What To Do During Game Creation
As outlined in Game Creation, inventing or deciding on a setting is often a collaborative effort between you and your players. In that sense, the best thing you can do as GM during the game-creation process is to be open to new ideas and be generous with your own, just like everyone else. Play off of and expand upon the suggestions that the others offer up. Your players will be more invested in the game if they feel like they’ve had a hand in building it.
Of course, if everyone’s amenable, there’s nothing stopping you from showing up with a clear vision of exactly what you want to run. “Okay, this is going to be a game about the Cold War in the ‘60s, except it’s all steampunk and mechs. Go!” Just make sure everyone’s on board if you go that route. Even one player who isn’t into it, and doesn’t really feel inclined to get into it, can really affect the game.
Out There vs. Down Here
Speaking of steampunk mechs in a ‘60s-era Soviet Union, it’s a good idea to consider just how “out there” you want to get. High-concept ideas are a lot of fun, but if they’re too difficult to relate to then your players may have trouble wrapping their heads around the game you’re proposing. Where that line is exactly will vary from group to group (and player to player), so there’s no definitive answer here. Just be aware that every departure from the familiar—whether that’s the real world or well-established genre conventions—has the potential to be a conceptual hurdle for your players. Get everyone on the same page and make sure to go over any questions in advance.
The opposite approach is to set the game down here, in the real world, with perhaps only one or two notable departures with greater ramifications that you can explore as you go. The easiest way to communicate a setting like this is to name a time and place you’re all familiar with, then tack on the exception. For example, “It’s like modern-day London, but robots are commonplace” or “It’s post-World War II Los Angeles, but some returning veterans have supernatural powers.”
Top Down vs. Bottom Up
There’s also the matter of how broad the scope of the game will be. Some like to start with the big picture first and drill down to the details, while others prefer to start with the here and now and develop the big picture as they go. These are often called “top down” and “bottom up,” respectively. Neither one’s better than the other, but each has its pros and cons.
With the top-down approach, you’ll determine most of the setting in advance—stuff like who the movers and shakers are, the locations of important cities, the nature of important organizations, and so on. This has the advantage of providing a clear sense of how the world fits together. For example, if you’ve decided that the Kingdom of Talua is in a perpetual state of conflict between five powerful Houses vying for control, then you know right away that anyone of note in the kingdom is likely to come from one of those Houses—and if they aren’t, it’ll have to be for a very good reason.
The downside, of course, is that unless you’re working from a pre-existing setting from a movie, TV show, book, video game, or whatever, it’s usually a lot of work on the front end. It also requires the players to show up with a pretty thorough understanding of it all, which can be daunting. But if everyone’s up to speed, it can make for a very enjoyable and rewarding game.
If you’re going bottom-up, though, you’ll start with whatever’s immediately important to the PCs. That might be anything from a few notable NPCs in their hometown to the name of the guy who works in the next cubicle over. Then the group figures out the details as the story goes along. There’s no need to have an idea of how things fit into the world, because everyone will make that up as you go. The world just spirals out from whatever you start with.
The potential downside here is that it requires quite a bit of improvisation and thinking on your feet. That goes for everyone at the table, GM and players alike. For you, the GM, that might not be such a big deal—running a game almost always involves a degree of flying by the seat of one’s pants—but not all players are going to be ready for that sort of responsibility. In addition, if your players like to immerse themselves in their characters and see the game world through their eyes, they may find it jarring to occasionally break from that perspective to, say, invent a name on the spot for the enchanted axe they just found or tell you what happened to the last Shadow Director of the CIA.
Fate can handle either, but the system’s support for player-driven contributions to the narrative in the form of aspects and story details really makes the bottom-up method sing. If that’s the way you like to play anyway, great! If not, no pressure—but give it a try sometime.
Small Scale vs. Large Scale
There’s already been some discussion of game scale in Game Creation, but it’s worth a little more discussion.
As laid out in that section, small-scale stories concern events closely connected to the PCs, and probably within a very limited geographical area. Large-scale games are the opposite: epic tales spanning nations, planets, or galaxies with world(s)-shaking consequences. Both types of stories can be a lot of fun—winning the title of Grand Emperor of the Galactic Reach can be just as rewarding as winning the hand of the prettiest girl in the village.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking the two are mutually exclusive. Here are a couple ways to combine them.
- Start Small and Grow: This is the classic zero-to-hero story in which an unassuming individual with no pretensions to glory is suddenly swept up in events beyond the scope of his experience. Consider Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. He starts off a nobody moisture farmer, racing T-16s and getting up to the odd bit of mischief at Tosche Station. Then a pair of droids come into his life and inject a little mystery: Who’s this Obi-Wan Kenobi? Before he knows it, he’s consorting with smugglers, rescuing a princess, and striking a blow for the Rebellion. It’s a classic case of starting small-scale and expanding into a large-scale story.
- Peaks and Valleys: Here, you’re alternating the large-scale with the small, using the latter almost as something of a breather. Typically, the large-scale storylines will deal with matters of state, the conquering of planets, the banishing of unthinkable Beings From Beyond, and the like, while the small-scale storylines will be of a more personal nature, with few if any connections to the earth-shaking events transpiring in the characters’ lives. For example, you might spend a session or two tussling with that Grand Emperor, then change focus to a character reconnecting with her father or coming to the aid of a friend in need. The small-scale sessions serve as something of a breather between all that epic action, and give the players a chance to delve into some unexplored corners of their characters. Plus, if you want to connect the small- and large-scale stories down the line, you can—and the payoff will be all the more satisfying for the players.
Extras: Do You Need Them?
Does your setting require things like superpowers, magic, high-tech gadgetry, or something else that falls outside the confines of the mundane? Either way, you’re going to want to figure that out now, before play begins. See the Extras section for more on what extras are and how you can make use of them in your game.