World-Building: A Vast Zooniverse

As Douglas Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Science Fiction backgrounds often involve a fair chunk of this space stuff, but quite how much varies a lot. Some stories take place entirely on one planet or spaceship; others roam between the stars in great treks across the galaxy. There is no better or worse approach, just what suits the tale you need to tell.

Technology is the great limiter here. Technology and time. Technology because you aren’t going to travel between stars in a single lifespan unless you can either move very quickly or avoid dying for unnatural ages. Time here is a modifier, and lots of it will excuse poorer technology by letting you colonise the universe with generation ships and the like. Note that we never need to bother with the details or even the plausibility of our chosen tech if we don’t want to. Hard SF generally wants to know how things work and keep things credible, sure, but even there it’s guesswork. If hard SF authors really knew how to build warp engines, they’d be collecting Nobel prizes instead of writing stories.

For folk who want to write grand Space Operas, small-scale character pieces, or make games of any sort, the details of how the technology works can be skipped lightly over in the most cursory of fashions. Often, it’s enough just to say that the spaceships have warp engines (or whatever). The characters can move among the stars as they choose. Nuff said. Get on with the story/game/whatever.

It’s usually best to decide early on what works for your world (and I use “world” here to mean the whole universe, not a single planet). That saves you having to build great chunks late on or wasting your time with unnecessary work at the start.

For Blast ’Em!, we’re not talking about a lot of space as a percentage of what’s in the observable universe. However, from the viewpoint of you or me it’s still vast. How to deal with it all? The answer is partly discussed in Mind The Gap and What Not To Tell. However, there are other ways to help with the problem.

My intention is to fit all manner of aliens and planets into the game, which means that I need a lot of room. Blast ’Em! is not hard SF, it’s much more Space Opera-ish, in the manner of the games I mentioned before: countless planets and a star-spanning empire controlling them. But this is just a starting point and the very broadest of brushes. Unlike many, this Empire is neither evil nor entirely benign: it’s just the government of the day and they sit in the background doing the usual stupid stuff that governments do. For most people, on a daily scale, they’re not the main driver of events. Doubtless, tomsonn will tell me how dull that is, and if that were all there was to it then I might be inclined to agree. The interesting stuff is all smaller scale. However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about today or how you solve the problem of creating so much. I want to mention random tables.

The canvas for Blast ’Em! is so broad that I’ve no ability, intent, or expectation of ever filling it up in detail. I can go on forever describing new aliens and planets and never reach the end. Also, the universe is not a static thing and won’t wait for me to catch up. This is a good thing.

In order to deal with this scope, I’m planning to do what you have to. This is detail a small number of places and races to set stories in and act as characters within them and fudge the rest. However, this fudging will also come with a DIY section, and this is where the random tables come in. This is the clever bit: you don’t create the detail, you give the audience the tools to do it themselves. These tables will let you create your own worlds and creatures if you don’t want to wait for me to do it all.

Random tables and D100 silliness was always one of the most entertaining parts of (some of) the old games, and something I think would be sorely missed if it was left out. I feel that this encouragement of the audience’s creativity was very much more common and important in the old school games, and I rather miss it in most modern offerings where everything is done for you. Of course, I’m secretly glad stuff is done for me as I’m as lazy as the next triffid, but I still fondly remember many a happy hour rolling up characters, planets, and aliens so I’m determined to pass that fun along.

And finally, in the spirit of keeping the vibe and tweaking the odd detail, expect to see a bit of that sort of D100 playfulness during play too. Back in the day, these random tables tended to be used before games or after them rather than during, but it felt like too much of an opportunity to pass up.

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