Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lawmen Of Borlo: Reflections on Setting Choices

I just finished my "Lawmen of Borlo" game, and last post I talked about how gameplay went. Today I'm going to look at the setting decisions and work I put into it, and how they turned out.

The things that went best were the way I handled races (which was a trick to get right), and the FTL system (which never got used). The books I actually ended up using were interesting, and there were some places where I did too much work, or too little. I also let the standard adventure be something I didn't plan. In this case, it worked well, but that fact is worth being cautious of in the future.

Racial Builds

favorite race.
The Setting was pantropic, and I offered a variety of races to the players at hefty discounts (usually 10 or 20 points for 50 to 80 point templates rendered somewhat redundant by tech), and said if they wanted anything to just let me know. They didn't go for any of the races I suggested, but they did go ahead and add races of their own. The face man went for a 'secretary race', which got off the shelf looks, the ability to speak and hear even odd forms of language, and heavy stereotyping by others. We had one guy go for a cutting edge 'sensor suite' race. The most popular race was giant snow-cat men though. I had provided a race suited for the cold, but it ended up being completed eclipsed by the much more stylish option of looking like a tiger.

The races didn't prove to be broken at all, in some part because the game was very combat light. We had two people who were arrested when two different ST 15 snow cats tackled them. The races didn't include any DX or IQ, and talents were rare. Instead they had lots of fur, increased senses and strength, temperature tolerance, and other abilities less about skill and more about exotic abilities.

The setting was in part inspired by the "Blue Planet" setting, particularly as far as their races went. I don't think I got the buy in I wanted, and in particular no one went for under-sea templates. Of course, I then flubbed and didn't stick any of the cases underwater, so who's fault is that really?

The races were cued in on by the players, and they made sure they know what everyone was: shock trooper, snowcat, or  jungle-worlder. So that part was a success. And the races actually helped in ruling out suspects gauging capabilities, and so forth.  I consider this a success, and may write about making such templates more.


FTL was a tricky situation. I wanted hard science, pantropic humans, and the simultaneous feeling of a rush and remoteness.

The pantropic humans were actually a tricky set of requirements. It meant that 'garden' worlds needed to be easily accessible to colonists, leading to large amounts of land. That went well with my frontier theme. It meant that getting across the galaxy couldn't take too long or be that expensive.
And yet I needed a sense of remoteness, so that my rush lasted longer than a single week. Communication was easy enough to cut (courier ship only), but I needed to make travel unreliable. And once I hit upon making travel unreliable, the solution presented itself.

The FTL system was capable of huge jumps at a time, but with unreliable accuracy. Each jump took a few days. You'd jump to the general vicinity of your target, then jump again, getting closer (but still not quite there). The numbers I gave were jumping across the galaxy in a month, but to get somewhere specific on the other side took two months. I made it so some locations (black holes and an artificial point at earth) had added accuracy, but that only helped in getting to a few specific places.

The system worked. I did the math on it because I'm a world builder, but it never came into play. The facts above did come up though, again and again. It was important for players to know how isolated they were or weren't. The spaceport was an important location, even though players never left the system, and I had answers for why things were so. This let characters not only buy into the isolation, but to extrapolate and make decisions based on it.

Neighboring Planets and Biospheres

I rolled up some neighboring planets and biospheres. Ok, I rolled up 8 of them. And none of them got used. Not even Borlo. I didn't include any wild-life, and the general temperature of a planet is not a good way to do weather, which ended up being GM fiat. As far as the game is concerned, Borlo is a whole planet of arctic. And that's it.

We did pay attention to the weather though: blizzards were important for the villains covering tracks, and the players were constantly checking satellite observation for the motions of suspects. I just focused in on the wrong parts of the setting.

Ironically, we did end up having to create other planets, but these were as extradition targets. The players found one of their best bargaining chip was which legal system they shipped world-hopping criminals off to.


Lawmen of Borlo didn't start out as a mystery setting. I intended for it to be a hard science adventure game. However, I told the players combat was not the focus of the game and they came prepared with the sheets for detectives. A bunch of PC's actually acted like their nominal jobs and careers. I tweaked just slightly to match and we had fun hunting down criminals. I can't say I really planned this. It worked though, and it helped to have a clear sense of what the players were doing.

Planning out how the crime happened and why was a must, but that's true for any good mystery.

What Books did I use?

The most useful books in building the setting were Bio-tech, Blue Planet, and Campaigns. Ultratech and Space also figure: I referenced them a lot, but the material I got out of them was not as helpful as I hoped it would be..

I cannot sing enough praise of the hidden corners of campaigns. I need to reread it, because it bailed me out a few times, particularly with ultratech. The most notable was stats for vehicles: The tech books had blingy impractical stuff, not the snowmobiles that showed up all over the place. We ended up converting a motorcycle and calling it that. I also went looking for some of the "common place" prospecting equipment, and ended up having to make that up as well. The game ended up feeling quite modern in places, tech-wise, with snowmobiles, smartphones, and forensics. In some ways it was TL8 + space and biotech.

Blue Planet is the father of this game. I will probably never play an actual blue-planet game, but the pantropic setting, the "gold rush" type setting, and the tech paradigm are all inspired by reading that book, and I will regard this as my blue-planet game. The book was never brought up in play, but without it the game would not exist.

Biotech was also a work-horse. While very little statistics were used, it provided the window dressing for everything. Where blue planet suggested, biotech confirmed. It's contributions were primarily racial and economic... which meant it was everywhere, and the players saw it in action.

Space is interesting. I didn't consult it much other than planet and alien generation, which as I said above, didn't get used much. On the other hand, I've used the book thourougly before, so it may be I've already internalized it. It certainly contributed to my FTL decisions, as described above. But the book never actually came out (I converted its generators to other formats long ago).

So what books do you need? I have two conclusions. First: you only need basic. Really, you can do anything with basic. But two: You need inspiration. And the books are a fantastic place for inspiration. So keep reading.

How much of the setting did I actually use?

I put a good amount of work into the setting. How much did I actually use? maybe a quarter. Maybe less. But I found that a good deal of what I designed was good for answering player questions, and for understanding how the world worked. This campaign featured a lot of interaction with the political and economic situation of the setting, and the good work was necessary for this game.

In retrospect, much of the extra work I did was because I didn't understand what I was going to be doing with the setting. Which is a lesson! don't make what you don't need! On the other hand, much of the work was setting, not campaign. Once I started designing the campaign, I didn't do too much I didn't need.

I have lots of settings laying about, and I may never use Borlo again. Or maybe not. I have a lot of settings waiting around to be used. That's part of the reason I started this blog. But one thing I learned from borlo is that its worth going for settings that get you excited. A setting you aren't excited about will be a burden. A setting that gets you thinking is a hobby. Which is what this whole thing is supposed to be.

I hope you find these thoughts helpful. Happy gaming. Or world-building!

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