I always felt there are two sides to a roleplaying game. We have the mechanics; the rules governing how good your character is at something and the setting; the world your character runs around in. While I find mechanics to be varied and vast in what they do, settings are a different matter.
Having looked through many games I noticed settings can be boxed into three general types: Published, Licensed and Assumed
Published settings are probably the most well known. These are the settings that a given publisher creates. The only way to familiarise yourself with this type is to either read the book, have someone tell you about it or read reviews/articles about the setting. Published settings are often based on genres or a theme. It is fairly easy to compare them to a well known form of media or a particular property but they remain their own thing.
The Published Setting's main advantage is that, provided we'll assume we're only talking about the core book, everyone starts on the same field in terms of knowledge. If you read the book, you will have about the same amount of setting information as anyone sitting right next to you at the gaming table. In addition, as they are supported by the publisher, a community around the setting grows. Players who love it will often seek gaming groups that would play with them. Problems only arise when someone turns up to the game without knowing anything about it. Telling a potential player he needs to go through 200 pages of setting information before playing has a very high chance of scaring him away.
Licensed settings are based on a property. These games start out as something else, whether a book or a television series and are then given rules for people to play in those worlds.
These games don't necessarily require people to read books before playing. It's fairly easy for a Game Master to tell the players what film they should watch before making characters. In about an hour the players will get the feel for the settings without it feeling like doing homework. Unfortunately, these settings are based on series with an existing plot and characters thus they need to somehow deal with them. Either by ignoring them, which can result in losing part of its appeal, or allowing the players to take the role of the main cast, which may lead into the fear of those characters being portrayed incorrectly by others.
Assumed settings build up on knowledge that you already have. It's fairly easy to compare them to something everyone already has some kind of idea about and provide a short list of differences. Many modern games fall into this category. A player assumes everything is just like in the real world but there are monsters around, for example.
These settings are fairly easy to get into if you already know the base idea behind the game. In many cases, you can have the whole game focus on precisely how the setting is different from that base assumption that everyone is familiar with. If you do go that route, you would have to make sure the players won't read how the setting is different from their preconceived notions. The only disadvantage to this kind of setting I can think of is if someone has absolutely no clue what the base idea behind it is like, which I find doubtful.
Assumed settings are my favourite. They don't require people to spend time learning what the setting is like and allow me to jump in straight into the fun of playing. It is not impossible to present Published and Licensed settings as Assumed but it comes with its own problems.
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