In the first few pages of Old School Hack (a game I adore), there’s a word on where the game is set. Kirin Robinson says the game is set on the edge of civilization, whether that’s geographical or historical. I thought that was great advice, and built my own setting around it. Over time, I’ve thought about it more and realized that this “edge of civilization” idea could be expanded to cover more settings and types thereof. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
You could be on the frontier of a growing nation expanding into the wild unknown (like the Wild West or Fantasy Flight’s Rogue Trader), the front lines of a war zone (Only War comes to mind). The interesting things about these kinds of games come from the meeting (and usually the clash) between two distinct entities or regions.
Temporal edges are defined by something big and important that happened, but at a time outside when the game is actually played. A good example are the multitude of D&D settings featuring fallen civilizations whose ruins you can visit (usually as dungeons). The Cthulhu Mythos is similar: in the vast expanses of time there are many things that may creep upon the sane world of man. The players’ relationship to this kind of setting is defined by its past, with gameplay usually occurring where the past meets the present.
Social edges can go high or low. In Shadowrun, player characters are professional criminals existing on the edges of society, the proverbial high-tech lowlifes. In Dark Heresy, PCs are acolytes of the Inquisition, agents of the Emperor that operate above the law. In both cases, the PCs exist in tangent to the society-at-large of the setting, interacting with it without being part of it.
Of course, you can mix and match these edges to your heart’s content. In a space-oriented game there are tons of opportunities. The universe is huge and ancient beyond human understanding. In fantasy settings you can localize that, like a region where once there was a mighty empire where now there are petty kingdoms squabbling over the magical relics left behind. Keeping the edges in mind can help make for very gameable worlds.