About People and Places

Published on 11.11.2015 by Mikko Göpfert

When picking up a new system and starting a new roleplaying campaign, it’s usually the gamemaster’s responsibility to create the setting within the game world, including its important locations, gamemaster characters, and creatures. The players mostly resort to the creation of their own player characters. Opening this process of creation up to the whole group, however, as described in the People & Places chapter in the Equinox Setting Guide, has a great influence on how you, both the gamemaster and the players, experience the game later.

If you haven’t read said chapter yet I highly recommend it, even if you don’t plan on running an equinox campaign. What it describes can easily be adapted and applied to most other roleplaying games out there. Anyway, here’s a quick overview. 

A Group Effort

The process in People & Places is basically about character creation, but it changes the traditional angle and opens the fields of creation up to the whole group. Everybody gets to have a say in, well, everything. It’s more like writing a background script for your favorite TV show rather than creating your next MMO character which gets tossed into a pre-scripted game. While you don’t write any plots and story arcs (that part’s still the gamemaster’s job), the whole group is laying the foundations for their story, the one they want to experience and tell, and for the game they want to play.

Guided through different steps, you come up with the player characters’ concepts, their group’s background story, their motivation and the kind of theme you want to be dominant in their adventures. You also develop a location which will most likely be the character’s home base, but might well be something else entirely. You might create a prison the characters have to escape, an old battlefield they plan to scavenge for spare-parts and relics, an old freighter filled with refugees looking for a new home, or whatever location you think is worth spending at least the first few sessions in. Still bouncing ideas around within the group, you all add gamemaster characters you want to interact with or you think are important for the location, and you also set up a social web of relationships and connections between all characters. You also add interesting spots: distinctive sites that spice up the whole place and give it that extra flair all of you want to have in your game.

You even get to define the general threats to the location—some quite close and imminent (and a possible story lead to follow right from the start), others only dark shadows looming on the horizon. Some threats might come in form of named dangerous enemies with characteristic features, some in political power shifts on a bigger, community-wide scale. Some threats might only be vague rumors that have yet to be explored but already make you wonder what truth may lie behind them.

Only after you’ve created all that you get down to the creation of the player characters in detail. This process might change a few things you’ve come up with so far, tweaking a few final details in the setting, but that’s part of the process and usually not a big deal. When everything has been done and the player characters have been fully fleshed out, you take a step back once again and have another look at the whole picture. A few changes and additions maybe, a new tag here and another detail there, and by finalizing the setting you’ve laid the groundwork for an epic story—one in which the whole group is invested in.

By that time the players will be eager to explore their new stage, while the gamemaster’s creative brain cells are likely dancing ecstatically in the face of all the story hooks and inspiration he has been given during the process.

Unexplored Space

It might be unfamiliar terrain for a gamemaster, sharing and creating all these things with the whole group. But rest assured—you will have plenty of space to create your own secret plots and unexpected story twists. In addition, besides the already mentioned amount of adventure and story hooks you get right from the start, the very best thing about making this a group effort is that your players really care about the result!

Whatever it is you have created together, it is the one place your players want to spend many sessions in. They helped create it, each one of them has some of his or her ideas in there, and their own characters are already neck deep in the location’s social web of needs and wants, owned favors, unforgotten insults, the strife for personal power and the fight for survival. Instead of boggling your mind on how to drag each character into the story, the players usually plunge themselves into the adventure on the first evening. In our experience it happened quite often that players didn’t even want to follow any other adventure leads during the first sessions, because they were too busy exploring what they have helped set up themselves.

Every Coin has two sides

… and so does this. It takes time off everybody instead of just one. This process of creating everything together distributes time among the whole group more evenly. However, it also requires everybody to show up and take part in the process. In our experience you will need a whole session to set the stage, plus an additional one to create the characters using the Match System (if you don’t do that in between sessions). This is clearly too much effort if you only plan on running a one shot or a convention game.

We enjoyed it a lot using this procedure and honestly wouldn’t dream about doing it the old way anymore. Of course it took some time “setting the stage”, but it’s not that creating the setting together wasn’t fun. On the contrary, we had a blast. We just recommend lots of pizza, more beer than usual, extra packages of cigarettes and the best coffee you can get your hands on.

Personal Experience

The first time I read through the Vagrant’s Guide chapter I was intrigued, for the message I got out of it was: “It’s not the vagrant way to be on anybody’s payroll, really.“ That was different than my average group of adventurers helping out wherever they can or my “We only do it for more creds” runners in the shadows. But how would that play out?, I wondered, and put the thought aside to pick it up later again once we actually started a real equinox campaign.

Well, I’ve got one now and oh look – the game literally runs by itself. What started as a neck deep entanglement in our location didn’t dissolve after the first few sessions, on the contrary. The player characters had real ambitions and personal driven motives that went further than reaching the next Order or getting a better gun. The net of relationships had become more complex and rich—and while there are of course new adventures strewn in by me, the gamemaster, it happens fairly often that one of the players has a personal story plot or adventure hook he would like the group to follow and play out. An owned favor to pay back, resources to secure for the home base, or simply a little spotlight scene with one of the signature gamemaster characters.

Now, the following is not part of what the Equinox Setting Guide describes, but it seems a natural development of our game after we’ve followed the suggested set-up procedure. When we play out such little spotlight scenes with only one or two player characters involved (and they scream for being played out, after all the effort that went into creating that net of social contacts), my players went forth to play the gamemaster character roles. This created a much denser and diverse atmosphere than we were used to, and—in addition all of a sudden the unlucky death of Hunk the Janitor during a little side event of a “gremlin plague”-type adventure actually emotionally mattered to all of us!

I am the gamemaster of our group, but I honestly can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next—for I have no clue what my players will come up with.