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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Of Campaign Worlds and Game Systems

Huh. I seem to be picking up daily views with only bi-monthly content. I wonder how much more views I would get if I published more often… Which is very meta-site and entirely off the point, which, outside of the title of the post, I haven’t even gotten to yet.

While tooling away at Elements, I’ve become more and more distracted by campaign settings of Game Masterings past. Two settings in particular: The Essence Setting and my 1,000 Storms setting. I don’t view these distractions as a bad thing. I’m trying to design a game system where both of these very different settings can be used equally. I’m not sure it’s possible, for a number of reasons I’ll eventually get to, but I sorta want to try. The real problem I’m facing is that I’m not sure if I should.

I suppose I should talk a bit about the settings and their differences before I dive in. They’re both fantasy settings, and neither one is set on Earth (I find I enjoy having geographical freedom when designing campaign settings), although 1,000 Storms is similar to a dystopia cyber/diesel/Martial Arts-punk Earth, and Essence is… well, complicated, these days. So, before I get into my issues, here, then, are (sadly very brief) overviews of two of the campaign settings I’ve run games in in the past.


This one is kind of tough to summarize… It evolved out of some of my earliest gaming, and reached its apotheosis (so far) while I was in High School, gaming with friends, most of whom I still keep in touch with to this day, some 17 years later (wow… I’m getting older…) Back then, Essence was pretty straightforward. It was a non-standard High Fantasy setting. Although it missed out on the Elf/Dwarf/Halfling/Orc paradigm, it contained (and still contains) several other fantastic races, from the aquatic Myralnyr to the fae Daoine Sidhe to many, many others. A lot of the world content came from that age-old campaign, ans involved a great deal of player input.

Now, Essence has grown to monstrous proportions in my mind. It has become a genre and epoch crossing setting, divided into time periods that, within them, cover just about every genre of play except any sort of Earth Historical. The time period we were playing in back in those old high school days has shifted towards Dark Fantasy crossed with Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider-esque exploration. A lot of mythology has developed, mostly based on ideas that came up while sitting around a pool table in our friend Joe’s basement.

Basically, it’s a Fantasy setting that contains within it many other genre with greater or lesser degrees of Fantasy attached to it. The Essence Heroes of the original game have become permanent Historical (even Mythological) fixtures in the game in much the way characters like Eliminster and Mordenkinen and scimitar-wielding Dark Elves became fixtures in other, more commercially successful fantasy settings I could mention. Meanwhile, if only in my mind, the setting has continued to grow.

One of the underpinnings of the setting is the Essence – various different energies that act sort of like a combination of the classical Elements of Alchemy and The Force from Star Wars – they are a source of power to the talented and/or trained, and suffuse everything. Essences come in flavors, some familiar (Earth, Wind, Water) some less familiar (Sun, Moon, Life, Death), and some that I think are fairly unique or at least very rare.  Essence suffuses the setting whether the time period calls for High Fantasy, Magipunk, Super Heroes, or what have you. Were a mage plucked from one point in history and placed down in another, his or her magic would still work, since it’s all based on the same energies. Thus, even cross genre play is made fairly easy.

The Essence Setting started out as an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons setting, but the classic games were played in GURPS. I have also used 3e and 4e Dungeons and Dragons for the fantasy portions of the game.

1,000 Storms

This setting is very different, and was partially inspired by the Final Fantasy game series. Well, sort of.

The world it takes place on – Storm – is a fallen one. People hide from the ravages of the wild in domed city-states living under strict population controls in a caste system. Only one sport – Blood Ball, which has weekly body counts in the low teens – is played. All forms of martial training are outlawed and vilified, but some few families still train their children in secret, and some rare wandering masters still take students under their wings. The price for getting caught is dear.

1,000 Storms has a lot of themes: Lying just to Live, Opressive Government, Conspiracy, Privacy (or the lack thereof). The setting is part J.R.R. Tolkien, part George Orwell, and part William Gibson, with a healthy dose of Jet Li. Or something like that.

1,000 Storms was originally run using a diceless game system that I had come up with that I don’t think I ever came up with a name for. It was very story driven, and the system itself involved developing characters from childhood. Character Creation was integrated into the game, and it was supposed to be tough to tell when you were done making your character; in a very real sense, you never did finish character creation.

1,000 Storms could work in another system – that’s not the issue – but I really wish I could find, dust-off, and try again with that old homebrew. I think it had a lot of potential.

Should I go On?

So, here’s the thing I’ve been grappling with: should I go on trying to create a single, universal system? Or should I skip the single universal system idea and get more… specific? I want a universal game system, but it has occurred to me that there really is no such thing; will any system that runs Essence well also run 1,000 Storms well? Is it even reasonable to hope that it could? Probably not.

I maintain that gaming is essentially System Agnostic – you can play any sort of game you want with any sort of system you want. That said, some systems are better suited to some things rather than others. You can, for instance, do completely story-driven, combat-free play using the full ruleset of GURPS, with 500 point characters, well defined super powers, and all the combat stats you could want, but it isn’t the right tool for the job. You’d be better off with a system that was a lot simpler in structure.  Truth & Justice, maybe.

So, I don’t know. I’m seriously considering trying a campaign setting specific system. Any comments?

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4 thoughts on “Of Campaign Worlds and Game Systems

  1. You really, really should write an Essence novel. I know I’ve been harping on that particular tune for at least a decade and probably will continue until I’m old and gray. (Well, heh heh, gray-er).

    As to answer your original question, I have two suggestions. One: see how well new single setting games and universal games do in the market place in, say, the past five years. If the former does better than the latter, go with the former, and vise versa.

    Two: Go with your gut. Do you really want to work on a universal system? Or do you want to set up worlds to play in.

    And while you hash that out, write an Essence novel. Read my comic. Read my reviews. Enjoy life. Finish Essence novel.

    Harp. Harp harp. Harp.

  2. Okay… TO answer your harp, I can’t do anything novel-ish until I put together a concordance, putting things in… well, not cement, but at least biscuit dough. In the process, I might as well be writing a campaign handbook of some kind.

    Single setting games are actually the norm. D&D has multiple settings, but the systems (all 6.5 or so of them) can’t be called “universal” – they’re all designed for high fantasy role play.

    Granted, the systems are usually genre specific, rather than setting specific… But it comes to the same, more or less. I mean, there’s no way to root a system so firmly in a setting that it can’t be used for other things, but it can be bound up in genre convention (a great example of this would be the old Legend of the Five Rings game).

    I want a universal system. I’m just not sure if I really want to make one, or make a game system for Essence… or 1000 Storms.

    Now that I think about it, though, QuickPlay would work pretty well for 1000 Storms… Hmmmm…

    • Half the stuff I have for On the One Road to Ruin has come from writing stories. My favorite character (excluding K and D) came about due to needing plot motivation. I don’t quite agree with King’s “story-as-fossil” notion, but there is some elements of truth there.

      Look, between the gaming sessions and decades of tooling, I’m betting you have enough for a “Hobbit” if not a “Lord of the Rings” (or a “Wheel of Time”). If you want to finish the game first, fine. If you’d rather be a game designer than a novelist, it’s a damn shame (for me and my hopes of an Essence Novel, mind), but that’s fine.

      But trust me. You’re ready for Novel Time any time you want to start hitting the keyboard keys. Trust me. I’ve got world notes up the wazoo. I had to stop less I never start.

      (Small digression: I’ve been going over some old K and D notes, and it’s very interesting how much K has changed… and how little D. has changed…)

      Back on topic: Essence is sounding world specific to me, more I think about it.

      And that’s all I got.

      • Oh,I know that there’s an ass ton of stuff there. To over extend the fossil metaphor, though, I want to stop excavating. I want to start building a high rise on the dig sight.

        I’m not sure that made any sense.

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