11 Point Checklist For Creating a Better Sci-Fi World
From Jonathan Hicks
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #183
- How Many Planets Are In The System?
- What Position Is The World You Are Travelling To Within The Solar System?
- How Close Are The Planets Together?
- How Many Natural Satellites Does The Planet Have?
- What Is The Layout Of The Planet’s Surface?
- What Is On The Planet’s Surface?
- What Is The Planet’s Mass?
- What Is The Atmosphere Like?
- What Flora And Fauna Populates The Planet?
- What Are The Weather Patterns And Seasons Like?
- Are There Any Geological Anomalies?
- Readers’ Tips Contest!
- The Contest
- Submission Guidelines Updated
- Repressed Errata
- More On GM’s Screen Tips
Although I’d love to give some solid ideas on how to improve the quality of the world we live on, that’s not what this is about. This article aims to help the average sci-fi roleplayer design and implement planets other than our own to thrill and entertain the spacefaring PCs zipping about the cosmos.
Simplicity is usually the key as far as games go. For example, in the Star Wars universe a certain type of terrain, such as desert-worlds or ice-worlds, usually represents the planets. But they can be far more diverse than that.
To begin with, make a checklist of what you will have to address when designing a new world. I usually take the approach that I am travelling to a specific point on the planet’s surface from the outer edge of the solar system the world is within. This way you can deal with each point in turn. Bear in mind that I’m not a scientist, astronomer, a xenobiologist, or any of those ‘spacey’ scientific disciplines; these points are the very basics. There will be ‘reality’ inconsistencies here, but it’s what works for your game that counts.
Let’s say you’re on the exploratory vessel, the U.S.S. ROLETIPS, and you’re flying to a destination planet from the edge of the system. As you go in you will encounter and learn of each of the details of the new discovery and, finally, the world in question.
How Many Planets Are In The System?
As in our own solar system, several planets of varying size and atmosphere may exist circling the same sun. They may be airless planetoids, great misty gas giants, or even be habitable, like the world you are heading for. Take into account that moons are capable of retaining atmospheres and may have ecologies of their own. These could be encircling the larger barren worlds, or even the target world itself. There is also the chance of asteroids and comets -adventures in themselves – as many things can populate a solar system.
What Position Is The World You Are Travelling To Within The Solar System?
Is the target world the third planet from the sun? Is it the fifth? The closer to the sun a planet is, the warmer the world will be. The further away it is, the colder it will be.Earth, for example, exists within a ‘safe zone’, a distance from our own sun that has a heat and radiation level acceptable to the magnetic field of the earth and us, its denizens.
This, in turn, enables life.Does the target world have the same conditions? If it’s too close to the sun then it may be a barren wasteland, or a desert/scrub world suitable for very little life. If it’s too far, it may be a cold and bleak, with great seas of ice populated by the merest plankton.
How Close Are The Planets Together?
Planets that share an orbit, or that have close orbits, could have an effect on each other. As they pass, great gravitational forces push and pull, creating geological disturbances or abnormal weather patterns. Seasonal meteor showers could create a great adventure hook. At the very least it would make a great visual. As the PCs walk across a new world they could have a great ringed planet hanging overhead or two moons.
How Many Natural Satellites Does The Planet Have?
Does it have one moon? Two moons? Three? None? What is the nature of each moon? Is it airless and rocky like our own, or could it have some kind of atmosphere?A moon could even a be huge asteroid caught by the planet’s gravity well. It might have minerals and ores essential for the PCs’ organisation or world, which would make it valuable and worthy of investigation.
What Is The Layout Of The Planet’s Surface?
How are the continents, if any, arranged? Does the world have huge land masses or a smattering of large islands? A map of the world is essential, or at least a map of the area the PCs will be landing in. Also, the sea to land ratio must be ascertained. Our own world is covered in roughly 75% water. How much does the target planet have? And does it have ice caps?
What Is On The Planet’s Surface?
Depending on the position of the world and how close it is to the sun, the planet will have varying types of surfaces. It could be barren and hot or cold with a smattering of green at the equator. It could be mountainous or flat. It might even be covered in active volcanoes.Are there any cities down there? If so, where are they and who’s there? What is the culture capable of? The denizens may be at a medieval state, with feudal lords and simple sail/horse power. Or they might be interstellar explorers themselves, with great shipyards and orbital facilities.
What Is The Planet’s Mass?
A planet’s mass and size will determine the gravity the PCs will encounter on the surface. A large, dense world will mean a heavier gravity – the PCs might find it difficult to move about when they weigh four times as much as they do normally, and will their ship bear the strain?Remember that size does not dictate mass. A large world might not be very dense and therefore the PCs can leap long distances and carry more than usual. In contrast, a small world might be so compact and dense that movement might be difficult.
What Is The Atmosphere Like?
Put simply, can the PCs breath it? Our own air is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and inert gases, but the atmosphere of another world might be different. It could be high in methane or hydrogen making it unpleasant, even fatal, when breathed in normally. This will dictate whether the PCs will have to travel about in space suits or face masks, and how dangerous it would be if said suits and masks were damaged.
What Flora And Fauna Populates The Planet?
Is the planet covered in lush, green jungle? Or is it a sparse scrubland? Perhaps the trees go no higher than a man, or perhaps they tower into the heavens, hundreds of feet, with trunks dozens of feet wide. Taking existing locations of our own world and twisting them all out of proportion and colour works wonders to communicate a feeling of alienism.Also, what animals are here? If the world is lush and green then perhaps the creatures are herbivores, hardly a threat, with great dinosaur-type animals roaming the land or small mammals snuffling in the bushes.
But not all animals will be of no threat – where there are succulent, leaf eating creatures there are usually predators, large and powerful or small and fast.In contrast, the world might be scrubland so eking out a living could be difficult. Virtually the whole world might be predatory, living off each other, and visitors, for survival.
What Are The Weather Patterns And Seasons Like?
On average, the Earth circles the sun every 365 days, and it takes roughly 24 hours to spin on its own axis once. During those 365 days, the Earth tilts on its axis, creating four distinct seasons; summer, autumn, winter and spring. The length of days and nights change, varying the temperature and therefore having varying effects on the weather.So why did I just tell you what you already know? Well, that’s an example.
Your world could be vastly different. It might take decades to circle the sun, resulting in winter or summer seasons that last for years. This, in turn, would seriously affect the weather. Long, arduous droughts, or continuous rainfall might cover the planet. The entire surface of the world may be one huge dust storm (like the ones that cover Mars sometimes), or tornadoes might pepper the land masses.
Are There Any Geological Anomalies?
Is the surface of the planet smooth, bumpy, or downright treacherous? As on our own world, a planet could have varying levels of landmass, but imagine if the world was covered in great fissures and volcanoes. The land would be mountainous, covered in cracks and earthquakes and noxious smoke. If you think of great places on our own world, such as the mountains of the Himalayas, the great plateaus of South America, or the strange rock formations in mid-west America, then you have an idea of what I’m talking about.
The planet itself may be a great pattern of age-old impact craters: weird!It might be a simple case of taking our own world and twisting it out of proportion – this gives the PCs something to visually latch on to but the visual is alien because it is different. Saying that, you’ll find that creating the whole solar system, with attention on the main planet to be used in-game, will help define your setting and add a sense of realism to it. Anything else can be seen as a throwaway world and you don’t want your players to see it that way.
A Brief Word From The John(n)s
Readers’ Tips Contest!
Howdy folks. Thanks to the hard work of John Feltz, I now have the bandwidth to post a Tips Request. Remember those? It’s about time too — we were getting low on tips to post. And, for this time ’round at least, I’ve got a bucket-load of prizes to award! Yippee.
The Loot (15 prizes in all!):
3 Print Versions: A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe by Expeditious Retreat Press (sweet!)
3 eBooks: “Staves of Ascendance” by The Game Mechanics
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game
4 eBooks: “101 Mundane Treasures” by Ronin Arts & Philip J. Reed
Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers (1st)
3 eBooks: “Roman Name Tables” by Terra Ferax Innovations
Fading Suns: Into the Dark
2 Roleplaying Tips Archive CDs
Send me Reader’s Tips on any of the following topics:
- In-Game GMing Tips, Tricks & Advice
- Adventure Design & Planning Tips
- World Building Methods & Planning Tips
Each tip = 1 submission. Tips can be short (100 words) or long (War & Peace), and multiple submissions are welcome.
Winners will be selected randomly, so you won’t lose marks on grammar. Please try to submit tips that haven’t been posted in the ezine before. All quality submissions will be published in this ezine for all to consume! (Feel free to state your prize preference with your entries too. In case of conflicting requests I’ll roll a dice.)
Contest ends Saturday, August 9th, 11:59PM PST.
Send your contest entries to [email protected]
Email if you have any questions.
Submission Guidelines Updated
Recently, I’ve been publishing a lot of articles covering gaming etiquette and world creation/content. These topics are perfectly fine, but I’d like to see more focus put on the art of game mastering and storytelling to balance things out. GMing encompasses many skill sets and I’d like the ezine to help readers with a wide gamut of tip topics. So, I’ve updated my submission guidelines with new topic requests.
I’ve also pasted in the advice I received from Dave Gross, former editor of Dragon Magazine, when I first started my column in issue 284! It’s mostly grammar oriented, but excellent nonetheless.
To get my Submission Guidelines, send a blank email to:
Have a game-full week!
D’oh! As pointed out by one of our more observant readers, the correct Monty Python quote for last week should have been “Help, I’m being REpressed” – not “OPpressed”. My abject apologies; let me buy you a shrubbery.
John C. Feltz
“It’s a GAME MECHANIC, not reality!”
PT GAMES, INC. RELEASES RUINED KEEP
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
More On GM’s Screen Tips
From Dwayne al’ Trawickre
Funny coincidence, I’m working on creating a GM screen myself. Another GM and I have just finished with the design and laying down all the charts, etc. It’s now just waiting to be finished, printed and laminated. We are both GURPS GMs so there was a LOT of info that could be put down.
Here are some things that we learned:
- Restrict what you see to stuff you will:
- Need constantly
- Will have difficulty remembering.
- If an important rule is given in a formula, do the math and put it on the screen as a chart. For example, GURPS has very detailed rules on a flying creature’s turn radius, but it’s given as a formula: speed versus how many hexes you have to go before you can turn. We decided to represent it as a chart instead. So now, if we need to know how often our flying character has to go before he can turn, we just consult the chart. Having an equation on the screen, unless its very simple, is not worth it.
- A GM screen should make life easier for the GM. If you’re going to make a GM screen, forget the “norm” and tailor it for your group. Don’t have laser gun damages if your group plays specifically medieval fantasy. Don’t have Advanced Combat rules on it if you only use the Lite Combat system. Make it for use with your group.
- Don’t slack on the putting of what where. The things should be placed in such a manner that looking for something someplace should be second nature. Put your animal rules together and your magic rules together–don’t just put stuff together because that’s the way the charts fit. You can always tweak your charts, but if you don’t think hard about the placement of the screen’s elements you’re going to create more of a headache then you need.
Well, hope these are helpful. Ciao!
More On GM Commandments
From Walks in Moonligh
Hey there Johnn! I liked the guest article about GM’s and Player’s Commandments. I can think of a few additional things off the top.
- Be flexible. If a couple of your players can’t make it and give you enough notice, either reschedule or work around them. If your players don’t want to go where you wanted them to, deal with it. Make things up if you have to.
- Be Consistent, not Contradictory. If there’s one thing that can annoy a player, it’s when the “official” game website says to do something one way on one page and something else on another. Or worse yet, when the GM tells you something different from what’s on the page and doesn’t update it. Or worse yet, when the GM interprets a rule one way, then changes their mind about it later without explanation.
- Answer your Emails, Phone Calls, and Letters. Even if it is to say “I’ll get back to you”, you should respond to an inquiry from your players within three days of receiving it, unless you’ve warned them otherwise.
- Do not Threaten your Players Outside of the Game, Even in Jest. This is a copy of a real email I received from the Storyteller of a Vampire game I play in:
Finals are this week. If you contact me, I may not be nice to you. I recommend steering clear if I take too long to get back to you or your character may find himself/herself/itself with a stake appearing in his heart. Note that there is no smiley at the end of this which might indicate this was meant as a joke. I personally feel that the email was very rude and that it could have been written in a much more polite manner: “Hey guys, I’ve got finals this week, so I probably won’t be able to reply to your emails until they’re over. Sorry about that and thanks for your patience.”