#infifate: Co-Creating a Scifi Tale

Part II of a series

We played a Fate Core tabletop RPG campaign last year (2016) called “ääretön”, or #infifate for this English translation (as umlauts are hard). Me and my fiancée hosted the events (the meal + game session) and I was the GM. But in reality, it was a grand exercise in co-creation with the players, and as such, had features I thought might be worth of a couple of posts as a retrospective.

In the first part of this series, I wrote about us starting the campaign, from a logistics standpoint. This second post focuses on building up the setting and framework for the game and how the group effort shaped the premise.

A Necessary Preface for Myself

“I shall not put my ego before what is needed to make this a great experience for everyone.”

This is something of a mantra for me these days when I think games. Been so for years now, so it was a natural starting point for #infifate as well. Without this “Rule zero of campaign design”, I tend to have way too grandiose meta-ideas, huge themes and trippy visions of what I want my game to be. And can end up railroading the game in a dictatorial manner. I have a gigantic ego as a GM, and I wanted to check that at the door since the plan was to be playing Fate: A game where it’s really about everyone’s story, not just mine.

The Starting Point

“Five generations ago, the terraforming ship Old Man of the Green Mountain Peaks was destroyed while landing on New Earth. Most of the people aboard survived. Both those whose ancestors had served as the ship’s crew generation after another and those who had entered cryogenic sleep on Earth and would wake up at their destination like no time had passed.

We lost the ship and huge parts of what we had stored in it. In many ways, we had to begin anew, as we lost many experts in the crash as well as the technology. But we survived. Humanity survives. And New Earth blooms.”

The roleplaying game side of things with #infifate was my responsibility, and to be honest, I had a singular vision for the game when we started. The first ideas go back a long way. Ever since I laid my eyes on Cthulhutech years ago, I knew it was something I wanted to riff on. I wanted a game that captures the feeling of the giant robots fights of mecha cartoons and Battletech (I ended up making a small Fate Core Battletech hack after #infifate was over) with some supernatural elements thrown in.

I filled the original notes with strong and quite detailed plans of how it would be: There should be conflict between the two groups (Earthers and the Shipborn), and it would escalate to an actual war story. The TV show Kings inspired me in that I wanted a backdrop of the two warring states, where the player characters, who would be soldiers, could become accidental heroes and eventually through their actions, political movers and shakers. Maybe with a World War II vibe to it.

I also had wanted to do a campaign with a clear trilogy-like structure. Something that had a victory early on, then a mid-point that ends bleakly, and then a final victory at the end. The game would have long time-jumps that would allow this sort of a long-term epic. I had a firm grasp of what I wanted from the campaign and how I wanted to do it.

The Questions and Questionnaires

Our sign-up process included a survey (in Finnish) that let the players express their preferences to various things like (on the RP side) scale and genre. The answers were designed to help us pull the right things into the focus from their perspective.

Looking at what the players who got picked to play the game had answered: It was going to be a game with lots of giant robots, set on a colony-wide scale. Ray-guns, aliens and space travel could play a role, but not be in the focus. If there was going to be psionic powers or other space magic, it was something only the aliens do. Cybernetics, bio-modifications and other steps towards a post-human human were hugely interesting for everyone, so there would be a great focus in the game on what humanity could become. What being “human” means. The players clearly wanted a more political game than I did, and I wanted a more occult one than they hoped (as said, I had Cthulhutech as an influence). After a long sigh, I put my ego aside and stepping out of my comfort zones, I promised to try and bring political stuff to the forefront and leave the esoterica to the sidelines.

When we got these answers, there was a series of unfortunate events in real life that made us do weekly drives to Turku, some three or four hours driving every Saturday or Sunday. So we had a lot of time to bounce thoughts about what we could do with such a game.

Revision One: So this is what they want?

With the survey answers and some further pondering, some things were clear. The World War II vibe really didn’t go well with the scale and the tech feel the players desired. And if I was going to do politics, Allies vs. Axis was a bit uninteresting.

The original thought was to make the two human cultures a bit different from each other, but with all the transhumanistic themes, I decided to push it a bit further. Make it so that neither of the groups would be fully what we classify as “human”, but both be “alien” equally. And maybe focus on racial tensions instead of a war of resources, because that’s what’s up these days in the real world.

The ones with the label “human” (i.e. the group the player characters would belong to) would be the results of generations of genetic-level alterations that were necessary for them to survive the ever-declining ecosystem of Earth. A thing never mentioned in the game was that if the aliens hadn’t blown up the planet, it would have become uninhabitable on its own sooner than later.

The “gath” on the other hand were vat-grown clone race that had a lifespan of about 20 years out of the cloning vat. They appeared more like the humans we are, but initially were created by the aliens that destroyed Earth. And yes, I was blatantly stealing from the Cthulhutech backstory there, down to the use of Mi-Go as the aliens, but then again, Cthulhutech stole it from Macross, so one could argue this trope is in the very core of giant robot stories.

I was still toying a lot with the three-act story. Fighting against the gath and winning, then losing when an actual Mi-Go got summoned, and eventually winning through the power of friendship.

We sent the invitation to the players to come create characters and locked some more of the backstory in place at this point:

The terraforming arc Old Man of the Green Mountain Peaks was one of the many that were sent out into the stars as it became apparent Earth would fall. Its cryo pods were filled with a carefully selected seed of humanity that would be able to build a new life should a suitable planet be found. The arc was crewed by the gath, as they were created for space travel, and thus be more appropriate for the task. Countless gath generations later, the Old Man found a habitable planet, moved to the orbit and began the terraforming process from above. Before it finished, something horrible happened and the ship blew up. Its pieces fell to the just-barely life sustaining planet below, and thanks to the actions of the gath, most of the crew and a big number of the people sleeping in the cryo pods actually survived the planetfall, but we lost a lot in that fire.

That was five human generations ago. And now Carmiel, the nation of the gath, has launched an attack against us.

Session Zero

There is a huge intentional gap in the timeline between the crash and the start of the conflict. A good game needs investment from the side of the players and an excellent way to get players involved is to allow them to make decisions about the setting on very fundamental levels. That co-creation thing.

I am a firm believer in Session Zero, a game session before the actual campaign where you sit around, talk about the game and create the characters. No going out and adventuring yet, but getting the feel of the game.

The players came over. We had a three course menu of food and some refreshments (more on that food thing in another post). We chatted about the world, what we were looking to get from the game. General big ideas and some small ones. World building and making sure everyone was on the same page on how the world worked. We weren’t at the start, and everyone needed some clarifications and what parts of the science had to be coherent and clear before they could believe in the fiction. But we had conversations about how things worked. And eventually found a common vision of the basics.

And then we did something I hadn’t tried before: Using Microscope for setting creation.

Microscope is a fantastic little game by Ben Robbins. It is “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories” — a tool for creating a bird’s eye view of a series of events, while zooming down on the details when needed. We used a light version of it, skipping the last level of detail: Just making eras and events to those eras, and not playing out scenes.

I had set up the starting point (The Old Man crashes on New Earth), and an end-point (Carmiel, the nation of the gath, attacks). And between those two points, we set out building the backstory.

Each player (+ me) set up some parameters we wanted to see in the story, and what we forbade anyone from using: There would be no aliens present in this part of the story. There would be no fracturing of societies beyond the human-gath divide. A great leader figure would play a part. As would a defector. A religious cult would be a key player in the conflict. And so on. Stuff we would love to see and felt would diminish from the whole. In the spirit of safety as this was our first time playing Microscope, we stated that anyone could add more of these limits during play, but I don’t think anyone actually did.

After the “palette” was formed and the end points determined, we went around a few rounds, each round starting with the person starting determining what our focus would be this round, and then each person adding a new era or an event to said era that would have something to do with that particular thing.

A picture started to emerge. Of a colony that had begun to harness the remnants of the terraforming technology and clawed back into life from a desert. Still in recent memory of the people a harsh, unforgiving period the previous generations had to suffer. Period where everything was done “for the good of the colony”, down to genetically manipulating everyone to be the perfect thing that was needed. And the characters’ parents throwing that system aside as it had served its course. Eventually, the characters were born to a world where individuality was cherished because it was finally possible to have that.

(The timeline and the index cards we made with Microscope came in handy later on when we were actually playing, but more on that when we get there.)

I’ll go to the actual characters in a later post, as there is a lot to say about them, but I’ll touch on the character creation as it is a part of the world building process. Before anyone made a character for themselves, we spitballed ideas for what could be interesting character concepts in a game that’s set in a world like this.

The concepts again resulted in huge amounts discussion as the players wanted to clarify for themselves how certain more minute things in the game and in the world worked. What sort of places and people inhabited the world. After we had about a dozen possible character concepts, the players picked what they wanted to play, made the characters and formed relationships, and Session Zero was over, with everyone pumped up about what we were going to do next.

The actual starting point

After Session Zero, the premise was set. My original focus, the war between the gath and the colony, was just a footnote in the Microscope session’s results. The players had loved exploring this society of the humans, and their ways. And like most of the speculative fiction I like, it was clearly trying to answer the question “What would it be like if life was different like this?”

Two of the four players decided on playing characters whose main flaw was their inability for combat, so that meant I couldn’t make this a war story in the sense that the players would be soldiers. It would also make it hard to hold on to the trilogy structure without the war and war heroes being on the forefront. But there were new paths I could look into.

There were the two (possibly) half-gath player characters. A society split between the hunter-gatherers and the techies. A “Defector”, who had somehow been active for generations, manipulating the activities of both the humans and the gath. And a vibrant backdrop to build upon.

It was going to be an interesting sci-fi story, just not the tale originally envisioned. And that was a really good thing.

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