World building

My main writing project at the moment is Song, but I am also cooking up a new roleplaying setting.

Much of the detail of the setting is still in flux and I won’t write about it in the specific until I’ve actually played it through with my group, but I am doing a bit of world building and I wanted to talk a bit about the process.

The game I am wanting to run is a supers game.

If you read comics, you will find that each character or book has its own world rules. Things get pretty interesting when those world rules collide (look at The Avengers/Avengers Assemble, for example) but generally you’ll want some underlying principles to guide the story and setting rules.

As an example, lets posit a world in the future where humanity is in reduced circumstances: climate changes triggered by profligate fossil fuel combustion and misguided efforts to recover methane from deep water methyl hydrates have made temperatures climb; shifting water mass (melting ice and deeper seas) has changed the pressures on continental plates and triggered increased volcanic activity; the seas have risen and weather patterns have thrown agriculture into chaos. People live in sealed cities, or high in the mountains away from the plants.

Ah yes, the plants.

With the increased temperatures, plants have run rampant. Long-suppressed genes for ambulatory motion and other predatory behaviours have expressed, and the herbivorous biosphere is generally in the business of eliminating large animal life. Humans are still high on the food chain, but the top spots are taken by plants.

From this seething, super-evolving biomass emerges superhumans, people who through weird genetic accidents exhibit abnormal abilities: some are expressing long-suspected genes in human DNA, some are mixes of humans with animal or plant.

So what powers can these people have?

The answer of course is pretty much anything, but looking through a list of superpowers in a game manual will allow you to cross off obviously infeasible abilities. Time travel? No. Flight is possible, but the flier would need wings. Enhanced senses are fine, as is telepathy, but any technological powers are off limits.

Once the world’s limits are defined, we can get down to generating stories. These are some of the questions which I have found most useful:

  • how do the heroes meet? Why do they want to fight together? Depending on the setting, this is something you can pull the players in on.
  • what or who is it that they are fighting? This could be obvious from the outset, but building suspense and holding the interest of the players suggests that there should be layers.
  • what are the goals of the team? Is it just to stop the bad stuff from happening, or do they have any deeper motives?
  • given those constraints, what kind of missions would the players go on? There’s no requirement that the game be episodic, but having a series of short term objectives which build to a larger conclusion is a good storytelling technique in any medium.

So, let’s continue with the future hostile planet setting.

I’m going to say that the heroes all grew up in a mountain village. They have know each other for years, but one night there is a sudden storm filled with weird thick rains and strange green lightning: their bodies are changed somehow – awakened. Their powers manifest.

The goal of the team is to find out what happened to them, but the immediate objective is to save as much of their village as they can – the storm did tremendous damage to the buildings, and they use their powers to save their friends and family. Some of the others in the village were not so lucky – their bodies changed, but they died in screaming agonies, or simply melted into the ground.

Once that is resolved, they learn from a village elder that there is a weird building on the other side of the valley which might have some clues to their transformation. But they’ll have to travel through a teeming jungle to reach it.

From there, the characters learn of changes occurring in the atmosphere which are going to make more of those strange storms. The go on to find the source, a mad scientist who wants to awaken all of humanity to their full potential. The heroes take on the mission to stop this crazy man, to protect the life they have.

World building is fun. Telling stories and playing games in those worlds is fun too.

Do you make your own worlds for roleplaying? Are there any favourite settings you have played?

7 Replies to “World building”

  1. James C. says:

    Those are all solid ideas for a supers game. If you don’t mind, may I air one of my pet peeves for super hero settings?

    Where does the energy for these powers come from? Only a few settings even bother to wave their hands in dismissal of the problem.

    To pick on the X-Men: Cyclops can shoot “energy beams” from his eyes. Where does the power come from? From his own body? An Olympic athlete in peak training can generate around one kilowatt for a few minutes. If you want a 1-Megajoule blast, he’ll need to sweat and charge some internal super-capacitor for 1000 seconds.

    If not from his own body, then where?

    One of the X-Men movies where Magneto bends the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz presents an even bigger challenge. Even positing 99.9% efficiency for energy coming from … somewhere … to power this super feat, the 0.1% inefficiency will probably mean dumping enough waste heat in Magneto’s brain to A) boil it, or B) more likely incinerate him.

    So, perhaps one of the biggest constraints you can throw at a supers game is that the various conservation laws are obeyed.

    This needn’t necessarily limit players with good imaginations. As you pointed out, telepathy and super senses are fair game.

    Winged flight would be OK, although quite exhausting. But, consider how big the Gossamer Condor was. A flying super would flap super big, super fragile wings.

    Gliding like a flying squirrel (or one of the flight suits) would be just fine.

    Super strength? Fine, up to a point. You could easily be as strong as a gorilla.

    Super reflexes? Also good, so long as you can point to something in the animal kingdom that already has it.

    Even greater extremes are possible, depending on what the GM allows. If someone wants to play a super with Ice powers, maybe they can create microscopic wormholes to a dark planet orbiting far out in space with no star and surface temperatures near Absolute Zero. Iced Boy could draw liquid helium from the planet’s seas and project it as a spray.

    Before you say anything, yes I know that creating microscopic wormholes are even more challenging than bending the Golden Gate bridge … probably. Although there are some experiments that appear to show a negative energy density.

    If we allow one Hugo Gernsback-like bit of voodoo-science, perhaps your mutants can generate enough negative energy to make microscopic wormholes connected to somewhere else in the universe. This would then allow many more of the classic super powers to obey the conservation laws.

    Want to shoot fire blasts? Connect to the surface of a star.

    Want to shoot more esoteric kinds of energy? Open wormholes to some of the more exciting parts of the universe, like the surface of a neutron star or near a gamma ray burster.

    The wormhole solution is a pretty cheesy end run around the laws of nature, and probably impossible, but most settings don’t even try to cook up a coherent explanation.

    1. Dunx says:

      Oh, please do pick on the X-Men.

      I have a friend who had a supers idea for a post-nuclear conflict setting: the supers used radiation to run their powers, and there were radiation hot spots aplenty, but exposure to the radiation would still hurt them. So the players had to trade off using their powers with killing their characters.

      I like the wormhole idea. That’s entertaining.

      I do have an underlying principle for the setting I am working on, but you’ll have to wait and see what it is.

      1. Stevie says:

        What sort of mechanic will you be using for the deterministic bits, Dunx? Something off the shelf or a homebrew?

        1. Dunx says:

          It’s Savage Worlds, specifically the Super Powers Companion which is the same power mechanics as Necessary Evil.

    2. Stevie says:

      “Problem”? This is a superpower setting, right? You want it to make sense at the quantum level?

      I used to have similar issues with almost all Fantasy and SF game settings. Then I realized that my science was ruining the fun, so I turned it off. Instant Enjoyment.

      Now I don’t worry that steampunk tropes are totally and utterly ludicrously stupidly unworkable in real life.

      I don’t worry that cyberpunk is totally and utterly ludicrously stupidly unworkable in real life (though it still drives me nuts that the beyond-stupid “computer download moves the personality” trope is still alive and kicking in this day and age, and don’t get me started on “internet complexity births instant A.I.”. Authors floating that one should have their fingers broken).

      I don’t worry that my beloved hard spaceships-and-stations SF is totally and utterly ludicrously stupidly unworkable in real life.

      I even stopped fretting that we will never get to the outer planets, let alone the stars in real life because the obstacles outweigh the benefits by so many orders of magnitude the problems such journeys pose will never be studied closely enough to overcome them. By the time there is any incentive to go, the energy cost to lift anything into orbit will exceed the human race’s ability to do it.

      Now look, you made me all grumpy again. 8o)

      Do you have the same issues with magic? I’ve only ever seen that acknowledged as what it is by Vaarsuvius, a character in a D&D themed comic. To paraphrase “I am attempting to alter the laws of physics with a pinch of bat guano and some hand gestures”. Classic.

      1. Dunx says:

        For myself, I like to have an origin for the powers. That’s really as far as I go.

        1. Stevie says:

          A favourite of mine was the character build of Villains and Vigilantes, in which players were made to describe how their characters got their powers. I (as the GM) gave hefty bonuses for mentioning “radioactive”, “Lab experiment”, “Meteor” and a bunch of other hot-button words. It was very entertaining to listen to the tortured beginnings of these poor characters who were often bitten by a radioactive animal while transferring them from cage to cage during an experiment into retro-genetic-engineering, only to be smacked by a meteor containing exotic contra-terrene matter etc etc etc.

          I often wonder if Buster Gonads’s writer was in one of my V&V games once.

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