Struggling with "focus" and "personality" in my kitchen-sink setting

I just posted my “setting pitch” on the week 1 thread, but I thought I’d expand one of my struggles here.

It’s meant to be an anything-goes setting for new players to mess around in, but also my main, comfort-zone setting that I might plop a megadungeon into, or run an open table around.

Basically, I want Haven to work, and work well. When I compare it to Numenera (that I know almost nothing about concretely but I’m bewildered by), or Electric Bastionland, or Dishonored, I feel like something falls flat and mushy. When I think of Dishonored (or Blades in the Dark), I have a very visceral image of what it’d be like in there. When I think of Numenera, I get a rush of “wow, fantastic magical oldtech, I want to explore everything”.

  1. Do I need a Main Thing? Like some kind of MacGuffin or unobtainium that everything comes from, like Dishonored with its whales, Numenera with its oldtech? Endless Space with its Dust? If so, then why doesn’t Electric Bastionland need one? In fact…

  2. How DOES Electric Bastionland do it? I feel like it’s bursting at the seams with personality, tone and charm. Some of it is the illustrations, sure, but not all of it.

  3. How do I decide when I set something in stone? It’s hard for me to make maps and encounter tables and such for Haven because it feels “safer” when it’s all in my head in that quantum state of there-and-not-there. Or when I could come up with something even better in the moment.

I’m making life harder for myself in several ways, and I’d appreciate your wisdom, oh ye actual GMs with experience.

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I may be wrong with what I suggest here, but it is what I would do at any rate. Also note that I have no experience making a world where everything goes or a kitchen sink setting as you put it, and I’ve always had trouble playing or understanding such settings e.g Troika, so there’s all the disclaimers out of the way

What I will try to address is your Focus struggle that you highlight in the pitch as I believe the other two will be far easier once that is resolved.

I think you are right in that you need a Main Thing as you put it, but what leviathan oil does for Dishonored and what Precursor tech does for Numenera (I assume that is how Numenera works, I’ve only ever seen art of it) is it gives the settings a reason for their genres/tropes to work well together. A setting working well comes partly from consistency. Consistency comes partly from history. Perhaps defining some history for the world would be a start!

I think you have made some very correct steps so far in defining this setting. You have your inspirations laid out, you have some art that you feel is fitting, and you’ve defined some pillars of how you want the setting to technically work. Another thing you could do is write down themes you want the setting to be about.
What does Divinepunk mean? Do people rebel against Gods? If so, is one’s relationship with faith, the divine and supernatural a possible theme?
You mention witchcraft, ghouls, ancient AIs and shapeshifters. Great! Draw some mental lines between those. What is that relationship defined as? E.g. how are ghouls and ancient AIs related? What do they each think about each other and does one owe its existence to the other, or did one contribute to a significant change in the nature of the other? What themes might come out of that? If ghouls are how I know and understand them (undead) and you also have AI in there, a very good theme might be “what does it mean to be alive? Are AIs alive? Are ghouls?”

Once you have a list of such narrative (as opposed to mechanical or meta pillars) themes, you will have a list of the kind of stories that will most probably be told in the setting, or the ones you yourself want to tell. Those stories will have a specific tone and mood through those themes. That tone and mood is all that Dishonored and EB has that you are looking for, I think.

That’s the narrative part done. I don’t know if you would need a Main Thing in terms of something concrete in the world, like leviathan oil, a McGuffin like you say, but if you still feel that way, perhaps what I said about defining some history might help. The process can be largely the same as I described above about drawing lines between things. Try it with the Societies! What does the Ziggurat think of Red-Town and vice versa, and why? If you want you can center that or any other relationship around a McGuffin like a resource, artefact, etc but I don’t think you have to. If Dishonored never mentioned how electricity works it’d still have as strong a theme and mood as it does.

I don’t know if any of that was useful but I hope it was. It is by no means a silver bullet and might even be entirely throw-away but hopefully it does something. If you are still stuck, I might suggest trying a session or few of Journey, a journalling worldbuilding tool that uses some randomised prompts to get you to write about parts of your world, a process that was very inspirational and worked very well for me when I playtested it.

Lastly, I will re-iterate, my feedback hinges on “define your world more and why it is how it is” but if someone has another approach it’d be interesting to read about in the replies :slight_smile:

Good luck!

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Hoy Gardens!

I’ve read your pitch, and I have some thoughts on the things that trouble you.

  1. Yes, I think you should have a Main Thing, although I recommend calling it an ontological core (for me, a “Main Thing” is about theme, it’s what the story is about). I think you’ve already identified it: the Hyper-real. However, just like the whales in Dishonored, or Dust in Endless Space, they are important from a world-building aspect, but they actually do very little in the game itself. An ontological core helps you keep magic systemic, which is incredibly important in this sort of game.

  2. It’s mostly to do with graphic design (which goes far beyond the illustrations) and very careful word choices. But MOSTLY MOST, it’s about something, it has a story to tell. It has a theme, and all games played in that world are meant to be played with that theme. Your world also has themes: “the world is ripe for exploration”, “The Favour of any factions or individuals is worth more than coin”, “Every session is an experiment”. It’s tricky, because these themes don’t necessarily mesh well - there’s little point to exploration if nothing is actually true (because of anticanon); there’s little use for favour from a group that’s sitting in a fixed location if I myself am always on the move because I’m exploring; and as OddCore said, “divine punk” sounds awesome but what it actually means is unclear, and it seems to be an aesthetic more than an actual theme, yet it’s core to your chargen concept. It’s tricky, I think you should give a try to focusing on a single, specific theme, and construct the rest around it, that might be the thing that’s troubling you. You might have more ideas than a single setting can hold! Consider putting aside those that don’t mesh well with what you’re going for, and use them in some other setting, in the future.

  3. Maybe there aren’t maps, if there’s anticanon; there’s only textual description. Maybe every encounter table is actually two or three; the GM chooses which based on different positions of the moon, or some unknown element. I would suggest pouring everything down, in all of its permutations that you care about. It’s easy to delete, mix, or add, once it’s all down. It’s not actually in stone, it’s just on the computer - don’t treat your text as holy, treat it as rumours, and it keeps changing (do it on Google Docs and keep old versions automatically).

Please note, Numenera is very wide opening at first, but as a game, it has several issues - the biggest of which is a lack of theme. There’s no real reason to be an adventurer, the players are just assumed to want to adventure, and that’s not great. Also, all of the old tech can (and for me, does) dissolve into “that’s just kinda weird I guess”, because there’s no ontological core. There’s little reward for exploration and nothing makes sense (it’s just random magic by a different name) which is a big issue in a game that claims to encourage you to do just that.

I very much agree with the rest of your inspirations, though, and I see a lot of interesting potential in the setting you wrote. Also, you’re asking the right questions, which is very good as well.

Hmm, I think I may have interpreted “Anticanon” wrong then. Ideally I want to make a ready-to-go setting I can run cool games in. And once something is discovered, I want it to be permanently there.

I think I meant “anticanon” as in “we’ll discover in play what’s true and what isn’t”, which is probably… not what it means? I’ll cut that

I’m getting a lot from your feedback and @OddCore 's.

  • Main thing: Psyche. I think I’ll focus it on “the stuff of life”. Basically, things that are alive can sometimes link and sense each other. New species appear all the time. Impractical, improbable life-forms sustain themselves in ways we don’t fully understand. Thoughts, intelligence and alive-ness flow like a mix between “qi” and programming. AIs, the undead, and hive-minds are “alive”, as is a mortal person, but that might cause tensions within the city that (to be a bit meta) tries to fit it all in one society. If something can think and act, it lives, and it can change.
  • The city itself is an adventure. Shameless Bastionland rip-off. I’ve had exciting sessions that took place entirely in one district.
  • Rumours, favour and exploration: The characters have as much of a reason to explore the city as they do to explore the wilds beyond and below: personal hooks, rumours and changes that they need to adapt to. What they learn to be true, stays true, and there is much to learn from the fallen civilisations we unearth.
  • Belonging: Despite their adventures, they’d want to return to a city that responds to them, provides them with means to their ends. For that, they need the favour of the various societies and individuals. There’s always a nook in the city to carve out a place of one’s own, for long-term projects. If the players ever form their own HQ, that’s perfect.
  • The city is alive: An amorphous, gargantuan symbiosis of many species, societies, rules, boons and disasters. The city’s change is constant and its growth is inevitable.
  • The characters’s lives are dynamic and unusual: Anyone can sustain a decent life, and people don’t really go starving in Haven. These are not most people, though. They’ve got an itch. They venture out, down and even up, and when they return, they want to make waves.
  • Tensions: I’ll be working more on tensions and conflict. I want the city to be a crucible of conflicts and problems without being a hellhole of crime and backstabbery (e.g. Blades, Dishonored). Haven is still a place you would probably want to be. Perhaps conflicts play out in rival exploration parties, beliefs clash, especially on “life”, and power struggles are still a thing. For every great discovery and power there should be at least one strange threat and several problems, perhaps linked.
  • Player motivations would come in several forms. First, custom hooks that I weave out of their past and present. Then, the sheer urge to explore, knowing there’s something worth finding in every direction. Also, the satisfaction of continuity, putting things on the map, and having the consequences of their actions live on.
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There’s no single way to understand the word anticanon, only “what you meant” and “what I understood”; miscommunication happens a lot in our circles because there are so many vague concepts and very few are codified and clear. I personally use this and TV Tropes as dictionaries, and try to always refer with a link, to make it even clearer.

I interpreted anticanon as Negative Continuity because of your use of “anti”; I would call “we’ll discover in play what’s true and what isn’t” something like “emergent canon” or, even more clearly, “collective worldbuilding through play.”

Yeah, I think what I meant is “collaborative canon”. Once something is set as true, it tends to stay true. How about the other stuff, do you think I’m heading in the right direction?

Looking good! I think it will all start to come together once you start playing too (if you haven’t already) and that will also show you what else you need to focus on if anything :slight_smile:

Agreed, I see good directions all over the place.