Fearful Symmetries: Background

I had a bit of an eye-opener these past couple of weeks. I’ve been working on typing up the notes and brainstorming we did for creating Prague in 1620 for the Fearful Symmetries game, and the sheer amount of material that came out of those discussions is a little daunting.

We spent about four hours doing the city creation. I’ve got over 20 pages of material from that time.

It’s a little overwhelming, and also, I think, a wonderful testament to the ease and value of the city creation process in DFRPG. Also, to the very creative and enthusiastic players I’ve got.

Now, I’m going to link in the .pdf of our setting bible, but I want to talk about some of the things we did with it, first.

1. Transparency

One of the things I was wary about with collaborative setting construction is the fact that the players know a lot of the big secrets and threats of the campaign right from the get-go. I’m changing my mind about this. I was, I now consider, wrong to worry. Maybe it’s just my players, but they don’t seem to have much of a problem keeping player knowledge separate from character knowledge, especially (and this is a key point) if they know how cool it will be when their characters find stuff out.

Yeah, the players know that the Sedlec Ossuary is a hotly-contested piece of real estate between a cabal of necromancers and some gypsy clans dedicated to the mysteries of Osiris and Anubis. And they think that’s a cool thing to have – after all, they came up with the idea. But their characters don’t know, and the details are left up to me as GM to flesh out, so they get the pleasure of having their characters drawn into the battle unawares, and can still be surprised by some of the twists and turns.

I wanted to see if being completely open during the city creation heightened or lessened the interest level: if the players knew all the big secrets, would that mean the game wasn’t interesting for them. Well, we’ve only played one session so far, but I’m coming down firmly on the side of it heightening interest. And a lot of that has to do with the next point.

2. Investment

Wow. Getting the players to decide what goes into the mix in the city, who the main bad guys are, what the power structure is like, and what places are important: golden. I sat back and let them do most of the fleshing out of things during city creation, adding (as I recall) one theme, the suggestion of a few locations, and some brainstorming on appropriate Aspects. The rest is all them.

This does more than just take a lot of the burden for setting creation off the GM; it also makes sure that the elements of the setting are all things the players think are interesting, that they care about. That they want to have as part of their characters’ story. Now, both my players made characters newly-come (or returned) to Prague, so they are not hooked right in to the current situation, but because the players built the current situation, there are numerous things to hook them (both characters and players) into the stories. Things that allow for quick emotional investment right off the hop.

What this means for a GM is that, as long as you use the elements of the setting that the players have created and link them to the characters (and Your Story has a whole chapter on how to do that using Aspects), you’re pretty much guaranteed to come up with a basis for a scenario that will capture the attention and interest of your players.

3. Dramatic License

No one in my group is an expert on the Thirty Years’ War. We’ve done some cursory research, and Clint knows a lot about pretty much everything, but we’re not going for complete historical accuracy in the setting. Of course we aren’t – it’s a fantasy game. So, we’ve played a little fast and loose with both history and geography. Some examples:

  • I couldn’t find the name of the Lord Mayor of Prague in 1620 – there may not have been one, for all I know. So, I made up the name, taking the first name from one Mayor listed on Wikipedia and the last name from another.
  • Zuckerbastl was the name of the man running the thieves in Hradcany around 1610. We wanted a King of Thieves for Old Town in 1620, so we transplanted him.
  • I couldn’t find any real geographic information about White Mountain, where an important battle takes place in November 1620, so I just made it all up.
  • I get frustrated trying to use all the proper diacritical marks in the proper Czech and Slavic names, so I’m ignoring them.

The idea, of course, is to create a gameable setting with the flavour of the time and place you want. And that’s what we did. So, for any real experts on the Thirty Years’ War, or 17th-century Prague, or any native speakers of the language, there are lots of grievous errors and things that we just out-and-out changed. No offense is intended. It’s just a game.

We also deviate a bit from the Dresden Files canon. We’re using it as a starting place, but we’re trying to establish what the milieu would have been like in 1620 Bohemia. So, I’ve been re-reading The War Hound and the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock, which is the only fantasy novel set during the Thirty Years’ War that I know of, and I’ve decided that, instead of the Nevernever (which name doesn’t quite fit the feel of the time period), we’ll have the Mittelmarch, the lands on the borders of Heaven and Hell. Still works the same, but different name for a different time and place.

4. Filling in the Blanks

We did a lot of brainstorming at the city creation session, and I took notes and filled out the city sheets, but there were still some holes, or pieces that didn’t fit quite right with other pieces. As I’ve been typing up the setting bible, I’ve been doing a little bit of polishing, elaborating on some bits and making minor changes to others in order to make the whole thing work together.

I’ve also been looking at the areas we hadn’t touched upon, and thinking about how they can work into the game if I need them to. Really, the primary focus is going to be – really, must be – on the stuff the players came up with, but it’s always good as a GM to have a couple of surprising ideas in your back pocket in case you need them. But I’m keeping my mouth shut about what they are.

And there you have it.

So, here’s the setting bible.

I’m working on incorporating the setting bible into a wiki on Obsidian Portal, so I’ll post a link to that in the sidebar when it’s ready.

This Friday is our second session, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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3 Responses to Fearful Symmetries: Background

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    The thing to remember about secrets — and I think open-to-the-players secrets — is that they’re meant to be revealed to the characters at some point, possibly soon, in the story. Those secrets are, in a way, the starting points. New ones will be birthed in the wake of their revelation.

  2. Rel Fexive says:

    “The War Hound and the World’s Pain” is an excellent book. Renaming (should it be pre-naming?) the Nevernever as the Mittelmarch is perfect.

    Your document looks really interesting! I’ll definitely give it a proper read.

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