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PostPosted: Sun Mar 09, 2014 12:42 pm 
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Building a game world that simulates an existing setting - whether it be from a movie, novel series, comic books, video game or history - can be quite a bit of fun. But there are some pitfalls to avoid.

The big advantage is that you don't have to create everything from scratch. Work already done by others, whether it be the author who created the original work, researchers or other fans, does a lot of the legwork for you. But that doesn't mean it's work-free.

I get a big kick out of history and archaeology. I thoroughly enjoy historical gaming - often including appropriate fantasy elements in keeping with the setting (don't get me started on how Ars Magica uses early modern faerie lore when there's perfectly good 12th and 13th century lore there for the researching). And being a geek, I love many fictitious settings, too.

In the past I've used medieval Europe, Heroic Age Greece, the Robin of Sherwood TV series and, of course, Middle Earth. I also did a fair amount of research for a 1930s pulp game set around East Africa and the Indian Ocean, but abandoned it when I realised that the vast majority of players would be coming from countries that my country colonised during that period - I'd play in a game in that setting run by someone else, but I shouldn't gamesmaster it.

Note that a number of popular settings (and some less-known ones) already have commercial tabletop settings - Star Wars, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, Middle Earth and more - and for any given historical period, there's likely to be a GURPS worldbook. This isn't really about using those commercial settings, but about creating your own. Don't rule them out as sourcebooks, but don't let them dominate your vision.

Here's a brief guide to some of the steps and some of the issues you'll encounter.

Do your research

You need a thorough knowledge of the setting. Read around it. Look to secondary sources and syntheses, including internet sites such as fan wikis. Encyclopedias are particularly useful - the Dune Encyclopedia, the Complete Guide to Middle Earth, the Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Wookiepedia, the Mass Effect Wiki.

Try to be specific, and look for holes in the source material that you'll need to shore up with educated guesswork or outright invention. There are a number of common game requirements we expect as players that can be difficult to find information about (it's pretty much impossible, for instance, to build a reliable price list for 12th century England - the sources are sparse, and inflation at the end of the 12th century was very high and affected some goods more than others; a price for one good from one year may be completely out of whack with another).

Sometimes you'll find fan creations that might fit the bill, at other times you're on your own.

Among the things you should look out for are:

    Maps: Gamers love 'em, but sometimes they don't exist, or not in the detail we want (example, there are pretty good maps of north-western Middle Earth in the original sources, but what about the East and South? Tolkien gave a pretty good description of Bree and Minas Tirith, but he didn't map either of them.)

    Illustrations: A picture paints a thousand words, and it's great to be able to hand over a picture of something to players, whether it be a house, a landscape view or an object they've found. For complex objects they may wander through, cutaway drawings are superb (pirate ship, a castle, a Firefly-class cargo ship, etc - take a look at this cutaway of a medieval cottage.)

    Timelines/chronologies: Always handy when you're trying to plan a campaign.

    Biographies: If you're doing a sim setting, you simply must include some of the characters who make it colourful, whether as NPCs or as PCs.

    Price lists: Players always want to buy something to give them an edge, whether it be a henchman, a starship, a castle or a new suit of armour. And sometimes they want to go into trade and commerce. There are settings for which prices are immaterial, but in general you want one. That also means you'll need to know something about currency.

    Conspiracy theories: If they don't exist for your setting, invent them. What's really going on? Who's really pulling the strings? You need these because the basic plot of the setting (whether it be fictional or historical) is likely to be well-known - or easily researchable by players.

If your setting has a rigid social heirarchy, you may also need to find a way that lets PCs step outside it. This includes matters such as race, religion, gender and orientation.

Try to be focussed with your research. For historical games you can go on researching as long as you want; there is no end. It is a failing of mine that I enjoy research; several potential campaigns have never made it off the drawing board because I enjoyed the research so much I kept going at it until I'd no longer any interest in running a game based in that setting (or because that last bit of info I needed was hard to find, or I found a new cool setting I simply must research).

Don't let your research show

Amosphere and verisimilitude are great, but games should not turn into lectures - whether it be about history or about some aspect of a cult geek setting. That goes for players too - if a player disagrees with an interpretation, or even a fact, acknowledge, resolve it as quickly as possible, and move on. Geeky dissections of settings are for after the game, or on another evening. Don't get bogged down in the details.

That doesn't mean you should ignore all aspects of the setting - but try to boil them down to what's immediately relevant. And if there's something a player doesn't seem to know that their character would, briefly tell the player what they need to know.

Choose your rule system carefully

Unless you want to create a dedicated rule system (which is adding to your workload considerably), you'll want to adapt an existing system. Maybe your choice is limited, maybe ypu have dozens of rule systems on your shelf - but no matter how many you have, it's unlikely any of them will fit a setting precisely.

My advice is to find something that fits the broad sweep of what you want. You then have to decide whether you'll alter the setting to fit the rules, or alter the rules to fit the setting. It's likely you'll end up doing a bit of both.

You'll probably have to spend a bit of time translating potential character backgrounds into game terms, and perhaps equipment, creatures and magic/psionic systems. How much reworking you do is really a matter of personal choice - perhaps you'll accept standard D&D/Pathfinder classes in Middle Earth, perhaps not.

Let the players' story take its course

In general, once you bring the setting to the table, the players should be the movers and shakers of the world. Yes, history will take another course - but that could just as easily happen with an exceptional dice roll. It's the job of you and your players to keep the story moving on its new trajectory.

Likewise, if you're letting the players play established characters from the setting, let their interpretation of those characters rule. You may want to discuss the overall parameters before the game, but at the end of the day if they want their Han Solo to kill in cold blood or their Robin Hood to keep the loot, that's their call (there may be in-game consequences, of course - the peasants may not support Robin so enthusastically, or Leia may not fall in love with Han).

One possibility is to create your own sub-setting - something outside historical fact (or setting canon). This insulates the overall setting from the players (though it doesn't player-proof it), and can allow you to use different aspects of the setting in one location. Ken Follett used this technique in his novel Pillars of the Earth - the fictional town of Kingsbridge was set in the mid-12th century English Anarchy, and almost every calamity which befell a town during that period happened to Kingsbridge.

Another possibility is to use develop a hyperlocal micro-setting - if your PCs are private investigators on Coruscant, the events of the Rebellion are distant backdrop.

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 11, 2014 11:20 am 
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Another interesting post. I would love to play in a ‘realistic’ medieval world. One where people died of tetanus and gangrene and magic was ‘low magic’. I think that would be great fun, and would make all the players think twice about combat.
As strawberry/banana preference I loath reffing or playing in other peoples’ worlds (40K, LoTR etc). So many players just wish to indulge their, ‘I am slim and handsome and the elf ladies would fancy me,’ fantasies or the ref is chugging his way through favourite scenes. I find the restrictions horrendous. People arguing canon is dull. People arguing canon changes is just as dull. And a player raising a pedantic geek finger and waggling on about them knowing more than you is infuriating. I find that established settings kill creativity.
But a game run by a student of history and archaeology? Who would I be to quibble over inflationary prices and rates of infection? I think that sounds splendid. Unless of course everyone else was a historian of the same period, and then we would be back to arguments about cannon.
Interestingly, although I loathe George RR Martin’s stories, I think his world is credible. A wonderful mix of fantasy and politics that could belong in any country and any age.


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 17, 2014 11:07 am 
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There are definitely settings that lend themselves to RPG adaptation more than others.

For example, I had difficulty coming up with a sustainable campaign for the Battlestar Galactica RPG, because the main storyline is so tightly scripted. The only thing I could think of was to have the PCs remain on Caprica fighting a guerilla war against the Cylons, which wasn't particularly satisfying.

But there are often ways around problems. ICE's Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP) took 1640TA as its main period - nearly 1,500 years before the War of the Ring. Other LOTR games have focussed on the Fourth Age, after the War of the Ring.

While I like weaving my stories in and around canon (or history), there are always people who know more than you. My approach is very much that the players control this particular story; if it diverges from what happened in the books, or the movie or whatever, so be it.

Unlike you and Omar, I've tended to use other people's worlds far more often than I have my own. I've had several attempts to create my own worlds, but haven't been able to sustain them - sometimes it's just bad luck (notes get lost or destroyed - I lost one to a badly leaking roof, another to a hard-drive crash), sometimes because I flit from idea to idea like a butterfly. But mostly it's because I have so much difficulty deciding that a setting is 'ready'. Over-preparation of background detail is my great vice.

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