Choosing the World

Although I will, of course, develop the detailed design of the game world while I’m working on the game, I do need to choose the basic type of world I want to create. Since we are focusing on things I’m personally interested in, there are four options: “classic” fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and historical.

By “classic” fantasy I mean, essentially, the sort of fantasy world popularised by Tolkien and his imitators. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, swords and sorcery. That sort of thing. Yes, a lot of role-playing games have used this background, most famously Dungeons & Dragons. However, the basic aim of my game is sufficiently different from that of D&D that using a familiar background might actually be a good thing, if I’m aiming at an audience of role-players. If the background is classic fantasy, the players’ assumptions about the general ways in which the background works will be correct, which will help them get into the game, and make sensible choices from the background options available. As the basic goals of the characters are very different from those in other role-playing games, a bit of familiarity could be a big help. In addition, this is something I keep coming back to when I look at classic fantasy worlds; I really like them, no doubt in part because they were an important element in my formative years, but the games set there do not support the sorts of characters I actually want to play.

What about the other sort of fantasy, modern fantasy? If I wrote a modern fantasy game, I would probably set it in Japan. It would be something like Tamao: The RPG. Of course, that would make the background very unfamiliar to the players, apart from the handful of English-speaking role-players who live in Japan, unless I wrote it in Japanese and targeted the Japanese market. However, I suspect that’s a bit too ambitious for the moment. I could set it in the UK or the USA, but that removes one of the big advantages of putting it in Japan: I can’t use information and images that I can gather just by walking around the area where I live.

Moving away from fantasy, if I created a science fiction world it would be fairly hard science fiction, not space opera. However, since the things that characters would create would include new scientific theories, it couldn’t be hard science fiction according to the strict definition, because the characters would discover things that broke the currently-established laws of nature. (This is, however, a fundamental problem for hard science fiction; new scientific laws will be discovered in the future, so if you set something far enough in the future it’s not hard science fiction if you don’t make something up, but also not if you do. Obviously, there are ways round this, but it does make the standard definition less applicable than it might be.) I’d probably set it in a somewhat transhumanist setting, like those used in Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase, because those settings provide a lot of space for engineering creations as well as for fundamental scientific discoveries, and thus make it easier to create a setting that supports a long-running campaign. It’s a bit hard to maintain continuity, and interest, if you completely restructure the world every week.

Finally, a historical setting would probably start with a straight historical setting, without fantasy, but the actions of the player characters would quickly turn it into an alternate history setting. They might make scientific discoveries and change the technological background, or create important new works of art, or change the political structure. In any case, the aim of the game would be to enable the player characters to change history, in deep and fundamental ways. However, the first changes might be quite minor, so this would also have an educational aspect, as the players would naturally learn about the historical period while playing.

The downside of both a hard scientific setting and a historical setting is that a large amount of research would be needed to do them properly. I could probably do a historical game set in medieval England based on the research I’ve already done, and I have enough scientific background to be able to make a stab at the science fiction, but in either case I’d have to do even more research. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because I like research, but it is another barrier to getting started on writing the actual game. I probably don’t need any other preparatory projects to waste my time on.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the modern fantasy setting. While I only need to go outside and walk around for some things, for others I really would need to find out how Japanese society works in that respect, and that might not be at all easy. Again, it’s something I want to know, but research takes me even longer in Japanese than in English (my Japanese reading speed is still not the same as my English reading speed), so it would, again, significantly delay the creation of the actual game.

Looking at all of these issues, it rather looks as though the classic fantasy setting is the best choice to start with. I can just make the background up to fit the structure of the game, which is likely to be helpful while I am still trying to get things working. More generally, I can just make bits of background up as I need them, and, as long as I keep track of them, they can’t be wrong. I might decide I want to make revisions later, and there will be time for that, but I can’t make actual, unambiguous mistakes.

The next step, then, is to start actually writing the game. This process, however, will not lend itself to regular blog posts, and virtually nobody is reading these posts anyway, so while I think I will post about it from time to time, when there is something significant to say, this will be the last of this semi-regular series.

Posted in Game Design.

6 Comments

  1. I’m reading most of the game posts, although through the RSS reader rather than visiting the blog web page.

  2. Ah, invisible readers. It’s nice to know that the posts aren’t just going out into the void, in any case. I hope you enjoyed them.

  3. It seems to me that one of the biggest difficulties with a fantasy setting will be building a magic system that feels right, especially in a creation-based RPG. Players are going to want to be able to make their own spells, and then use them; you’ll need to provide a way to check the power of these spells somehow.

    One of the biggest dangers to the suspension of disbelief that I’ve found in fantasy settings is that the role of magic in the game world doesn’t match the actual difficulty and usefulness of performing magic. If magic is easy, then everyone probably knows one or two useful, everyday, spells. If failures can be devastating, it is probably regulated in some way in most places (guilds, laws, etc.). If magic is expensive, then it may become a status symbol. If only a select few are capable of performing magic, it will be expensive. Also, wizards may be second-class citizens, simply because they’re different.

    I’ve always been interested in seeing how things get made, so I’d be happy to round up some friends and do some play testing for you once you have something playable, even if it’s just an early draft.

  4. Eric, thanks for the comment. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    After nearly 20 years working on Ars Magica, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to build the background system for people to make their own spells. Getting it to play the role in society that the rules suggest and support is more difficult (Ars Magica sticks things in the background to hand wave that away).

    Thanks for the offer of playtesting. Once I have time to get it into shape, I might well take you up on it. Right now, I’m too busy with Ars Magica, alas.

  5. My friends and I have started a D&D campaign in southern Kyushu. Personally, I would love to play Tamao: The RPG…

  6. Avery, thanks for the comment. It’s nice to know that I wouldn’t be the only person interested in Tamao: The RPG, but I suspect that it would be a tiny niche market. On the other hand, all RPGs cater to tiny niche markets, so maybe that wouldn’t be a problem.

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