Sunday, October 27, 2013

30 Days of GameMastery--Day 24!

Just a few days left of Lindevi's "30 Days of GameMastery" challenge.  Let's get right into it!

Canon vs. alternate universe vs. original setting:  What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?

A great many blog entries ago, I spoke about the concept of Kotov's Syndrome:  better known in gaming circles as 'analysis paralysis'.  You see, the problem when you can do anything, is that you can do anything!  Without limits or some sort of constraining device, we mere mortals tend either freeze up completely or flounder through, unfocused, without any overarching plan.

I've found that, in most of my personal creative endeavors, it's best to put at least some limits on yourself.  Limiting a game concept, a setting, or a scenario provides focus and allows a writer to better stay on topic.  When writing Cold Steel Wardens, I made what I originally thought to be a controversial decision:  CSW as a system does not have rules for transformative powers (a la the Human Torch or Colossus) or invulnerability (a la Superman); I tend to think they're overly powerful and not suited to an investigation-focused idiom.  However, in practice, I've found that none of my players or readers ever found my decision to be that controversial--it made sense, given the context.

In terms of setting, I tend to appreciate these sorts of limits, as they provide finite plot points and boundaries for players to act within.  Don't get me wrong--I like worldbuilding as much as the next writer/designer/GM/whatever, but in terms of my home games, I find that I prefer the "alternate universe" idea best between today's trio.

There but for the grace of the Dark Knight...?
The biggest benefit of the alternate universe is familiarity.  Considering the recent release of Arkham Origins, let us consider the example of The Batman.  If you're running a game in Gotham City, your players will know what to expect, even if Bruce Wayne never makes an appearance.  They'll expect pseudo-Gothic environs, corruption through the heart of the city's infrastructure, and organized criminals facing off against the masked "freaks" institutionalized at Arkham.  All of that sounds like a basic canon universe, but the alternate universe allows you to alter that paradigm in a manner of your choosing.

So, let's change the paradigm and make that canon setting into an alternate universe.  Imagine that same Gotham if Bruce Wayne had never became Batman.  Certain members of his rogues' gallery might never come to fruition, while still others would become unchecked powerhouses.  Bane might never exist, though someone like Black Mask might become a titan of the underworld.  We have a framework in existence for the world, though the players can't necessarily expect their knowledge to be accurate.

Maybe that's not satisfying for your Batman-ia.  Perhaps you could instead alter your universe such that Bruce Wayne died in his third year of being Batman, before ever adopting Dick Grayson.  In such a scenario, numerous ripples would echo across the universe, perhaps with Grayson himself attempting to take on the role of masked vigilante with no mentor.  What would he be like, without Wayne's intervention?  What about Wayne's later protoges:  Jason Todd, Time Drake, and Barbara Gordon?  The possibilities, within a limited scope, are utterly endless.

Such is the benefit of the alternate universe.  Once you have some lines to work within, it's so much easier to work without!


  1. One of the best campaigns I ran was an alternate universe Star Wars game where the premise was that C-3P0 and R2-D2 never made it to Tatooine. That meant that Luke never bought the droids, Ben never mentored Luke in the ways of the Force, Han Solo never took them on a fateful trip to Alderaan, Princess Leia was never rescued, and the Death Star plans weren't delivered to the Rebel Alliance. Looks like the galaxy needs some new heroes!

    In that campaign, we had player characters going through many familiar events from the movies, but with twists that were consequences of the premise. For instance, Vader decided not to execute Leia when he discovered she was force-sensitive and began training her in the ways of the Sith. And Luke wound up joining the Imperial Academy. Also, the players had things turn out a bit differently, like the players failing to destroy the Death Star before Yavin IV was destroyed. Oops.

    On the other hand, I've had a lot of fun playing within the canon setting, but I always make sure that you wind up being at least as influential as the main characters in the setting. For instance, one Star Wars oneshot I've run involves original characters discovering the research base where the first Death Star is being built and freeing Wookiee slaves forced to build it (all of which is completely within canon). For every Stargate game I've ever run, I just have the players play SG-1 or the main characters of the spinoff shows because it's more fun to play them rather than SG-8. I think that part of the reason that some GMs don't like gaming in the canon setting is that they find it too difficult do have players be just as awesome as the main characters, and it's true that this can be difficult.

    As for an original setting, you just have to sell me on it. The bonus of doing a licensed setting is that I'm already sold from watching the movies, reading the comics, or whatever.

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