STEP 2.1 – WHO IS THIS SETTING FOR?

I’d first like to plug Mailanka’s Musings, an incredible blog that served as inspiration for this post (and this site as a whole). This post is similar in many ways to his one here. The content of this particular post is likely to run along a similar vein to his, as the title of this post is a vital question to meditate on when considering a setting. I’m essentially writing out similar thoughts, but in my own words – it’s an “excercise” for me, rather than a deliberate attempt to cover new ground.


So, we want to make a Space Opera setting for GURPS. Before we can even look at the broadest strokes of the world, it’s worth establishing who the setting is for. Our answer to the title question will help motivate thematic decisions when it comes to designing the world.

First, RPG groups are not made of clones. If you ask someone with no experience with RPGs about what they consider the average “Dungeons and Dragons” player to be, it’s likely they’ll all give fairly similar (possibly unflattering) descriptions. However, someone with a bit more experience will know that the types of players you’ll encounter vary massively – particularly with how they approach the game.

One large mistake I think many people make is to design their setting for clones – i.e. one type of player. Usually this “clone” is a reflection of themselves. This often means that their setting alienates those who don’t conform to a very specific set of expectations, and it has limited versatility.

This is probably not what your average RPG group looks like. At least, not yet – the future could change everything.

The more you focus on catering to one specific type of person, the more you alienate the rest. Furthermore, even “clones” have minor differences between them, which makes catering to one “player type” more difficult.

I’ve gave thought to the types of players that often sit down at my table. This post will go into detail on the four “player archetypes”, named after a few of these wonderful players. This isn’t meant to be disparaging, and even these players don’t exactly fit the “archetypes” I’ve assigned them. I might be completely wrong on which type they fall into, which just stresses how dangerous it can be to cater to only one type of player!

There are probably more than 4 archetypes, but traditionally the “typical” RPG table will probably have the Game Master and four other players.


As a side-note, one of the benefits of having an online presence for this setting design project is that it could plausibly be read by anyone. This means that I’ll always have “will this appeal to everyone?” in the back of my mind, which encourages trying to cater to a wide variety of people!


THE “TARUN”

Tarun is the sort of player who wants a lot of setting material. From my experience, this sort of play may also be a polymath of sorts, with knowledge covering a variety of fields of the sciences and the humanities. They’ll likely want to use this knowledge in play, and their character may be built around a concept from a field they’re really interested in – whether it’s a biomedical scientist, or an Aztec-inspired zealot. They’ll want the setting to make sense – and consistency is key. If something works one way in one part of the setting, and works in a different way elsewhere for no good reason, it’s going to put them off.

For example, if a GM tries to run a hyper-realistic Stone Age campaign, and then gives every NPC a Glock and a spaceship, Tarun will want an explanation, especially if these things don’t otherwise affect the setting. If his village just discovered stone tools, how did they fashion an advanced pistol? Why are people still using spears? Why are there spaceships in a hyper-realistic Stone Age setting? Is the GM delusional?

Tarun problably isn’t expecting this from a “hyper-realistic Stone Age setting”.

It’s not that Tarun is against the idea of “Stone Age, but with pistols and Spaceships”. It’s more that he wants the setting to be consistent. If the GM can provide adequate justificaton for their presence in the setting, and makes sure that the ramifications of doing so are explored, he’ll be more content than if they were just dropped in there without care.

Tarun will want this sort of detail in the setting, and then more. When they make their character, they’ll be looking through all of the setting information to immerse themselves in it. They enjoy finding the small details they can put to good use during play. To Tarun, a detailed setting rich with detail and content is far more interesting (and thus, to him, enjoyable) than a simple setting with nothing beyond a few paragraphs of detail. To him, the depth is vital for immersion.

Overall, Tarun values a setting with depth and consistency, but also one that makes sense. Tarun doesn’t want the setting to be overly simple, inconsistent, and especially doesn’t want unexplained things of importance.


THE “ELLIE”

When Ellie sits down at the game table, she wants to get straight into the thrill of the game. She doesn’t want to endure a 6-hour political prologue before she gets to swing her sword. Ellie doesn’t need everything explained to her to have fun – as long as things don’t bend too far on the surface level, she’s willing to go with GM “handwavium” for things to work. She doesn’t care about the para-physical mechanics behind FTL travel, only that it works.

She probably doesn’t want to spend too long making a character, either – it’s not that she doesn’t care about her character – it’s more that she doesn’t need her character to be optimised or very specifically tailor-made to a concept to have fun playing it. The quicker she can have something out on the table, the better. When it comes to playing the game, she doesn’t want to be bogged down by maths and countless special rules – this takes away from the action and adventure!

Ellie doesn’t want to spend countless hours reading. She wants action.

When it comes to setting detail, Ellie doesn’t want to have to know every aspect of the setting to play in it. She’s especially not going to like it if the GM requires her to read 100 pages of political lore before she can understand how the world works. If the GM is going to give her detail, the detail must be important, and it should be possible to summarise the detail in a few sentences.

So, overall, Ellie likes being able to get into the action immediately. She doesn’t like unnecessary detail, heavy maths, and complex rules.

It’s easy to think that Tarun and Ellie are polar opposites, and you can’t have a game with both. At face value, Ellie seems to desire simplicity, whereas Tarun seems to value compexity. However, their desires are not at odds. Ellie is fine with further depth, as long as she doesn’t need a detailed understanding before getting into the action. Tarun is fine with “surface-level” simplicity, as long as it still makes sense and he can to go into depth if he wants to. With some adjustments, these rules can be brought together.

Overall, the setting should have a low “mental buy-in” to start play. Everything should be intuitive and reflect expectations, and unnecessary detail is bad. However, for those that want to look deeper “behind the curtain”, there should be ways of doing so, as long as those things are consistent. The stuff that can be explored further should be the important things, so that if the players discuss the setting during play, it won’t be about some esoteric aspect which Ellie wouldn’t even have thought could exist.


Even with only half of the “player archetypes” explored, you might notice that this sort of restriction warrants a certain approach to setting design. I’m going to say something controversial here:

You ready?

The Space Opera setting should not set out to be incredibly different to those that came before it.

Bear with me here. This seems odd at first – most people will instinctively feel that it’s bad practice to go with standard tropes and clichés. Why bother making a setting if it doesn’t stand out?

The reason for this controversial idea is to minimise player “mental buy-in”, for those that aren’t prepared to read 80 pages of notes on critical differences. This may seem like I’m overly catering to Ellie here, but you’ll see that this idea is also beneficial for Tarun as well. I’ll use an example to demonstrate this:

In the spiderverse, there are no humans. In fact, everyone is a spider. “Huh”, you may be thinking. “Spiders are from Earth. You didn’t come up with the creature. What makes this setting different?” Well, my friend. In this universe, all spiders have no fewer than 12 legs. This is a science fiction universe, so of course there’s space travel. I can see you thinking now – “Doesn’t basically every science fiction have space travel?”. Not so fast! In the Spiderverse, people travel through space with massive spiderweb slingshots instead. Only they don’t look like slingshots, because those are too common on Earth. I’ll explain that one later. Anyway, these spiders put themselves in a cocoon (did I tell you that all of these spiders turn into one-legged butterflies afterwards?), and go through the vaccuum of space. You may be thinking “Well, every sci-fi has space”. Let me tell you this, my friend. This isn’t space as you know it. Space is a liquid. These spiders aim for wormholes (made by literal space worms, mind you), which act like massive plugholes, sucking in the space-fluid and everything suspended in them. After a spider goes through, they appear somewhere else in the galaxy far above the “space liquid”. They then fall down as rain, hopefully near where they want to go. But how do these spiders move after they land in the space fluid? Surely they need to land on a planet somehow! What if it’s at the bottom of the space-fluid sea? Well, my friend, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because we’re only just getting started…

This setting “brief” is indeed very different to the typical Space Opera (please, contact me for the rights to this spider setting). If you’re confused by the wall of text above, I’m not suprised. Tarun is going to feel very uncertain about a setting like this. Sure, he likes depth, but he needs some solid foundation to build up from. This “foundation” is fundamentally based on what his expectations of a “Space Opera” are. The more a setting strays from the stereotypical Space Opera, the greater the mental buy-in, and the higher the chance of confusion. Even when everything is explained, there’s bound to be many times where something doesn’t work the way it might in a standard Space Opera, and the GM will then need to spend ages explaining it all.

A unique setting for sure, but absolutely terrible for running games in.

Ellie certainly won’t read through 80 pages of this nonsense. Worse still, if every page is packed with “uniqueness”, she’ll frequently be taken by suprise when she’s missed out on minute details only someone with complete understanding would know. This isn’t the good kind of suprise either – it’s far more likely to leave her frustrated.

Plus, it’s just worth pointing out here that avoiding all tropes is an impossible endeavour. No matter how hard you try, you’ll eventually start resorting to the typical tropes of the genre. It’s just a more comfortable foundation point, better at reaching a wider audience. Even the greatest Space Operas reuse tropes from older works. On an adecdotal note, I’ve often found that both myself and other players enjoy it when a setting behaves “as expected”, and don’t particularly mind if the style of the game is similar to works they’ve seen in movies, books or TV shows.

Some consider the idea of “fighting a great tehcnological force of evil with whatever you can muster” to be “done to death” in sci-fi. Players, however, will likely expect this to happen, and many will be excited for it to happen!

So, it’s best for a setting like this to not avoid tropes at all costs, and there’s even a considerably strong argument to be made for sticking with the typical Space Opera tropes. It means Ellie can get straight to the action, and Tarun can explore the important details, rather than having to wade through 80 pages of useless nonsense.

This isn’t to say that a Space Opera setting has to be a carbon copy of all those that came before it! It can be different in the places where it matters, as long as it’s easy to understand and reflects a point of reference easily known to the players. It has to be intuitive! Where it comes up naturally, uniqueness is great, but it shouldn’t be the goal. Striving for uniqueness is great for, say, a company or a story, but not necessarily for a setting.

So let’s summarise how the setting should be made with what we’ve established so far:

The setting should have a low “mental buy-in” to start play, and everything should be intuitive and reflect expectations – Space Opera tropes should be used and explored liberally, to keep the setting familiar. It shouldn’t go into unnecessary detail, but important areas may be expanded on further for those that are interested in “peeking behind the curtain”, as long as those expansions are consistent, and don’t stray wildly from the critical details when not explored fully.

This means that, if Ellie reads a “summary primer” on Space Travel, and Tarun reads a “long, expanded primer” on the same thing, they’d both know the crucial details, but Tarun would just know it in more depth. To illustrate this with an analogy, consider a photo of sheep in a field.

If Tarun sees the HD version of this photo, and Ellie sees low-res version of this photo, they can both broadly agree on what it’s showing. We know it features sheep, and which way they’re facing, the weather etc. Tarun may know more detail (e.g. which way their eyes are pointing, or what’s in the window of the house), but they’re not critcal details for understanding that it’s a photo of sheep. Both players can discuss the photo with one another, and if Ellie needs to she can ask for more details, but isn’t required to do so. If, however, the HD photo revealed that the sheep was not a sheep, but an advanced mannequin, their understandings of the photo would be fundamentally different. Any conversation pertaining to the photo would be made more difficult!

In the same way, for the expanded details, they just add to what’s already said. They don’t add anything radically new, or change the basic details. It doesn’t put the person who only knows the “basic details” at a serious disadvantage. Some may disagree with this notion when put like this – they want to reward those who have read into the setting in more detail. There is some merit to this, as long as it doesn’t disadvantage those who haven’t explored it fully.

So now we’ve looked at the two players who have opions pertaining to the design of the setting from narriative standpoint. However, what hasn’t particularly been considered is the fact that the setting will be the stage for a game, and therefore the setting needs to be designed with this in mind. The other two “players” will represent the different desires relating to how the setting impacts the game.


THE “WILL”

When Will sits down to play, he’s there for the game. He’s almost certainly read through every one of the special rules, in the search for the most interesting and powerful ways of building his character. He loves it when he can show off his character in gameplay, and looks forwards to seeing how the GM might challenge him. He’s probably spent more time on his character sheet than anyone else, constantly retooling and adjusting it to make sure it does exactly what he wants it to do, and in the best way possible.

For Will, there’s nothing quite like finding that perfect ability for his character.

Will isn’t really at the table for the overarching narrative. Some aspects might interest him, but for Will, the narrative is just a tool to get his character to a place where he can show off his build. He doesn’t much care for intricate politics, but will care that the task at hand is “assassinate the king”. If he’s built a stealthy character, he can think out a plan, and engage in a battle of wits to give his character the ultimate test.

When it comes to building his character, he’ll want to know what choices are available, and what they mean in the setting. When he plays in the 40k universe, he wants to know about the different types of Inquistors, and what special powers they afford him if he chooses one over the other. If he’s choosing a martial arts style for a Wuxia game, he won’t necessarily care about the philosophy behind the style, but he will care whether it lets him deflect cannonballs or not. He likes the mechanical choices that the narrative provides him.

Therefore, when designing the setting with Will in mind, we want the setting to offer a variety of mechancially meaningful choices.

GURPS is a great system for this, as it allows for the construction of any kind of character. However, this isn’t to say Will wants infinite choice – it needs to fit the bounds of the setting. He’ll be more happy with a character he’s made if it’s been designed to “restrictions”. With no rules defining what can be chosen, strategy becomes less rewarding.

For example, suppose you play D&D, but the Dungeon Master allows everyone to fill in their character sheet as they please, with no restrictions. If you can write it on the paper, you can have it. The DM is fine with you playing a black hole with a machine gun, or a sea urchin with legs. This isn’t the sort of thing that will appease Will – there’s no strategic depth to it.

“Restrictions” is probably the wrong word here. It sounds bad, and people tend to be averse to the idea of being restricted. A better way of putting it is this: the choices should be bounded. Choices aren’t infinite, but are instead from a select number of options, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages, reflecting things in the setting. If Will chooses to be a Stormtrooper, he’s (somewhat) less subject to Imperial brutality, but it may inexplicably make him a terrible shot. Is this better than the Rebel soldier, who is subject to the Empire’s brutality, but is friends with a mystical sword-wielding ally who can come to his aid when things get rough?

So overall, Will wants a setting which provides interesting mechanical choies, particularly at character creation, and offers strategic options. Will won’t much enjoy a setting which doesn’t offer any of this – he wants more complexity (of course, dumping GURPS: Vehicles (3e) on anyone is likely to make them balk – too many rules is a bad thing, it’s just the important stuff that should offer choices).

There is such thing as “too many complex choices”. GURPS: Vehicles (3e), above, was a great book, but not something you’d dump on the unprepared.

We can now look at Will in relation to Tarun and Ellie. The main potential conflict of interest is between Ellie and Will – too much complexity means that either it takes ages to get into the action, or she’ll be seriously disadvantaged when it comes to play. Thankfully, much of the initial complexity of character creation is a short-term thing, which vanishes after play begins and all the numbers are on the sheet. To make things more palatable for Ellie, we need a simple means of generating characters, as well as areas for more complexity for Will.

When it comes to the rules of play (e.g. combat rules), we need to make sure Will can make strategic choices there too. When he’s in combat, he wants more options than “point and shoot” – he wants things like “duck for cover”, “supressing fire”, “fake-out shooting”. These options are great, but must be simple enough for others to understand. If other players want to use those advanced rules, but only Will understands them, turns could take hours. This is probably going to frustrate Will, as it means he’ll be able to act less often, and will have fewer opportunities to show off his character. This means that it’s best everyone, including Will, to rein in some of the complexity.

So when it comes to gameplay, we can summarise what we want like this:

The game setting should be designed to offer strategic mechanical choices that can be easily parsed by everyone. The mechanical choices should be “bounded”, and representative of the setting.


THE “EMILY

Lastly, we have Emily. She’s the sort of person who wants to really immerse herself in the setting, as part of the world, to a level considerably greater than that of the other players. The setting is important to her, insofar as it helps define how she interacts with it. Emily doesn’t care for details like “how many craters a moon has” or “precisely how far is it to the nearest star”. She won’t care about a planet she’ll never visit, unless she wants that planet to be her character’s home world, or if it’s the homeworld of an NPC of interest.. Rather, she wants to know how the setting affects her character and their perception of the world around them. She’ll only want to know about that planet if her character (or someone she interacts with) has some sort of connection with it. Answers to questions like “How do people react to x”, “What’s it like to be a y in the setting?”, “How do the rich and poor live?”, “Can anyone have a spaceship”, or “What sorts of pets do people have” will interest her.

Emily will want to talk to the various NPCs around her when she plays, and not simply for pragmatic reasons (e.g., to be given the next quest)! She’ll make idle chitchat with the streetsweeper, or a pilot that just came back from war. Each of them has their own story to tell, and she’ll want to hear them. The NPCs can’t all be mindless drones, so the setting needs “thematic substance” to entertain her. The mechanics of the game are more of an “add-on”, or a way through which the story is “realised”.

The world is filled with many interesting people, and Emily will relish in the chance to talk to them.

Overall, this means that Emily needs a setting which helps define how her character and others interact with it. In the same way that Will wants mechanical choices, Emily wants thematic, narrative choices. We can expand the gameplay summary as follows:

The game setting should be designed to offer strategic mechanical choices that can be easily parsed by everyone. The mechanical choices should be “bounded”, and representative of the setting. The setting itself should shape the way characters interact with the world, and help motivate decisions and give interesting narrative choices.


SUMMING IT ALL UP

Those are the four broad archetypes. It’s worth noting here that players don’t tend to conform to one archetype, and one archetype only. They often draw from different archetypes at different times. Even within a single archetype, there’s room for a lot of variation.

Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that none of these archetypes are the “wrong way to do things”. They’re simply different ways of interpreting and playing the game.

To combine it all together, one last time:

Overall, the setting should have a low “mental buy-in” to start play. Everything should be intuitive and reflect expectations, and unnecessary detail is bad. However, for those that want to look deeper “behind the curtain”, there should be ways of doing so, as long as those things are consistent. The stuff that can be explored further should be the important things, so that if the players discuss the setting during play, it won’t be about some esoteric aspect which Ellie wouldn’t even have thought could exist.

The game setting should be designed to offer strategic mechanical choices that can be easily parsed by everyone. The mechanical choices should be “bounded”, and representative of the setting. The setting itself should shape the way characters interact with the world, and help motivate decisions and give interesting narrative choices.

With this, we’ve established one of the core pillars for the foundations of the setting design. Even once we move beyond establishing the pillars, it will be crucial to go back every now and again, to make sure every addition and decision conforms to these “rules”.

This is only one of the pillars – there are many more to come. This is a game, but it’s specifically a Space Opera game, so other questions must be considered to establish further “rules” for setting design. These questions are examples of the sorts that need answering:

  • What is a Space Opera? (Principles)
  • What sorts of characters feature in the games we want to play (People)
  • What sorts of adventures do we want to tell? (Plot)
  • Where do we want these adventures to take place? (Places)

The next articles will cover the answers to these sorts of questions, all of which are crucial to establish before narrative elements are solidified. I’m eager to jump into writing narrative already, but a careful, measured approach is precisely what a successful design process needs.

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