Sunday, May 22, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.5)

When you have a good set of themes for a science fiction setting, they serve you as idea and content generators. Every theme can suggest a piece of technology, a dilemma, A villain, an alien, or a revelation that you can use to help you build your campaign. Over the next few articles, I will cover different ways you can use your themes to tease out content, and how that will make a richer, more unified setting.


Fantasy settings rely on magic, wonders, and monsters to create extraordinary circumstances. It is the things that don't belong in the everyday world that don't just make it Fantastical, but give the PCs something to focus on. In Fantasy, either problems are caused by the magic and monsters, or can only be solved with them.

And in fantasy, you can draw upon pre-existing myths and folklore, as well as a rich tradition of pulp tropes to come up with the contents of your setting.

Modern role-playing settings rely on factions, contacts, and conspiracies to create something extraordinary for the setting. A well written conspiracy, a couple of secret societies, or a criminal organization, combined with some well done NPCs are what makes a modern setting seem like something special and worth pursuing. And again, it is these groups and NPCs that the PCs must focus on as the problem and the solution.

In a Science Fiction setting we have neither the familiarity of a modern or pseudohistorical medieval setting to work with from the beginning. And, while a good science fiction story might include conspiracies and criminal organizations, they require a lot of context to be made useful or understandable.

In science fiction, advanced technology, strange planets, and alien races create the extraordinary circumstances that drives the player characters: aliens, strange worlds, or tech that either create problems, or are the only means of solving them. 

Because Science Fiction it doesn't have the context of the modern world or a historical period or mythological backdrop, that technology has to be custom designed by the game master.

I am going to cover the basics of the technology and how you can use themes to develop the technology in your setting below:

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 4)

Whether you have chosen a Thesis or not for your Science Fiction Setting, by now you have a sense of your Tone. Not only will it shape the in-game elements of NPCs, technology, etc., it will also dictate the way you plan and think of your game, and how you will present it to potential players. 

One of the ways you will do this is by choosing themes for your campaign that are congruent with your tone.

Themes in a TTRPG campaign are not really that different from themes in film or literature: they are ideas that appear over and over again in different forms throughout the story. They are ideas that will likely be expressible in one to five words. Often they will be tensions you can express as "A v. B."

Pulling Out Themes: Babylon 5

Cast of Babylon 5, Season 3
As an example, let's look at the themes of a personal favorite, Babylon 5:

  • Duty v. Conscience
  • Letting others solve your problems is dangerous
  • Religion can imprison or uplifts
  • Foresight is a terrible burden
  • Alcohol solves nothing
  • Safety v. Privacy

All of these come from the central thesis of the series, which is "Can we really know Peace?"

Each of these themes appear over and over again in different forms in some combination in most episodes. There is rarely an episode that doesn't explore at least two of these.

I will try to cover these, one in detail, the others briefly in a way that doesn't assume you know the series. There will be spoilers, but the show ran over 25 years ago, so I consider that fair game. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 3)

One of the most critical components of any Science Fiction setting, whether it is in literature, film, video games, or ttrpgs, is the tone you choose to set with it. Tone is more than just the mood you try to set with the backdrop, it will tell us a lot about who the people in a science fiction setting are, and what kind of world they create

The technology that appears in your campaign will also need to reflect the tone. A Star Trek replicator that can all but end hunger would strip the need for money and that's the need to do dirty jobs that drove the characters in Firefly. Your choice of tone will help you decide what should be in a game, and what should not.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts pt. 2

Firstly, I am going to acknowledge a major source of inspiration for this series:

I have spent a lot of time looking at resources for developing science fiction worlds, and this video by Guy over at How To Be a Great GM is one of the best, most well thought-out presentations on the topic.

I am using this video as a jumping-off point for a lot of the articles to come.

I do think the video misses a couple of useful attributes of Science Fiction settings, and so I will be building a lot on top of its framework.

I am also drawing a lot on classes I took with Dr. Deborah Wills back in University, whose work on analyzing the structure and social context of Science Fiction helped bring Pulp and genre literature into Academic discourse as something that is both a legitimate art form, and that has important things to tell us about our culture.

And I will be including insights I've gained by paying particular attention to how certain science fiction TTRPGs present their settings.

With a liberal amount of reference to both popular literary science fiction books and TV sci-fi series, of course.

On Genres

As I am talking a great deal about Science Fiction, it pays to establish an important context of the genre as a whole.

Genres of literature art and media as we understand them now are relatively new construct. Before the 1950s most publicly available creative works for either considered "Art" or "Trash"; "Classical Music", "Traditional music", or "Popular Music" (said with disdainful undertone.) 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.1)

I am on a roll creatively with my Eternal Ocean & Wreck project! Aside from a character sheet and an editing pass, I feel like Wreck is in more or less its final form.

The real challenge right now is building the world of The Eternal Ocean in order to actually get interest in the game. A science fiction version of Cairn with deep sea diving and some submarines is all well and good, but it isn't all that helpful to play unless you have a world to work with. 

In a TTRPG the Campaign and the game world are inextricably linked. In a way, the World is the Campaign, especially if you are playing with multiple groups using strict time tracking, or playing an Open Table / West Marches game. Your decisions as a GM are going to be shaped by the internal logic of the world. When fantastical things like magic and monsters, aliens or super-technology appear, it is your understanding of that world and how it works as a player that will determine how you approach it, and will also determine how the GM resolves it.

Fantasy has a distinct edge in this arena: most fantasy worlds are a mish-mash of European folklore, romanticized Early Modern cultures, and 1960s pulp tropes. Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy in most parts of the world has a default set of assumptions. Japanese fantasy Anime, an American Fantasy Action RPG video game, and a French Fantasy Graphic Novel are all going to feel, to some degree, like a variation on Greyhawk.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Development Blog; Designing the Eternal Ocean


As I work on The Eternal Ocean , I intend to blog about the process here. And I wanted to start by talking about what my structure is going to be and my rationale for it.

To start with, what is The Eternal Ocean meant to be exactly, and how is my presentation going to reflect my ideas?

Because I am taking some pretty odd steps.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

This is probably one of the most important questions you can ask yourself starting almost any project, and it is intimately tied with another question:

Who is this for?

The answer to that one is already in the dedication to Wreck to some degree: I made this game for my oldest son, who wants to be a marine biologist and study deep sea creatures. He loves anything to do with sea exploration from cartoons like Octonauts and The Deep to watching me play video games like Subnautica to just watching old Jaques Cousteau documentaries. 

He has already consumed an impressive amount of science fiction set in the deep sea, and I would love to help him explore the tropes of that particular brand of SF.

But I also wanted to create a world that reaches a little farther than Subnautica or even The Deep does. I wanted to create a setting where the kind of weird and wonderful stuff that you can see in classic science fiction works like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Time Machine. So I want a world full of secrets and mysteries. Not just Traveller underwater.

Of course, this idea hasn't stayed just a game for my son. I wanted to create something that, after I had done the work, I could also play with grown-ups. I wanted to make something for fans of classic science fiction like my gaming buddy Thomas.

Accordingly, I decided to make a game that relied a lot on exploration, and a world that had a lot of secrets. And I also wanted to make sure that there would be an incentive for discovering those secrets.

IIn other words, I want to create a game world that is full of secrets that feels satisfying to discover, and that feels more like a classic science fiction story then cinematic sci-fi.

What This Mean for Writing

Rather than creating a mechanical incentive,, I wanted to create an overall narrative reward for making discoveries. To this end, I have created a huge collection of secrets that can reward the characters with rare and unique gear and abilities. More importantly, the game is set up so that if the players wish to leave the planet, they will have to discover one of several particularly complex secrets at the end of a chain of revelations.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Chainmail Played Theatre of the Mind

 This past Monday I put my Hellions of Xen campaign group in the capable hands of Stephen Smith for a fascinating experiment:

Could we play Chainmail with Theatre of the Mind?