Part 4 of ? in the Cultivating a Storytelling Mindset series
My home group has been playing UFO Press‘ Shattered City the past several months. It’s a setting-intensive game where the collaborative world-building is a major selling point of the exercise. It’s not exactly in the same vein as Microscope or The Quiet Year: everyone still plays characters most of the time. But it’s more concerned about its (very weird) setting than almost any game I can think of since we tried Invisible Sun last year.
The two games couldn’t be any more different in approach to expressing their settings. Specifically, Shattered City lends itself to a storytelling mindset in a way that Invisible Sun doesn’t. It’s gotten me thinking about the function that world building, and engaging with built worlds, has in cultivating that mindset.
First off, I want to make clear that when I say Invisible Sun’s setting doesn’t lend itself to a storytelling mindset, that’s not a diss. Not every game does, or should. This comes down to a very specific definition I’m working with when I say “storytelling mindset.” To recap: I’m talking about viewing play through the lens of story, with meaningful narrative through-lines, character motivations, and an authorial interest in play decisions. Playing with a storytelling mindset means making choices that are interesting and exploratory, rather than driving toward success or against failure.
On the surface, it seems like Invisible Sun should promote a storytelling mindset. Characters pursue personal Arcs and earn various advancement currencies along the way. (If you’re not familiar with the game, check out my big wrap-up article from 2020). The Arcs, though, are about incentivizing the players into pursuing plans on their own, rather than reacting to GM prompts. It’s a good goal, and my favorite part of the game. It’s an excellent on-ramp for trad players to get out of a beat-the-GM head space.
Meanwhile, Shattered City seems like it would be no good at all for a storytelling mindset: tons of canonical setting material, weird alien species, an incomprehensible backstory involving a sci-fantasy global catastrophe. But all that stuff is in service to very human concerns: the fallout of colonialist oppression, and life in a dense urban environment.
Looking at these two setting-intensive games side-by-side, I came to the realization that settings that promote a storytelling mindset for me have one thing in common: Relatability.
A Tale of Two Cities
The thing we struggled with in Invisible Sun was that the setting and premise are so fucking weird that nobody understood why anyone does anything. The Arc system is post hoc rationalization: I’m going to Defeat a Foe (or Develop a Bond or Join an Organization) because that sounds like an interesting/fun way to advance. If you’re good at the game, you can get authorial with this approach: you can look at the vector and tempo of what you’re already doing, and gamify your own play. Out of the box, though, that’s not what my players felt. Nobody chose Arcs as a natural extension of the setting (super weirdo surrealism with a Big Secret) or the premise (you’re one of the Real People who has escaped the prison of “Earth” to return to a life of magic and privilege). The setting is filled with factions and secrets and little plot hooks, oh lord so many plot hooks. And none of it required or promoted a storytelling mindset to engage with. Again: not a diss, just a description.
Meanwhile, Shattered City puts relatable human concerns front and center. You play both a Faction and a character that represents that Faction. You build a world together from prompts specific to your Factions, and you build your characters already bonded together. And then, once play starts, everyone collaborates on various aspects of the setting as it advances through time: events from the (off-screen) war and how they’re impacting your city, what gross plans the current occupiers have in mind and who will be hurt by them, and so on. Finally, the GM designs a Crisis that represents a synthesis of inputs the players have created. The Crisis ties the whole thing together into a cohesive whole.
I’m not sure that the collaboration itself is what leads to a more relatable setting/situation in Shattered City, but it can’t hurt. I think it’s baked into the questions, and how the players work together to answer them. It’s a specific invitation to be authorial.
Players also choose what bits of the big picture they want to focus in on, and that’s got a powerful impact on relatability. Granted, focus tends to scatter a bit as each player grabs onto stuff they care about. In our game, I’ve got a player who loves to get out of the city, fight monsters, and solve problems. But everyone else comes along, and they’re still playing out the human concerns that have developed while other players are in the spotlight. I’ve got another player who makes every spotlight moment super personal and focused, and that drags my monster-fighting player back to the human stuff.
Let’s Get to the Practicals
Whether I’m trying to synthesize material from an existing setting or creating a fresh setting, it all comes back to relatability. That means:
- Look for interesting tensions that already exist, or are strongly implied, by the canon. Like, in Exalted you’ve got the Solars and the Dragonborn in natural tension, but that’s all faction-level and not especially human. Sure, yes, the Dragonborn want to maintain power in the face of the Solars showing up again. And the Solars (as a monolith) have old beefs they’re remembering and acting on. But how do we turn that stuff personal, specific, and human?
- Factions are an easy gamer thing when you treat them like monoliths and/or sources for cool powers. But they can be useful storytelling-mindset resources: Rather than “X is at war with Y” or “A is scheming against B,” break down the relatable human incentives at play for belonging to a faction, in what ways an individual character might be at odds with the goals or values of their own faction, and how factions directly impact the lives of those around the PCs.
- When I scour a big canonical setting like Glorantha or The Third Horizon in Coriolis, I keep my eyes open for interesting human-relatable stuff in their histories. Guessing what biases and bigotries exist that the characters don’t even understand is the most relatable thing I can think of that emerges from history. If canonical histories don’t lend themselves to that, I get them out of my head as quickly as possible.
Prioritizing what to focus on when I build my own world, to maximize interesting tensions both on the GM and player sides, follows a similar path for me:
- Find ways in the setting to highlight the tensions you find interesting. You want to feel out the choice between family and duty? Create lots of rules around family, and then lots of incompatible rules around duty. Make them perpendicular, sometimes. Do some cultures have different family expectations and rules? How is duty enforced? Stuff like that. All this starts by very intentionally working out the tensions you want to explore first, rather than just putting Cool Shit together and hoping interesting tensions come out of it. I’m gonna get into Cool Shit next.
- Try really hard to humanize whatever social groupings your setting will have. When I ran Imp of the Perverse, I set it in Alamo-era Texas. As I was setting-building, the “factions” that jumped out at me were the Mexican Army, Tejanos, white settlers, and slaves. I avoided hard lines like “whites and Mexicans never trust each other” or whatever. There were sympathetic characters and scoundrels on all sides. That’s just one example. I’ve found very hard, strict conflicts – supernatural good/evil morality, implacable existential foes – are the least interesting, produce no meaningful tension (because players aren’t given a choice in how they interpret the situation), and exist only to justify fight scenes.
- If you want history to be meaningful, look for the ways it impacts people’s lives today. That might be directly, like if the characters need to respond to a crisis, or indirectly, if your history has shaped attitudes, laws, or social alignments.
Cool Shit is Bad, Actually
Cool Shit will undermine and mislead your storytelling mindset. Don’t fall for it! What do I mean by that?
Badass powers/abilities/technologies: these relate to how characters achieve their goals, not why. The why is important. If you fixate on how characters do things, that becomes what the game is about: doing things, achieving, accomplishing. The why, the underlying motives of the characters, will necessarily take a back seat.
Set pieces/set decoration: places and things that look cool or are evocative are just mood boards. How does a cool place affect the people in it? How do the people reflect the cool/evocative place? If you meet a fast-talking hustler in a vast, magical, ever-changing library, the tension between the place and the expected personality is what’s important. What’s the fast-talking hustler doing in a place like this? Why would they be here? Why do the others in the place tolerate their presence?
Factions (agency/church/clan/secret society): I keep bringing this up because factions are such a common taxonomic feature in roleplaying games. What are a faction’s goals? How is pursuing those goals hard for the members? What’s the one thing that keeps everyone from backing a reasonable faction? Do they believe in reasonable things? If they’re accumulating power, what for? Factions are comprised of living beings with their own interests and incentives at play. Factions are not, themselves, people. Factions don’t want things, but their members will.
When I’m approaching a game’s setting with a storytelling mindset, the key feature I look for is relatability. Can I take the weird stuff in the setting and make it relatable? Does the setting lend itself to relatable tensions or is it fixated on Cool Shit?
Fixation on Cool Shit doesn’t have to be a showstopper. It just means you need to take the Cool Shit and find the relatable bits. Or force them in.
And a setting that already lends itself to relatable tensions might not be interesting to you or your players.
Relatable. Interesting. Tension. Gotta have all three. Many games only get to two at best.