roleplaying games

World-building: Brass Tacks

My post-apocalyptic fantasy setting has been muted in my mind by a number of other writing ideas which I’ve wanted to execute. That said, it is still high on my list of games to actually run. In looking both at this idea and my outlining for The Sprawl, it’s become clear to me that I’m moving further away from writing stories for my players, and closer to the notion of creating game spaces where they get to tell stories with me. The Sprawl is about giving a strong framework to develop Cyberpunk narrative…the fantasy apocalypse is arguably about creating a huge canvas and using immersionist game ideas to provide as much freedom as possible. Almost opposite approaches for the same intended effect.

In reevaluating the idea now, I’m looking at it from a game perspective. In some ways, my ideas about religion and magic didn’t fit in with the gameplay elements I wanted to arise from religion and magic: while I wanted the campaign to be low magic, I also wanted magic to be ancient knowledge that can be uncovered. Ultimately, assigning the origin point of all supernatural puissance to spirits removes that. I also wanted to give some screen time to the notion of religion as exercised by the Apocalypse World Hocus: what are things that people hold fast to in times of uncertainty? This also required more flexibility and a bottom-up approach.

In looking at actually running this game, I’ve been reading and re-reading a series of articles on hex-crawling from the site The Welsh Piper. In addition to a bunch of neat random encounter generation tools, the site also has hex templates that scale from 5 mile hexes all the way up to a world size. While the author offers the caveat that the world template is a fair amount smaller than the Earth, it’s also 23 million square miles, and if I think I need more space than that I’m probably deluding myself. The world template also has climate bands, answering the oddly fiddly (but still important) question of “what’s the weather like?”

That leads right into a question I’ve been trying to answer: how many things will I be simulating with this? In a role-playing game context, simulating the weather often means you’ve gone off the deep end. In previous games I’ve run this was certainly true: in a Cyberpunk game, the weather simply doesn’t matter. As such, when it’s rained in my cyberpunk games it’s been strictly atmospheric, and that’s fine. In a game with exploration as a cornerstone, weather is a tad more important, as it affects what your adventurers decide to do.

I’ve also looked into the notion of random encounters. Especially if the game is a sandbox, random encounters are important, but it’s equally important that they have some sort of consistency. I’ve found some neat articles about lairs and ranges…that’s probably exactly the right level of detail for what I’m going for. At the same time, I can come up with some rules about how settlements “clear” the space around them, based on how large their town guard is. This offers the beginnings of a course of action to civilize an area. Beyond that, thinking about what sort of encounters are in the area is helpful too…I’d probably want to push the range of animals somewhat into the supernatural, but not necessarily very far. There’s also the question of other sapient encounters, which then brings in the issue of things like reaction rolls. It may sound like a lot, but the whole goal of the endeavor is to make things interesting without writing an overarching story. Details that the players can follow down a rabbit hole are part of that.

Interestingly enough, everything I’ve looked at so far has been system-agnostic. While talking about magic brings in elements that will be handled differently in different games, everything else can be adapted ad nauseam: Weather, maps, random encounters, none of these things have an impact on game mechanics unless the mechanics specify them, and if they do, that’s great. This means I keep on looking at mechanics as an open question. I’ve already determined that D&D is too restrictive, especially as I want access to magic to be dependent on finding it in the game world. More immersionist games like GURPS are ideal, though GURPS specifically is probably a little onerous in this genre (especially compared to, say, Cyberpunk or Supers games, where GURPS comes to the table with very little tweaking). This means I’m looking at fantasy-centered immersionist games, and right now near the top of that list for me is Runequest. The wrinkle here is that I’ve never played Runequest…that said, reading about 6e and Mythras indicates to me that the game would suit my purposes very well, combining detail with a fantasy flavor (magic systems, specifically) and a unified mechanic that makes it at least as easy to use as GURPS, with less deep tweaking. There are other possibilities…I like Reign quite a bit, but rewriting the magic system in a balanced way is intimidating and the system doesn’t necessarily lend itself as well to exploration and the wilderness as it does politics and intrigue. Burning Wheel would as always be excellent, but the relative specificity of the starting conditions and same issues with inbuilt magic system means that it’s both going to be work to convert and also just not the ideal campaign for the system. What I really want is a simulation-based fantasy RPG with no setting and a flexible/modular magic system…Runequest seems to come closest to checking all these boxes. Not that many people read this blog, but I’d still note here that I am open to other suggestions.

So now this game looks like it could be real. There’s still writing to do…I’m going to trip over myself figuring out how to explain why the characters know nothing about the world around them, for instance. But other than some of the narrative issues, I actually think I know how this game would play. This excites me. The next step is to take all these systems and tables and things I’ve read about, codify and then modify them, and figure out what my procedure will be for running the game. And for all that, I have no idea *when* I’d actually run this game. One step at a time.

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2 thoughts on “World-building: Brass Tacks

  1. “[I]t’s become clear to me that I’m moving further away from writing stories for my players, and closer to the notion of creating game spaces where they get to tell stories with me.”

    I’ve had a similar shift, and it works really well for my games – players are more engaged, and they come up with better ideas than I could ever do on my own. To me, it’s the difference between a good game and a great campaign.

    Thanks also for the link – glad you found the site useful!

    Like

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