Limitations breed creativity. When creating a setting for a tabletop role playing game it’s important to set requirements to provide focus and clarity. For One Shot RPG, the gameplay requirements involve accessibility, the ability to create characters, story hooks, and diversity. Business goals relate to audience, reach, jargon, and intellectual property. Finally the tone requirements deal with seriousness, gray areas, and small scale problems. Once these limitations are defined they can be applied to actually developing the setting.
When talking about creating a setting for an entertainment product, such as a video game, comic book, or tv show, I’m also talking about creating the story that goes along with it. A memorable setting would be nothing without a compelling narrative. In fact, a setting without a good story probably isn’t memorable to begin with. When developing One Shot RPG, creating the setting and the narrative at the same time ensures they compliment each other and they both work towards fulfilling a larger purpose.
Sci-Fi and Horror Genre
From the initial planning of the product, I decided that One Shot RPG would be a sci-fi and horror setting. I did this to differentiate the game from Dungeons and Dragons, which uses a fantasy setting. I feel like “fantasy” has too much burden placed on it to conform to the elves, dwarves, dragons mold. Getting away from the Tolkien flavored fantasy would take too much effort to explain to the players, a requirement that is discussed below. I do not want to have to explain to every customer, “It’s fantasy, but instead of elves, dwarves, and dragons in a medieval setting, there’s x, y, and z.”
Gameplay and Experience Requirements
The previous article talked about how the one shot adventures should allow the players to get into the game easily, should be quick, and should be accessible. In the context of designing a narrative and game setting, quick and accessible means that players should be able to easily understand how the world works. New players to the game shouldn’t have to know about pages of lore in order to understand where their characters are and what they can do. They shouldn’t need a detailed explanation to be able to have fun. They should be able to “just get it.” The first gameplay requirement is that players should be able to understand the setting in a few short sentences.
One Shot RPG will supply players a group of premade characters to choose from. Each adventure will provide a different selection of characters, and new characters will be added to the mix as time goes on. This means that the setting has to allow for the ability for new characters to be introduced. While it may seem obvious, this rules out things like “lone survivor in an apocalypse” or even “dwindling population in a zombie invasion” as those don’t allow for many more characters to be added over time.
The narrative must also provide a hook for the players and characters, something that drives their actions. Similar to how the narrative itself must be self-explanatory, the reason for the characters to be doing something must also be explained. The players and game master must be able to identify quickly why this group of characters is doing something, what their place in the world is, and what their goals and motivations are.
Finally, the setting should provide an equal opportunity for women and characters of color. The setting should allow for all people to be leaders, followers, heroes, villains, and everything in between. The narrative should allow for the characters to be diverse.
One Shot RPG is a business, and must make money off of selling role playing game supplements. That means there has to be some business considerations when developing the setting and narrative.
The first business requirement has to do with audience and reach. While tabletop role playing game culture is niche, there are some decisions that I can make to widen its appeal. The reach should be as broad as possible, while still retaining uniqueness and nerdiness. Mass market isn’t the goal, but complete obscurity isn’t either. In order to reach a wider audience the setting should be easily explainable to newcomers and reviewers. Customers should be able to understand what the setting is about after hearing a short, elevator-style pitch. The longer it takes to explain the setting, the less time can be spent playing.
Something I’ve been guilty of before, and want to avoid, is the overuse of jargon with the sci-fi aspects. The narrative should use as much real world language as possible. An outsider should be able to overhear a session of play and understand what’s going on. A new player shouldn’t have to get used to a lot of new words to have fun.
One Shot RPG is about playing a group of recognizable characters in an easy to understand sci-fi and horror setting, so I need to bring up the discussion of intellectual property. The setting and narrative should be unique and stand on its own, enough that the world can be protected under intellectual property laws. The setting and narrative should lend itself to a constant supply of characters and story that further develop the intellectual property.
The tone requirements come from a personal taste. While the tone requirements can be seen as arbitrary or even “because I say so,” I feel like they narrow down the scope of the setting. As discussed before, limitations breed creativity, so these are designed to make the adventures more unique.
The narrative should take itself seriously. Things like pop culture references, meta jokes, and sci-fi trope deconstruction should be kept to a minimum. There can be occasional humor and lightheartedness—they can be used to as a tool for pacing and making the horror elements even scarier—but they shouldn’t be the main focus. The setting is serious, the characters are doing something serious. It’s up to the players to bring their own humor and jokes to the table, not One Shot RPG.
The one shot adventures should present ample opportunities for moral gray areas. We do not live in a black and white world, nor do the characters of One Shot RPG. The major decisions the players make should have both positive and negative outcomes, and there shouldn’t be an easy way out. The hero’s actions should cause strife for some. The villain’s deeds should help a subset of people. Nobody is perfect, and not everyone is one hundred percent good or bad.
Finally, the narrative should primarily focus on personal, smaller scale problems. Not everything has to be about saving the world or the universe. Not every villain has to be evil, they can be good people who are acting against the protagonist’s interests. Not every decision has to rock the foundation of reality, instead it can affect a small group of individuals. This smaller scale creates a more intimate play experience and allows players to become more attached to their decisions. Closeness allows the horror aspect to shine; horror is most effective when it feels like it’s happening to the viewer.
Now that the limitations on developing a sci-fi and horror roleplaying game setting have been set, they can be applied towards creating it. That will happen in the next article.