Building Settings Using RPG Design Mechanics

The following is a guest post from Corey Reid, creator of the Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island shared story world.

I use role-playing game development as a way to build setting. A shared world needs setting – locations, landscapes, and institutions that characters can interact with, that can ignite and illuminate their stories. When you’re writing a story, setting elements can arise naturally, as the story proceeds, but developing these attributes without the engine of a plot can be challenging. By taking a queue from role-playing game development, you can more easily craft elements that draw players/readers in, and in turn inspire their stories and contributions.

The setting material required for table-top role-playing games must fulfill curious (sometimes opposing) conditions. It must have enough detail to provide inspiration but also have sufficient “empty space” to allow players and designers to insert their own ideas and adapt the material to their stories. The role-playing game industry has spent years crafting exactly this sort of material – settings that inspire but also leave room for the individual imagination.

The current project for my shared world, DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, is a comic book titled REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS (yes, I like all caps).

The story of RSNG takes place in the DINO-PIRATES world, which means its setting, the Ninja Island Correctional Academy (and by now, I think you’ve decided whether this game’s for you!) needs to be detailed. But I didn’t want it to be too detailed. I wanted to give readers a chance to interpret the world of RSNG on their own by encouraging them to share their ideas about the Academy, contribute to the world narrative, or add their own stories.

But first I had to provide readers with details of the Academy, so they could imagine new stories set there. I created characters, classrooms, and other locations that players could interact with. I made up some stuff about how the school works, but I left a lot of stuff undelineated, so other creators can make it work however they want. Starting from a premise of “it’s a high school, only for ninjas” made a lot of things easy for a reader to grasp. Most of us have pretty strong memories of high school, so that made for an easy reference point.

If I were using something more exotic, I’d need to provide far more details and make sure readers understood things, but for something like this, keeping it somewhat vague allows the reader to “imprint” their own memories and experiences on the setting.

So I created a new game.

It’s based on a fantastic game by Margaret Weis Productions, Leverage (which is based on the hit TV series). I took the tropes of the Leverage game and adapted them to the painful realities of life in a Ninja Reform School.

One of the basic tenets of the game is that anything (places, people or whatever) is described by a combination of a quick phrase and then a type of die. Dice for this game come in a number of shapes, not just the usual six-sided dice. There are four-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided and even twelve-sided dice. Obviously, dice with more sides can produce higher numbers, and higher numbers relate to higher capacity. If one character has, for example, “Kung Fu D6,” and another has “SUPER KUNG FU D12,” the latter character is likely to win a Kung Fu fight, since their D12 (a twelve-sided die) is more likely to roll a higher number than the former’s D6. Also because their Kung Fu is written in ALL CAPS.

I’m telling you, it’s a thing.

Using these simple game statistics, I can easily generate “statements” about the nature of a given setting element without having to commit to anything too specific.

For example, the Ninja Island Correctional Academy has a lovely Oceanview Terrace where teachers can sit and contemplate the ephemeral nature of life. So when the Oceanview Terrace is listed with a quality of “Serene Perfection D8,” readers can interpret that how they see fit, but it gives a clear indication as to how the Terrace ought to impact anyone who comes upon it. Whatever “Serene Perfection” may mean to them, they understand that this place affects people and events to a certain degree. The exact degree is vague, but even someone who knows nothing about the game rules can at least understand that it’s somewhat more potent than a D6 quality. So if our aforementioned “Kung Fu D6” character wanted to start a fight here, that might be hard for them, whereas it would be easier for the “SUPER KUNG FU D12” character. Either way, a fight would be something that works against the “Serene Perfection” quality, so one would expect it to be disruptive and unexpected.

When readers become creators, giving them this sort of comparative data can really help maintain consistency in the setting. A creator can decide to have a fight break out in the Oceanview Terrace, or they can decide that the location’s Serene Perfection prevents violence, but either way, they’re given useful details while still be able to describe the location any way they like.

You don’t have to use this sort of game mechanic — you could “+” or “-” signs, or any sort of relative ranking. Heck, you don’t even have to create an RPG to do this. You can apply this principle to any shared world: a comic, a novel, a web series, etc.

Whatever the medium, whatever your world, remember that the more paint you add to the canvas, the more detail fans will have to work with. But fill in too much of the canvas, and fans will have a hard time bringing their own ideas and voices to the world. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Sometimes less is more, and this can be especially true for shared story worlds. Giving people space to exercise their own creativity is essential to a shared world.

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