The story of New Worlds Project: #2 – Crafting an Original Setting
Written by Kim Smouter, Co-Founder of New Worlds Project. See part 1 of the story of New Worlds Project here.
What we did in 2003
When New Worlds Project was launched in 2003, Alex and I were both excited, and relieved to have passed the development stage of the initiative. Developing an original setting is no small feat but it is a deeply rewarding experience which became a central unique selling point of the initiative in its heydays. What I want to do in this chapter is to really go through the ingredients and approaches that really made this work at the time to enable you to have a recipe that could be followed by game-masters looking to launch an original concept.
Getting the setting right: a perfectionist’s guide.
What took the longest was getting the original setting right. Alex and I were both extremely careful to establish a setting which had built-into it a number of tension points, story elements, and intrigue which would allow the game to be pulled any which way by players. It’s critical when you design a setting to think of it as a meta story upon which the stories of many players can graft onto. Balance is important –as it prevented the dreaded “god-moding” – if one visits our website, what I found really interesting in our rulebook was that there was a huge fear at first that people would god-mode and really harm the setting, and yet, as it happened, the setting was so balanced that the role-players that came to animate the site respected the balance very carefully in their subsequent stories.
I am a firm believer that quality breeds quality and encourage those thinking of going down this journey to really take the time a setting needs to really question every building block that composes it. I am struck how often a setting is proposed which gives very little flexibility for players to explore and get lost into the setting. You have to accept that your setting will be twisted and turned once it goes live otherwise it will not be fun for your players.
Avoiding the road most travelled…
The way we approached it was first agreeing a couple of central elements, these elements were central parts of the setting that would affect everyone and could not be ignored – things like, the number of alien species we would have, the kind of faster than light travel available, the types of things that would define this sci-fi setting as different from the Trek and Star Wars rpgs of the time. We also went through the very painstaking process of identifying things which were very common in Star Trek and stripping them out of our setting; Ships go to warp in Star Trek, in our setting they jump into vortex space and can only stay there for 24 hour periods. In Star Trek they have transporters, none at New Worlds, you don’t replicate food – a lot of the plot devices were taken out forcing our stories to be more complicated but as a result much more rewarding and thought provoking. The challenge is not to go so far down this route that the setting becomes inaccessible to your potential newcomers and to ensure that your resources are extremely well developed with the newcomer in mind. A setting is only as good as the depth you give it, but the difficulty is striking the right balance with it as well, we considered for a long time just how much detail we wanted to go, and ended up with a reference guide of 200 pages by 2006!
Wars are good for the story business…
Alex and I both loved Star Trek: Independence, the game which had brought us together, because it was a war-torn setting and it that gave the opening for lots of stories about starships fighting each other, soldiers facing the horrors of war, and these types of things which we as co-founders adored. So the fact that it was going to have a central war was very important. We quickly decided that we also wanted lots of playable factions each with their own back stories and their own tensions – and one thing we were adamant about was that this setting, despite being war-torn, would not have good or bad guys… We achieved this by having 5 factions inextricably linked to each other – each knows the other extremely well, having worked and collaborated together for a century in what was a peaceful galaxy. But as the backstory outlines, some profited more than others from peace and in the end jealousy and greed become the fuse to start the fires of war. This creates really interesting stories for both players wanting to look at the soldiers who now have to put their training to effect, and civilians who have never experienced war.
Use templates to force you to consider all aspects
Everything I’ve written about stems from hours and hours of brainstorming and putting ideas down on paper, for each of the factions we considered what kind of aliens would populate them, thinking about their physical characteristics, their defining character traits, their motivations, their fears, their dislike. We considered what kind of political systems they would have, what would be their critical planets, how would their military be organised, their society? We made such that each of them was different from the other. For each of the major faction we wrote about 20 pages for each covering biological information of the constituting species (and factions were not composed of just one species), the society, the government, the military, their home worlds, and the history of their rise to major faction status in the 26th century.
What was important was to create the conditions for their interaction, and in turn, create the conditions for our players’ characters to have plenty of possible allegiances and misgivings to work with. We made them interconnected but make sure that no link was black or white. One of our factions, the Rosebourgs, depends on their allies, the humans because of a crippling economic recession. The humans in turn are in the midst of an economic boom but are constrained with space forcing them to clash regularly with the militaristic Gohorns who are terrible diplomats but extremely skilled at the art of warfare – the clash between the two is inevitable. Throw into the mix a neutral coalition of small powers who despite unlikely origins have the power to influence the course of history, and you have one hell of a potential for stories.
As game-masters, the challenge is to know when to stop, when to know you’ve given enough elements that there is no confusion possible, but that there is the flexibility to make the story one’s own. For some settings, having 5 pages may be sufficient, for others you need 200. Regardless of what was right, in 2003 we launched a setting that was set in the future, in the 26th Century…. It was a war-torn setting, following a century of peace, and would be about the stories of the citizens of the 5 major factions of the Milky Way Galaxy: the humans united by the Terran Democratic Republic, the Navaks and the Avrans of the Rosebourg Monarchy, the Gohorns and their dominion species governed by the Directorate, and the 80+ unitary planet and minor powers who have banded together to form the Luna Minoris Confederacy of Non-Aligned Worlds. A complex and rich setting that attracted nearly a hundred role-players on Launch Day 2003 and spawned many stories indeed.
I can’t wait to tell you about how we organised the launch campaign that made this work!