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Thousand Suns — Designer Notes — Meta-Setting Design

August 12, 2007

One of the great pleasures — and frustrations — of writing Thousand Suns is the presentation of its meta-setting. For those joining late to the discussion, a quick recap: Thousand Suns is intended first and foremost to be a generic science fiction roleplaying game whose rules are quick and easy to play and evoke the tropes of Golden Age SF, what is now sometimes broadly called space opera, although I much prefer Kenneth Hite’s term “imperial SF,” since I think it’s more descriptive of the kind of Golden Age sci-fi Thousand Suns evokes. However, the game does include a setting of a sort — two settings in one, actually — that is intended as a modular example of how to use the rules to create a science fiction setting. Because that setting is modular and includes lots of “switches” and “dials” that can be turned up, down, or even off, it’s more of a “meta-setting” than a true setting; it’s a canvas onto which certain shapes and figures have been drawn but not colored in, but the game rules give you the paints you need to do so, according to your own tastes of what makes good art. (I could use a cooking analogy too, but that’s probably because I need to eat lunch).

Anyway, the joy of a meta-setting is that I can come up with all sorts of stuff I probably wouldn’t use myself — like Psi Cops or artificially intelligent starships — and present them as options with advice on how to integrate them into the setting, but without having to worry about issues of “canon” that crop up into other more solid game settings. Because Thousand Suns is firmly in the imperial SF sub-genre, there are core elements — the vast extent of human-settled worlds, the comparative slowness of FTL travel, no FTL communications, etc. — that are the bedrock on which the rest is constructed. Then there are other elements, like the number and type of alien races, that are treated as if they were bedrock, but which can easily be changed. For example, I offer up the Myrmidon clade as both a standard playable race and as one of two default antagonists to Terran civilization in the Thousand Suns. Most of the stuff I write about the meta-setting presumes the existences of the Myrmidons, but, like everything else, they could be dispensed with, though I provide less advice on this point than I do on other more outré matters, like psionics or AIs or nanotech.

I’m very happy with this approach overall. I have to rein in my natural inclination to build a coherent world and settle instead for an even better option: a world with lots of possibilities. Rather than creating the Forgotten Realms and laying it all out for you, I’m instead providing you with something more like Greyhawk, an iconic but less well detailed setting that covers all the obvious bases but leaves lots of stuff blank for you to fill in as you wish. Where my meta-setting differs from Greyhawk is that instead of just describing a specific world and leaving out lots of detail, I have tried — and succeeded, I hope — in making each world also “generic.” Thus, the description of Meridian, the galactic capital, also stands in for “The City-Planet” so that a GM who doesn’t want to have Meridian specifically can still use the vast bulk of the description for his own Trantor or Coruscant analog. The same goes for everything I describe (with a few exceptions). Thus, the Naval Infantry can be used as models for any space-based rapid assault force, the Kriilkna for any honor-bound, warrior race, the Travelers for any long-dead, ancient civilization, and so on. It’s a design I’m growing quite proud of, even if it runs counter to my longest-held gamer instincts.

My reason for doing this is quite simple and straightforward: I think, deep down, most gamers are tinkerers; they like to make stuff up. At the same time, I know very well that they don’t always have the time to devote to sitting down, graph paper and protractors in hand, to map out an entire Golden Age SF galaxy. What they want is a palette of colors from which to paint their own science fiction paintings, with some gentle advice on which hues work best together and perhaps a few things already sketched out on their canvas. It’s always struck me that what D&D has consistently failed to do over the years is provide something just like this, instead opting either for the starkness of the old World of Greyhawk folio gazetteer or the embarrassment of riches that is the Forgotten Realms. A middle ground, one that provides a skeleton and lots of choices of flesh and muscle to add to it, has always seemed preferable to me. Most gamers want to be world builders, but it’s not easily done, even if one does have infinite time, which most people do not. Why not accommodate to such realities?

(Obligatory snide comment: I suspect that setting design of this sort isn’t generally attempted because, at the end of the day, what do you get? Game companies want exploitable IPs and a meta-setting doesn’t provide that. If I wanted to write a Thousand Suns novel, for example, what’s the setting? Does President Stefan Wang govern the Second Federation from Meridian or does High Emperor Stefan IV of the Wang Dynasty rule from Pinnacle? It can’t be both and yet the meta-setting provides for both options. But I think it’s a better game design. Thousand Suns is, above all, a RPG, not an IP mine. I’ve written it to be fun to play and easy to use. I want it to be a vehicle for creativity rather than a showcase for my auctorial brilliance or as a testing ground for ideas exploitable in video games or novels or whatever. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see the game catch fire and have Hollywood producers calling my house, but I don’t expect that to happen and I refuse to design the game on the premise that it might)

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