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Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

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