Burning Empires didn’t work out too well for my group. More on that at a later date, perhaps—I’m reluctant to write about stresses and tensions until I’ve thought about why that game failed for this group.
One bit that everybody agreed worked was the World Burner, a collaborative mechanism for setting design. Kasumi, a regular poster to rpg.net, wrote a variant called Apotheosis for use with advanced Exalted games. It’s wonderful. The important part to look at there is Step Two, where everybody’s nominating important components: factions that are involved, can’t be involved, etc.
I’d like to do something similar for a campaign I’m working on. A few years ago, I ran a game called Conspiracy Theories. It was quite successful. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, but I learned a great deal from the process of running it. I and most of the players seemed to have a very good time. I liked it so much that I haven’t run anything in that genre since. Now I’m reading Harry Dresden books, and would like to do something like that again.
These, therefore, are thoughts on how to construct such a setting.
How public is magic, sorcery, the otherworldly, in this setting? Do vampires appear in People, like the Anita Blake books? Are they hidden, as in Dresden Files or Buffy? Is there any public supernatural activity at all, like Dresden’s yellow-pages ad as a Wizard?
If the magic is occult, why? General agreement? A faction of guardians protecting it and killing anyone who might step out of line? A natural force, like Paradox? The flavor of the occult, like GURPS Voodoo, where magic never has definite effect? Collusion between the aliens and the opposing government, both of whom find secrecy to their advantage?
What is in the world, and what’s available to the PCs? Collectively figure out what might be there.
Dresden-style sorcery, immediate and powerful in its application?
Bob Howard (Atrocity Archives) magic, with slow rituals and lots of reading ahead of time?
Advanced technical gadgetry, requiring some skill and significant infrastructure, but usable by those not able to replicate that infrastructure (see the old Conspiracy Theories for some of this)
I’m missing many things here: hereditary shape-shifting powers, sacrificial summoning… it might be best to start by letting each player throw in something in addition to those above.
It’s very possible that only some of these will be available to the whole PC group, and that others will be used by particular factions. If you’d like some to not show up, ban them in the “Factions not Present” section below.
For any that are present, it’s fair game for a PC to buy into them: the one PC psychic, alien, witch, whatever. See Giles and then Willow, for example.
Backing and Cohesion
Are the PCs lone occult investigators? Backed by a government agency? Cooperating agents of different governments? Part of a supernatural conspiracy, like the Illuminati?
Go around the table. Each player may nominate a faction allied to the PCs. The group should sketch out a leader or point of contact for that faction, and his relation to the PCs, before proceeding to nominate the next faction.
For each such faction, one PC should either have a tense and conflicted relationship with the named NPC member, or should have a hostile history with the faction itself.
Go around the table. Each player may nominate a faction opposed to the PCs. The group should sketch out a leader or point of contact for that faction, and his relation to the PCs, before proceeding to nominate the next faction. This doesn’t mean nobody else will show up, but narrative conservation will ensure these are the most common antagonists.
For each such faction, one PC should either have a friendly relationship with the named NPC member, or should have a friendly history with the faction itself.
Together, decide on one Big Bad—Lo Pan, the Bat Thing, the Grey Aliens, the Vampire Queen Bianca, the Mind—this can be an individual, a faction, or a faction with a named proponent as above.
Note: this part’s not well done yet. It may be best to have surprises, and I’m not sure how to handle that.
Factions not Present
Go around the table. Each player may nominate a faction or plot thread which will not appear in the game. For example, those playing in my games might want to know that Lectroids will not appear, nor will this turn out to be a game of Mage: the Ascension.