A better role playing game setting can be developed by examining why the previous elevator pitch failed to meet the requirements for success.
Flaw: No Focus on Small Scale Problems
The first elevator pitch bestowed upon the setting a warp drive and advanced space ships. This advanced technology doesn’t provide an incentive for players to stay in one centralized area. If the characters could just board their ship and warp away, why would they want to invest time into smaller problems? Why would they spend the time to get to know the ins and outs of a specific planet? If the players could hop between solar systems, it would also mean One Shot RPG and game masters would have to come up with a wide berth of material to support free-roaming players. This new concept for a game setting needs to ditch the warp drive and force the characters to stay in one solar system in order to provide a tighter narrative.
Flaw: Lore and Jargon
The previous idea for a narrative also would have required new customers to have to learn a large amount of lore to get enjoyment out of the game. They’d have to learn about new cultures, politics, concepts, technology, planets, everything. This goes against the gameplay requirement of limiting the amount of jargon and information a player needs to know before getting into the game. How can One Shot RPG reduce the amount cognitive load required by new players to the franchise?
A Base in Reality
One Shot RPG takes place in our solar system, before the time of the warp drive or faster than light travel.
Players don’t need to learn many new concepts, because what they know today already applies to the setting.
Now that the narrative has a solid foundation, it can be made more interesting. While it is based on our world, the setting is science fiction, so liberties can be taken and unique elements can be created to make the game setting stand out.
One Shot RPG’s version of the solar system is unique because the planets closest to Earth—Venus and Mars—are different. Not only are they different in geography, composition, and atmosphere; they’re different because they contain alien life. The dwarf planet Pluto is also different, but I’ll get into what makes Pluto special later.
Brainstorming and Adapting Ideas
When brainstorming, ideas take twists and turns until the final concept reveals itself. How I arrived at the concept of Venus and Mars being different versions than their real world counterparts is as follows.
I remembered the anime Sailor Moon. The show doesn’t scream typical sci-fi and horror (although I’d argue that it is both), but looking at media in unrelated genres often give the best ideas, so bear with me. The cast in Sailor Moon are divided into the inner planets and the outer planets. The outer planets are shown to be quite different that the inner planets, and often appear to have their own agenda. The original idea for the second narrative was to have the outer planets of the solar system be different (namely they’d be rocky and not gas or ice giants), and that players would spend time exploring them. However the issue of smaller scale and more personal stories came up, and I realized that those planets are still quite far away and that it would be hard to convince players to focus on issues of a few planets when they could potentially explore eight of them. So I instead reversed the “being different” idea so that it was the inner planets, specifically Venus and Mars, that are different. By focusing the story on three planets instead of nine, the setting can maintain an air of familiarity while still catering to the experience of exploring multiple worlds that many sci-fi players crave.
Once it was decided that Venus and Mars were going to be different versions of themselves and be explorable, I had to brainstorm what made them special. I remember watching the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode, “The World Set Free” that talks about the relation of Venus and Earth. When we think of space colonization and exploration today, most people think of Mars as the next frontier. “The World Set Free” instead discusses Venus. Venus is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system and already has an atmosphere (Mars’ is too thin). In the original eight explorable planets idea, I wanted to have Venus be a colony of Earth, but when I shrunk the scale down, I had to rethink the idea. If Venus is so Earth-like, what if when we went to colonize it, we discovered it was actually inhabited? I decided that Mars would be inhabited as well to give the setting three different intelligent species (and later I’ll add a fourth). Like exploring different worlds, encountering different alien species is also something that many sci-fi players crave in their settings. Focusing on a small amount of different species fulfills that fantasy, while also keeping the amount of information a new player has to learn to a minimum.
The Pluto Factor
When the average thirty-something tabletop role playing gamer learned about the solar system in school, there were nine planets, ending in Pluto. About 11 years ago, Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet. In 2015 NASA’s New Horizons craft flew by Pluto, giving us closeup images of the now-not-a-planet. We discovered that Pluto featured a giant heart (also called the whale tail). It’s almost as if its heart was tragically broken by its declassification. The pursuit of knowledge can be cruel sometimes. I wanted to give Pluto some love in One Shot RPG as sort of a tribute. While one of the goals for a successful setting was to reduce meta jokes, I wanted to keep this one in, as long as it added a serious element to the story. I went about this tribute by being even crueler to Pluto.
In One Shot RPG, Pluto isn’t even a dwarf planet. Instead it’s a giant warp gate which connects to Planet X. it’s closer to Earth—just beyond the asteroid belt and before Jupiter. It’s also spewing cosmic horrors into the solar system.
The previous elevator pitch had the sci-fi element taken care of, but it lacked the horror element. With the change to Pluto and the introduction of cosmic horrors, the horror aspect of the setting is finally taking shape. Our solar system is infested with monsters, twisted beings that defy biology. They have their unknown agenda that’s incomprehensible to the average person.
Technology and the Overall Struggle
The solar system is teeming with monsters. There’s frequent attacks on planets, moon colonies, space stations, and ships. The militaries of the three planets have agreed to band together to exterminate this infestation and protect the innocent. Or so they say that’s their goal. Critics of the new army alliance are quick to note that there’s now a machine within our reach—Pluto—that holds the key to fast travel, a technology that until now has only been hypothetical. Getting their hands on this technology means that the military could
conquer spread peace throughout other worlds. Is the alliance’s goal to keep the populace safe from the monster threat, or is it to go to war to get their hands on an elusive technology? It’s both. After all, one of the stated goals was that One Shot RPG provides morally gray choices.
Giving the Characters Reason
The military conflict still does not provide the smaller scale and more personal encounters that One Shot RPG is trying to provide. If all the characters were part of the military, players wouldn’t have the ability to make their own decisions and go against orders, which would take away from the role playing experience. Having the characters only fight cosmic horrors also doesn’t provide morally gray choices. After all, the abominations are inherently evil (or so we think). Instead there needs to be a conflict that’s more personal to the characters, something that isn’t a threat to the military or their campaign, something that the army would deem too small to intervene.
There are rumors that the warp technology and the military’s war are generating an undetectable substance called scum. When scum accumulates inside a person, it corrupts them, turning them into a monster not unlike the monsters from Planet X. It’s even rumored that the cosmic horrors that the military are fighting were once good individuals who were corrupted by their use of warp technology. When a person becomes scummed their intentions become skewed and they gain unexplainable destructive abilities. These new powers are as shocking to them as they are to others. With zealous intentions and abilities to carry them out, these people are a threat to those around them. If word got out that anyone could turn into a monster at any time, and that the struggle to obtain the secret to warp technology was to blame, there’d be chaos. So the military sweeps the problem under the rug and deems anyone who believes in scum as deviants, heretics, traitors.
The characters in One Shot RPG are these so called heretics. They know that scum is real, they’ve seen first hand the damage that a scummed individual can cause, and they’ve tasked themselves with dealing with the problem. Characters in the one shot adventures deal with a person who’s been corrupted and is abusing their abilities. The villains in the story are individuals who may have good intentions, but had so much devotion for their cause that the scum twisted them, giving them new abilities that they themselves don’t know how to control. The military doesn’t want to deal with the problem—doing something would admit there’s a problem. Instead the players must decide how to stop these individuals, who aren’t technically evil. Will the players put them down, or will they try to reason with the newly created monsters?
The Final Pitch
Now that the issues of the previous attempt at a sci-fi and horror roleplaying game setting have been resolved, I can create a better elevator pitch.
One Shot RPG takes place in our solar system, but something’s not right. Venus and Mars aren’t the same planets we remember and they’re home to alien life. Pluto’s in a different location, it’s actually a gate to another world, and it’s releasing cosmic horrors. A new military alliance has been formed to stop the monster threat and to get their hands on this new warp technology. Rumors abound that there’s a new substance—scum—that twists and corrupts good people, turning them into monsters not unlike those that are being warred against. Players take the role of characters who have decided to deal with this terrestrial threat. Doing so has branded them traitors. After all, if word got out that the military’s campaign is threatening the very people they’re sworn to protect, they wouldn’t be able to justify getting their hands on the very technology they seek.
Now that the new elevator pitch is developed, it can be tested against the requirements outlined for a role playing game setting.