This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!
The Ecology of the Setting
Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting. He had a map and had started a timeline. Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design. And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly! So, here is a method that I recommended to him. The analogy is not great, but it does work. It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down. Let me try to set up the idea:
When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it. so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow. Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk! OK. That is the very general description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example. Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!
When you are building a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play. Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present. The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story. Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology? A language? Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design. Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need. As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas. Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches. Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break! Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game. This is important because when you come back to it your fresh. Re-examine what you have. Decide if it still is what you want to use. If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it. Do it as needed. THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers. A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand. Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting. Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it. If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places. If not, do you have a place that you want it to be? Then force a break in the stalk and put it in! That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence. I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!
This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it. This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk! Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?! The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away! Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing. In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life. Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it. Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!
Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point. I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space. Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk. Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy. So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell. The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia. Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers. Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance. Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…
Now we look at the timeline. We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds. So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems. So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships. But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…
There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out. As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…
And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support. Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)
That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!