I love the science fiction and fantasy genres for a multitude of reasons. One of them is the way that we can mirror issues that are happening in the real world and then place them under a microscope and examine them in a way we couldn’t do so. Who could forget TV”s first real interracial kiss Or how Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) brought us a poignant look on the fear and paranoia we were facing after 9/11? Some of those themes are still relevant today. Fantasy in some ways has dropped the ball. Instead we get a certain level of racism inherent to the setting. It’s easy for us to hate orcs, because they’re orcs and it’s their nature. There is even criticism leveled against the father of the Genre, Tolkien himself. While these criticisms aren’t always accurate, there’s a certain inherent level of this kind of racism prevalent in most fantasy systems. Some of my favorite modern fantasy/horror games are filled with terrible racial stereotypes and tropes that if taken at face value, are just damaging. Honestly, this doesn’t need to be a major theme of any game, or even something most storytellers bring up in the course of play. Our games are in essence heroic stories in which we can be the hero and triumph over adversary. Most players give no thought to the issues they face, as they’re more interested in having fun and hanging out with friends. Continue reading
I want the PC’s actions to matter. There needs to be consequences for actions, good or ill. How frustrating is it when you go to a game and find out the game is scripted so much that the characters are there as little more than footnotes? Likewise what fun is NPC theater for the players? To me NPC theater is nothing more than storyteller masturbation The consequences don’t have to be world changing, but they need to change the way the environment interacts with the characters. Likewise the PC’s need to be the stars. It’s easy and a common pitfall for ST’s to put a NPC with the party, that is far more powerful than the characters, but it’s always a trap.
One of the things I always do when setting up a game is determine who the major powers are going to be. Sometimes its as easy as determining which published npc’s or entities to use. Shadowrun and Cyberpunk are great settings for this as there are a plethora of options to choose from. Pick a couple of corporations and go from there. Likewise L5R has built in genre antagonists as do many other systems.
D&D is a bit harder to set up in this manner unless you’re setting using published settings. The pro and con to using those is the players already know much of the lore of the setting. While this can definitely be an advantage, it can be just as much as a liability. The Zhentorum are the bad guys, and your players know this. So attempting to paint them in another light, oft times is pointless. Obviously you can twist things etc, play off of the player’s expectations ad nauseum. I personally found after doing just that multiple times in the Ryoko Owari setting for L5R, that I ended up putting almost as much work into it as I would’ve had i just started from scratch. So why not just start from scratch?
A good portion of the campaign I’m running involves an epic war. The PC’s are heroes transported from another world in an attempt by the gods to balance the scales. Right now the enemy holds all the advantages and the pressure is on the PC’s to make a difference.
Hobgoblins make up the majority of the forces they’re encountering, and the first patrols they faced, they slaughtered with ease. It made me rethink how the Hobgoblins worked, and also I decided to make special units that were more challenging for the players to face. I’ve been trying to impart the feeling of war through a series of tricks. Obviously I don’t want the PC’s rushing headlong into legions. They’d simply get slaughtered. That doesn’t help tension or let us move forward with the game. Instead, I’ve tried foreshadowing by having them run across villages and hamlets that are hastily abandoned. I have them run into advance parties of scouts as random encounters. (Have to rethink some of the goals of those given this column) In short, in some ways I have to think of each session as kind of a LARP con game. What is the pacing? What is the theme/mood we’re trying to achieve?
One of the main things that keeps me coming back to world building is the creativity it allows me. One of the things I really loved about the Ryoko Owari boxed set from L5R, is the way that specific elements of the city stood out. Even though the boxed set detailed a great many things about the city, it seemed like only the really memorable pieces stood out. Lover’s Gate, the Dragon Bridge, the Temple of the Sun, Teardrop Island, the Green Walls, etc. I didn’t need to know where everyone stood, and nor did my players. What they remembered was some of the key elements of the city that were brought forth for them.
So, here’s Laketown.
First off, I want to give a shout out to the folks at Ludus Ludorm. Graham has a great site and there’s quite a few poignant articles on world building, statistics and general gaming. I loved his post on pantheons, and will probably borrow some of what he’s set up for my own campaign.
There are relatively few ideas out there that are truly original, and even when I have come up with something that I thought was unique and exciting, I’ve found there are similar themes out there. One of the ones I was really excited about, was in the mid 90’s I came up with an idea about an advanced civilization of humans who had suffered a catastrophic defeat against a race of genocidal aliens, and to survive they retreated to a world and gave up much of their high-tech goodies in order to survive and not be detected. Wrote up a whole setting for it, complete with social castes, a religion, and rebels. And a plot to overthrow society to regain humanity’s heritage. Imagine my surprise when I read the Safehold series by David Weber a few years ago. But I digress.
So the challenge for myself is to create a setting that is powerful, memorable, and believable. Players need to be able to suspend their disbelief in order to really buy into the setting. They need something to care about, and there needs to be conflict in which they can choose to participate in. I’m also a huge fan of moral ambiguity. Things are rarely black and white and even when it appears to be that way you can see that the black and the white are both shades greyer than one would like. I’ve always felt that player’s need to be faced with hard moral choices.
I’m an infamous tinkerer. I like to take published settings and turn them on the head. I also love to world build and design settings for my players. One of my most successful campaign settings was an alternate timeline Rokugan for L5R. The players were all tasked with resurrecting an extinct clan, and their ties to each other was an Imperial Historian had traced their ancestry back to the minor clan in question. It led to a 3 year campaign that left my players talking about it for years to come.
It’s been difficult recapturing that essence. In someways it was the perfect storm when it happened. We all had time, I had energy and the players really got into the game. Unfortunately campaigns have been rather hit or miss (mostly miss) since then. Most lasting only six to nine months.