Worldbuilding Fictional Cosmology

October 25, 2016

Fantasy and supernatural games often tie directly into cosmology – so if you are making a setting for those genres, you might it worthwhile to start from the cosmology of your world and build outward.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a deep, or long process – probably at the point when you even envisioned the setting, a lot of the following is already something you’ve decided on, even without articulating it.

(I’m sure the field of comparative religion probably has a billion specific terms for all of these ideas.  If you’re so inclined, you probably already have a system to think about these things.)

Universal vs. Local

Are the laws or powers involved universal? Do they exist and influence everything?  Many belief systems include this – monotheistic deities, laws of karma or spiritual power/pollution, etc.

Universal forces bring up the questions of how does any given society deal or interact with these powers? Do they know or understand them, and if so, how? If not, why is it unknown to them? etc.

Local means it affects any area smaller than all existence – most people think of river or city gods, but it certainly could apply to powers that only affect believers or sanctified ground, etc.

Local powers bring up questions about extent of effect and power, and how is it decided how far of a reach or scale the effect has?

Immutable vs. Mutable

Immutable forces and powers cannot be changed.  Gods are not born or die, the laws of enlightenment are always true and always work like this.  Things were deities are born before civilization/time, or die at the end of the world, are effectively immutable – unless there’s some way for a power to come into existence or out of existence during a story/game, it doesn’t matter.

Immutable forces means that there is no way for the players to change the cosmology of your setting, which is fine if that’s not what your focus of play is.

Mutable forces can change or perhaps be changed.  What implications this has for the world, and the future, are pretty interesting and often the source of high stakes drama in many stories and games.

Actor vs. Source vs. Projection

An “actor” is a god or force that affects the universe, but if it was removed, the only effect would be a universe without it’s future actions occurring… much like if a person or animal was killed or removed.

A source is a constant source of some power or effect and without it – that effect ceases to occur.  Perhaps if you kill the river god, the river dries up.  If you destroy the power of Time… well, that can’t be good for the universe, really.

A projection is a force or power that exists because of things or events in the world – worship, belief, actions or environment.  So if people stop worshipping the god, it diminishes and disappears.  If war ceases, the god of war cannot exist.  If the lake dries up, the lake god disappears.

Note how all three of these play out very differently depending on your previous answers.

Known vs. Unknown vs. Unknowable

Do people generally know about this cosmology? (most, some, few, none?)

Many fantasy settings assume a known cosmology.  This is often because the gods/powers are directly interacting with the world on a regular enough basis, magic and such makes it possible to test and see results and confirm things.

In play, a known cosmology is a great shortcut – players do not need to constantly wonder, “Is there a God of lightning? Are we sure this person isn’t just making stuff up?” when interacting with other characters.  Can gods be killed? Can someone become an undead mummy god?  If these things are known threats, then you can just get to the part about stopping it from happening.

Most modern supernatural settings assume an unknown cosmology – either most of the world is unaware and a few people know what’s up, or even the major players are slowly feeling around in the dark, trying to glimpse a bit of the truth.  This makes every action that might affect the greater cosmology… well, terrifying.  Will it work? Will it have consequences?  Will I break some portion of reality?

With the cosmology being generally unknown, it also means actions undertaken by the protagonists end up at odds with society at large – simply gearing up to fight with vampires and banish the demon that leads them might get you on a few FBI watchlists…

An unknowable cosmology is often underused and under appreciated.  It solidly slams the focus of play on the characters – and all meaning thereof. As a group, you have to agree that as far as the game is concerned, “No one really knows”and any actions taken by the characters towards that end are basically for show.

For your game: setting, conflicts, roleplaying

Why think about all of this?  Well, it can determine what conflicts make sense in your game (local, mutable powers sets up fun small scale religious warfare), how societies or cultures shape themselves (mutable projection powers might mean large temples have more magical effects, so societies aim towards mass worship and conversion), and of course, how characters roleplay within that.

However, also knowing if you DON’T want to deal with this, is worthwhile, and something to tell your group.  Having your devout cleric player cast a divination spell with the question “How can I please Thee, Oh Lord, and do Thy works?” might be great roleplaying but can be a pain in the ass if you’re expected to answer it… and answer correctly.

There’s also a few games which can either embrace this stuff or avoid it – Unknown Armies, Glorantha games, White Wolf’s Mage, and so on.  Because there’s both the possibility of mucking around in the cosmology or leaving it as background flavor, it’s really important to be clear on how you should play with it, or not.

The pitfall of divine truth

If you’re going to have divine powers or truth show up, they only appear in one of three fashions:

  1. Fairly human in behavior – petty, flawed, etc. as much as everyone else.
  2. Inscrutable and demanding – perhaps they are wise, but since you can’t have a conversation and they’re kind of assholes for leaving you without enough context, they seem really annoying.
  3. High and mighty – but no wiser than the rest of us.  AKA “Hey Mr. GM prepare to tackle the centuries-long questions about ‘why evil exists?’, ‘predestination vs. free will?’, etc. and solve it to the content of your players.”  This one also annoys people because… well, folks expect a lot from a conversation with a divine power.

So yeah.  Don’t make conversations with gods a possibility unless the gods are effectively super powered creatures rather than primal forces/truths of existence.


Bad Deal, Great Characters

October 6, 2016

I’ve been a bit of sci-fi from author Yoon Ha Lee – Conservation of Shadows is an excellent set of short stories.  He has a penchant for characters in the trope of making the best of shitty deals – under pressure, forced to work for untrustworthy authorities, in treacherous situations.  It’s great in fiction, movies, comics, tv shows, etc.

I’ve seen this trope attempted many times in tabletop games, and rarely well.  I think it comes to two common pitfalls.

1. Real Protagonism vs. Illusionism

In fiction, these stories work best if it feels like the protagonist could go either way, all the way through the story.  If it’s too loaded in one direction, or the twists and turns don’t feel authentic, then you lose a bunch of the audience early on.

There’s effectively four outcomes:

  • True victory – the protagonist gets it all, and their freedom to boot
  • Costly victory – the protagonist gets the ONE thing that matters, but loses all else
  • Empty victory – the protagonist “wins” but loses the essential part of themselves along the way
  • Crushing failure – the protagonist loses everything of importance and they know they lost

So here’s the thing: in fiction we see the character try their best and depending on the craft of the storyteller to make the contrived feel natural, or not, we buy into the protagonism of the character.  The odds are up in the air – if they win, we don’t forget how close they were to losing, if they lose, we don’t forget how close they were to winning.  It could have gone the other way.

However, if you’re playing some form of Illusionism, you have two points where this falls down.  First, players can feel the rails locking them into limited directions, even if there’s “multiple outcomes” the players know it can’t have gone “any direction” because the constant pressure towards rails, even if it’s branching.  You don’t get to feel your character did it themselves if it’s success, and you wonder if there was ever a chance to win, if it’s failure.

Second, and deeper, is that the outcomes the GM or pre-generated adventure presents may or may not match up to the players’ ideas of what matters or counts as a success or a loss.  The players may be operating on one metric of values, and the presented outcomes are completely different.

2. Player Buy in and commitment

Usually these stories involve threatening something a character cares about – their status, their loved ones, their future opportunities, etc.   When you watch a movie and see that this is “the one chance” the protagonist will have to enter the world of magic, you care because you see how much the character cares and what it means to them.

However, if the game involves pressure and treachery that threatens things the players don’t care about (and also, the characters don’t care about), then you don’t have that tension at all.  This is the fundamental failure point in the classic “meet the stranger in the bar who offers you 50 gold to go into the dungeon” as a useful leverage point.  (This is also where the “I am a dark sorcerer who has made dark pacts, and have a dark fate, but none of that really impacts what I do in play” thing fails as well.)

The players have to agree to push their characters to fight for, to protect, and care about certain things, and the GM has to agree to base conflicts around those things.

Making it work

However, these kinds of stories work well when you have the right approach.  Notably if you have a way to coordinate as a group what values matter for the characters and to build conflicts around it, and allow play to produce spontaneous outcomes around those situations, those 4 outcomes are certainly possible.

This focus can be created in a few ways:

  • Situation – Set up the fictional situation and keep your conflicts and spotlight focused on those things (Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, most flag-based games)
  • Resolution Mechanics – the mechanics are set up to threaten the characters’ values as part of play (Polaris, Drifter’s Escape, With Great Power, Trollbabe)
  • Larger Pacing Mechanics – the mechanics serve as a countdown for a larger finale of the story (Primetime Adventures, Thou Art But a Warrior, Tenra Bansho Zero)

Social Leverage Games

August 29, 2016

There’s a type of game I call “social leverage” games – these are games where the primary fulcrum of power is social leverage between people.  Mafia, Werewolf, and Diplomacy are classic games of this type.

I just watched this GDC talk about a prototype tank game that turned toxic and had to be banned within the studio testing it.  What the speaker misses out on, is that the core of the game he’s set up, was social leverage.

In all of these games, the primary way to win is to convince people to trust you, to believe you, and to choose good times to betray people.  These games depend on building trust then breaking it.  Bluffing games like Poker aren’t about building alliances – you aren’t expected to trust the other players.  Games where there are other methods to win, rather than just manipulating trust, also don’t suffer this problem.

The reason these games turn toxic is simple – it’s not about lying about numbers, resources, or in-game factors – it’s about lying between the real people about real people relationships – “You can trust me”.    Players who do best at these games often leverage what they know about the other players’ personalities… so the expertise at the game is how well you manipulate your friends.



Tactical games, stats, and balancing

July 13, 2016

This is a pretty excellent video explaining the issues around balancing with attributes and stats, and the issues of things like dump stats and so on.  Since the videogame in questions is directly descending from D&D, and the speaker is also a tabletop gamer, the information is very directly applicable to tabletop games and design.

What I think is really interesting is that he highlights the difference between characters being “viable” vs. “optimized” and that the greater the difference between the two within your given game, the harder it becomes to balance encounters.  He also points out that if something is basically required for viable play, it shouldn’t be optional, as there’s no real play value gained by hiding “gotchas” or traps in character creation, which is a pretty common problem for tabletop games.



Preparing to Prepare

July 11, 2016

As I get older, and it gets harder to coordinate time to game, I find myself spending more time doing some things which save a lot of time in the long run, but are things I would never have thought about when I was younger and less experienced at seeing how campaigns work, or don’t work.

First off, I like a lot of different kinds of games and a few different kinds of genres.  So, what I’m in the mood for changes every few months.  When I get an idea in my head, I now start here with these factors:


How much time does this game require to get a good play cycle from it?  One session? 10? What will I need to run it? A map & minis? Tokens? Etc.   Most of my players are split up around the country, so we play online, and the electronic versions of some of these things is a giant pain the ass, especially since we may be on all kinds of platforms or working from secondary computers or devices.   My in-person games tend to be pick-up games or on short notice, which also precludes many games.

These issues determine whether it’s even reasonable to suggest some games or not, knowing who I have available and our time/logistics constraints.  I think about all this even before I pitch a game.


What do I need the players to know to play the game?  Can I make a 1-2 page summary of the most important rules and best practices?  Do they need to read pages upon pages of setting? (alternatively, do I need to find a way to focus whatever setting/background they may have in their heads to a common vision, especially if it’s something like a movie/comic/book series that has multiple interpretations?)

How long will all of this take?  Are the players into this level of detail, or tracking?  How much can I teach in play? How much is the gameplay experience negatively impacted if you don’t know the rules well?

This is actually the first level of “prep” I do – I look at making quicksheets of rules and setting, each being a page (front and back) at most.  This not only works for teaching the players, but also helps me have my reference materials and brush up on rules I may not have seen for years.

This also tends to be the point when I maybe junk some ideas because I realize the logistics of play is much higher than what I remember.


Assuming I clear those two hurdles, then it’s about a pitch to the players.  If I don’t have an enthusiastic push, I junk it as well, now.

For me, pitches are easier face to face – you can flip open a book, share related material, and communication is quick.  You can read body language easier and everyone can get into a flow of conversation that makes it easier to pick out what kinds of games are going to work for everyone.

The enthusiasm level has to be much higher for online play.  The overall communication process is slower, and when you play online, you are competing every moment of play with the players’ focus against emails, chat windows, cat videos, etc., and it becomes easy to lose your momentum.  (this is also why I try to keep sessions online short).

I’ve seen and been part of too many “Well I guess I’ll play…” campaigns and they just kind of hobble along, and nothing particularly great comes out of them.  It’s a lot of effort for so-so enjoyment.

And then I finally prepare…

If I can clear those hurdles THEN I finally start thinking about what I need to prep in terms of stats, notes, etc.  It seems like a lot of work, but it ends up saving me a lot of time and headache these days.


Found Loot – an initiative to help game creators

July 7, 2016

I Need Diverse Games is starting a great initiative to help diverse game creators:

Found Loot is an initiative inspired by and modeled after Fund Club (created by Ashe Dryden ofAlterConf and Shanley of Model View Culture) to help fund gaming & gaming related projects by diverse creators. Funding is provided by members who agree to a $50 per month donation directly to the organization or group that we pick each month.

Found Loot is needed among a lot of other initiatives to fund gaming projects, diverse work and creators. There’s a lot of diverse, game related projects that don’t quite fit into a Kick Starter, IndieGoGo or Go Fund Me campaign.

Sometimes creators need a little extra to cross the line from idea to fruition, to make the difference between a prototype and a finished product coming to the masses. What we want to do is help those folks who need that lift to continue their work.

If you wish to donate, you can join here.

If you’d like to apply for funding, you can fill out the forms here.



Set Piece Battle Design – example

July 2, 2016

I’m going through old files and I found a half-written document for a D&D set piece battle designed to get that fun sort of Jackie Chan mayhem in the fight.  (This was written before the year I fought cancer so my memory is completely shot around then).

Although it’s lacking a map and monsters, there’s a few things I think it highlights really well:

Teach the Players

This was something I learned a lot from running old Iron Heroes – you need to highlight what are opportunities or options, at least early on, so players can know that these are in fact options.  Pointing it out on the map helps too.

Although telling the players EXACTLY what mechanical effects are in play seems a bit much, it allows them to properly gauge threats – a lot of players may be used to games where drowning is an extremely likely situation or that a fall will kill you instantly, and such, be unable to prioritize their risks and choices.  I assume that the characters are competent and this helps players make informed choices – just as much as a trained acrobat can estimate what kind of jumps they can make, the players use the mechanics in the same way.

Bumping the focus of rules

The special rules around falling and swimming are both designed at emulating the genre, where these things are penalties but rarely “finishers” in and of themselves.

Guiding the GM

Notice it’s entirely a walkthrough for the GM on how to teach and share this, but also advice on how to manage all the characters and environmental bits through play in a step by step process.

Obviously, your own notes can be as sketchy and light as will work for you – however, here I am, 4 years later, reading something I don’t remember writing (thanks chemo!), and going “Oh, yeah, this makes sense” because I was smart enough to write it for others.  Always assume you will be tired, half fried from work, and perhaps stressed by the time game night rolls around – so you might as well put in the work now to make it easy for future-you to be able to play the game as easily as possible.