Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Philosophy of Setting and Game Design

Before we move further on, we need to have a discussion on game philosophy. I previously wrote on my players’ desires and preferences, but I have waited until now to edify you regarding my own.


I had certain goals for this setting, informed by my philosophy and likes. As discussed in the post on inspiration, I wanted a wide, free setting rich with possibilities. This sort of setting is not necessarily my favorite for fiction -- I like everything in a fiction setting to tie together, in accordance with the Law of Conservation of Detail. For example, I prefer Fringe to The X-Files, because everything revolves around mad science -- and, ultimately, the parallel universe.

I like an RPG setting to be broader in scope, to allow for all sorts of adventure. However, a focal point is necessary, to avoid complete chaos and confusion. D&D has too little focus in my opinion, requiring an immense number of decisions from a prospective GM to refine it into a workable campaign. My previous campaigns have also kept to this “wide, but with focus” notion: a campaign with psychics and interdimensional aliens focused on the PCs as teenage runaways as part of a sort of ad-hoc psychic defense force; another ranged all across mythology to populate a hidden world behind the 16th Century Age of Exploration -- but my rule was that everything in the world had to derive from a piece of mythology or literature written before 1575; a time-travel campaign ranging across time, space, and alternate history focused on the teams of spies and commandos intent on changing the timeline to their own.

So: my breadth for The City of Lives is across innumerable worlds, with magic beyond imagining; and my focus is the titular City.

From the base inspiration of the Dead-Blooded, I found a central idea of the City: That metaphors become reality. The hot-blooded Prometheans will literally burn you; The City of the Lives is the center of the universe in a very real way; a politician who promises to “change the world” can use powerful magics to do exactly that.

Two central themes of The City of Lives are that the City can be anything its citizens can desire, and that it will never, ever, be exactly what anyone wants. This is, of course, nothing new -- you can say the same about any metropolis -- but it seems a particularly apt metaphor for the City of Lives. And since metaphors turn real in the city, that gives rise to some very interesting implications: The City is perfectly capable of literally changing to fit the desires of a visitor -- and being at the center of the multiverse, a man could literally search forever for the missing piece of his life.

I want a campaign setting to feel real. Counter-intuitively, this does not necessarily mean answering every question about every possible topic. A setting where some mysteries are unsolved, where some horizons are unexplored, will actually feel more real to the players -- just like the real world, not everything can be wrapped up in a neat bow.

On a related note, I love intrigue, politics, and complex relationships, and I wanted to reflect that in this setting. I have always been attracted to the notion of class warfare, the relationship between upper and lower classes -- especially in an unequal, repressive society -- and that became an integral piece of The City of Lives.

These thoughts on what I want out of the setting naturally lead me to what I wound out of the…


To me, roleplaying is about telling a story. Unlike literature, TV, film, plays, or (most) video games, the story a tabletop RPG campaign tells is collaborative. The players’ choices, the results of their die rolls, how the GM responds in the moment to unexpected decisions and dice results -- all these inform how the story will eventually turn out.

In traditional “old school” game design, the GM is completely in charge of the story, with players subject to the whim of the dice or GM’s capriciousness and having little recourse in pushing the story in their preferred direction. To me, this is unsatisfying -- it’s not so much collaborative as the GM playing puppeteer. Hence, the Fate system -- through the use of Aspects, players point the GM in the direction they want the campaign to go, the sort of things important to their character; through the use of fate points, players can guide their characters’ destinies -- avoiding failure when a task is important to the PC or one that they are particularly good at. Even death is story-dependent. When a character falls in combat, they are “Taken Out,” which could mean anything from death to capture to disgrace -- whichever has richer story possibilities.

I believe characters have a stronger bond and more interesting relations if they have an established past together. My current players disagree, and so only two characters have links -- but for the finished game, I will be using a version of the default Fate character creation system, which ensures each PC has met at least two others (I will go over this in detail in a later post, but for the inquisitive, the Spirit of the Century version is here).

I feel that overly complex, “reality-simulator” rulesets only serve to diminish the storytelling possibilities, bogging players down in charts, tables, and endless die rolls. However, in some respects Fate is too rules-light -- many players like a tactical combat system, or can’t properly envision the action without a map and miniatures. To this end, I adapted it into a more logical and coherent tactical conflict resolution system -- one that can model any kind of conflict, from combat to conversation to computer hacking (this system, and its antecedents in Fate proper and Diaspora, will be detailed in a later post).

Hopefully, my philosophy of campaign and rule design is a little clearer, to both you and to myself, as it will inform all my decisions in creating the world of The City of Lives. Join me next time as I return to Magic: The Rules of the Game.