually inferior… and let’s be honest, a huge chunk of the world nowadays equates intellectuality with morality.

Option 3: Never play D & D… Katie is okay with this option, but she did spend $6.00 on her beautiful purple dice set.

What do you think Katie should do?

If this were a piece of fiction, we would want to continue building conflict at this point, so we’d want her to stay in her setting.  We’d have her choose option 1.  If we go that way with the story, it plays out in 1 of 2 ways.  Either Katie changes the setting to work for her (think Mr. Keating in Dead Poets’ Society) or the setting changes her (think Dances With Wolves).  Both of those make good plots for stories because they build to a climax & make a nice story arc.  In real life, though, what Katie wants is to avoid conflict unless necessary.

If Katie is really motivated, option 2 provides the most comprehensive solution.  However, it requires a significant chunk of work from her that may not be worth it.

Option 3 is the one that involves the least work, the least conflict, but does make Katie slightly sad for having wasted her $6 buying a dice set.

This question gets at the very heart of discipleship.  How does a person remain in the world, but not of the world?  When is it best to fight for purity?  When is it crucial to be a light to the world?  That’s really what this conflict with setting is.  It isn’t about disliking a certain kind of people.  If I didn’t like geeks, I wouldn’t even want to continue going to conventions, & I’d start ordering my graphic novels through Amazon rather than going to the local shops.  The unfortunate truth is, though, that the rules are different in a geeky setting.  The geek culture is one in which it’s not only okay to make fun of (scoff) Jesus and his followers… it’s the norm.  Perhaps there are a bunch of closet Christians who sit quietly amongst scoffers, but that doesn’t change the fact that geeky settings insult my Savior & insult me.  Every time I read Wil Wheaton’s blog or John Scalzi’s, I wade through self-righteous posts that condemn Christians… condemn ME.  Yet, I do it.  I substitute all of the F Bombs with my own replacement curse words like BLUDGER or HORSERADISH, but is it even possible to keep from being polluted by such things?  There are some amazing stories on each of those sites.  There are stories & posts that make me a better writer & ones that introduce me to amazing resources.  But is it worth it?  What does God want me to do?

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One thought on “The Significance of Setting

  1. I have no idea what to do about D&D. I already mentioned that I grew up in church that thought that D&D was evil. It’s funny because I haven’t even THOUGHT about D&D since I was a kid. So, as an adult my kneejerk reaction to to say that it’s wrong. But, I can’t do that not knowing anything about it. That makes me think that people really need to think through their opinions.

    Anyway, I can’t vote on your poll because I can’t choose between number 2 and number 3. If it is as bad as the church people told me when I was 8, I would say stop playing. But, many things that people in the church demonize is more of a gray area. Example: Harry Potter.

    Excellent thoughts on being in the world but not being of the world. Your posts are very thought provoking and challenging to me as a Christian.

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