Wednesday, December 3, 2014

GM Wednesday! - Setting Creation: Sci-Fi



the following series of posts was inspired by the fine folks over at Savage GM Hangouts who have decided to broadcast how they build campaign settings. Since I have run out of things to talk about, and since I work well under pressure, I've decided to go step by step through my own process of creating a setting. This will either give you a front seat to my nervous breakdown, or it will be really cool.

If it is neither then I think we will all be very disappointed.


First up...what do I want?


In other words, what kind of game setting will I have fun with. What sort of playground is going to hold my interest long enough to run a game beyond four or five sessions. What place will I create that I will want to keep coming back to, over and over again.

No pressure. 

In my case it's something like Star Wars with a dash of Red Dwarf. I'm looking for Sci-Fi that doesn't take itself too seriously. So I'm settling on Soft/Fantasy Sci-Fi, "have-blaster-will-Smeg" kind of fair.

Why? Because sci-fi used to be fun. Then Blade Runner came along and it seems everyone has been trying to out-do its dark and depressing tones. I loved Blade Runner, but the new BSG can go Smeg itself. It's time to take the pretentiousness down a notch.


Refining the Genre

Just saying Space Opera (or Space Fantasy) isn't quite enough. There are different feels of Sci-Fi fantasy, yes even the dark depressing feels.


  • Dystopian - Waaaaaah! I have a rocket pack but I've lost my soul. No thanks.
  • Transhuman - I can be a dolphin one day and a file in the Cloud the next. Who am I? Who are you? Are you sure? Not the feel I'm looking for.
  • Sword & Planet - It mostly takes the Fantasy genre to heart and adds guns and sky-ships. Cool but not what I'm looking for here.
  • Flash Gordon - This takes pulp down to its roots. I loved the movie from the eighties because it really captured the outrageousness of the original pulp. However it's a bit too outrageous for my tastes.
  • Early 1970's-1980's (I consider a genre unto itself) - Big hair, one-piece jumpsuits, space vixens, evil robots, starships that go "roooarrrwhooosh" in the vaccuum of space. Oh, hell yeah! I want this.


Now that I have a style in mind, it's time to examine the tropes that figure into my chosen genre. In other words what sorts of things would I like to see or happen in my little universe. For instance in this one I'll likely want...

  • Lawless frontiers
  • Overbearing government
  • Evil plans involving super-science
  • Science too dangerous for dimwits to wield.
  • Hives of scum and villainy
  • Alien monsters
  • Criminal syndicates
  • Rubber foreheads (the aliens aren't too alien)
  • Lost civilizations
  • Pirate rivalries
  • Space Vixens
  • Silly robots
  • Deep philosophical discussions about what was really in that bar glass that result in a three week long bar-brawl that migrates to other bars and....
Sorry, my mind was starting to get a little too detailed there.

One thing to remember is that Fantasy Sci-Fi derived from pulp tales of other genres. I can borrow tropes from Westerns, Fantasy, and Pirate movies and integrate them quite easily. And because I am not taking things too seriously, I can pull in sitcoms and teen PSAs if I want. Nothing is forbidden. I can even do a musical episode.

And finally I should figure out what the characters will be doing.


There are a couple of ways to approach this. One is to pitch the idea of running the genre by your players and discuss what they'd like to do there. Are the players more interested in...
  • ...playing spies working for a secret agency in the empire
  • ...rebels waging war against the empire
  • ...free traders just getting into general mischief
  • ...barhopping tourists with really bad luck
Depending on your players they could find a cool angle for themselves in your campaign that you hadn't thought of.

Another way is to just decide for yourself what type of jobs the heroes will be doing and hope your players will dig it. The players I have had in the past were never too picky as long as I was running the game, but when asked they usually went for the Free Trader option.

Since I am prepping this in a vacuum, I'm going to go with the Free Trader angle. However, that means there will be a lot of "finding the job" scenes that could become tedious and repetitive. What if I went with the idea that the heroes are Free Traders, but they are also contractors for a private troubleshooting company. Whenever someone seeks out the company for help, the company acts as an employment agency, hiring out the contract to the right group in their files to tackle the problem. That means that the jobs can find the heroes even if they aren't looking in the right place.

What's more, this troubleshooter bureau isn't official so the local authorities won't recognize or aid these mercenary agents. In fact they'll likely do everything they can to hinder the agents. Maybe the reason that people flock to hiring troubleshooters is because the local authorities are so corrupt that they are charging exorbitant prices from the victims before they start investigating, thus the authorities are only interested in helping the rich. That fits with the oppressive government trope.

So to sum up...



  • I have a space fantasy setting involving cool starships, strange aliens and blasters
  • It will have that light-hearted, near comedic pulp adventure feel
  • And the heroes will be travelling around, solving problems with blasters and bombastity while dodging the corrupt and oppressive authorities, criminal syndicates, star zealots, and power grabbing secret societies


Next week we'll take a look at what I will need to make this setting a reality. What elements of Sci-Fi will I keep, and what am I going to toss?

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