I recently played a new pen and paper roleplaying game with Jon. Guy’s a brilliant game runner and it was a blast. The setting is called Degenesis and uses the Katharsys system which appears to have been designed solely for the game. Now, Degenesis is made by artists and you can tell. It’s a beautiful book with gorgeous artwork and a nonsensical design. I am tempted to buy the full book set for its bleak beauty alone. I also want to give kudos to its game design and worldbuilding. Their system is simple mechanically, but allows for deeper narrative nuance in its style, the world dark and foreboding (sometimes a little pretentiously, I dare say) and many elements are very well developed. The world is dense with detail. One thing is for sure, down to the creation of the player characters themselves the game is steeped in lore and what I want to deal with here is how deeply some TTRPGs tie their worldbuilding into the player characters.
You see, in TTRPG you make a character that represents you in the game world, your character could be strong and brave or smart and cunning, could have magical abilities, be a competent fighter or more at home in the shadows or some combination thereof. Like many, I cut my teeth on the more ‘swords and sorcery’ end of TTRPG playing games in Middle Earth and the Forgotten Realms. Most characters from those worlds take on familiar tropes. The fighter wears armor and reigns steel on his foes, the rogue archetype is sneaky and clever disarming traps and doors and the ranger is a master archer that lives in and protects the forests. Most games in these sorts of Medieval European settings carry these characters and they’re pretty easy to ‘re-skin’ into a lot of different settings. Even ones that differ radically in tone. Post apocalyptic rangers might be hermit survivalists who are crack shots with rifles, a fighter in sci fi might wield a rocket powered hammer and ultra light ceramic plating armor but the aesthetic is still there. We know what we’re looking at. We get that archetype.
Degenesis eschews a lot of this in favor of character creation that, while it doesn’t avoid archetypes altogether, weaves the world into its characters. There are three major elements in character creations, the culture, the concept and the cult. Culture is where your character comes from and determines many of your attribute and skill gains, simple enough, could be an easy re-skin. Concept is a fun one, it finds you another attribute gain and gives your character a direction to go, following that direction leads to some benefits which are super interesting (I love systems that reward staying in character). And finally we have the Cult and this is where it gets tricky. The cult isn’t really what it sounds like to us, it’s basically subdivisions of how folks have dealt with the apocalypse, whether it’s adherence to a religion, adapting to the wasteland and prizing survivalism, or recovering old technology the cult determines the profession of the characters. Each of these cults have their own complex system of ranks driven by skills, acts performed in game, connections made and equipment gathered, there are also several core beliefs you must adopt. As you grow in the cults though the requirements become more and more tied to the world. A Scrapper for example must carve their symbol into the the iron wall at Syracuse (in-game city) to reach final ranks, a Clanner must beat the old warchief before he can become the new one. What’s more, certain elements of the game effect other cultures differently with diseases impacting some cultures in different fashions, regions around the map effect some mechanics in different ways, some background elements have interactions with resources you can acquire (weapons that are specific to certain cults or abilities that only effect some cross sections of society).
These choices enmesh the character in the world early on and get a great amount of player buy-in at the cost of flexibility. I love game that do this, it means, by the time your done with character creation, you are totally invested in the world. You know what else? You’ve also read a ton of lore. I fell in love with the world their making but the cost of entry was high. Thankfully I’m just the kind of obsessive nerd who will dive into lore headfirst at the cost of my personal life if necessary. This is the kind of game that skews in this direction. You need buy-in from your players that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. You can’t just say, ‘you’re a barbarian (alright! I’ve got an axe!) and you’re fighting a dragon (look out for that fire breath!)’ instead you’re saying ‘okay, you’re a Paler Demagogue who’s holed in a bunker with some followers when Bygone ruins below start to reactivate’. Unless you know the world, you don’t know how awesome that campaign will be and the reading is a big ask.
Honestly, if I’m advocating for anything in this blog it’s this. Set expectations with your players when you consider what system and setting your playing. Is it ‘plug and play’ or does it need a lot of buy in? Did you want to create your own homebrewed setting? Well if you want to use this system you’re going to need to sit down for a while and do some mechanical play testing for balance.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.