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Collaborative World-Building with Spark

Whoa. First experience with A Spark in Fate Core and serious collaborative world-building.

For the past few years, I’ve been very interested in getting a consistent, face-to-face Fate Core game going with adults who were willing to meet about twice per month in my suburban home. It took awhile, but I finally managed to find a great group of people, we managed to get our schedules coordinated and, with beer, wine, some awesome Chinese food (and some finishing touches around my firepit later that evening) we managed to pull together what I hope is a great foundation to a lasting campaign.

This is the story of how we did it.

A Spark in Fate Core

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This is not a review of A Spark in Fate Core.

However…

If you are a tabletop roleplayer and you haven’t ever heard of A Spark, do yourself a favor and head over to DriveThruRPG and grab a copy. It’s free.The whole booklet is 32 pages long but about half of that is taken up by an introduction, a completed example and worksheets you can photocopy for your own use. The core material, pages 7-24, is essentially an expanded version of Fate Core System’s (PDF, Hard Cover) chapter on Game Creation.

A Spark, page 23, summarizes how to collaboratively create an initial setting for a game:

  1. You start by listing your favourite Media. Each participant lists one book, film, game or comic they want to focus on.
  2. Explain the Inspirations from your media. Each participant creates one based on their media.
  3. Use those inspirations to Describe the Genre.
  4. Decide how epic or personal in Scale your story will be.
  5. Establish Facts about the setting, usually 2 per player.
  6. Create a Title to focus your vision.
  7. Create a list of 4-8 Sparks for the setting, each consisting of a different potential problems.
  8. Select the Issues, picking three of them from the list of Sparks.
  9. Create 6 Faces; two for each Issue.
  10. Create 1-5 Places, one for each unused Spark.

I think the greatest value provided by A Spark is not its worksheets or the order of the questions it asks. Rather, the value of A Spark is the fact that it requires input from all participants at key points in a discussion facilitated by the questions it asks. A Spark is handy because it gets a conversation going among the participants about the kind of game they want to play and facilitates the creation of much more initial setting material than the method described in Game Creation.

The strength of Game Creation is speed and simplicity.  A Spark provides more depth but it takes more time (we spent our entire first session, approximately 4 hours, on setup – and we had a blast doing it).

An Aside: Props to Microscope

Unlike the recommendations of either A Spark or the Game Creation chapter in Fate Core, I started out with a few constraints already in place, the result of some pre-coordination done via email.  I reviewed these with the group before we got started and liken them a bit to Microscope‘s “Adds” and “Bans”.

  • I wanted to run a game that was any of or some combination of Steampunk, Cyberpunk, or Post-Apocalyptic Survival.
  • One of my Players had an objection to zombies and requested that zombies not be part of the game.
  • Another Player at the table, new to roleplaying games in general, requested that occult elements not be part of the game.  Ironically, the Player who asked if zombies could be omitted expressed a desire to possibly play a character with supernatural abilities, a demon hunter of sorts…so there was an interesting conflict of interests to accommodate.

Now, if you are following the guidance in either A Spark or Game Creation, you don’t really start off with genre. Instead, genre emerges from discussions with Players. That absolutely can work – but it wasn’t what I, as the GM, wanted for this game. While I think it is important that a GM do his or her best to ensure every Player is having fun, the GM isn’t a work-for-free-entertainment-factory. It is important that the GM is having fun and that he or she have an interest in the setting.  If you know, like me, that you want to run a game that adopts the conventions of a certain genre, be up-front about it with your Players.

Likewise, if you are a Player and you know that you can’t tolerate the presence of some element in a game, be up-front about it and bring it to the table.  One of two things will happen: either the group will be willing to accommodate your concern…or they won’t, in which case you can choose to find another group before you’ve wasted a bunch of time with a group that is not willing to meet you where you are.

I chose to accommodate these Players.  I could have drawn a line in the sand – or stood stalwart and stubborn like some Gandalf-wannabe on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum declaring “You. Shall not. Pass!” – but I didn’t…and, in my opinion, neither should you. Find a compromise that works for everyone at the table. Find a way to say “Yes!”. It is, after all, collaborative world-building.

In the end, it was fairly simple to resolve:

  • I knew that what I was really after was a Survival Horror type game that featured an unstoppable force that was ever-present in the background, pressing and pushing the heroes forward whenever they think they can stop. A Zombie Apocalypse game is not about the Zombies but rather it is about the Heroes, how they deal with the loss of life as they knew it before the apocalypse, and their struggle to survive in a world that doesn’t really support them any longer.  Any sufficiently powerful, ever present force could stand in for the zombies once you break it down to the important narrative elements.
  • Okaaay. So…no zombies…and also no demons, devils, ghosts, or occult rituals either?  Fine. No demons, devils or ghosts – “But,” I said, and I am paraphrasing here, “As we are all aware, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic so, while we may present things in the story that are described in supernatural terms, they are not, actually, supernatural – there is a rational, natural (albeit unknown) reason behind them.  A demon..is little more than a DiMENsional traveler!” Thank you Robert Lynn Aspirin!

What is the lesson here?  You can be inclusive and respectful of your player’s needs and still get what you want. Focus less on the specific elements and more on what those elements bring to the game you want to play.

Building The Setting for The Arcology

Media and Inspiration

Prior to getting together, I sent out an email to the players explaining to them that I would be “generally following the approach from A Spark in Fate Core“. I provided them a link to the free PDF, a copy of the worksheet, and encouraged them to at least read pages 6-8 (Steps 1-3).  I suggested:

At a minimum, come prepared to discuss your favorite movies, TV shows, video games, books, music, etc. and *what it was about them* that you liked.

The group was aware of the genre constraints I had put in place and of the two content prohibitions previously discussed.  Importantly, when we were all together, I made it clear that while we might not be playing The Walking Dead, that did not mean that you couldn’t list it as a favorite media and inspiration.

To speed things along – and because it just felt more natural to do so – we combined Steps 1 and 2 into “What is your favorite Media and Why?”

The answers:

  • Jericho (TV Show): A base of operations from which a group of heroes deploys to accomplish missions required to maintain the base and its people.
  • Beyonce, Sweet Dreams (Music). “It can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare, either way I don’t want to wake up…” Psychological thrillers; lack of surety about whether something is really good or bad.
  • The Planet of The Apes (Movie). The sense that we wrought our own doom. Lost Technology.
  • The Wire (TV Show). The general breakdown and collapse of society. It takes a lot of effort to build something up and, even then, it has a tendency to collapse.
  • Indiana Jones (Movie). The mysterious. The hunt for lost artifacts that are also sought after by others who might put them to nefarious purposes.
  • Person of Interest (TV Show).  Conspiracies and a Pandora’s Box – the sense that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back – and it isn’t necessarily our friend.

On the surface, the Media and Inspiration questions seem to exist in order to drive to Step 3, Genre, but, as the GM, I’m already taking a lot more out of these answers than just genre.  They really are pointers to the elements of a story that the Player wants to engage in.  In my own notes, I tagged each Player’s response so I know what kind of missions, adventures and stories matter most to that player.

Genre Type and Scale

Steps 3 and 4 discuss genre and scale.  In our case, we had a sense of genre before we even sat down but, even with some genre options already specified, we had plenty of discussion about the answers to the Media and Inspiration questions and how those narrative elements might materialize in a Cyberpunk, Steampunk or Post-Apocalyptic game and how the content constraints interacted with these ideas. I fought the inclination to pull the team back on track and just let the conversation flow, trying my best to tag various comments and ideas to areas on the worksheet as I heard them.

I think it was at this point that I mentioned that I had an idea that could potentially combine all three genres (Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Post-Apocalyptic Survival Horror) into a single setting and I laid it out to the group: essentially, an alien invasion that nearly wiped out humanity and divided society into “haves” (those with alien technology) and “have nots” (those who lived in communities who were practically blasted back to early industrial revolution standards of living).  The introduction of alien tech allowed for cyberpunk and transhuman elements (and, therefore, a mystic-like demon-hunterish character), the remnants of the alien invasion met my survival horror needs, and the low-tech “have nots” effectively lived a steampunk life.

An interesting discussion broke out about this time around “Misery Porn” (TV Tropes). One of the Players did not want the game to be just one tragedy after another that inevitably leads to a death-spiral into the depravity of man.  He expressed a desire to play in a game with some hope.  We had an interesting discussion about the morality of the setting (tied into the lone musical inspiration) and what it meant to be a hero in this game. The invading aliens were established to be a force of nature that did not possess the intelligence required to be reasoned with and we agreed that the Heroes were present to build something up – not just tear things down and survive from one day to the next.

Inspired by the television show Jericho and the desire to build up something, we settled on a Regional campaign scale.  I was introduced to the term Solarpunk and we used that as our Genre Descriptor.  I think I told the Players, “Sure…but less Art Deco.”

Our genre, type and scale answers:

Genre: Dystopic Post-Apocalyptic Survival
Descriptor: Solarpunk
Scale: Regional (United States, Colorado)

There was an Alien Invasion that led to an ecological collapse and the near-genocide of the human race. In general, the genre is probably most defined by its post-apocalyptic elements – resource scarcity, etc. – bu the addition of the “solarpunk” descriptor spins the narrative towards a positive outlook.

We’ve pretty much hit rock bottom and we’re going to be on our way up from this point forward. The heroes are building something against all odds and will be successful; it just might cost them everything they have and know…including their own humanity.

Establish Facts

Establishing facts went pretty much by the book. I gave everyone two tokens and we started asking questions.  We tweaked the step slightly: I asked the person asking the question to tell us which two Inspirations were driving the question and the other players at the table were allowed to ask clarifying questions of the Questioner before anyone had to offer an answer.

It worked well. I think I would view this step as less about Asking Questions and more about Facilitating a Discussion about the intersection of two inspirations.  At least, that is how it worked out for us.

I particularly liked the way that the format of this step requires every person involved to contribute to the setting. At some point, Players who are more vocal are forced to concede the floor to Players who are less vocal.

I reformatted our facts along various themes and added the names of two alien races after the fact:

Some Facts About The Past
  • A government contractor, working in a secret lab to solve one of Earth’s many environmental problems, opened a wormhole (“broke reality”) and an alien invasion, the Vore, came through. The Vore were hotly pursued by their handlers and breeders, the Joetur, but the battle that was waged on Earth led to an ecological collapse and the near-genocide of the human race
  • “The Event” occurred within a generation of the current heroes; 20 or so years prior to the present in the setting.
  • The Joeture killed the Vore queen and left us with a warning: “You are not alone…and they are coming.”
  • Unfortunately, while the Joetur took out the Vore queen, they didn’t finish the job before they left.
Some Facts About The Present
Society
  • Society is divided between the “haves” and the “have nots” and the “haves” are not willing to invest in the “have nots”.
    • Arcologies are not yet 100% self-sustaining in all cases but the infusion of Joetur technology has propelled pockets of humanity forward (“the haves”).
    • Other pockets have been left behind (“the have nots”), blasted back to the early industrial period and struggling to maintain infrastructure and services with a heavy reliance upon hydraulics, pneumatics and steam power.  The electrical grid is still not reliable.
    • The “have nots” live in a constant state of fear and unrest, their homesteads and communities unprotected from Vore incursions.
  • The individuals responsible for “The Event” are living in The Pike City Arcology in secret.
Infrastructure
  • We are in crisis! Everything is failing around us! We are so busy dealing with the day-to-day that we don’t have time to find the enemy amongst us.
  • “The Public Works” opposes the restoration of The Pike City Arcology, our failing habitat, for unknown reasons.
  • “The University” is working hard to find and restore infrastructure and solve the problems of our new reality.
Joetur Technology
  • Known only to a few, “The University” has an intact but inoperable Joetur fixed-wing, single pilot strike craft.
  • The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”. We don’t fully understand the Joetur Technology we attempt to use but we have learned that it can be incorporated into our bodies at the cost of a shorter lifespan.
  • Joetur technology is fueled by Vore biomass.
The Vore
  • The Vore are multiplying once again.
Some Facts About The Future
  • The worst is yet to come”. Humans are losing ground and resources.  “The Colorado City Collective” (governed by “The Quorum”) is failing.

Step 6 is about naming your game.  I turned this into something along the lines of “If all of these notes described a television show we were making, what would be the name of our show?”.

We decided on The Arcology.

I think the title had an impact on the remaining steps. In steps 7-10, you describe problems occurring within the Setting and the GM selects three that he or she would like to explore (a Legacy Issue, a Current Issue and an Impending Issue). You then create NPCs, two per issue, a supporter and a rejector, and associate them to the Issues.  Finally, in Step 10, you create Places for the unused Sparks.

I kind of messed this step up but it certainly didn’t hurt us.  I have 5 Players and should have ended up with 5-10 Sparks.  Instead, we created 12 because I included myself among the players (misinterpreting the word “player” as “participant”) and I incorrectly had the group create Places for Sparks that had already been selected as Issues.  Not a big deal, but it means that instead of every unused Spark having a Place associated with it, there are some that do not.  By this point, my notes were all over the place because I had long since abandoned the worksheet and was taking notes on the back of paper and trying to capture what I was hearing.  I think it is possible that we had also moved out to my firepit so I was writing by fire light.  Next time, I’ll be more careful about identifying sparks used to inspire Issues so that it is easier to identify the ones that should be associated with Places.

Our answers to steps 7-10:

Sparks and Their Places

  • Spark: There is instability among even the elites as the people in power struggle with the ramifications of Alien Technology.  The emergence of “the haves” and “the have more”.
    • Place Name: The Railyard. A fortress/arcology in its own right, the Railyard is a switching station that connects the larger and more influential arcologies in the region together, allowing for goods to be shared between them.
    • Situational Aspect: “You can go anywhere you’d like…except Pike City. Train’s down.”
  • Spark: The “have nots” are on the verge of revolution against the “haves”.
    • Place Name: “The Malt Shovel”. An abandoned hangar turned local bar with a secret basement from which, they say, the revolution plots its next move. The constant din of the diesel generator keeps eavesdroppers at bay – and Jenny Everywhere pours a fine (okay, passable) whiskey to help with the rest.
    • Situational Aspect: “Jenny wants to talk to you.”
  • Spark: It is known: The Arcology has a lot of MREs
    • Name:  The Pike City Arcology.  A broken arcology with a dirigible dock and ample flight support.
    • Situational Aspect: “Home crap home” or “Home is where…whoa! Someone stop that leak!”
  • Spark: The purifiers owned by The Haves are breaking down.
    • Name: Colorado City.  The biggest arcology in the region.
    • Situational Aspect: “Welcome to Colorado City. You are being watched.”
  • “The Public Works” is obstructing the movement of goods between Arcologies and groups; it is hard to gather the materials needed to sustain The Pike’s City Arcology
  • Mutants! Genetic anomalies are appearing in the human genome. Most are harmful and debilitating.  A few are not.
  • The environment is turning against us.  The climate has been disrupted.
  • There are spies from the haves living amongst the citizens of The Pike City Arcology.
  • The leader of “The University” has a plan; but he may not be human!
  • A new wormhole (also known as “a rift”) has opened in California.

The Issues and Their Faces

Legacy Issue: The Vore, put down for a period, are growing once again in The Outlands and Hot Zones. They are easy to kill (soft underbelly) but hard to eradicate; swarms!
Legacy Aspect: We beat them once…barely.

  • Supporter Name: Ishmael
  • Description: A Cult Leader. No one knows who he is – but he sees The Vore as the cleansing fire humanity needs to push us to the next level or burn us out for good
  • Apex Skill: Rapport
  • Rejector Name: Dr. Joris Benovich
  • Description: Executive Director, Research Interdimensional Frontiers Technology (RIFT) Group
  • Apex Skill: Lore

Current Issue: The Haves purifiers are failing
Current Aspect: To whom much is given…

  • Supporter Name: Jenny Everywhere
  • Description: Proprietor of “The Malt Shovel” and Ava Mason’s Trusted Lieutenant.  Happy to see the purifiers fail.
  • Apex Skill: Contacts
  • Rejector Name: “The Spy”
  • Descriptor:  Unknown.  Does not want to see the purifiers fail.
  • Apex Skill: Deceive

Impending Issue: The Have Nots are on the verge of revolution
Impending Aspect: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not just a slogan!

  • Supporter Name: Ava Mason
  • Description: Daughter of the former mayor who was executed in the streets
  • Apex Skill: Rapport
  • Rejector Name: Deidre Einztoffel
  • Descriptor: Chairwoman, Water Control Board, Colorado City
  • Apex Skill: Contacts

Conclusion

This was a great first experience with collaborative world-building using A Spark in Fate Core. I’d highly recommend it for both new and experienced GMs.  It is particularly useful if you’ve got quieter, more thoughtful individuals or Players new to gaming in your group who may not jump into the fray quite as easily as those of us who have played these games for years.  I didn’t execute the approach perfectly, but I think that hardly matters: the value is in the discussion and the sharing of ideas…and there was a lot of both.

As a GM with a more traditional (some might say “Old School”) gaming background, this was the first time I’ve ever seriously given collaborative world-building a go and I think it was very positive.  There is a lot of foundational material here to work with and, more importantly, I’ve gained insights into what is interesting and important to my Players and, hopefully, they are more invested in the setting as a result of having helped to define it.  It now falls to me to make sure that the materials provided feature prominently in the campaign arcs to come.

Have you used A Spark in Fate Core to Kickstart your games?  What was your experience like?  What other approaches or questions do you use when you kick off a new game?  Leave me a comment and let’s discuss.

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