Alright, boys and girls, I’m back for some more punishment. For those who are new to me, I’ve been working on my own games for a while so I’ve been taking a back-seat on reviews, both because I don’t typically have time, and because that’s a heck of a conflict of interest (so take this with a grain of salt), but I’ve finally gotten my assorted appendages on a copy of Starfinder and I figured I’d write a review, since I was really excited for Starfinder and it was really something that covers a lot of my interests.
One of the trends in the gaming industry has been the shift toward having content be available to a wider player-base, then narrowing down the playing field with premium content for high-value users. Sometimes (semi-perjoratively/affectionately, depending on the writer) called “whales”, high-value users are the super fans of any particular game, studio, or publisher. As I work to bring Loreshaper Games into being, I’m trying to figure out ways to monetize free content in the tabletop roleplaying industry.
Before I begin, let me quickly define free for my purposes:
- Players can join a game with all the core ruleset and at least 90% of core setting content without paying a dime.
- Free players get an appreciably similar experience in terms of portability and mobility (e.g. being able to download rules as opposed to having them available through an exclusively online portal), except for physical goodies.
- Derivatives can be made, including for-profit derivatives and rights-reserved content, albeit with perpetual attribution.
It’s been a while since I wrote a review, but I figured I’d write one, both to stay in shape and because I’m trying to get better about reading more books and I want to make sure that I don’t neglect my writing too much as I do so.
I’ve been a GM and game designer for years now, and one thing that’s always struck me about the process is how much skills overlap there is in the process, and how many nuggets of wisdom carry over from one to the other. I’ve been thinking about some key points now that I’m working on two projects that should see the light of day relatively soon.
I get a lot of comments about how people like settings I’ve created. That’s not bragging, because I’m 95% sure that at least a few of those are sort of forced (yeah, the artist I hired to draw stuff will totally admit that they think my premise is garbage), but it’s happened often enough and reliably enough now that I think I’ve found a few good rules for how to do it, so I’m going to pretend I’m an authority and sketch out some details here.
First, you need passion.
You. Need. Passion.
Not necessarily passion about the setting itself. Some of the stuff I’ve done that people really liked hasn’t been a labor of love for me so much as a testament to my stubborn nature. Rather, you need to have a world in which passion is possible. When I took a class on writing science fiction, I read a rather long (and not terribly wonderful, though I was younger and snarkier so I may not have fully appreciated it) story set in a dystopian future.
Honestly, by half-way through, I was hoping that everyone would die, because there was no passion in the world.
You don’t need some big overarching war or action-packed scene, just something to treasure, something to hope for, something to die for, something to fear. I like to create pantheons for my fantasy settings, because it gives a great way to set the tone and the pace for the setting.
I’ve never seen a character that’s been more interesting than one who is trying to live by a moral code. I think that’s one of the great successes of the Netflix Marvel series (namely Daredevil and Jessica Jones), because they’re about protagonists who need to make a decision about who they are. In our world that’s fairly easy to do, but having codes of religion and codes of law for a setting can really define it.
It’s not enough to just have a code, however. People need to live by it, care about it, have some reason to protect it. They need loved ones and freedom and good society.
That’s what can make bad settings so compelling. White Wolf’s World of Darkness is basically “What if there were a version of our world where all the bad things came true.”
Despite this, some of the best characters in roleplaying and some of the greatest storytelling experiences rise out of the darkness because the people inhabiting this nasty, worn-out world have lovers and children and parents that they want to protect. Their passion is fighting the darkness within and without.
To bring us back to a second point, you need icons in your setting.
Icons let you define the scope.
I think there’s a reason why a lot of really good science-fiction and fantasy franchises focus on central organizations; Star Wars has the Light Side and the Dark Side, Marvel has the Avengers, and The Expanse has the Belt. These are institutions that define the setting, the people and places that we want to look at.
That’s not to say that these stories have to be exclusively monolithic. Star Wars has a massive expanded universe (much of which is now relegated to semi-official status) that contains all sorts of variations on the theme, not all of the Marvel universe’s characters are going to be Avengers, and The Expanse has whole novels that focus very little on the Belt.
However, when you think about what you talk about when you go to talk about these stories, there are clear points for starting conversation. There are entities in the setting that make a good starting point for thinking about it, which makes it entrancing and appealing (and lets you sell a lot of copies of merchandise and books/movies/shows).
When I think of icons, I often think of Stargate. I was too young to really watch it on TV when it came out, but I considered myself something of a fan (oblivious to the fact I had only seen a tiny sliver of the Stargate canon between the movie and a few dozen episodes I managed to watch with my father).
Why did I consider myself so attached to it? Because I could see cool people in military clothes and they were part of an organization that sent people through this glowing metal ring. When you think Stargate, there’s a clear image that pops into your head. Even with the spinoff series, you had the same image.
Good settings have an icon that’s broad enough to serve as a focus for a universe but clear enough to be a subject for a movie, game, or novel in its own right. Every conflict in Star Wars brings good and evil into conflict, the Defenders live in the Avengers’ shadow and they feel the consequences of the major-league heroes’ actions, the inhabitants of Earth have to deal with what they’ve done to the Belters intentionally or not.
I don’t want to ramble too long, so I’m going to cut myself off at three points for this, but another key element of a setting is life.
You need to have life in a setting.
I can tell you how someone in the Expanse goes about their daily lives. They have to deal with the lack of artificial gravity if they’re in a spaceship, or the harshness of a heavy burn, or the fact that Mars and Earth are not perfect analogues and people weren’t made to live on another planet. The show does a wonderful job of showing how many everyday things don’t work the same; you’re going to have to pour stuff differently if you live in a spun-up asteroid.
I’ve watched every single episode of the TV show, read every novel and novella, and even bought the comics on Amazon, despite not being much of a comics guy (and, let’s be frank, ignoring the fact that they’re a mite expensive for what they are). It’s a great setting because it feels like I can live in it.
The World of Darkness pulls this off too. It’s our world, but worse, and while they have some more things to worry about, like vampires who need to get blood and werewolves that haunt the nights, the inhabitants have jobs and stories that I can relate to.
Think about how people live. There needs to be some connection that people can draw between their lives and your world, or else it doesn’t work. Some of the really heavy dystopian stuff is difficult, but I actually like the world of SLA Industries for this: it’s a sort of mad world where reality television and serial killer epidemics are taken to a twisted conclusion, and it works. We can picture people living in fear or hopping down into the sewers to check the pipes and getting eaten by horrifying mutants. We can picture living in a world that’s artificial and pruned and there are people who have and people who don’t have and there’s big forces outside our control that determine who belongs in each camp. We know what it’s like to have people that can do things we only dream of, and be jealous and frightened but also inspired.
All right, I’ve made my points, but I want to do a quick overview of this. I’m going to look at one of my favorite settings, Eclipse Phase (a tabletop roleplaying game by Posthuman Studios).
Eclipse Phase is a world of passion. It’s post-apocalyptic transhuman action set in a world where AIs went crazy and murdered everyone, and players typically take on the role of people hunting down the things that hunted them in the Fall. There’s death and violence but also love and rebirth. Everyone’s living on the edge of extinction, but we’re stronger and more advanced than ever before.
It’s also got some darn good icons. Killbots, exotic aliens, a dead Earth, and, most importantly, the Firewall organization that attempts to gather people from all sorts of backgrounds to stand against them. They have this on the inner cover:
Your mind is software. Program it.
Your body is a shell. Change it.
Death is a disease. Cure it.
Extinction is approaching. Fight it.
Holy crap. That’s a lot of action words, and it’s beautifully terse. Still sends shivers down my spine. Not only do those eight sentences define the whole game’s premise, but it’s also a snapshot of what you’re going to be looking at in the setting. Sure, you might have someone going to meet their favorite celebrity chef, but by the end their story’s going to be tied into those four main tenets.
Where Eclipse Phase fell short for me was having the living world. That’s not for want of trying; there are a half-dozen books that provide a lot of insight about the setting, but you mostly got secret agent stuff and other miscellaneous details, not an image of a life.
Two things really helped me feel like I understood how Eclipse Phase’s people lived. First, I read Altered Carbon, which was one of the inspirations for Eclipse Phase. I don’t know that I’d recommend it: it’s pretty sexually charged and has a lot of foul language, but it has characters who deal with the notion of death and coming back, altering their minds, and changing their bodies. It didn’t really cover the fourth point of Eclipse Phase, but that’s fine.
The second thing that really helped me gain a new appreciation for Eclipse Phase was when they published a book of assorted short stories in the setting: I’d gotten the schtick on how to be a secret agent in space, but it was only seeing into a handful of lives that didn’t belong to the Eclipse Phase of secret agents that I could gain an appreciation for the setting beyond the threats and shiny gadgets.
It’s been a long, somewhat harrowing week, but I’ve still found a little time to work on The Legacy of Eight and that interest survey I sent out. Sleep is for the weak, after all. As I move on with the project, I want to make sure that I’m increasingly transparent: I don’t have incredible readership, but I want to make it clear that I think about things before I do them, dangnabit, even if they turn out worse on paper than they did in my head.
And man, is post-scarcity economics in games a difficult thing to do well.
Good afternoon everyone, I made this for the potential of a The Legacy of Eight crowdfunding campaign.
It’s an interest survey for crowdfunding indie tabletop roleplaying games, If you’re interested, let me know by going through the link above and giving me some precious feedback.
Let me know if there’s something you’d like to see me add.
Today I’d like to give the world the first glimpse of the behind-the scenes detail of non-core mechanics in The Legacy of Eight. Some of these things are related to the Empire System that powers the game, some of these are specific to The Legacy of Eight itself. Nothing here is final, but I don’t see huge alterations being made from these basic principles between now and when serious playtesting begins.
As someone trained in literature through a liberal arts program, one thing that I like to think about as I design games, and as I run or play in games, is the way that modern roleplaying games fit into and defy the literary tradition. There are a lot of things that go into this; classic forms bend, break, or prove strikingly resilient when subjected to the conventions of a tabletop game; the imposition of rules and mechanics often designed to be simulationist rather than serving a narrative frequently muddy the waters and make it difficult to be fully certain where a roleplaying game session lies.
I feel like I should make a quick post; I thought I had posted more recently than I had, and I’ve let things go on a little too long without an update. There’s a certain point at which I wait to get some stuff done before I post, but if I let it go too long we wind up with the “Kyle posts every couple months when he gets the whim” thing going on, and that’s not great.
Anyway, I’m still working on The Legacy of Eight, with some news to be spread about it.