I ran into an interesting phenomenon when running my bi-weekly Infinity: The Roleplaying Game. The game itself was a kickstarter and is currently shipping (check out the quickstart), though that’s not what this post is about.
By default, in the Infinity RPG, characters come from very different backgrounds, from the hyper-capitalist hyperpower PanOceania or the Neo-Anarchist megaships of the Nomad Nation to the rugged backwater nations of Ariadne or the cloning vats of Aleph, humanity’s sole AI. However, as per the standard design of the game, the characters will be working together in a supra-national team, usually dealing with crises that threaten the stability of humanity as a whole. This of course results in wildly different personalities and loyalties, something the game loves to play with. You see, there’s a layer placed on top of the normal special operations, diplomatic wrangling and rooting out alien infiltrators that the game usually deals with.
Every character has a handler (or more) that represents the interests of the nation state they ostensibly are loyal to. These handlers will provide side-missions to the character and that character alone. And that is where it gets interesting.
I ran my first scenario without these side-missions, mostly as a way to get my players familiar with the system and to sprinkle a bit of lore about the universe around. And while the scenario went well and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, there wasn’t much different from some other sci-fi setting. The characters were characters, doing what they do and the impact of the setting wasn’t really felt.
In my second scenario, I introduced these side missions and it changed the tone of the game dramatically. Where first, the group was clearly a unified whole, as soon as these individual missions came out, characters became a little more distinct, each one a bit closer to their home nation.
And that’s what brought me to write this post. You see, in a roleplaying game, there’s a finite amount of time. You only have three or four hours each session to paint a world you and unfortunately you can’t spend thousands of hours describing a world. Nor can you write a whole setting background and expect your players to actually read it. So it behooves you to take shortcuts. The easiest shortcut to take involves the background of the setting.
Often players have a pretty good idea of who their characters are, independent of the setting. They’ve assigned them certain character traits, personality quirks and so on. They might be highly religious or hold some pretty extreme anarchist viewpoints. They might work for a larger organisation or come from a backwater village. The trick is in taking those details and making them the default of the setting.
A perfect example is Aleph in my Infinity game. In the original setting, Aleph is this omnipresent, friendly intelligence that guides humanity. It’s individual actions are subtle but as a whole, it’s a remarkably obvious presence in the world. Anything you use has its fingerprints all over it. From traffic monitoring to search engines or even military intelligence, Aleph is there. Home domotica systems are run by Aleph, it ensures the integrity of the internet and runs your day-to-day calender. In my game, one of the characters is part of the network of human proxies Aleph uses. Normally, they’re quite obvious, acting as public spokespeople and media figures.
However, the player wasn’t particularly interested in playing such a public facing character. Which is fine, everyone gets to play the way they want but in my case, it means that, since that character is representative of the overall trend in the faction, Aleph’s going to have to get a whole lot sneakier. So Aleph in my game is a lot darker, a lot nastier and a lot more covert in addition to the bubbly, obvious persona it puts forward. Memory modification, assassination and kidnapping are all tools in its book that the players will come to face. And of course it’s all justified in the name of the greater good.
Similarly, one of my players chose to play a character who belongs to Haqqislam, specifically the Hassassin sect. Normally, the haqqislam nation are scholars, scientists and only moderately religious. However, since she chose to play a member of one of the more violent and secretive sects in the universe, that’s the lens we’ll be seeing them through. Many of her missions will involve subterfuge, sudden bursts of extreme violence and fanatically loyal agents. As the old saying goes: “There are no ex-hassassins, there are no traitors. There are agents and the honored dead.”
On the other hand, one of my other players chose to be part of PanOceania, a nation with a traditionally very significant military presence and strong religious roots in Catholicism (Space Templars!!) However, he chose to play a slick business man who oozes charisma and has money to burn. Because of this, the military and religious aspects of PanOceania will be less overt and its business dealings will come much more to the forefront.
As you see, in a way, the party is a microcosm of the world and their personalities are the baseline for those of the cultures they come from. Except in certain circumstances where a foil from their nation of origin is needed, the PCs are what the world is like because the game is about them. And that’s just fine. It provides a cultural shorthand for describing the world that leans very closely to what the characters experience.