Emergent Settings

Posted: 1 February 2013 in Reflections

This is probably something a lot of you have been doing for years, and I’ve only just cottoned on to; you don’t need the whole setting to begin with, you only need the places the PCs are in currently, or could reach by the next session. Then, you add bits as you go, as the need for them emerges; the campaign-level version of random dungeon generation on the fly during a session.

This isn’t a sandbox; a sandbox is more or less worked out in advance, whereas the emergent setting is the GM launching himself into empty space with only some dice and random encounter or terrain tables for company.


I could drivel on about the theory of that, but let me show you an example instead; let’s use THW’s Larger Than Life as a random generator, although there are of course other options. Rather than playing through the adventure (that might come later), let’s look at the structure of the star’s travels from scene to scene. As this is an example, to create a shorter story than the Rules As Written would produce, I’ll rate each clue as a +4 die roll modifier on the Advance the Story Table rather than the official +1 (or my own usual +2).

Let’s assume a Rep 4 Star. The tables on pp 28-29 of LTL and a couple of dice rolls tell me that the Star must rescue someone from a Rep 4 slaver. I decide the Star begins in a Metropolis, one of the largest cities in the setting, because the tables seem to direct one inexorably towards a Lost World, and once you’re there, it’s quite difficult to get away again. In my mind, this is a space opera setting, as that’s the next game up on my schedule.

Using the tables on pp 30-32 to generate the skeleton of the adventure, I get these results. I’ll assume the Star passes every challenge along the way, for simplicity.

0. Start in a Metropolis (A). Learn of missing person.
1. Get Info from Someone.
2. Travel to a different Metropolis (B) by commercial airliner. Let’s call that a spaceship. Star is being followed and there is a Stand Up Fight when he arrives at the second Metropolis.
3. Get Info from Someone.
4. Travel to a third Metropolis (C) by commercial airliner – errm, sorry, spaceliner. No encounter.
5. Find an Object.
6. Travel to a fourth Metropolis locale by train. OK, we’ll call that a monorail taking the Star to another location on Metropolis world (C). No encounter.
7. Find an Object. Big Bad shows up and tries to capture the Star; we’ll assume he fails.
8. Travel to a Civilized locale by Auto. That sounds like the Star has acquired a gravsled to take him to a smaller city on world (C). No encounter.
9. The Final Scene.

Hmm, not at all what I expected; but then THW games never play out the way I expect, which is one reason I like them. In this case, I’ve generated a simple starmap:

A — B — C

And on planet C, there are two really big cities (which are connected by a monorail) and a smaller one (which isn’t).

Is there a hyperspace route of some kind between planet A and planet C? I have no idea. Maybe one would show up, in the third or seventeenth adventure, and maybe it wouldn’t. If using this setup for an ongoing campaign, I’d say Planet A was the PCs’ homeworld, and (to facilitate transferring the starmap to a hexgrid later on) it could have no more than 6 adjacent planets. Eventually, all those slots would be used up, and it would become clear which (say) Exotic world the Star had to go to – although it might take more than one travel scene to get there.


Now, at this stage, the planets are not terribly interesting, because I haven’t fleshed them out. In LTL, I would apply large doses of inspiration or imagination to fill in the blanks; but I can be lazy, and apply a stucco of Stars Without Number instead. Notice the key aspect of mashing up rules sets; as long as you use one game to fill in a completely blank area in the other, things are fine; you only start to tie yourself in knots if you try to merge two rulebooks in an area that they both cover. ( I feel comfortable recommending SWN as an add-on to anything, not only because it’s good, but also because it’s free.)

In this case, the part I like best about SWN – world tags – fills a gap in the LTL rules. Rolling two tags for each world, and using the GM tables in the back of SWN to generate a culture and name for the world randomly, I get this:

Planet A – Guizhou: Altered Humanity, Pilgrimage Site. Alright then, the missing person is an altered human, of a type that people travel through space to meet, and the Big Bad wants one of his own – or knows someone else who would pay good money for one. (I could use the Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things and Places lists in the tag and some dice to figure out who the Star needs to meet, where, and so on, but I leave that as an exercise for the interested student.)

Planet B – Sutton: Freak Geology, Abandoned Colony. Since I already know it’s a metropolis, and thus heavily populated, the colony must have been abandoned by an alien species. At this stage I don’t need to know anything about them except what the ruins look like – and oh look, SWN has a table for that. What about the freak geology? Hmm. Well, the first thing that springs to mind is Plateau, from Larry Niven’s Known Space series; a planet with a hellishly dense atmosphere, and one tiny habitable area on top of a freakishly tall column of rock. That’ll do.

Planet C – Sinqit: Alien Ruins, Heavy Industry. More alien ruins; OK, let’s have them be left by the same race to save time. I’ll say that both the big cities (Giddah and Baytlahm) are dedicated to heavy industry, and the smaller one (Tisit) is near the ruins, and hosts both a research community and a hidden slaver cult. I have no idea why I typed cult there, but you have to admit it makes things more interesting than "gang".


Looking at the structure as the Star would see it, there are six encounters – let’s say two sessions of play.

Session 1: The Star (PC) learns of a missing person, and has to persuade or intimidate someone to give them a clue. The clue takes him to another world, where he is ambushed at the spaceport and a fight ensues. After this, he must gain another clue from an NPC.

Session 2: The Star must travel to a third planet, and solve a puzzle to find an object. This leads him to the location of another object, but it’s a trap the Big Bad has laid to capture him. The Star commandeers a gravsled, and a chase ensues, culminating at the alien ruins for the final showdown.

See how easy this stuff is with the right tools? The whole thing above took less than an hour to do. Actually, I quite like this adventure now, and might finish it off, or at least use this method for my next solo space adventure – the idea has crossed my mind to use this very technique for creating adventures for my face-to-face group, as well.

  1. raikenclw says:

    I’ve never heard of LTL, but I do like SWN, especially as it’s interstellar economics rules essentially boil down to, “There’s just enough interstellar carriage of passengers and high-value/low-bulk cargo to keep small tramp traders marginally solvent.” 🙂

  2. […] while ago I posted about Emergent Settings, which I think of as Option 1 for the forthcoming space opera campaign. This is Option 2; use a map […]

  3. […] toying with ideas to set up a space opera campaign for next year. So far I have considered Emergent Settings and Dark Nebula as Options 1 and 2 respectively; here is Option 3, using published […]

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