Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Building a Setting

There is a difference between a cool story idea and a game. Being in the video game field I have had a lot of people pitch me their "game" ideas and what follows is a story. Here's an example:

"So there's this girl and she comes from a long line of ancient beings who are like angels but they look like demons, but they helped create the religion of this world."

Interesting story, if a bit cliched. However that was a story pitch, not a game pitch. It misses out on the biggest questions of game design: what will the player do and how will they do it?

If you are planning on using an established rpg system, the "how will they do it" question is mostly answered for you. Although you may need to add some new rules here and there to fill any gaps or capture the feeling you are going for that the system might be missing.

But first let's start with the basics:

What is the action?

What will the heroes be expecting to do in your game? Are they spies committing acts of espionage on rival governments or evil organizations? Are they exploring dungeons looking for loot? Are they taking the One Ring to Mordor?

This is the single most important question in your game. Answering this question informs you about what kind of campaign you are building: an open ended campaign where there is a new quest every week or a fixed goal that ends the story. Use the answer to this question to create the elevator pitch to your players. 

What is an Elevator Pitch? Imagine you walk into an elevator and inside is a big hollywood producer! You have only seconds to grab his attention before he shuts you down or you reach the next floor. So you have to communicate enough of your idea to peak his interest before the meeting is over. A good pitch is short, one or two sentences. It should communicate who the heroes will be, what type of action can be expected, what genre, and the promise of a conflict or mystery (or both).

Example of a Fixed Goal Elevator Pitch: The heroes are pirates on an alien, watery world with a dark secret. With magic, cutlass, and cannon they must uncover the secret to save the world from a growing evil.

Example of an Open Ended Elevator Pitch: The heroes travel around in a funky van, uncovering the truth behind haunted locations and ghostly occurrences. 

Before you add in any more work, you should pitch the idea to your players and see if it interests them. Their input might even alter the pitch into a new concept that they are more eager to play. 

Once you have a winning concept, take notes! Throw down every idea you come up with about the setting. Don't bother editing yourself at this stage. Just because you jot something down in a notebook, that doesn't make it canon to your setting. You can weed through the ideas later or as you play. What you think of as a bad idea may play into your world as it evolves around your players.

What do I need?

Once you have your pitch, next is figuring out what you will need to play. Obviously you'll need to pick a game system. If you can pick one that already has the rules you need for your chosen genre, great. If not, you will need to create a few items.

For the pirate pitch, I will need:
  • gear appropriate to the setting
  • rules for magic
  • rules and stats for ships and ship to ship combat
  • the source of the dark secret, how it is threatening the world, and what might the heroes accomplish to defeat it
  • any additional rules that I might need to give the setting that pirate-y feel, like rules for being drunk or the advantages and dangers of carousing.

Ironically I have to do less work for the Open Ended pitch up front:
  • rules for gear appropriate to the setting
  • rules for magic if I intend to consider it real
  • any additional rules to reinforce the setting. In this case since I am dealing with hauntings, a fear mechanic would be necessary.

For the pirate campaign, because it is telling a fixed conflict I need to create that conflict as well as important locations to that story. I have to create the world with a check list of things that the heroes can to do to resolve that conflict. 

Side note here: The story should be flexible enough that the heroes can fail to meet some of the requirements and still bring about the resolution to the conflict, or have the freedom to find a new way to end it. Remember, you don't want to railroad your players!

For the ghost hunting campaign, I'll need to tell a new story every week. I will have to design "What everyone in the area thinks is happening", "What is actually happening", and a possibly a unique twist to the monster to make it memorable and keep things from feeling stale.  

That's really it for the basics of creating your own campaign. Nail these two and everything else ought to fall into place.

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