The world in ARC
Having finished up an initial reading of ARC, I'm faced with a question: What is its setting?
In many ways, it's a cipher. The game has no geography, no economic system, no lore. It is built around a framework for facing down a particular kind of threat, but the examples it provides merely gesture at the sorts of world they might threaten. A few particulars may be gleaned from the procedures. Magic of a particular kind is a feature of the world, which puts us in the realm of fantasy. But what shade of fantasy? High, low, dark, weird, urban, medieval? The appendix on non-player creatures includes fairies and knights, but also automatons and a smattering of Philippine and Indonesian folk legends. (Designer and illustrator momatoes is a prominant figure in Southeast Asia's thriving indie RPG scene.) Couple all of that with the book's vibrant, evocative art, and the sense I get is that a syncretic setting works best — something like the varicolored mélange of early Final Fantasy games, compressing a range of cultural reference points into some beautiful and volatile compound.
Volatile because this is, after all, a game about apocalypse. That conceit may be key to understanding the function of so much ambiguity. Spelling out a setting would give the world (and its status quo) a solidity that it is the impulse of the game to destroy. And having destroyed it, what then? Do the players start over, playing subsequent adventures as though nothing had been irrevocably altered? That would sap all gravity out of the notion of doom. Or do they start building their own world out of the wreckage? But if that's the natural next step, then why not just start there? For wreckage, you can draw on the tropes of every fantasy story you've ever known.
What's going on here, I suspect, is that the game is prompting us to explore a fantasy by imagining it in the act of tearing itself apart. Maybe the most definite thing you can say about the world of ARC is that we come to it in the midst of two simultaneous processes. At the same time that it is being destroyed, it is also being created. Saying more about it in advance would only serve to dissipate that fundamental tension.