Archive for the ‘setting’ Category


Building Conflict from Start

July 21, 2020

A lot of games use smart design to create conflict and momentum early on in play and I want to talk about these a little.

Charged Character Roles

One of the easiest tools is to pick a specific role for characters as the concept to the game or campaign itself.

If the game is about spies, spies naturally have conflict built-in – they are trying to hide their identity and get information – they are already at risk. If the game is about demon hunters… well, you hunt demons.

Where games usually fall down is if they attempt to go too broad in types of character roles that can fit, without giving tools for helping a group align or choose a subset that will work well together.

Factions and Splats

Another old design trick is factions – each faction has history, an outlook or values they support, and goals. The factions might be totally at odds to “mostly allied but with strong rivalries and fractures along values”.

Again, this requires a clever bit of thought in setting-building to make sure the factions actually have enough reason to work together/not avoid each other. I’ve seen some games have the “mystic” faction which is described as reclusive and not interested in politics…. which inevitably creates characters who are not well “aimed” at the other factions and situations.

Obligations, Values, Goals

Some games set up either default obligations, values and goals or have a step where you answer questions to create them as part of play. Primarily the difficulty in creating this is making sure these are relevant in scope and immediacy.

Usually this works best if these things are tied to a reward mechanic around relationships or pursuing said things like many Flag mechanics tend to do. If not, there’s the risk that these things fall by the wayside in play.

Charged Starting Situation

Mostly the smaller indie games tend to use this tool, since it has a specific starting point, but it works amazing for getting play going right away.

You have stuff like Poison’d where the pirates find their captain has just been assassinated, they need a new captain and the Royal Navy will be showing up soon, or Lady Blackbird where the protagonists have to get out of their cell and escape.

These charged situations require immediate action and direction and give you conflict right away.

Baked into the game vs. homemade

Naturally, any GM or group can set up these ideas in a game, but the reason to have it in the game itself is that it lets the group focus on other things and gets play moving right away.

I tend to prefer running and playing in games where the characters have a role that includes a direct mission structure or goal; it means things get moving quickly and there’s a lot less “what should we do next?” time lost. Mind you, this is not to say the characters are bound to follow the mission goals alone; they might veer from it quite hard, but at least when you start with the idea they generally want to do them, you can get immediate direction and momentum in play.

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The Wondrous, or not

May 14, 2020

Well, the last few months have definitely slowed my usual font of imagination.  Still, I do end up thinking about HOW genres work to get some ideas of what underlies it all.

In this case, I’m thinking about how some media is magical and wondrous (whether that’s fantasy, sci-fi or whatever) and others might HAVE magic, but it’s not so wondrous.  And that’s not a knock on the latter – it’s just that I think people aim for the former and end up with the latter more often.


The key point I think defines the difference is whether the mysterious weird stuff you’re presenting in the setting feels knowable, whether or not it is explained in the story or game or not.

If your sci-fi has a hovercar, and people use it like an old beat up hooptie to drive around, it’s not wondrous even if it is unusual to us in the real world.  It feels knowable, both in concept, use, and character interaction.

And I think that’s a key point – character response helps us ground what our expectations should be in a movie, show, book, etc.  If you have a weird floating stone that hovers and everyone walks around it in awe… well. I mean it’s flying just like the hover-junker, just that we don’t know how, why or what it means and clearly the characters don’t either.

…now put it in roleplaying games…

For presented media, we, the audience, only get what is shown to us.  The creators may have come up with complex rules about everything, or just handwaved it all, but we only get what is presented, and part of the craft is figuring out what they want to present or not.

In games, the group is both the creators and the audience.  And this means usually you need more agreement about how things work – whether that’s from a more traditional game “these stats help define what things do” or a more story focused “these things fit within genre expectations”.  So in that sense, the illusion of “this world exists out there, somewhere” is broken under the fact that the curtain is pulled back on what is “knowable vs. we’re handwaving this in the moment”.

Obviously, if you have genre expectations about what makes things wondrous, that helps. (Glowing, floating, unseen winds, weird sounds, voices, etc.  Movies and anime have all this in abundance.)

However, I find beyond that, it can help if games assign some authority to specific people in the group to make hidden information that is revealed during play.  That ranges from your characters’ backstories, to the GM’s NPCs and “big plot” and so on.  In our current Universalis game, we’ve divvied up certain plots as ownership for a given player – their role is to drive forward conflict around that thing and also create any hidden elements to reveal in play.

Avoding pitfalls

RPGs have had a bit of a tough time around this, sometimes.  The biggest pitfall a lot of folks end up in is that all the magical stuff has a lot of very consistent rules, well explained, and it is no longer mysterious or wondrous.  (Which is fine for a gamist goal, less so for other types of play.)

Sometimes people mistake this for “rules destroy the wonder” in a game, but rather, it’s that the mystery is gone from what SHOULD be mysterious (at least by that individual’s preference) and not that there are rules to be used.  The “Here’s 10,000 years of detailed history” setting write ups in games do the same thing, oftentimes.

I think part of it is making sure to know what is important to NOT explain and to stick to it.

Now, the other issue is that unlike a presented media, where the creators can edit and pace things to move the action along so you don’t spend too much time with the mysterious strange thing and are left wondering, a game often has players immediately drawn to poke at these things.  And often enough in games, the characters are experts in fields, have magic or tech to dig out more info, and some people will spend a lot of time just trying to play scientist.

This is where it’s really helpful to have had that discussion about the type of game you’re playing, genre expectations, etc.   Just as much as “Shopkeep haggling the Epic RPG” is not a game most people are interested in, “Where on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness is the floating stele that summons the Star God and how can we test it?” is also not a game most people are interested in.

It’s useful to set up expectations of where it makes sense to poke and where things are just there for fun and decoration, so that your players know “some things are actually best left unknown” and also to save time and avoid conflict ahead of time.

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Sci-fi and the right questions

November 19, 2019

I’ve got a few sci-fi things I’ve been tooling around with.  In terms of feedback, sometimes I encounter people who miss a key part of sci-fi – it’s rarely a hard look at “What would life definitely be like with x conditions and y technology?” and more about framing things as what sort of questions and stories do you want to create.

You gotta ask the right question.

For example, if you have AI, or brain uploading, or copying people, you have a whole host of ethical questions to address as part of your setting, and probably in play.

If I want something like a adventure/shooty sci-fi like Mass Effect, where the ethical questions are more “How do I treat people in a given situation and how much violence/lawbreaking am I ok with?” that’s a different set of questions and the former ideas can quickly overwhelm them.

(To be fair, really any genre could have this kind of  host of questions and focus, sci-fi just tends to bring it to the foreground quickly, and tends to be where I have to spend the most time making these curated choices.)

For this reason, I often choose to make/play sci-fi settings with a lot of things missing.  No AI.  Maybe very limited drones.  Etc.   These choices aren’t because I’m not familiar with ideas of the technology or the fact that society will be drastically different with those technologies being widespread, it’s often because that’s not the questions I want to do with this particular game/campaign.

Then the issue of onboarding.

There’s also the second issue, which is that tabletop RPGs are not a passive form of entertainment – it is critical to get people up to speed to be able to play the game.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the 300 page setting required reading, but even short settings still require people to get on the same page for ideas.

With many sci-fi, the issue becomes a matter of which the society is so alien, and difficult, to grasp, that your group becomes lost or confused as to what’s going on.   This kind of story works well in books, because you can take time to re-read sections, and think about what is happening.   In a game, where everyone is collaboratively creating character dialogue, choices, and events, it can be a hurdle.

(This is also true of other genre types too, and the point after which the high concept/fictional culture is so weird to the players or has to fight it’s way through pre-conceived expectations it becomes a hurdle to play rather than a useful feature.)

The wrong answers.

There’s also the point where if you include things thoughtlessly, it naturally leads to setting up answers you probably didn’t intend.  “The good guys made a slave clone army to fight and die by the millions?  How are these good guys?”  Oops.

One of the differences in technology vs. magic in fiction, is that technology is generally understood to be reproducible, while in some cases, magic is not quite so reliable/predictable, and this means if you do something with technology, the question comes up why you wouldn’t do it again/elsewhere?  If you can cure cancer, why not cure more people?  If you can bring someone back from the dead, how long until this becomes a regular use technology?  And then… why AREN’T you doing this?

Obviously, there’s plenty of good stories to have around both technology that can’t feasibly be reproduced wide scale (“You can change one moment in history… but only one.”) or are being forcibly placed into artificial scarcity as a means of social control.  Again though, that’s being thoughtful about where and how you place it in your setting.


Fantasy vs. the Fantastic

July 8, 2018

I’m finally getting a chance to get back into a combination of gaming and catching up on media after a hectic beginning of the year and it’s helping me get back into a key concept for tabletop gaming settings:

What parts of your setting are mundane vs. fantastic to the characters? (as opposed to us, real people, who do not have to worry about dragons and cyborgs and such.)

And how do you get the group on the same page about it as well?

A simple example

So let’s say you’ve got a fantasy game, and there’s a spell to turn invisible.  As far as the society in this game, is this:

  • Completely unknown?
  • In legends/stories, and probably feared or considered child’s tales?
  • Rare but known to exist?
  • Uncommon but something people take some precautions against?
  • Completely known and has several common countermeasures to stop it from being abused?

Depending on the setting, this is either super powerful and scary, or it’s a minor advantage.  In some cases, the thing is just as fantastic to the characters, as it is to us, the people playing the game, and in other cases, it’s about as mundane to them as someone knowing out how bust open a lock on a car door.

Sense of Wonder vs. Genre Piece

As a group, are these things supposed to be a thing that’s a sense of wonder (or terror) or are they just another piece of genre trope that’s fun and not a big deal?  This covers a lot about how you narrate things, prepare things, etc.

Doing a favor for a fae being who grants you a miraculous healing point and their castle disappears after you walk out of it will have you considering that healing potion one way, while buying a dozen healing potions at the Temple after picking up supplies is a different thing.

Playing Your Character & Narration

If you know where these things stand in the game world, it also lets you know how to play your character, and to mesh well with the other players as well.   If magic is unknown, your wizard might be able to scare a king into submission with a few spooky tricks, while if it is well known, your character might be considered little better than a shoe cobbler.

Likewise, this affects how you narrate things.  “Spectral energy glows at his hands, before he chants the mantras of the divine archer, and a golden bow appears in his hands…firing forth arrows that blaze light from the mouth and eyes of his targets!” vs. “I scramble up the stairs while firing Magic Missle at the pursuing forces.”  Both the creative effort and time you spend, in part, depends on what fits for your game setting, and likewise, most people prefer description for the fantastic, brevity for the mundane.

Strategy in Play

Of course, if your game depends on strategic decisions, or choices that are well enforced by an internal logic to the game world, understanding where things sit in Mundane vs Fantastic is critical to both your planning and counter-strategies.  A good part of strategy is asymmetric information – who knows how things work and what options are available.

In our real world, an invisibility spell would let you get away with a LOT before people started floating the idea that maybe there’s an invisible person walking around (though, between the Predator movies, Ghost in the Shell, and real world experiments in optical camouflage, maybe quicker than you think).

Setting up for play!

I usually like to write up a 2-3 page document that hits what is expected of the game, including a bit on the setting and cultural expectations, especially if the game itself doesn’t include these things or I’m doing something different than what the book describes.

I look to see what things are different from our world, and I also look to see if there’s other popular media I can point to as a quick touch point.  If the game is set to existing fiction (movies, books, comics, videogames, etc.) – I try to find the quick short things I think people should refresh themselves with and also if we’re going to cherry pick specific parts of the larger work. (Which, you pretty much HAVE to do if a thing ends up going through multiple writers, has existed as a large franchise, etc.).

If players are building characters deep into an unusual thing, I try to give them more information or context about what that looks like and what expectations, challenges, and support are around their character.

Mind you, all of this is usually pretty short.  Since most of the games I run are something like 4-8 sessions these days, it doesn’t make sense to over invest in prep if the game isn’t going to be that long anyway.


Culture Gaming

May 29, 2017

One of the key problems for roleplaying games is figuring out how much interaction with the broader society in your setting matters or doesn’t.

To give a simple example – if you’re playing a modern supernatural game – does your vampire have to hold down a job? Do they have to interact with the landlord?  How about their family or friends from before they got turned into a vampire?  Or is it all “Politics of the Night Court” and fighting werewolves and such, and we don’t think about the rest?

This question ends up being one of the places where people feel lost when they first start getting into gaming and you give them D&D or a sci-fi game – you need to have an idea of what the fictional society is like and how your character fits into it, if you actually are to roleplay out that interaction.  A knight, a nomadic clan warrior, and hired muscle for a criminal merchant all might fit the “Fighter” class but they certainly will approach the world very differently and be treated quite differently, depending on where they are.  Without specifying that context, it takes a few sessions to even figure out how the world works in the broadest sense for the characters.

This not only is critical in terms of setting up your characters for roleplaying – it sets up what values they hold, what things they’ll fight for and so on.  It gives people options for negotiation – status is a critical thing people struggle for and use as leverage every day.  It creates ties and relationships between player characters and NPCs – and also ties the players into the desires of those NPCs in ways that are reasonable and consistent.

The 3 Questions

What is your role in society, what is expected of you, and what can you request or demand and reasonably expect to receive?

The 3 questions form the basic set up of what you need to know for how things operate in your setting.  Of course, these questions are the sort of thing you could write whole anthropology courses on, so it’s not so much about detailing every possible space, but giving sufficient direction that people can have a good idea and the negotiation/question and answer at the table during play is short and easy.

Specified Roles

Some games handle this by limiting players to specified roles in society – Dogs in the Vineyard, Legend of the Five Rings, Pendragon, Paranoia, for example, all work on the idea that the player characters are from a specific group for the most part, which means the answers to those questions are mostly the same, and the players then create their characters within that space.

This turns out to work pretty great for the sake of getting people into play quickly, and also reliably hitting certain aspects of play.

Massive Setting and Negotiation

Another design strategy is to give a wide setting with a lot of different possible answers and the group having to pick a society/space to focus on and narrow down the roles from there.  Glorantha, Shadowrun, D&D campaign settings, and most of the White Wolf games fall into this category.

While this does provide a lot of options, I have found the process of groups negotiating down to the actual scenario and characters is rarely quick or smooth unless the group has already done a lot of pre-negotiation about what they’re looking for.  A lot of the hurdles start with, “But did you read ALL of this setting material?” and then happen into, “And how did you interpret those ideas?”

Fuzzy Outlines & Negotiation

D&D is the game that exemplifies this design choice.  In baseline D&D, you get some features of things that exist in the setting – dwarves, clerics, deities, but it doesn’t tell you how society really works – are dwarves normal people? Are they discriminated against? Respected and treated with awe? Are clerics rare and amazing like saints? Can anyone get their broken leg healed at any local temple? Do deities demand prayer, blood offerings, incense, what?  It’s really fuzzy for the most part.

So, as a group, you have to either take these elements and form them together yourself, or leave it open and then find bumps when you discover that one player expected one thing and another something completely different.  (“Wait, I’m a cleric, shouldn’t people treat me with respect?” “Wait, people treat half-elves poorly?”)

This choice often has complications, since a lot of the assumed expectations usually will be what someone is drawing from a previous campaign or a setting or series of books and so on, and without clarity, the disconnect can be quite steep.

Practices and Meaning – pre-loading vs. in play

Consider someone doing something insulting without using words.  What do they do? Do they spit on the ground?  Scowl?  Chuckle?  Throw an object instead of handing it over? Bump your shoulder? These things are meaningful, and the context of the situation and culture are what make them hold that meaning.

Since most RPGs are set in fantastical and futuristic settings, far from whereever you happen to be, the meaning of practices might be very different, and the question is how much is this going to matter for your game, and how do we, as a play group, get to a shared understanding?

You can pre-load all of that with lots and lots of chapters of expected behavior to read up on.  Or you can, as a GM, explain as you go what the implications are (“They kneel, but it is only about a second before they look up to you.  They’re respectful, but clearly in a hurry.”)

I’m fairly certain that this language of culture and implication are why game groups seriously invested in a setting-heavy game, tend to have a slow recruitment and deeper investment in long term play – the time it takes to learn this and fluently apply it in play, can take months or years.

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