Clockwork Universe

by xaosseed

This is the start of a new adventures. I am going to talk a little about world building; something I find I do quite a lot – whether for stories or for background settings for RPG campaigns. This is mostly going to discuss what I call “clockwork universe” which is pretty much the polar opposite of making things up randomly.

I have spoken with some folks about this and they consider it massive over-planning but it is possible to massively over plan and detail to the nth degree without achieving any of the goals I’m going to outline here – and I hope to show that it is possible to achieve much of what I’m going to propose without massive effort.

The core concept stems from a multiplayer freeform space nations game I played back in college and the background writing exercises that went on around that. I found it astonishingly easy to write up background bits and generate new characters, worlds and so on because there was a sense of giant moving parts. I knew that if I stood still, the other players would be pushing the world and so there was a kinetic energy to the setting that perhaps I had not encountered before.

To compare; you could generally be assured that if you were sitting in a standard table top game and you were the only group playing (no Red Team, another idea I love that I’ll talk about again) then you could be fairly assured that you could not get punked out through your own inaction without it being fairly massively foreshadowed. This is complete meta-gaming – the games master is unlikely to just scrap everything and kill the party because you missed a cue to something.

However; in this game universe with lots of other players busily trying to do their own thing you could be sure that you were existing under Red Queen conditions – if you weren’t running you were falling behind.

So, the core concept I took out of all this is that for settings to truly live there needed to be a sense of who the players in the setting were and what they are trying to achieve. I think it is possible to achieve this by, for example, reading all of the extant Forgotten Realms books and then you’ll know exactly who is up to what and where, but that is a pretty massive amount of effort and this is why I tend to prefer to start with a blank slate. I would love to play a Forgotten Realms game run by a GM who loved the stuff and where we could pry up rocks and find out whos and whats and so on but running it myself, not so much.

So, the general idea is to just get a handle on who is doing what and then you’ll have an idea of who’s likely to be there if say the PC’s decide to storm a random tavern and drag out the people having a discussion in a dark corner. Where is the tavern? Who was going to be having discussions there?

At this point I can imagine people would argue that this is “blah whatever” – this is standard procedure faction tracking and nothing new. You could replace this with a generic encounter table and not lose an awful lot. I’ll say yes to that, to a certain extent, but come with me a bit further.

The example I’m going to use is a homebrew setting I ran a pair of campaigns through; one longer than the other. This world, Hikuru, had stuff but the core theatre of action was a shogunate-type empire run by a certain kind of monster. There were factions within this Empire, one corresponding to each of the five elements – earth, fire, water, air and void. The element focus pretty much decided what each faction did and was interested in and so which and what the PC’s were likely to run into depending on where they went.

Where this became interesting for me was schism in the Empire lead to factions splitting into Loyalist/Original and Rebel factions. These became evolved versions of the original factions with opinions and outlooks that were the original opinions tweaked by the schism. They still retained their focus and so it was obvious who would be where and responsible for what. From all this; looking at the map and seeing who was facing who across the frontier lead to a whole bunch of interesting emergent narrative drivers. In some places there would have been “live and let live” smuggling and trade, in others “destroy the traitors” fury and in still others “the problems transcend this mistaken political split”.

This then was the point to the whole thing for me – knowing who was around and what they cared about meant that the clock ticked and things were happening off camera which made it easy to adlib and fill in whatever blank spaces the players encountered.

Your mileage may vary, it worked for me.