In my last post I outlined a brief philosophy of setting creation; advocating the creation of some basic high level features of a world before moving on to a slightly more detailed description of a narrow area within this world. This time I seek to become a little more practical by outlining the steps of creating a these high level details; with a new setting outlined below as an example.
The first step is to develop a concept. This is often more involved for a specialised world, but even a generic world tends to benefit from some mental image or a line or two summarising what you are trying to do.
Specialised worlds may include:
- A timeless Cold War (UltraBase) or perpetual World War (Earth X).
- A world where a certain type of superhuman rules and other types of superhumans are persecuted (Odlican).
- A world in the aftermath of an alien invasion that hasn’t been fully resolved (Avalon Academy) (City of Heroes).
- A world where supervillains have won. (The City) (Old Man Logan).
- A world undergoing various apocalypses. (Nightworld) (Certain SCP Foundation canons).
Generic concepts may include:
- A world in the Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron/Modern age of comics – either actually during this time period or with these attitudes in the modern world.
- A world where superheroes are respected and adored.
- A world where superheroes are dreaded.
- A world where all superheroes have the same origin.
- A world with plentiful crime and incompetent police desperately in need of superheroes.
Note that any of the foregoing generic concepts could become a specialised setting if sufficiently developed and if you branch away from the central idea any of the specialised concepts could produce a generic setting.
Now if you really strictly wanted a de minimus setting, this first step is also the last. Armed with a concept and a ruleset you are ready to invite some players, and get on with playing. However, the subsequent steps are helpful for developing a nice solid foundation for your game so, unless you are committed to challenging yourself, read on.
What I like to call scope is also important to consider.
This covers the related questions of how common superhumans are and how much have they impacted society? You needn’t fill in every detail of how super speedsters now collect the rubbish to be recycled by a robot that eats plastic- or at the opposite end how the police remain bewildered at how the intangible man got out of the handcuffs. But you should have an idea of which end of this spectrum your game approaches.
As discussed in the Superlatives rulebook a setting with numerous superhumans is usually more heavily impacted by them, but you can mix this up with numerous but secret superhumans, or newly introduced superhumans who haven’t yet changed the world: or conversely with one or two exceptionally powerful and charismatic icons who have reshaped the world alone.
Specific numbers (one in a million people are superhumans, four fifths of superhumans think the whole hero villain malarkey isn’t worth it …) is often more detail than you need – although there is a table covering this in the rulebook.
The next element of defining the scope is thinking about what origins you allow. The default in most games I have seen is to either require all characters have the same origin (you are all mutants, all saw the falling star, all products of military experiments) or allowing players almost total freedom to define their own characters.
However you may wish to consider intermediate positions. You can steer the game towards certain styles by customising origins. For example Golden Age heroes tended to be empowered by some combination of elite training, magic and a distinctive gadget or two while silver age heroes are more likely to have a “scientific” origin and a veritable armoury of gadgets. More subtly superheroes in the golden age may be the agents and champions of the gods but its not until the silver age that they become gods themselves. Golden Age heroes would occasionally wield a gun, which almost entirely vanishes from the genre in the silver age, before becoming ubiquitous in the nineties.
Even if you tend to take a laisse faire attitude alien and divine characters imply a lot about the wider setting and you may wish to prepare ground rules on these. “Aliens are allowed, but must be somehow tied to one of the three interstellar empires,” “this game is using the Aztec pantheon, any divine or mystical characters needs to be connected to that somehow,” etc.
In most respects superheroes are assumed to be set in something that looks a lot like our world. There may be numerous differences (superheroes walk the streets, a few extra countries, superhero comics and films look extremely different …) but by and large anything found in our world can be found in a superhero world.
Any major divergences from this expectation can throw players and undermine the integrity of the campaign. To use one example from my own experience: over the course of a year and a half we established what sorts of things existed in the setting: superhumans with whacky origins, uplifted animals (and vegetables), mutants, paranormal extradimensional beings, super spies with advanced gadgets and a mixture of real and fictitious countries.
When one character died the player opted to introduce an alternate reality version of another pc – so our list of things that existed grew to cover alternate histories. This worked fine because we could tie them to the extradimensional beings, and they were kept sufficiently secret that we could imagine them not being brought up yet. However, a year and a half into the game I needed to add in elements from Avalon Academy to get them playtested. Suddenly not only were there aliens- but there was an entire alien invasion in the campaign’s backstory which simply hadn’t been mentioned for some reason. This was met with incredulity and strained everyone’s disbelief. But that’s part of what playtesting is for – to learn what to warn people against.
So, a brief checklist of things to consider:
- Superhumans clearly exist, otherwise this wouldn’t be a superhero setting. But have they existed since the second world war, since antiquity, since the dimensional borer was invented last week?
- Has there been any contact with aliens?
- Are there any other worlds, dimensions or alternate timelines?
- Does magic exist? Are there any particular magical schools and traditions of magic or can players just make that up themselves?
- Are there any gods, and if so what pantheons are there?
- Have there been any “crisis crossover” style events that everyone remembers? You might not know exactly what went on with the multiverse- but you certainly remember the five Earths filling the sky.
- Are there any widely known non-human sentient races (aliens, human offshoots like the Morlocks and Eternals, supernatural creatures like trolls, uplifted animals …)?
This list deliberately is not a comprehensive guide to all possible changes – celebrities, politicians, brands and companies and entire countries are ignored. (They can be addressed in the next step if you feel it is needed). This list only covers existential elements which shape people’s perception of the entire setting.
As alluded to above, even if you leave one of the questions for latter you can choose to (for example) introduce aliens, you just need to explain that they were covered up, or far away and only now invading, or otherwise justify the change. Still planning at this step is helpful for laying the breadcrumbs.
Once you have a concept, defined the scope of superhumans and settled any major divergences you can go down to designing an area- as I will describe in the next post.
However you may wish to fill in a few distinctive features of the world.
These features can be almost anything that changes the world and is likely to turn up in multiple adventures. Major organisations (including organised crime, HYDRA-esque costumed terror groups, conspiracies, mega-corps and government departments), any major locations (like Wakanda or the Savage land) that don’t exist in the real world, any alien races, any gods and pantheons …
You don’t need an exhaustive list at this stage – just follow what interests you. I like organizations so I am likely to create a government agency or two, an expy of HYDRA, a cabal of mystics and similar groups.
Another GM may prefer to develop the world’s most iconic heroes and a top ten most wanted supervillains. Another GM still may prefer to develop schools of thought. Perhaps there are scientific (neogenics anyone?), mystical or even philosophical traditions that are particularly tied to superhumans. While they may have no formal organization a shared intellectual background allows you to tie together heroic and villainous characters alike. (In such a game the publisher of the field’s leading journal may become a surprisingly important figure).
If you know any of your players have particular tastes you might want to add some content tied to this- give a clan of ninja for the anime fan to interact with and a evil megacorporation for your environmentalist to rail against. No doubt a few more ideas will come up in character creation, and you should feel free to add new features as you go along.
If you are stumped for ideas each of the previous big questions implies more questions. If for example you decide there are gods: you raise questions of if these gods are widely worshipped? do they regularly interact with humans? how do they interact with any other pantheons (if any)? and a dozen other questions. Briefly addressing these sorts of questions while leaving space to expand on them if the campaign turns in this direction should fill out the setting.
Likewise, I noted that celebrities, corporations, political figures and fictional countries have all been skimmed over in the previous entry and can be described here.
Now I fully expect the reader to direct my attention back to my early statement that I was meant to be identifying a quantum of material to begin a campaign in yet here I am encouraging you to make more and more. The hypothetical reader is right to counsel caution. A few features built into the heart of the world can shape a campaign and enhance their impact by being woven in right from the start. A score of features designed before the campaign received the slightest contact with players may not be an effective use of time.
Example St. Epipodius
St. Epipodius is a specialised setting that I’m going to use as an example of setting creation.
So, my first step is to have a concept.
Recently I was reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was struck by a line where a character is afraid of dust clouds turning him into a “special.” Although in context it is clearly a euphemism this does sound a lot like an origin story to me. So I started conjuring up an image of a world inspired by the novella. After a devastating global conflict the world is depopulated- partly from the conflict and partly from efforts to colonise the stars. The remaining Earthbound humans dread the clouds of radioactive dust which can transform them into “specials” – beings whose abilities transcend humanity and consequently receive reactions ranging from caution to superstitious dread.
Now that would be enough of a concept to get me going, but I happened to see Total Recall while writing this setting and given the conceptual similarities opted to draw some inspiration from this as well. However Total Recall’s association of mutation with the colonies fits badly with my existing plans of having mutation be a hazard of Earth’s dust clouds so that element will be restricted to Earth.
Now we have already started on defining origins so I will address that before going into broader prevalence questions. Clearly characters can be Specials, empowered by the great clouds of radiation. Players may opt to have additional mutations to varying degrees. Alternatively given the importance of robots to the short story robotic characters will be permitted. There may be prejudice against robotic characters (I’ve not fully decided) but they certainly can’t be legally shot on sight and there will be no generic bounty. There are no living aliens presently known, but colonial archaeologists have found ruins filled with technology beyond even what this future Earth can muster – so characters may be empowered by these ancients. Finally, the option exists to simply be a highly trained human equipped with advanced gadgets. Other traditional superhero origins (lab accident, magic, other dimension etc) will be discouraged, although I expect to talk to the player before banning outright.
In terms of the impact and prevalence of superhumans- the existence of Specials is widely known and dreaded but their exclusion from society means they have little influence on culture, commerce and the like. The police and military are distinctly aware off them and have countermeasures prepared. Alien empowered characters are very rare and countermeasures need to rely on those designed to hunt and counter specials. Robots however are a fully integrated element of society and few businesses lack a robot, although only major factories or government departments are likely to have a player character grade robot. Consequently anti robot measures (EMP, an official override code, etc) will be widely available to police and army personnel.
In demographic terms specials appeared marginalised but not unusual in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? so I decided that perhaps 10% of the population were minor specials with weak powers (in Superlatives terms Child to Trained powers). Powerful specials are much rarer- perhaps one in a thousand. I want the aliens to be mysterious and distant so those empowered by these ruins are extraordinarily rare (especially back on Earth). In addition to the player characters there may be tens of such beings. Finally robots are, as mentioned before, well integrated to society and about as ubiquitous as humans.
Since the initial idea is that this world is depopulated by nuclear war and colonisation the absolute number of humans here is quite low- let’s say a billion folk left on Earth. If I settle on 20% for minor specials that gives us about a billion robots, about hundred million minor specials, a hundred thousand major specials and less than fifty alien empowered folk. This feels a bit more than I had imagined so I shift the ratios slightly, saying 1% are minor specials and one in a million are major specials. This gives us about ten million minor specials and a thousand major specials.
Moving onto the divergences step; we have already addressed our existential questions about superhumans (not until the war/discovering aliens), gods (no), magic (no) and aliens (yes, but only their ruins). I still need to decide if there are any non human sentient races and decide on if there have been any set piece historic events everyone would know about.
I’m not ruling out genetic engineering being used to make non human sentient life within this setting, but we already have a lot of changes from Earth as we know it. Since these genetically engineered races don’t exist in any of my official sources of inspiration I won’t include any unless a pressing need for such creatures (such as a player wanting to play as one) emerges latter in the campaign.
As for set piece historical events- the setting already features the colonisation program, the discovery of alien ruins and the great war. Sooner or latter people will ask which order these came in.
I think the space program needs to predate the great war, otherwise folk will reasonably ask how they managed to muster the logistics of such a massive and novel space program in the devastated post war economy. Meanwhile the aliens are meant to be strange and mysterious- so I don’t think they should be public knowledge until after the war.
Phillip K Dick deliberately left the nature and causes of World War Terminus unclear- but since the question will turn up sooner or latter I will need at least a pencil sketch.
The twenty first century was defined by rapid technological progress, coupled with the rot of institutions. The (relative) commodification of space flight, the manned exploration of the solar system and early efforts towards terraforming exemplify the first. The paranoia, showboating and tactless diplomacy that spiralled into the Global War exemplify the second. Now while this broad draft might not be good enough for publication, for actually playing a game that should be enough- at least until an adventure starts revolving around the origins of the war.
Finally we come to other features of the setting.
The most notable things I haven’t addressed yet are the high tech elements of the world. (Except for those related to space flight and robotics). There are four particularly notable high tech elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: the robots (including the eponymous sheep), the hover cars, empathy boxes and mood organs.
I tend to take a more instrumentalist attitude towards robots so while I don’t want to deny the importance of electronic animals to the original book I’m not convinced these are helpful for a supers game. (Individual animals or an entire robot zoo – definitely – a robot sheep or dog in every household – not so much). Hovercars say “future” without significantly changing game play (at least in a supers game where half the party would be able to fly anyway) so hover cars, lorries, tanks and trains will be widespread.
The empathy boxes and mood organs are harder for me to decide on. The casual dehumanisation involved may be quite important to Phillip K Dick’s literary message but feels like a distinct barrier to entry for a new player- particularly one who hasn’t read the book. Consequently I decide against widespread mood organs. However some mind altering technology- both empathy boxes and Recall style memory alteration will be used. Like the anti-special countermeasures I don’t need to determine exactly what applications have been designed- just that memory and emotion altering technology is around for when plots and characters may be shaped by these.
The next major element of my source material that has gone unmentioned is the weather. Blade Runner famously features constant rain while this whole setting was designed around terrible drifting dust clouds. To model this preoccupation I created the following daily weather table:
|01-10||Special (major storm, clear day, unique plot relevant event)|
|11-20||Torrential rain and thunderstorm|
|21-30||Torrential rain (obscured visibility, slippery surfaces, increased delays in travel)|
|31-40||Heavy rain (reduced visibility)|
|41-50||Light rain (no specific effect)|
|51-60||Low dust (concerning but not likely to have a specific game impact)|
|61-70||Moderate dust (limited travel as folk take cover, small chance of radiation poisoning)|
|71-80||Thick dust (obscured visibility, radiation poisoning, no non-essential travel)|
|81-90||Thick dust with a thunderstorm|
|91+||Special (major storm, clear day, unique plot relevant phenomena etc)|
Finally I know that I will need some sinister corporations and possibly some government conspiracy related to the alien ruins. Since the players won’t be privy to the inner details of each conspiracy for a while and I don’t presently feel very inspired by either I will just make a note to come back to these latter.
Next time I will describe how to design a particular area for your setting, along with specific details of the city of St.Epipbodus.
 At this stage I don’t need to know what the counter measures are- just that they do exist.
 As I said earlier, these sorts of maths is usually not worth it but when writing things out I felt the need for a sense check.