STEP 1 – LEARNING FROM THE MISTAKES OF THE PAST

I’ve been wanting to make a proper science fiction RPG setting for a while now. In particular, I’m looking for something to use with GURPS. From my (albeit limited) experience, GURPS is definitely the sort of system which needs a more established setting than most. With something like D&D, you can set up a game quickly – there’s nothing that needs to be done with the rules, and a “vanilla fantasy setting” is something that’s well understood, at least intuitively, by most players. They’ll expect that there’ll be swords, sorcery and the slaughtering of monsters.

Even though they’re not in the image, it’s easy to imagine what the rest of this world looks like. There’s probably a horde for the dragon. There are likely halflings and gods. The technology is a “roughly middle-ages” sort of thing.

With a science fiction setting, especially for GURPS, more nuance is needed.

Look at this sci-fi battle image, and try to extrapolate the details of the setting as a whole. It’s much, much, harder.

I’ve tried my hand at making RPG settings before, though nothing extremely serious. This has had varying degrees of success with them, and they were often just enough to run a setting in – just scraping the bare minimum, with a few minor additions. I’ve haven’t “completed” a setting though (or at least, reached a point where I’m satisfied with what’s there so far). Traditionally, I’ve just played them with a rough skeleton of an idea in my mind, and added to them when the need arose. Even though I’ve done this many times, I’m not really a fan of this approach – it was just practical (and low-effort) for the time. It meant I could get a game out on the table quickly, but it lacked the fine-tuning and polish a properly-designed setting would have.

Every setting I’ve made so far, bar one, has been for a fantasy setting, so science fiction is somewhat “new ground” for me. The exception to this is “Extrayn” – a soft sci-fi setting I made to run GURPS 3e with friends. To summarise this endeavour – it was a resounding failure. This isn’t to say it wasn’t useful though! I made plenty of mistakes that present an opportunity to learn from. This is what I’ll be expanding on in this post.


EXTRAYN – LESSONS TO LEARN FROM

In 2018, I played GURPS 3e for the first time, with friends from home. A friend of mine introduced me to the system, and ran a sci-fi game for six of us. Though the system was complex, I readily adapted, absorbing it quickly. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to run a game myself, to try my hand at a new genre.

In January 2020, I decided to run a GURPS 3e game for five of my university friends (my “university group“). None of them had played the system before, and all of them had fewer than 3 months of experience with RPGs. I pitched the idea to them, telling them that I’d be running the game in a month’s time. This “month” quickly turned to “1 week”, as we were keen to get going. This game lasted for about 9 weeks, before COVID stopped us from continuing.

I was still determined to play, so in May 2020, I organised a GURPS 3e game for some of my “home group” – four players in the original game I’d played in, so they already had experience with the game. Many of my experiences ended up being similar between both groups, so I’ve lumped them together for the most part when discussing them.

For both groups, I never really liked the way I ran the games. I also really didn’t like how the setting manifested during play. This wasn’t due to lack of effort – by the time of the second university session, I had already put at least 100 hours into the setting, and hundreds more by the time I ran Extrayn for my home group. It wasn’t the effort, but the way I approached the setting and the game itself.


ALL THE WRONG BLOAT IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

One of the major issues that made things difficult was how bloated some aspects of the setting were. I envisioned a “soft sci-fi” world, but still felt contrained by the realism of a “hard sci-fi” world. The setting had psionics and FTL, but it wasn’t enough to just say “they work”. I had to explain them as though they were completely grounded in reality. Anyone even remotely familiar with psionics/FTL would know this would be impossible, and yet I tried anyway.

The end result was page after page of nigh-incomprehensible notes, which only added to the confusion of anyone reading about the setting. To understand how psionics worked, a player would need to understand the philosophy of the mind. This is a topic that would make anyone groan if they had to talk about it in any detail, and yet I made its understanding vital to some of the core features of the setting. When I tried to explain how they worked to the players, it would sometimes take hours of dicussion to even roughly understand the fundamentals. This wasn’t their fault, either – I didn’t have a full understanding myself.

It’s not really possible to explain how FTL travel works in hard sci-fi terms. Even the potential explanations out there will stump 99% of players who sit at your table.

The issue here was that these details weren’t actually important for the game. Players didn’t care about the nitty-gritty detail of how everything worked, and neither did I. We just wanted to get down to play – a simple, one-sentence setting-consistent explanation would have sufficed. I prepared pages of documents outlining these features in heavy detail, but they weren’t useful. I sent the comprehensible ones to the players, but they weren’t helpful, and were crammed with unnecessary detail.

Here’s an example of a situation that arose from this:

Within 10 seconds of the first “home group” session, one of my players wanted to perform an action that, as a psionic character, he might be able to take. To someone with only a cursory understanding of the setting, it was something that seemed plausible. Unfortunately, he had missed out on a buried sentence in one of the many pages of documents I had sent out, which prevented it from being done at that time. I didn’t want to spend an hour going over the way psionics worked in the setting, so I just said “it doesn’t work, sorry”, and moved on, likely leaving the player confused (and possibly frustrated). He didn’t understand why he was unable to do something that looked plausible, and he wasn’t able to easily access the reason why.

To give a major example of unnecessary bloat, I can turn to the mapping. I used GURPS: Space (3e) to map out the Extrayn galaxy, and then tried to make an efficient transport network between the ~400 systems it generated. This easily took up most of my time on the setting – likely at least 150 hours. The network system involved several 500 x 500 matrices, and the resulting map was a confused mess. Once things got really messy, I simplified the map (seen below):

These maps aren’t useful for anyone. Players who looked at this map had no idea where anything was. As a GM, I had no idea either. The map was just a tangled mess of numbers and lines. As you can probably tell, I never completed the map. The countless hours I put into it were wasted, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to use those maps for anything else either. I’m not sure if I’d even want to. Had I spent those 150+ hours on anything else, perhaps the setting would have worked better.

RULES. SO MANY RULES.

Another area that really impacted the game was how bloated the gameplay was. Anyone even remotely familiar with GURPS will realise that it’s a very detailed system, with rules for everything. GURPS, fundamentally, is a toolkit – the GM is expected to pick and choose the rules they think best suit their game.

My approach was different. I used every single rule I could find. The first combat with my home group lasted for several 5-hour sessions, even with Roll20 macros that expediated a few of the combat steps. I wanted to use every rule, feeling it would emulate reality better, and every relevant modifier was calculated and added rolls. The game frequently ground to a halt, with dozens of rules needing to be checked and cross-referenced for everything each player and NPC did. This did not make for exciting play – many times I just wanted the combat to be over.

Just because all these rules exist DOES NOT mean you have to use all of them!

SCARCITY OF INFORMATION

Running parallel to the issue of the non-rules bloat, there was another issue. Nearly every aspect of the setting that was important to players (and the game) were inadequately detailed (if at all).

For example, a major evil megacorp, widespread across Extrayn, was given no more detail than “This company is called Nothic – it makes pretty much everything electronic, and the CEO is Lyron Drubbah, a sinister visionary”. This company was to be the major antagonist of the campaign, and every character and NPC in the setting knew what Nothic was. The players, however, had very little clue – I gave them very little to go on, so any stakes wouldn’t matter.

Another example – a major religion in the setting was never really described either. This religion was meant to have major signifcance, and supposedly shaped the way entire species behaved. One of my home players wanted to play a spiritual, religious medic from a race of tree-people, who were genetically tied to the religion. Unfortunately, the religion was never really detailed, with little more than “the religion practices peace, neutrality, and the spreading of life across the galaxy”. This gave the player very little to go on, which was a shame, as I really wanted him to “play up” the religious aspect of his character. I had made that impossible for him.

This was the entirety of the information on the religion I provided to the player. This was one of the most heavily described parts of the setting!

Worse still, these two examples are actually of some of the most described features, and still had next-to-no substance. There was no useful information to go on, which meant that when setting up the game, I may as well have said “build a sci-fi character, here are some alien stats, go!” Looking back on it, I should have realised it was doomed to fail from the start.


IT’S NOT DOING WHAT I WANT!

In the games for each group, I ended up being put off by the fact that the game wasn’t filling the sort of “action packed soft sci-fi” theme I had initially envisioned. The game was slow and clunky, and the fact that no useful guidance was given often meant that players made decisions that were often counter to what I hoped. This wasn’t their fault, but rather, mine.

For example, I wanted the game with my home group to be about moral quandries, and the difficulty of sticking to moral codes. I told the players to come up with characters that were altrustic and had some sort of extreme (but fundamentally benevolent) moral code. Tenets like “I aim to tell the truth” weren’t enough, and neither could potentially-twistable-to-evil ones like “the welfare of the many outweigh that of the few”. They had to be concrete, extreme and unambiguous. The code also had to unify them.

These restrictions ultimately shoehorned them into a party of pacifists. None of their characters were suited to action or combat, both very essential to what I had imagined for a spacefaring adventure! They specialised heavily in mental skills, and even the most difficult non-combat tasks were trivial for them. When it came to combat, they struggled immensely, which brought about the many-session-long combat I mentioned earlier. I had previously told them that I would adopt the campaign to their choices, but this became difficult as their choices diverged very heavily from what I expected.

This is not a scene you’re likely to see if every one of your characters is an action-fearing pacifist.

In effect, I had engineered the game’s demise. Again, this wasn’t the fault of the players – they made sensible choices based on what they had. In restrospect, I should have guided them on the sorts of adventures I wanted to run, and what characters would fit best into the adventure. Getting disappointed that they weren’t conforming to my ambiguous vision for the campaign would be irrational – if I were to ask an architect to “design a holiday home, do whatever you want”, I shouldn’t be disappointed if they designed a beach house instead of a ski chalet.


SUMMARY

In essence, I had created a GURPS setting that bloated the parts nobody cared about, neglected the parts people did care about, used every single rule possible, and grew disappointed when the game didn’t run in the way I had expected.

I had also approached the setting wrong – I had very much designed the setting first, and then tried to force the game around that. I now realise that this is likely the wrong way to do things. The setting, from the start, was meant to be played in. This means it’s better to do the reverse. I should design the game first, and then construct the setting around that.

Of course, the setting and the game are dependent on one another – it is very difficult to do one without some idea of the other. So really, what I’m saying, is:

“The setting should be designed to fit the idea of the game I want to run, rather than designing the setting and praying the game will fit.”

So what of Extrayn? The setting, unfortunately, will likely never be revisited. Once the bloat is removed and the many issues sorted, there wouldn’t be anything left. Instead, I’ll start afresh with a blank slate, avoiding the issues of the past. By taking a much-improved approach, I’m hoping to have a much-improved setting, and hopefully I’ll eventually have one I’m proud to run.

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