Saturday, November 22, 2014

Campaign Style and Developing Cultures

Here are a couple of articles about space fantasy campaign design and developing interesting cultures.


A Question of Style—Star Wars vs. Star Trek, or Something In-Between
In planning a space fantasy campaign, a GM can look to two great sources of inspiration: the franchises of movies, TV shows, novels, comics, etc. for Star Wars and Star Trek. For one thing, the sheer mass of material for each of these titles should provide plenty of ideas. For another, the differences between the two represent different theories in campaign design.

Star Wars: One Overarching Plot
A rebellion against an evil Galactic Empire drives the plot in the original movie trilogy. What is more, most of the early spinoff material focuses on that conflict as well. (This can be compared to the “Adventure Path” model that has been so successfully utilized by Paizo Publishing, where the scenarios in a campaign are driven by one primary plotline.) While fighting in the interplanetary Civil War, of course, the heroes do visit distinctly different planets and interact with their inhabitants, but that's not really the focus of the adventures.

In a campaign such as this, the focus could be a plot by an alien species such as the formians to conquer Known Space, the quest for an artifact that can destroy worlds, the establishment and operation of a settlement in aetherspace, or something similar. An advantage of this model is that it provides a sense of cohesion to a campaign; a challenge is that it can be hard to develop one main plot slowly over numerous adventures.

Star Trek: New Discoveries Each and Every Day
The introduction to the first TV series summarizes this style nicely: “ explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations...” etc. In this case, individual adventures focus on interacting with these unique environments, and many of the conflicts in them stem from cultural differences. In this case, the crew of the aethership have some kind of mission; this might include exploration, trade, military functions or the like.

In a campaign such as this, the focus might be on acquiring and selling cargoes from one world to the next, spreading the teachings of a religious faith, gaining and recording knowledge of the new worlds in question, implementing the will of a sovereign ruler, or the like. An advantage for this type of campaign is that it allows the GM tremendous flexibility in planning adventures, but a disadvantage is that it can be hard to create a sense of impetus from one session to another.

Something In-Between: Firefly and Serenity
The most likely solution for a space fantasy campaign is that the GM chooses a path in the middle of these poles. A good example of this is the TV series Firefly, taken together with the movie Serenity. In the dozen or so episodes of the prior, the character are just regular people traveling the galaxy and trying to make a living. Wherever they go, they run into new and interesting characters, along with conflicts to face. There are recurring characters, however, along with a couple of plot elements—the mystery of the Reavers and the Alliance's problem with River—that are gradually developed.

Back on my homeworld, individuals, organizations and even nations fought over the limited resources they saw around them. Those of us who've learned the secret of aetherial travel know that the galaxy's resources are almost unlimited. Of course, that doesn't mean we're sharing the secret.”

-Luciano Reda, human merchant prince

Worlds Building Revisited: Alien Civilizations and Cultures
A previous article discussed how to work different and interesting kinds of worlds into space fantasy adventures. Just as important, however, are the beings who inhabit those worlds, and the societies in which they live. When creating new civilizations and cultures for a campaign setting, the GM would do well to consider the following factors.

Start with Species
The most important point to consider, of course, is the species that inhabit(s) the planet in question. As mentioned previously, space fantasy campaigns provide an excellent chance to introduce strange new entities; the characteristics of those creatures go a long way toward providing the nuances of how they organize themselves and interact with each other.

Take, for example, the formians from Bestiary 4. They are instectoid creatures, and thus their society has many of the qualities of bug colonies. They are unthinkingly loyal to their queen, and tend to live in large communal complexes. Any kind of armed forces they have are more for protecting against outsiders than for enforcing their own laws amongst themselves. Of course, if the planet in question also has slaves toiling away for their formian masters, then their could be pockets of escapees who live freely but in constant danger. If one or more formians ever rejected the queen's authority, however, that could make for a distinctly different settlement. There, too, if two queens went to war, then the preparations of each colony for battle provide another important detail.

The arborlings—creatures from a supplement published by Clockwork Gnome—on the other hand, are sentient plant creatures. On a world that has plenty of soil, moisture and sunlight, they don't need to compete for material goods. One can imagine a fairly idyllic, sylvan planet with very little in the way of government or law enforcement, but periodically the arborlings gather to discuss the health of the forest and share news. Should there be competitors for the forests' resources, however, more organization might be required.

What Kind of World?
A previous article discussed the many varieties of planets depending on their type, temperature and other features. Those details also impact how inhabitants live on such worlds, and thus the structures of their society. For example, on a hot planet close to its sun, the locals might be forced to live underground in order to avoid the heat. In such cases, a subterranean lake might be the center of the major settlements. Similarly, on a cold world the locals could live next to volcanic vents in order to benefit from the heat that they provide. Fungus could become an important foodsource. On a planet covered with water, transportation via ship would be invaluable. If it's also a cold planet, then sailing ships might be replaced by ones with runners for maneuvering on the ice. Aetherships would be a necessity on a gas giant, where traveling between sky citadels is the primary traffic.

With this in mind, the GM should also scan through the Bestiary books and decide what else lives on the planet in question. Which monsters are appropriate to the environment? Are there any unexpected surprises lurking in the corners of the world? In addition to determining what kinds of random encounters travelers might have on these worlds, this can provide inspiration for developing a world's history (see below).

These details also help determine which commodities are readily available and which are scarce, thereby establishing imports and exports. Many foodstuffs could be rare and exotic (and thus valuable) on worlds that don't have the climate or conditions for growing them. That's not the case on a temperate, sylvan world. A hot planet might have an overabundance of valuable metal ores, but would pay good money for fresh drinking water.

Pick Technology and Magic Level
The default technology level for most standard fantasy campaigns is somewhere between medieval and Renaissance. Moreover, magic is relatively common, as long as one has the money, the connections or the natural ability. Traveling from world to world provides a chance to introduce planets with different degrees of advancement in both these categories, however. For example, one might have a society that has come no further than nomadic hunter-gatherers, while a second could have achieved something akin to steampunk. At the same time, magic could be virtually unknown on one world, and therefore viewed with awe, greed or fear; on another it might be so commonplace as almost to lose its value. Needless to say, these factors can have a huge impact on how the PC's interact with the inhabitants of these worlds, and perhaps even more long-term influence once the characters have visited them.

Making History
Every world should have its own history, even if it's just a rough sketch for which details can be filled in later. What are the recent events that have taken place on it? This could include:
  • Wars between power groups
  • Changes in a dynasty of kings and/or queens
  • Some kind or rebellion against authority
  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, meteor showers, or fires
  • Famine
  • Plague
  • An outbreak of piracy
  • A major magical or technological discovery
These factors can all influence the local political landscape, and have further influence if the PC's are looking to buy or sell goods on the planet in question.

Connections to Other Worlds
Finally, does this world have established connections to other planets? It's important to know whether or not the planetary population is aware of aetherial travel. PC's venturing into uncharted space could be the first offworlders to visit a planet, or it could be a known and accepted occurrence.

More Inspiration
GM's seeking inspiration for a space fantasy campaign can look to these sources, too.
  • The novel The Daedalus Incident, along with its sequels The Enceladus Crisis and The Venusian Gambit, provide another take on sailing ships traveling through space.
  • For musical inspiration or background ambience, The Planets by Gustav Holst is quite appropriate.
  • The film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has some of the best depictions of life aboard ship in movies.
  • A cheesy example is the Wildspace video from TSR, which can be found on Youtube at .

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