Expanded Universe: Giving Your Game Depth
The Xanadu Report
If you’re in the Role Playing community, chances are that you’ve encountered expanded universe content before. Be if from your favorite TV show, a movie that you’ve loved your whole life, or a novel you’ve read a few thousand times. In fact, fandom games are part of a franchise’s expanded universe. As a writer, I tend to be obsessed with detail, so much so that for every post I’ve ever written there’s at least a few paragraphs of detail that got left out just to keep it within a sane amount of words (I say sane because my first Blue Dwarf post’s word count would have been up in the tens of thousands if I hadn’t regained my sanity and decided “maybe a novella doesn’t make a good post”, telling an entire life’s story doesn’t really work well). With my own games, I create so many details that they spill out of the game and into content such as pictures, documents, journal entries, newspaper clippings, etc. My recent game, The Steam Age, has only been around for a short time and has already got a rich expanded universe of content, ranging from documents written by players and myself (one such player-written document is about as long as the word doc I made with the universe info!) to pictures (such as the collage with the flags of TSA’s Five Superpowers, just above). This content gives the game depth, and makes it that much more immerssive. In this article, we’re going to look at expanded universes in the RP realm, and how to give your games a rich, detailed, universe for players to explore.
What is an Expanded Universe?
The term “Expanded Universe” refers to the extension of a media franchise into other mediums. The two most prominent examples I can think of are Star Wars and Star Trek, which have expanded from movies/television to novels, comics, video games, board games, etc. Expanded Universe content is generally canon, anything that isn’t canon is considered apocrypha.
When referring to the Expanded Universe of a roleplaying game, you typically refer to content that has come out of the game. Literature, artwork, and even past posts. For example, that picture above, it’s a collage I made with the flags of the different nations. It’s nothing major, but it’s something that came out of my game. Now, take it to the next level. Those flags are representative of the cultures of each nation. There’s extensive symbolism in each one, and loads of lore, artwork, and literature to go along with them. That’s just from the flags. There’s oodles of lore to go along with everything else. In fact, I wouldn’t launch the game until I finished all the ‘essential’ lore.
Now, nobody needs to be as obsessive as I am when it comes to expanded universes (my obsessiveness goes up to 11), but it’s definitely a good idea to create one for your game. It gives your game depth beyond a simple play-by-post. It gives it life.
We’re going to take a look at the different types of expanded content, and get tips from some veteran RPers.
Who doesn’t love good artwork? I love browsing Deviant Art to see what some people have come up with for their favorite canon. I’ve found many an amazing Starfleet concept ship, character portrait, alongside LOADS of Rule 34 (be wary, for there lurks much pornography in the dungeon of Deviants, one must navigate it to find true treasure).
A lot of times, I end up using google images to find artwork for my games (a lot of us do). But I prefer to make my own, even though I’m as skilled at graphic design as a toddler would be to installing cable. When I do make artworks for games, I have a feeling of great joy…because I brought my game to life. I made something that you only had words to describe into something that you could actually see! Aside from that, its a hobby of mine. That Blue Dwarf movie poster is just something I made for fun one day, and it looks great! Another way I use artwork is to concept a game, it’s a great way to sort out ideas that you might have. In fact, I recently made a dozen or so posters for a revival of an old game I had called Charon. I took inspiration from Aperture Science’s own propaganda (Aperture is the inspiration for the Charon Labs Company, and where I draw a lot of stuff from, In fact, ALEC the supercomputer’s design is entirely based off GLaDOS, since the original design got lost in a harddrive failure) and made it into a series of comedic pieces for me to work out some ideas I had. You can find them here, but be careful, some of these are a little mature.
Using them in your game
There’s the writing aspect in the creation of a game, but just because it’s PBP doesn’t mean it can’t have a visual aspect too. Adding art to your games creates a world way beyond that of a regular text PBP game
Sean Mooney aka “Tiberius Creations”
Put very simply by my sibling and partner-in-crime Sean. Sean has a knack for creating artwork for his game Nova Lux, such as this picture of his character Savis. A picture tells a thousand words, even if you don’t know the character that well. The same goes for landscape or abstract pictures, as long as they’re pertinent to the game and can tell the player something about the story.
For example, you have a Star Wars game that takes place on Dantooine, a planet known for rolling plains and a largely farm-like lifestyle, but there’s a battle going on between the farmers and some slavers that have come to the planet. How can you convey a feeling of dread and discord to your players? First, show what dantooine looks like. Show some beautiful fields and rolling hills. Then, show an armed farmer standing on a hill, overlooking a burning town, thick black smoke rising into the air, with the bodies of his fallen comrades down below. Now you have two conflicting moods, the easy going plainsman life conflicting with the gritty reality of war.
Artwork doesn’t even need to have depth like that, it can literally be anything you want! You simply want to expand on what is already in the game, giving it more depth. Take my posters for example, they have little depth on their own (other than letting you know that Charon is a sucky place to work), but together they paint a picture of an eclectic little outpost on Pluto’s moon. They have little workmanship to them at all, but they do great at conveying a message.
Putting it to practice
Art for me is a long process but I’ve always enjoyed it. I don’t know about others, but art in general, whether it is by me or not, makes the world feel more tangible and alive. So I never have a problem going the extra mile, regarding creating art for said game.
Krystal McDonald aka “Kraken”
Expertly said by Mrs. Kraken, another cohort of mine. Putting it to practice requires a little bit of effort on your part, and often (at least from my own experience) it has its own series of trials, aggravations, and failures. But in the end, the finished product is worth it. In addition, it’s always fun to watch your text come to life as a picture. Typically, game pictures are made using graphic design programs like GIMP, Sai, and Microsoft Paint (don’t doubt paint! It’s useful and free! I always use paint). The Charon posters I made in Paint by cutting and pasting the Charon labs logo from a template, and then added text and pictures. The Nova Lux picture up above was made in GIMP by Tiberius, who used a tablet to actually hand-draw it. There’s a few other ways to utilize GD programs to make cool pictures, like making collages, or maybe even downloading an app to an iPad (or whatever tablet you use) and finger-painting it (or using a stylus). When it comes to digital art though, the person I had to go to was Kraken, who actually does this professionally for commission.
“Personally I love using digital art programs for games just because they look cleaner than my messy drawings. Seriously they are horrendous… there’s not CTRL+Z in life. Lol. I can easily put down ideas or edit photos to suit my character’s needs if I want to or draw it out from scratch. Not needing a scanner or a camera is a plus as well. I think the downside is the price of certain tools and the programs, because they can be a bit on the high side. Paint Tool SAI, the program I prefer, costs around $50-60 USD and a Drawing Tablet can be anywhere from $40-200. Now there are free methods/trial programs that work just as well especially if you don’t want to commit to art and are just looking to push out a map or edit a photo such as GIMP or the Trial version of SAI or even a trial of Photoshop… but yeah, digital is definitely my preferred method.”
Krystal McDonald aka “Kraken”
Now, Graphic Design programs obviously aren’t the only way to make cool artwork for your games (especially considering that not all of us are artistically inclined, like a certain blog author who can barely make stick figures in MS paint). Drawing them on paper and then scanning them is a fairly straightforward method. Really, you can do whatever you want to make a picture for your game! But I can’t cover everything in this article. However, I can reveal a method that I’ve employed since day 1.
Many of you know what Garry’s Mod is, and know that it’s both a fun sandbox of chaos and destruction, and a breeding ground for stupidity and pure evil. Like that hideous thing to the right that came about as a result of playing 7 straight hours of Gmod. You can browse the Steam screenshot archives and find pictures of just about anything, made using Gmod. You can find Mario and Gordon Freeman sword fighting, Darth Vader riding unicorn into the sunset, or even the sentries from TF2 and Portal out on a date (Again, 7 straight hours of gmod. You try playing for that long and retaining some semblance of reason). I guess what you’re supposed to take from this is, why not use gmod for a picture?
If you haven’t guessed, I do this a lot. I like using gmod because, with the filters, models, and environments available, I can make a picture for almost any game! Take this picture below the turret date, the only one I made seriously. It’s a picture of Colonel Ivan Zidkov, the private military commander and primary antagonist from Nova Lux. It’s the most recent in a series of Gmod generated pictures I created for Nova Lux. I picked a design for Zidkov that I really liked, found designs for soldiers and gear, and use them over and over again to make artwork with. The process is a little tedious, using an in-game physics gun to pose figures that often fight back.
I’m not going to say that they were easy to make, they really weren’t. The
“Sci-Fi Citizen” models I used are flimsy and tend to flop around while I pose them (I’m dealing with ragdolls, sometimes they’re stiff, other times it’s like trying to handle a lump of jello that vaguely looks like a person). But it’s just like any other medium, it has it’s trials and tribulations, but it pays off in the end. You can create 3D pictures of knights fighting dragons, US Marines fighting aliens, or even Corps officers debating the best course of action. With the wide variety of maps, models, and props available, the only limit to the pictures you can make with Garry’s Mod is what you can imagine! Plus when you’re done you can spawn a herd of Combine soldiers and destroy them all with your bare hands like the child of Chuck Norris and Saxton Hale. For those of you that have Gmod and would prefer to, go ahead and try it out for making game pictures! Even if you don’t have the game, and you’d like to try, it’s relatively cheap (although you need Steam installed)
So, in conclusion, there’s many mediums out there to make artwork with. You can bring visual bliss to your game, and bring new life into it.
When you think literature, you typically think books. Usually the classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Robinson Crusoe”. In actuality, it’s a very broad term. It refers to anything having to the written word, novels, short stories, poems, etc.
We’re already doing this part Xan! We write posts for the games and stuff!
Hypothetical Man, B.S.C., S.S.C.
Thanks for your input Hypothetical Man, the worst superhero of all time. Yes, you are already creating your own literary works with your game, but what I’m referring to here is creating an expanded universe through short stories, diary entries, and lore outside of the game.
As stated above, I am obsessive with making expanded content for my games. There are a few gigabytes of literature on my Google Drive account for a myriad of games, both current games and past games that have either closed or faded away. Like with artwork, there’s also tons of concepts floating around for games that haven’t even been made yet. I tend to jot down my ideas in the form of dossiers, short stories, and “official” entries, as it’s my preferred method of working out ideas.
With my game Flight of the Vanguard, I made a dossier that details the titular ship, the GCNV-Vanguard in all her glory. It has
detailed explanations of ship systems, and even weapons that the marine detachment utilizes. In essence, it’s all you need to know before joining (the universe lore and whatnot you learn on the fly). I used hard science-fiction facts, and even some actual Theoretical Physics to make the dossier. I never knew what the hell Tachyons were until making this article, or even the finer mechanic of antimatter, black holes, and so forth (If you haven’t guessed it by now I am very dedicated to my craft). You can find the dossier here (please DO NOT steal anything from it, I worked really hard on this and ask that you don’t rip me off)
Now, I’m not saying you should go completely overboard like I have, but making some literary content for your games is a great way to expand on what’s already there.
Using them in your game
Literature in the Expanded Universe can be incredibly handy, it can provide great background history on certain characters or events and so have you. With Expanded Universe content your users can greatly benefit, your small written piece of history on a major war could help members old and new with posts and even characters. For example I once wrote some lore for my species the Felinians in ORIGIN, it greatly expanded on their past. Say I was a new member; from that post I could create a survivor of that war just from that standalone post. It is incredibly handy!
Luke has made a myriad of literary content to go with his games, and games that he’s been a part of. He’s made lore, bio’s, and diary entries for characters.
When making literature for your games, it’s recommended that have a good backstory for your game already. You need a foundation on which to build on. If your game has little to no background, then there’s no point in making literary expansions (unless the lack of background was intentional, and you plan on slowly revealing it. literary content is a great way to do this!) Use what has already been posted, and has been established as canon as a backdrop. Let’s say that the elves and the giants have been at war for ages now, and that players have been expanding on that with posts. Take what’s been posted and write some diary pages for the elven warriors as they fight the war. Maybe an entry could be from a soldier serving underneath a player’s character, and the NPC underling comments on her fighting style and command style, passing judgement and praising them. Or, maybe write some lore pages detailing the historic background of the war. Maybe the elves aren’t the good guys we think they are, maybe they actually attempted genocide and this is the backlash from it!
Let’s hop over to sci-fi. Let’s say you’re an employee at a lab that makes super-soldiers for the authoritarian government. You could write “official” looking reports about the soldiers and their progress against the enemies of the State. You can use different fonts, backgrounds, watermarks, and pictures to make an official looking document like the Vanguard dossier. You can even make diary entries to accompany the document, with some off the record remarks towards how brutal the government crackdown is and how you’ve actually been sabotaging the government’s attempts!
Putting it to Practice
You can create a massive web of lore and background just by literary content alone. Players can use them in later posts when the events detailed in these documents come to fruition, like the elven soldiers learning of the genocide or the government learning about the subterfuge. What’s great is that lore isn’t just limited to what you can come up with, players have spent a great deal of time creating their own characters and lore, and when given the opportunity, can come up with some literary gold of their own. Encourage players to create their own diaries as a start, and see what they come up with (or, create content for another game that you’re part of and post it, see what the GM and the others think). One of the absolute best ways to expand a game’s universe is by having players contribute to it with their own literary works.
Another good way to make good literary content for your game is to simply jot down some ideas, and see how you can
expand on them. Maybe “Jedi in Cantina” can be expanded on with a diary entry from Manatee Jedi about his visit to the cantina, looking for his lost apprentice Budgie Jedi. Or maybe it can be transformed into a report from an Imperial Remnant spy documenting his encounter with Manatee Jedi and his attempts to locate Budgie Jedi before Manatee Jedi and stop her from spreading her cuteness.
Another way to create some cool literary content for your games is to expand on major events that have already happened. The huge battle that happened between Starfleet and the Romulans? Create some diaries from the crew, some ‘official’ reports from Starfleet, or maybe even some news reports detailing the event. Maybe hold a contest for players to create expanded content based on a past event!
In conclusion, literary content is a fantastic way to expand your universe. Adding onto existing stories, creating new storyarcs, or even creating a separate arc! There’s really no limit to what you can do with literary content!
The Great Beyond
There’s no limit to what you can create for your games. Literary Content and Artwork are just the two best examples I could
come up with. Really, what kind of expanded universe your game has is limited only by your imagination. You can create Lego sculptures, music, music videos, Larping (somebody please send me a video or picture of them larping an original OGW game!), interpretive dance, it doesn’t matter! Roleplaying is an artform, and the absolute best way to expand it is with more art. I highly encourage you, when you’re done reading this, to give this a try! Give your game an expanded universe, and see how much more immerse it becomes!
Get out there and get to work creating something fantastic!