Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Trick To Capturing The Feel Of A Universe

A lot of my advice here is fairly generic. I'll admit that. Heck, a lot of the stuff that I talk about isn't even all that special. No, I'm not looking for kudos, just pointing out that a lot of what I do is just wondering about the "why" behind a lot of common phenomenon found in gaming. That said, today I want to talk a bit more about some specifics. I want to talk about how to capture the feel of specific universes, and the trick to doing so. Hopefully I get it right. So far it has worked for me.

The Trick
The trick to capturing the feel of a universe is really simple. You want to know what it is? First you need to identify what makes that universe feel the way that it does, and then you need to find a way to execute that feeling in your game. Basic huh? Yet a lot of us get it wrong while running games. We think that it is actually about one thing, when it is actually about something else. So, if you're running a game in a universe, take some time and think about it - and then go for it.

The Subversion
The fun thing you can do with the trick is subvert it. This can also work in a similar way. You, in essence, help to define the feel of the universe by showing its lack at parts in your game. This is a lot harder to pull off, yes, but it is still there and can be done with the right handling. That said, let's take a look at some popular universes and what makes them them.

There is, for some reason, no game system out there for Halo - at least that I know of. Still, the universe has captured the imaginations of millions. The games were all best sellers, many of which broke records, and a large part of the success came from the world and the story told in the games, novels, comics, and never-released scripts for movies. Halo, despite it's position as an FPS juggernaut in console games, has an amazingly dedicated community of story crafters that even now are making stories for the world. You know what the trick to capturing Halo's feel is? It's simple, and one word: hope.

Hope is the core to the feeling of Halo. The story is about hope. The hope to push through. The hope to fight on. The hope that things can be better. John 117 becomes a hero in the game through his deeds, but also because he gives those around him hope. While Chief is almost always on his own in the games, he is a team player. He picks up his fellow man. He defends who he can. He never has a real "anti-hero" moment of scoffing at soldiers trying to help him because he works better alone, he leads the charge. This is the kind of stuff you need to let/have your players do in a Halo game to catch the feel. Make the game around hope. Make the players the center of that hope. Give them chances to do the amazing, and when they succeed make it big. Let them give hope, and the rest can fit itself in with simple nods to the universe.

Warhammer 40k
This one, sadly, just dawned on me. The trick to 40k, and what 40k is actually about is this: Epic. Everything in 40k is huge. This is a universe where the fate of a planet does not matter. This means that to catch the feel of 40k you need to communicate the scale. Low level activities can involve saving the planet if done right. Have the players stop a heresy that would doom a planet if not stopped. How would the planet be doomed? Well, maybe it would just be wiped out - by the good guys - or maybe the bad guys would kill everyone on the surface. Doesn't matter, that is the "small fry" stuff. The PCs should feel in over their head at almost all times - let them have fun with it though. And by late power levels almost every mission should either be some personal plot of a PC, or something that will save the universe.

That's right: the universe. Look at most of the 40k stories that are out there. None of them are particularly small fry events. Stopping a Tyranid hive fleet is a huge undertaking. Stopping an Ork WAAAGH is a huge undertaking. Chaos is regularly setting plans in motion to summon super daemons that will wipe out entire sectors with naught but a laugh and a chortle. This is what the PCs are trying to stop, so have them do so. Play up the scale, play up how little a small thing like a life, a city, a country, a planet, or a sector can matter in the grand scale of things. It is depressing and oppressive as hell, but that is what the 40k universe is about.

Star Wars
Sorry that the 3 I am doing today are all space based, but they're the ones in my head. Star Wars is one that seems interesting. There is just something about Star Wars that makes everything feel epic. On the surface Star Wars seems easy too. It is simple Good vs Evil. Democracy vs the Empire. Jedi vs. Sith. Light side vs. Dark Side. The problem is, while that is true, it isn't that simple.

The stories in Star Wars always have a bit of something else. It isn't just about the good vs evil in the grand scheme of things, it is also about redemption from evil, the fall from grace, and the much more personal story of good vs evil inside the person. Han shows this in the first movie when he comes back to help with the Death Star. He overcomes the greed and his need to pay off jabba to do the right thing. Luke shows this all the way through with his assent to hero-hood, and then near fall in the end of ROTJ in the fight with Vader. Vader shows this as well with his redemption at the end of ROTJ when he saves his son.

Even other characters in the series show this. Boba Fett - as shown in other aspects of the universe - is consumed by his revenge and/or pride and detachment. Kyp Durron falls and then is redeemed. Leia holds the line the entire way through, and continues to fight the good fight until she can give no more - and then continues to try.

What Else?
What other universes do you know? Do you disagree with me on any of the above? Often times the feel is more than just what is blatantly there. So, tell us the trick you use to capture the feel of whatever Universe you run in.

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