Choosing or designing a setting for BH

Peter Aronson

September 2011

If Becoming Heroes was a standard generic RPG like GURPS, I’d assume that it was expected that creating/choosing the setting was the GMs job. However, BH seems to assume a more collaborative approach to setting (which is awesome).

It struck me, however, when I did my first read-through of BH that there was precious little actual guidance about how the group was to select a setting and to what extent it (if at all) needs to be fleshed out before play. This isn’t necessarily helped by the fact that the only actual play I could find for BH pretty much adopted an existing setting wholesale (the Whoverse*).

Not that there’s anything wrong with using BH to running existing settings. Existing settings can have the significant advantage that if selected correctly, all the players will already be familiar with the setting without having to do any homework. But if running existing settings is going to be BH’s “killer ap”, then that ought to be emphasized a bit more (yes, there is a line about not being afraid to steal settings you like, but that’s a bit milder than what I’m talking about).

But it looks like BH is intended to be as much about running your own settings as about running existing settings. But this is where it seems to me that the book gets a little vague.

Now, I don’t find coming up with settings particularly difficult if I’m doing it myself, but coming up with a setting collaboratively seems to me to be a trickier beast all together, particularly making sure everyone’s contributions are taken into account. (One of my groups recently finished a 16 session Burning Wheel game with a setting built by the GM after taking a bunch of suggestions and synthesizing them. I think he was following advice in the Adventure Burner chapter titled The Adventure Burner, which advocates a strongly GM-led approach to collaborative world building. I didn’t find the process entirely satisfying, and before doing something like that again I’d like to have tools that could help the process.)

The advice in the GM’s chapter (page 49) about creating setting after the players have created characters seems hard to implement. Maybe the proper sequence might be something like:Outline setting;

  1. Outline setting;
  2. Create characters (together);
  3. Flesh out setting?

It would seem rather difficult, after all, to create appropriate characters without some idea of the setting.

Now, to be honest, I might have been somewhat influenced by my recent disappointment when reading an RPG called Archetype, which seemed to consist almost entirely of character creation rules (including a powers system), a resolution system and a three page bestiary. I found it rather incomplete. Even OD&D had more guidance than that! You could argue this is pretty much what BH provides, although I would say that the BH’s Chapter VI, “Running the Game” makes a big difference. But not necessarily enough difference in this particular area.

(* The AP for this game would be a lot more useful if it actually made any reference to the mechanics used other than the character sheets. If you weren’t a player, all that’s there is Dr. Who fan-fiction.)

Kit

September 2011

Sorry for the delay in responding. This post has had me thinking.

I think that the comparison we find most helpful is not to GURPS, but to Primetime Adventures. Someone wants to play, and in our lives at least, they want to play not because they just want to play BH, but rather because they want to play something specific. So they pitch their setting: sci-fi where there’s this psychic gestalt entity that wants to absorb everyone. Vikings in a North Atlantic that never quite was. Whatever. And then other people get to say things like “Yeah, but I want there to be no FTL communication,” or “OK, how do you feel about high-fantasy magic in a pseudo-historical setting?”.

As to the order, you’re absolutely right: pitch setting, make characters, flesh out setting works really well. Honestly, that’s probably what we do in practice, but I think we kind of don’t notice the bit where you pitch the setting. It’s the reason we’re there at the table.

Something you might want to look at is Ben Robbins’ Microscope. I’ve only played it once, and I have some reservations about some details of it that I want to explore with more play, but it works very well as a setting-creation game. It begins similarly, with a pitch, but then you go around and get to specify things that you want to be sure to include or want to categorically exclude. Which might be the tool you’re looking for to help collaborate on making a BH setting.

Peter Aronson

September 2011

Ah, this explains much:

I think that the comparison we find most helpful is not to GURPS, but to Primetime Adventures. Someone wants to play, and in our lives at least, they want to play not because they just want to play BH, but rather because they want to play something specific.

Since this is not, generally speaking, primarily how I have been looking at BH. One of the groups I play with is an RPG “tasting” group, where three GM’s (or facilitators) in rotation run short (2-3 session) games of whatever they want to run. I was thinking of working BH into my rotation. But the group’s emphasis is on trying games, not particular settings, the question that first came to my mind was not, what game would work with this setting, but rather, how do I come up with a setting for BH? I doubt, however, I’m going to be unique in this.

Actually though, I’ve have been considering BH in a manner closer to the way you guys do for another purpose. My daughter is writing a couple of intertwined urban fantasy series. However, she’s gotten kind of blocked on one of them, and thought that running a game might jar things loose. When she first asked about games she could use, I lent her the Angel RPG and D20 Modern (her gaming experience has been mostly pretty trad, and her friends have mostly played D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder). But once I got BH it occured to me that it might well work for her setting nicely. However, I strongly suspect that running for it her first would be a lot more effective than just handing her the book. Which then feeds back into the issue under discussion, since I could not run her Copper Moon setting, since most of it is in her head. So I’d need a setting to run for her. This is where the idea of using BH to run an existing setting suddenly becomes very attractive, to be exact, one my daughter and I (and anyone we rope in) would know. I’ve been strongly considering the setting of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye half-Fae Detective series (and if you’ve happen to read them, I’d say that Toby is totally the Duty Bound). Of course, between College and work, Jenn’s kind of busy, so this may never happen.

As for this:

Something you might want to look at is Ben Robbins’ Microscope. I’ve only played it once, and I have some reservations about some details of it that I want to explore with more play, but it works very well as a setting-creation game.

I’ve heard of groups using a different game for setting creation than playing out the setting, but I’ve what I’ve heard of people using was Universalis. But one of the members of the tasting group has Microscope, so I likely could borrow it from him. And the tasting group is flexible enough for the two step process, so that’s good.

(PS: Based on reading only, a capsule description of BH could be: a cross between Wushu and Story Engine by way of Joseph Campbell…)

Kit

September 2011

The idea of using a game to help jostle fictional ideas is great. When I wrote more fiction, I would start each day by drawing a random prompt from a bowl of them I kept next to my computer, and just writing a thousand words on that bit of fiction. Sounds like this is to a similar end. Sort of like gesture drawings for visual art.

Kit

September 2011

Huh, never seen Story Engine. I’ll check it out. But yeah, Wushu is certainly an influence. But there are a lot of other things going on in there, too. Particularly when you get into how arcs take shape in longer-term play.

Peter Aronson

September 2011

The thing about Story Engine is that it has scene-based resolution like BH, which isn’t really all that common (it also has free-form traits, which while not uncommon these days is another commonality). And, yeah, I know there are other things going on in BH than in Wushu, but the resemblance is there. And the Joseph Campbell reference covers the arcs… ;)

Kit

September 2011

Right. We talked a lot about Campbell as we developed, so we’ve got a wonky view—we consciously tried to move away from “hero with a thousand faces”, to actually articulate the thousand faces. But you’re right, of course.

gnomish_brigand

March 2012

A little late to this discussion. I find one wonderful way to come up with a setting is by playing this game. It allows groups to collaboratively build the whole world via game play. By the end of it, all of your players have worked to create the setting and so have a deeper knowledge of the world than most people with a new world setting.

http://www.clanwebsite.org/games/rpg/Dawn_of_Worlds_game_1_0Final.pdf

Kit

April 2012

@gnomish_brigand, cool! We’ll have to try it. We’ve been playing with the idea of using Ben Robbins’ Microscope for that, too.