Here I go again. I’ve been thinking for a while now about a system to handle collective world-building. I’ve read Aria: Worlds and I have yet to read Mortal Coil, which I understand has a method for creating a setting built in. I like the idea of getting a group of players together to create a world for a game to take place in. This seems especially well-suited to Fantasy and SciFi games of all kinds, where world-building and setting creation are often the main task of someone running a game.
This will be more useful for systems like True 20, GURPS, FUDGE, Burning Wheel and many others which do not have a built-in setting in the system. It is also useful for the many, many other systems which are built into a lackluster setting (dare I name names?).
Anyway, what I have here is a very rough sketch that I’m putting out for comment, expansion and improvement. I’d like for this to become something worth playtesting, which it is not as yet. I haven’t even decided on a dice system, but am at the moment just using a diceless system and am dealing with overall concepts of the game.
First off, in Genesis, the group will need to decide some things by consensus. Some work needs to be done setting the basic stage for the world. This could come down to a bidding system, but I’ve found it hard to come up with a method for things like the physical geography or the time period to be left up to a resolution mechanic. Also, if some players lose in a given resolution mechanic, they probably won’t want to put time into a world that doesn’t reflect their ideas.
What needs to be decided beforehand
1. The overall theme of the game and the game-world – high fantasy, cyberpunk, space opera, dramatic and mythical, whimsical and humorous, gritty realism, etc.
2. Time, both relative historical period and scope. The game will deal with time in terms of Eras (long term) and Periods (short term), but this covers things like, for Fantasy, is this a Medieval world? For SciFi, is this world near-future, or far-future, or an entire solar system, etc.
3. Physical environment. There are many kinds of fractal map software out there that can be used to produce random (but logically constructed) continents, or the players can just sketch something out. The environment can be a city, or one nation, or a continent, a world, a solar system, a galaxy, etc.
4. Settings. This has to do with where each player’s culture will begin – which neighborhood, which planet, which region of the continent, etc. How many resources are available to be exploited will be handled by the game itself, so this is more a choice of ‘color’ or feel for the culture, and is a good way to begin brainstorming aspects of that culture.
5. Parameters, having to do with what “culture” will mean in this setting. Does “culture” mean a culture in the usual sense, where race and species is shared? Or are there different races, or species, all involved? Is it a particular gang in a given neighborhood, or a political party in a capitol city, or a particular religion vying for cultural influence? And so on.
Next, we come to Cultural Attributes. I’ve thought up five that cover most aspects of what I think is important, but there are bits and pieces missing that might be improved with a better system or organizing.
Aesthetics: this has to do with how much a culture values art and beauty, how likely it is to create art that other cultures appreciate, and how much of its resources the culture dedicates to artistic pursuits, comparatively. Aesthetics has a lot to do with how much outsiders value a particular culture and how much lasting influence it will have historically.
High-Aesthetic cultures: Renaissance Italy, modern New York City, Paris, Elves.
Low-Aesthetic cultures: the USSR, the Second or Third Reich in Germany.
Aggression: this measures how warlike your culture is. Does it have a long-standing warrior culture, or a warrior class? Is it often involved in wars of expansion with its neighbors? Aggression has a lot to do with how a culture interacts with its neighbors as well as how hard it is to conquer or how easily it conquers others.
High-Aggression cultures: Vikings, Mongols, Bismarck’s or Hitler’s Germany, al-Qaeda, Orcs.
Low-Aggression cultures: Tibet, Australian Aborigines, Switzerland, Quakers.
Cohesion: this is a measure of how strong a culture’s identity is and how resistant it is to rapid change. A culture with high Cohesion will have more continuity through history and will resist conquest from outside cultures. Low Cohesion cultures tend to value individual freedom and have large immigrant populations, or are perhaps only ill-defined conglomerations of multiple distinct groups.
High-Cohesion cultures: China, various Fundamentalisms, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hogwarts.
Low-Cohesion cultures: (many of these are lost to history, of course) Postmodernism, North America, Yugoslavia, Singapore.
Curiosity: this is a measure of how a culture views the outside world and how committed it is to rational inquiry. Cultures with many trade relations and which value cheap transportation may have high Curiosity. Curiosity has a lot to do with the pace of advancement and how often new ideas, technologies, techniques, etc. emerge. Some cultures are consciously restrained and insular while others tend to be less Curious because of geographical limitations.
High-Curiosity cultures: ancient Greece, Medieval China, the Netherlands, secular humanism.
Low-Curiosity cultures: Tibet, Hobbits, Kalahari Bushmen.
Productivity: this is simply a measure of how industrious a culture is, and will influence how efficiently it can make use of its environment. High productivity will often also lead to high exploitation and may result in degradation – these problems will be handled by the Resources mechanic. High Productivity could mean many things in a Fantasy setting – the efficient use of mana or power crystals, for example.
High-productivity cultures: modern Japan, Dwarves, Hong Kong.
Low-productivity cultures: Tuareg, Hippies, wood Elves.
How Attributes are decided: Right now I like a system where the culture is sketched out and then questions are answered about it. The total of “yes” or “no” answers will render an Attribute for each culture.
Techne and Gnosis
Every culture is located on a point between the poles I describe as Techne and Gnosis. Techne represents how industrialized or dependent on technology a culture is, its tech level or development level in other terms. Gnosis, on the other hand, is for lack of a better word how spiritual a culture is. Especially in a setting with magic and the supernatural, this will be related to Gnosis. Gnosis could also represent a culture that foregoes technology for moral or spiritual reasons, like the Amish. It isn’t necessary a statement about how ‘advanced’ a culture is, but rather where its values lie and how it seeks to accomplish its goals.
For added color, I would like to have cultures have particular Traits that could aid or hinder them in given situations. There could be environmental traits (lots of iron ore, little arable land, landlocked, convenient rivers), political traits (fundamentalist bloc, anarchistic streak, isolationism), etc. These traits would essentially modify Attributes in instances where they apply (iron helps when an opponent in war doesn’t have it, isolationism can make it hard to open new trade relationships).
I would like a Golden Age mechanic, related to the Resources and Destiny mechanics, and also related to what is going on in-game – perhaps a majority player-vote to inaugurate a culture’s Golden Age. During the Golden Age a culture has a lot of advantages in all categories, but when the Golden Age ends there is a period of decline that could be disastrous in the long term.
This will be the equivalent of Hit Points for a culture and may also play into the bidding or dice mechanic when I have sketched that out in more detail. Possibly gathering Vitality over time can lead to a point where a Golden Age is triggered.
Revolution and insurrection are always possibilities in any culture, from minor ones like a liberation movement for a particular minority to big ones like the Cultural Revolution in China or the Bolsheviks overthrowing the Czars. In periods of instability, random elements enter the game and create problems for the player in question to handle. Cohesion will probably factor into how long a particular period of instability lasts.
Destiny is what I’m thinking should be the base pool of dice or bidding points, etc., that each player’s culture receives. Presumably, the Destiny of any player culture should be very strong, just as PCs tend to be destined for greatness in a given game. Through the game, this Destiny can be added to or subtracted from, particularly depending on what strategic choices are made by the players.
Starting points will probably be assumed to have the same resources. Resource-rich areas should be smaller, while another culture might control a vast area that is resource-poor (think Mongols in central Asia). It should be possible to under-utilize Resources, and maybe even get some advantage from that – with the sense that you’re not polluting and whatnot. Perhaps an Aesthetics bonus. It also needs to be possible to overdraw on Resources, representing rapid depletion and exploitation that could have disastrous results (think Easter Island). Resources can also come from making trade arrangements with other player-cultures, probably made easier for a culture with more Curiosity and limited by Productivity.
In Genesis, there are basically two kinds of time. Eras are broad categories of time that define a certain chunk of play sessions – similar to storylines in roleplaying games. For a game where, say, cultures are competing for control of a continent, there could be an Era of expansion and conquest, then an Era of competition for key resources, then an Eraof warfare, followed by an Era of competition in the arts and sciences, etc.
Periods are shorter snippets of time, probably about one game session each, which simply break time into more easily-digestible segments. Things like gathering Resources or trade arrangements or military campaigns might be broken down into Periods.
The most pressing need at this point is for me to decide on a base mechanic. The particulars of rules can’t be ironed out until I know what I’m dealing with. My ideas fall into a few basic categories:
1. A point-based, diceless, bidding system. Similar to poker, for example, where bids may or may not be known in advance by other players (espionage could play a big part in what you know about your opponents, as could Curiosity). Highest bidder wins, ties go to the higher Attribute.
2. A dice system where die-pools are built and then rolled and ‘successes’ compared. Maybe d6’s where anything equal to your Attribute or lower is a success if Attributes are rated 1-5, etc.
3. A mixed system, with dice and points than can be spent to manipulate the dice somehow – automatic successes or bigger pools or lower difficulties, etc. For example, Resource points can be spent to reduce the difficulty of an Aggression roll during warfare.