- How you can use modular setting generation to come up with game worlds and stories on the fly
Games like No Man’s Sky have shown us the tremendous power modular design holds. By simply mixing and matching a considerable amount of parts, you can get a variety of content that could not have been achieved otherwise. And despite many reviews of the game being negative (and coming from players who probably had the wrong expectations, as the game delivers exactly what it promised to, doing an awesome job in doing that), the combinations of content elements, the exploration at the core and of course the enormous amount of player story (emergent narrative) shows that this is a great way to go in order to experience a setting.
First Part: Generation
Now, how can we apply the very same idea to preparing role playing games? The answer is quite easy actually – you can readily create any number of settings (or even game worlds) just by combining and recombining a powerful set of parts.
So, let’s say you want to play a fantasy story in a stereotypical oriental setting. Go ahead and make a brainstorming, read through the Arabian Nights stories, watch some Sindbad or play some Prince of Persia. You may end up with a list similar to this:
- Flying carpet
- Magic lamp
- Dark magic
- Secret cave
- Fata Morgana
- Mix of cultures and religions
You probably have used a random encounter generator, random campaign generator, or even the official Shadowrun Run generator before to randomly determine elements of a setting or game session. This is not what we are going to do here.
We don’t want completely random results, and in fact this isn’t what No Man’s Sky does, either. This is the reason for the fact that the game’s universe is identical to every player – not only because all share the same random seed, but because there are actual rules as to how the different elements of the setting can be combined.
But instead of defining the rules and connections beforehand and then inserting elements from our list (which is what Shadowrun does), we do it the other way around. Let’s start off with choosing a fixed set of setting elements and combine them afterwards, defining their roles according to context and common sense. This way, you will come up with the material you can actually use at the game table, even to start gaming right away (while the Shadowrun generator leaves you without the only thing you really need to really run a Shadowrun properly, which is a map).
So, let’s first decide on a pattern we want to use for our game. Depending on your groups preferred type of game and the direction it is supposed to take, you can choose any combination that makes sense. Here are three examples for sets of roles we might want to fill:
- Current ruler:
- Direct opposition:
- Using them as a tool:
- Element of power:
- Oppressed minority:
- Main threat:
- People’s only hope:
- Reason for the threat:
- Secret weapon:
- Obvious mystery:
- Sense of wonder:
- Their secret:
- Unexpected Treasure:
Now you can just go ahead and roll or somehow randomly determine 5 to 6 entries from your idea list and then match them in a way you see fit to the roles chosen.
Let’s say we have determined the following:
- Magic lamp
I went for 6 entries so that I can choose and drop one I really can’t fit into the molds. But since basically any conceivable combination is valid, you cannot go all too wrong here. The only difference between randomly assigning them and casting the roles by yourself is that you have a closer connection to them already before you even start playing.
So here is a possible way of filling in the roles for our differently focused settings:
- Current ruler: Minaret
- Direct opposition: Efreets
- Using them as a tool: Djinni
- Element of power: Sabers
- Oppressed minority: Harem
- Base: Minaret
- Main threat: Sabers
- People’s only hope: Magic Lamp
- Reason for the threat: Efreets
- Secret weapon: Harem
- Obvious mystery: Magic Lamps
- Sense of wonder: Efreets
- Ruler(s): Harem
- Their secret: Djinni
- Unexpected Treasure: Sabers
While this mixing and matching might sound random, when you do it yourself you will quickly notice how you already come up with stories in your mind for every possible connection. To make this a bit easier to grasp, here is a short description of each setting:
The mysterious and humming Metropolis of Mara’ndha is ruled by an unknown council of allegedly wise people that communicate their rulings from the top of the minarets spread all over the cityscape. When they walk among their people, they always hide their faces in intricate veils, and they are generally considered chosen by the gods, justifying their rule.
But there is opposition: The Efreets of the city recruit more and more followers, demanding a change in ruling structures. While many of their views and goals might be considered extreme (at least extreme in regards to the change they would mean for everyday life in the city), they try to find ways to either overthrow or circumvent the current government. They find help by the people living in the unisex Harems, who are usually stolen from other cities and held as slaves. Even those that gain citizen rights are usually treated miserably, and always need to have a patron citizen to accompany all of their business actions. Also, they are not allowed to purchase artifacts, which is the main source of magic in the city, if one doesn’t have the money to afford an apprenticeship in the academy; so Harem people have a much harder life with only mundane means of living it.
The people of the minaret enforce their power through magical sabers which are said to have been crafted from the star that fell to the city at the beginning of time, and these allow them to yield the most powerful magic in the city.
They also use this power to control the Djinni, that are, by their nature, related to the Efreet, but much more vulnerable to magic control. If they could, many would probably readily join the resistance of the Efreet, but the Minaret people steer them, so they are living in constant magical slavery. Unfortunately, this fact is not known, and everyone believes the Djinni bow to their masters by free will. Even the Efreet regard rumors about the Djinni being controlled as sorry excuses for their cowardice.
The players now enter the scene as either part – foreigners that try to find their way around in the city; privileged students studying magic at the academy; oppressed Harem slaves brought to Mara’ndha; Efreets struggling against the oppression; or any other starting point engaging them with the setting and forcing them to pick a side to join.
The PCs have been called to help to an outpost on out in the desert. The outpost’s main base is located in a huge minaret jutting out of the desert sand, the last remains of a sunken city. The people stationed here are troubled by strange scimitars that emerge from the sand to attack caravans, yet never take anything from them and are wielded by no one.
People talk about a curse that came upon them because they disturbed the calm of the sunken city, but the city’s military government calls these legends superstitious and implores to search for the real cause. Still, the outpost’s inhabitants try to search for a fabled magic lamp said to be hidden in a secret cave in the desert to take the curse from them. The PCs are hired by either side to search for the lamp or find out the real cause of the attacks.
As it turns out, both sides are somehow right – the flying scimitars are wielded by Efreets that where cursed when they dug through the sunken city searching for treasures, driven mad by the hex upon them. The lamp meanwhile, being the stolen treasure that would remove the curse from the Efreets once returned, was found by an expedition from a nearby Harem garden city and given to their sultan as a present.
The PCs ride through an unexplored part of the desert on camelback, when they suddenly find an oasis of tremendous size. Upon approaching the body of water at its center, they notice millions and millions of magic lamps on the ground. Next to the Oasis is a little village that is the extended harem of a nearby Kalif. They offer selling single lamps to the PCs. Picking a lamp up draws them into an intricate dream world consisting of a huge labyrinth that is haunted by restless Efreets. As it turns out, these Efreets are actually the transformed people of the harem, while those they encountered where the Djinni from the lamps that joined forces, led by the only real free Djinni among them, to become human.
If confronted, the Djinni will drop their sabers, full of remorse about the poor people robbed of their lives, and also disappointed by what it means to be human. Only the free Djinni gets mad at them, turning against their siblings.
As you see, each of these settings was written from a few modular elements without much work, but still perform all very differently. Additionally, each of these can host dungeoncrawls, mysteries, and all other sorts of scenario structures in it, but also provides enough material to engage with on its own. It is a great way of improvising whole settings – just generate a few things from the list, think for a few minutes and then present your players with an exposition to the setting.
Second Part: Procedure
Very well, you might think, this is a generated setting, but what is so procedural about it? The answer is easy: nothing.
Let’s go ahead and make it procedural then. The tool I will use to showcase the tremendous power of procedural content generation is one you might already be familiar with from my articles on planting a campaign: the Plotmap. It’s the most powerful tool I use to incorporate spontaneous or generated content into the overall structure of the the plot.
One of the qualities I value most about role playing games is the opportunity for players to follow the plot to their liking, which includes ignoring story bits that don’t appeal to them altogether. So whenever you present them with a spontaneous session, they are also free to ignore the content you generated, and move on to parts of the setting that stir their agency. Also, the, might move beyond the borders of what you prepared, so now it is time for some serious procedural generation.
There is a very easy thing you can do about not having enough content ready that probably will not take you more than 5 to 10 minutes. Grab a piece of paper and write down the five (or whatever number you generated) elements of the setting and connect them in the way your settings no has them connected.
Now, look where your players are moving their characters. Are they trying to get themselves involved in some Harem politics? Are they stealing the artifacts to sell them to a university? Do they ride through the desert to get away from the dangers you presented them with? This is all no problem.
Just go ahead and generate one or two additional plot elements from your list. Write them down on your Plotmap and connect them to elements already present. Then quickly think about the nature of this connection, and how the new element ties into the overall nature of the setting, then note that down as well.
You are already done now. Your players may now engage with what you have them encounter next, and it will always tie back into what they already now, enabling them to use their previous knowledge in order to make relevant and informed decisions.
Take for example the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. When the character of Davy Jones was introduced in the second movie, he was already tied to several of the plot elements. Jack Sparrow has a pact with him that gave him the Black Pearl, Bill Turner’s father really survived the events mentioned in the first movie and is part of Jones’ crew, Tia Dalma is the former lover of him. He was so deeply interwoven with already established or upcoming setting elements that he naturally encouraged plot progression.
If the players move one, just continue to add more elements from your list (or make up those that come naturally through the progression of the plot). You will always end up with a deeply interwoven network of plot elements that inform each other and can help you to generate NPC responses without having to go much further than the scope of the Plotmap connections a certain element provides.
If you have enough source elements on your list, you can go on a long time, with a setting and plot that naturally evolves from your players’ decisions, without too much work and with complete freedom (as you always only generate the part they engage with as opposed to preparing the whole world of possibilities). Like a procedurally generated game, you always only render what the players see next and how it connects to what they already now. This saves a ton of prep work, and will give you a plot that you would have never been able to create on your own without your players’ input (and that of randomness).
Of course there are also some downsides. Since everything is spontaneously added to the game, logical errors might occur. Also, if the players aren’t happy with your source list of random elements, nothing you can generate from it will satisfy them. Also, you might think into a wrong direction, providing them with possibility after possibility for intrigues and conspiracies while they are only looking for something they can beat up.
Many of these pitfalls have fixes, luckily. For example, go with what your players suggest instead of picking random elements. If they don’t suggest anything, ask them. When they say “we ignore the Djinni and ride off into the desert”, simply ask them: “what are you hoping to find there? Are you looking for something specific?” and then try and roll with that.
Also, if you really trust your players’ seriousness, you can ask them beforehand to provide you with as many plot elements as possible they want to see, and use this compilation as a source list for your generation. This way, you ensure there is content at least one player likes to see, and you can still surprise them in the way you connect to everything else. There is nothing more satisfying as giving a bit of authorial power away and see what kind of tremendously interesting and interactive story you as a group end up with – a story so rich no single mind would have been able to fabricate.
I hope you like the input provided in this article! As always, I’d be happy to read comments about this.