In cosmology there is a concept referred to as the Copernican Principle. There are many implications and details, but simply put, it says that humans don’t have a special position within the universe. The astrophysicist Richard Gott has generalized the principle to something closer to “unless there are other factors, assume that an observer’s position is not special.”
So what does this have to do with roleplaying? In most games, an (usually) unstated conceit is that the players are special. In fact, the entire game revolves around them! To be sure, the players should be the focus of the game; telling stories about a bunch of NPCs isn’t likely to be that much fun. But what if we took the idea that the PCs themselves aren’t intrinsically special? What types of settings could we come up with? Here are a few ideas:
No More Heroes – The idea of a campaign where the PCs are all “commoners” isn’t particularly new. But this is often done as a prelude to the PCs turning into a traditional archetype for the setting (e.g. the farmer turned warrior). But what happens when the setting doesn’t have powered warriors or wizards? Can they still be heroes? I love this style of setting as it forces the players to explor what makes an individual a hero.
Everyone is Special – What happens when everyone in a setting has unique abilities?
Perhaps everyone is a psychic of some sort. How do the PCs distinguish themselves is this s
ort of setting? Do they even need to? Robin Law’s excellent Mutant City Blues RPG has some shades of this idea and is a great starting point for insights into this type of setting.
Everyone is Trained – In many societies, military training is compulsory. How does a setting where everyone has some training change the dynamic for the PCs? This is like “everyone is special,” but rewards PCs for developing extra expertise while still creating an environment others aren’t awed by their prowess. The second season of the excellent HBO series Rome is a great example, with ex-centurions living in a city full of ex-centurions.