Settings Part 1

Welcome to the very first double-sized Resources for Every GM.  Yes, that’s right, you get twice the number of resources as usual.  All.  Month.  Long!  If you take a look at the calendar, that means you will be getting five, yes that’s 5 Thursdays of double resources.  That’s like a billion extra resources.  Ok it’s exactly 15 extra resources, but pretty close right?  Now, if you are paying extra attention you will notice that I have renamed the article to Resources for Every GM.  Why?  Because it is more appropriate.  This article is supposed to be for all game masters, and DM implies you guys are just playing D&D.  Hell, I have already suggested games nothing like D&D for you to play, so DM just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Anyway, we are going to start the month of with six places that you can find inspiration for your table.  These are going to take the form of settings.  Worlds are the bread and butter of running a game.  Whether you are playing it in a world that was made by someone else, or you are making your own, the world in which you play sets the stage for everything.  Histories, peoples, monsters, magic, technology.  Everything is defined in and by the world.  So today I have six worlds that have inspired me time and again.  Each of them comes from a video game.  Now, there are plenty of worlds that inspire me that don’t, but I have found some of my best ideas show up in video games that really immerse me in their world.  This means great game play, story, and visual effects.  Playing these games, or just looking up more about them, can have a great impact on your ability to immerse your players into your world or just nail a feeling you want to go for!

Azeroth (Warcraft)

The had to be my first choice.  I have told a number of people how much I like the world of warcraft (yes the World of Warcraft too).  I have probably mentioned it here a few times.  The thing is, though, that the world of Azeroth has a rich lore.  There is so much to learn, so much already created and yet there is so much more to learn and so many more questions to ask.  The greatest thing about the MMO is that they really focus on story, even when it doesn’t seem like it.  They include little areas in the game that have meaning but only if you pay attention or have been a part of the games’ histories.

That’s not all though, the games are hero stories, but they love their fallen heroes too.  Illidan became the Betrayer and Arthas became the Lich King.  But it was never so simple as the lose of sanity, though we see that in characters like Neltharian.  Instead Illidan is taking on a job of cosmic proportions and is willing to sacrifice anything to do what needs to be done.  It was revealed that the only thing preventing the scourge from turning Azeroth into a fantasy version of the Walking Dead was the Lich King.  Then we can talk about the fact that there are always at least three sides to each conflict.  Enemy, Horde, Alliance.  We can never be sure who’s good or who’s evil though.  Generally each side has a little of both.  Good lessons for any GM.

You can go on an on about the things that exist within that world.  The elemental planes, the origins of the races, the curse of flesh, the titans, the Legion, the Naaru.  The list goes on.  This world benefits from have layer upon layer of complexity hiding behind simple things.  A reinvigorated Horde with a sense of purpose and pride is great.  But if the cost is war is that too much?  How about if your leader turns to the dark powers that almost destroyed his race?  There is a lot of inspiration and lessons to learn from Blizzard’s team here.

Sanctuary (Diablo)

I figured I would go ahead and get Blizzard out of the way right off the bat.  I didn’t make it to the Diablo scene until Diablo III, but let me tell you I was hooked as soon as I started playing.  To be sure, the action RPG that it is, was something I was looking for in a game when I picked it up, but I had heard good things about Diablo II and Blizzard (obviously) had impressed me with WoW.  What I didn’t expect was the sheer depth of lore involved.  Right of the bat, the intro cinematic presented a tale of dark prophecy coming true and the the action leads you right into the results of that sequence.

There isn’t just a presented storyline though.  Throughout the game pieces of information and stories are constantly being presented to you so that you can get a better feel for the history and feeling of the world of Sanctuary.  This begins with journals that you can pick up written by Cain and Leah that reveal what is happening and how they feel on the matter.  Important NPCs can be talked to for more a deeper look into what is going on in the game, its relation to the history of the Diablo universe, and what it means for the world you’re playing in.  As you kill monsters various characters have monologues describing them.  Sometimes this is Cain describing demons he knows are real and others it is a famous traveller describing tales of creatures that couldn’t possibly exist.

If this wasn’t enough the environment is strewn with inspiration and lore.  Some bodies have documents to fill you in on what happened to the character.  While most games would leave these unimportant and negligible tidbits as text added to a journal you will never read, Blizzard went ahead and had each of them voice acted.  The man who gets a boring post on Bastion only to have it come under attack by demon doesn’t change the story but it helps give you the feeling of how mundane things are for most people.  Another entry describes the mysterious gigantic skeletons of the wastes as you search for Zoltan Kule.  Many explinations for the wastes exist but none of them explain those skeletons.  Even something as little as the skeletons of angel and demon alike on a plane where they can truly die is a visceral set piece to really give you a feel for what has happened.

The Tower On Earth (Destiny)

The Tower isn’t really the setting here, just the hub of such a setting.  I loved Bungie’s ability to create a great feeling shooter then combine that with incredible story telling and the ability to play with other people as you venture through that story.  Not that 343 has destroyed the Halo universe (indeed I still love what’s happening) but when Bungie announced Destiny I was thrilled.  Everything about it screamed a game I wanted to play and would love every moment of.  I wanted to find out more about the world.

When I finally got the game when the Taken King came out, I couldn’t be happier.  I had a Bungie game with end game content / things to do and friends to play with.  Then I found out that there was more to the story.  As the ghost was describing things to me and I listened to the narration of mission parameters, I only became more engrossed.  I was able to take a look at a ruined Earth, a scarred moon, and a once great Venus.  This was an incredible display of what the universe of Destiny looks like.

Then I started finding dead ghosts and other areas in the land.  I encountered strange  creatures and explored the ruins of civilization.  When Bungie destroyed Mara Sov in the intro to Taken King I was impressed.  I liked the character and the cinematic made me want to know more.  And then they killed her and as sad as I was at that I am also impressed.  Although, rumor has it she lives.  Aside all this are the grimoires.  By experiencing the game, defeating enemies, doing missions, and finding secrets you unlock backstory and lore.  However, you don’t need to do all of it.  If you know anything about the Vex or the Taken and are intrigued, go look at those grimoires.  Read Book of Sorrows.  That alone is an incredible work of lore and story-telling that never HAD to be done for a shooter.  But it was.

Rapture & Columbia (Bioshock)

The Bioshock series is another that I absolutely fell in love with because of the combination story telling, game play, and style.  When you first enter the original Bioshock things start out like many other games.  You are in a first person point of view, on a plane, and probably on the way back to your family.  That’s when your plane crashes into the Atlantic and you are forced into the landing platform that leads to the underwater city of Rapture.  Infinite begins quite similarly throwing you into an investigation for a little girl that leads you to a lighthouse-like structure.  Quickly your are thrown into Columbia.

The two stories defer in how the story revolves, but in both your are very quickly taken from bad accident and strange land to a survival adventure through horror and technological marvel.  The thing that is great about the Bioshock games is the way in which the story is told and the atmosphere changes to fit.  Rapture is much more frightening in the early stages of the game, Columbia much cleaner but harsh.  As you move through Bioshock the horror becomes more entgrained into you and the strangeness revealed.  No longer do you fear the dark, but the horrific things these people have done and could still be doing.  As you progress through Columbia, you no longer fear being captured, you fear that you are caught up in something stranger and bigger than just a class war.

Of course, that overview ignores the style of Bioshock.  The games feature a very steampunk influence.  While steampunk tends to twist things in a very Victorian manner, the Bioshock series takes a hard influence from the early 1900s of America.  The technology base is much larger, but this just leads to interesting things.  Not just this, but the American dream is taken to far and perverse extremes in both games.  Rapture is about business as much as technological advance.  Columbia is about politics as much as advancement.  Both are supposed to be utopic, and both end in fire and ruin.  The feel of the game, the way it connects themes, and the ability to tell a story therein makes the Bioshock universe one of my favorites!

Hyrule (The Legend of Zelda)

Here is the thing about the Zelda games, I simply have not played as many of them as much as I should have.  I am also the last person you should look to for trivia about them.  But I will be damned if Hyrule has not made its way into and out of my life time and time again with major influences on my sense of fantasy world-building.  Hyrule was probably the first fantasy world I was introduced to.  Playing the original Legend of Zelda on the NES (both of which I still have) was something I did on and of for decades (I still haven’t made it much passed the Master Sword).  Along with game play, the story is written right in the user’s manual.  That is how they did it back then and, as a result, it was the first combination of game and lore I was ever introduced to at the young age of 6.

What is so great about Hyrule and the Legend of Zelda games is how timeless they are.  Every single one is in many ways the same.  And yet, they are all vastly different.  I am not sure there is another series that spans so much time and diversity, while still being so immediately recognizable.  Even The Adventure of Link can easily be recognized.  Let’s face it, how can you not associate those clothes, Gannon(dorf), and the triforce with Zelda.  Within all the games are numerous commonalities.  From game play to dungeon puzzles and specialty items to artifacts of legend.  I’d like to see someone name one in which there are not moblins.

It’s the way that the Legend of Zelda takes a bunch of set pieces and makes with them whole new adventures and stories.  Sometimes you visit different worlds (Windwaker) and others you visit different times (A Link to the Past), but you always know you can expect to fight with a sword, blow holes in cracked walls, and find yourself a boomerang.  Just as when you sit down to D&D, you always find a wizard, a rogue, a ruined dungeon of treasure, and dragons.  There is always a dragon waiting for you.  Hyrule represents the potential of the RPG game.  You don’t need supplement after supplement.  With some imagination you can use the same three books for countless decades having adventure after adventure.

Zebes & Beyond (Metroid)

Another series that I have spent all too little time with.  The Metroid universe is impressively steeped in lore.  This is a series that screams science fantasy to me and some of the reasons should be obvious.  First of all the games take place in the future.  This is easily seen from Samus’s armor, missiles as a weapon, and computer systems.  However, you tend to explore abandoned worlds with as much stone construction as anything else.  Creatures range from utterly alien to the fantastic and it can be difficult to decide which.  What really takes the cake is the armor and its ability to become a morph ball. The armor is obviously technological, and yet Samus (a human!) has no issues curling up into a ball that couldn’t fit her whole body if we liquefied it.  Magic I say, witchcraft!

Part of the craziness of the universe are the Chozo.  To me these are a strange and mysterious people.  At times they seem incredibly ancient and advanced, and at others they appear to be simple and backward.  Great stone carvings adorn their ruins, but these hold technological advancements unlike too much else.  In fact, if I remember correctly, the Chozo gave Samus her suit but also sat around campfires telling of ancient threats and future apocalypse.

Like the Legend of Zelda game, each of these are connected to each other.  Where this connection is as much theorycrafting as anything else in the Zelda games, the Metroid games follow the same character in different parts of her life and past events connect to future ones.  There is an overriding tale being woven and a greater, more detailed mythos explored with every game.  Metroid Prime really drove this home for me with its huge graphics change from the other games and the ability to learn about the world and its history through scans and the like.  For such a scientifically advanced time, with such advanced tools, Samus could not be going through a more D&D-esque adventure.  And she was a strong female protagonist before it was cool!