Setting Modularity and Ashen Stars

A hurdle any SF RPG faces is the lack of default setting assumptions. From the earliest days of D&D, we have been accustomed to a portmanteau fantasy world. This hybrid creature sprang from the experimental vats of the wizards Gygax and Arneson, combining the Howard sword and sorcery and Tolkien epic literary fantasy modes into a new fusion. For gaming purposes, it seemed perfectly natural that it would then go on to blend in tropes from mythology and the works of later writers in both of the big two fantasy traditions. The resulting fairy tale medievalism combo platter would then go on, through gaming-inspired fiction, to feed back into prose fantasy. While some fantasy games set themselves in very distinct worlds like Glorantha or Harn, a variation on this blenderized world remains one’s starting assumption when you hear of a new fantasy game.

Because it encompasses so many sub-genres and formats, and because audiences valued authors who  built their own unique speculative futures, the blenderizing trick never quite worked on SF. Even in movie and TV space opera, the vibes of Star Trek and Star Wars are sufficiently different that a satisfying mash-up seems impossible.

So while a new SF RPG can (and ought to) key players into the setting’s core assumptions by reference to familiar tropes, its setting will be more distinct than the default fantasy setting.

That leaves two choices before the game creator: to go generic, providing separable, modular rules chunks GMs can assemble into settings of their own choice, or to go specific, presenting a distinctive galaxy that best fits the overall objectives of the game design. Each option is desirable to a subset of buyers. But when it comes to the decision-making process that gets people to buy games, the specific beats the general. As much as they might want to scratch-built or customize their own settings, that impulse is an abstract and intellectual one. It does not answer the key question fueling any RPG: what do we do? A distinctive setting appeals to the emotions, with narrative hooks and visual imagery. In short, it fires the imagination. Even if a game can be presented in generic fashion, a specific iteration that shows how to use it will grab more attention than a toolkit.

(After your rules gain traction through a vivid setting, you might then be able to repackage them in a successful toolkit format. That’s the product history of Hero Wars / HeroQuest in a nutshell.)

The specific design goal of Ashen Stars is to take the investigative play model of the GUMSHOE system and apply it to the space opera genre. Thus it also makes sense to build the setting around the needs of the roleplaying experience in general, and of investigative play flow in particular.

Watch this space for further elaboration…

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