Friday, March 8, 2013

Interactive world creation - Atlantis: Years One and Two

In a couple of weeks, for the first time in several years, I'm running a role-playing gaming session, as opposed to 'just' playing one.

I've decided to start by trying a bit of interactive world creation with the players, as an exercise in creatively surrendering the gamesmaster's control to make something together.

In this post, and the comments that follow, we're going to start to create the setting together. If you're not in the game, don't hold back from making your own suggestions; we can't guarantee we'll use them, but if you're inspired by what you read we'd like to hear your ideas too.

The gameworld

For those of us with finite time, it's good to start with some published material, and then start adding to it and remixing it.

The starting point for this world creation exercise is Progenitor, a source book for the Wild Talents game. It's one of the best pieces of work in this area that I've seen in gaming for a long time - broad enough in its canvas that there are many places and times you can slot in a campaign; original enough in its detail that you find inspiration in many places.

It starts with the idea that the first superhuman, an American woman named Amanda Sykes, is discovered in the late 1960's and slowly begins to infect the population with strange powers while fighting for the US in Vietnam. The world slowly starts to get very weird indeed.

Hot-spots for infection this early in the time-line are Washington DC and the Vietnam War.

The interview after the jump with Amanda sets the scene well and makes it clear that you're not dealing with world where everyone with powers has to dig spandex and capes. It's reminiscent of Aberrant, which I loved despite its material being wildly uneven in quality.

 The setting

For the game, I'm focussing in on Atlantis, a small island in the Atlantic created in 1969 in the Progenitor timeline by a superhuman with earth control powers. Woozy from the bitter end of the summer of love, Cynthia Carls creates the island as a refuge from the conflicts of the United States, for humans and metahumans alike.

There's a great image from the book of this staggering act of creation here.

But the Progenitor material leaves lots of questions usefully unanswered, which is where we come in.

Some useful dates

April 1968 – Blurry footage from the Vietnam War leads US military to admit to the use of “metahuman soldiers”

May 1968 – reports from the war indicate that the Viet Cong also have strange destructive powers on their side.

June and July 1968 – battles between metahumans in Boston and New York - the first of their kind... certainly not the last.

August 1968 – North Vietnamese metahumans begin sabotage operations on US soil, apparently through teleportation.

March 1969 – Cynthia Carls creates small Atlantis – an island outside US territorial waters in the Atlantic.

July 1969 – The first monster created by Tina Shaw – a tiny homunculus created when she heals the sick – appears live on television

September 1969 – Atlantis now has approximately 100 citizens, as Cynthia Carls quietly spreads the word of her new utopia.

Key questions for players and anyone else who fancies suggesting ideas? Please reply in the comments
  • What striking features, flora or fauna might Atlantis have? Give us one example.
  • Suggest a character with superpowers who has sought sanctuary in Atlantis. What is their main power and why are they there? Who were they before they had powers?
  • Suggest a normal human character who has sought sanctuary in Atlantis. What did they do before they came to Atlantis and what did they do there?
It probably makes most sense at this stage for these initial characters to be American - but if you can think of a convincing reason why you might have come across an infected superhuman elsewhere, or have heard about Atlantis through other means than Cynthia and her rainbow nation of American refugees be my guest!

Don't worry at this stage whether these are the characters you want to play - your role here is to make sure the island is an interesting place and help to give it a ferret-sack-full of interesting people

I'm going to do this too over the weekend. Looking forward to seeing your ideas. :-)


  1. I figure prime super candidates would be those that make other 'normal' people uncomfortable, so find it difficult to lead a normal life when they feel everyone thinks they're a freak.

    - the psychic - if he touches someone who something bad is going to happen to, he gets a premonition (unfortunately it's only bad things he sees). Even though he's learnt people don't want to be told bad things are going to happen, and tries to keep his premonitions to himself, everyone is scared stiff to touch him in case he gets "that look".

    I figure they would all be people who led normal lives, with normal jobs (shop assistant, factory worker, mechanic, office worker, salesman) before they became super - lives where they don't really have a use for their super powers.

    - the human lie detector - whenever he's around, everyone becomes terrified of telling even the tiniest little white lie (i like your new hair) and can never relax around him

    - the mind reader (resemblance to anna paquin not required) - every time someone talks to him they wonder if he's really listening to their inner thoughts

    - the human mirror - after spending time with somoene, he is able to copy their appearance, size, voice, mannerisms, etc to be a perfectly indistinguishable copy. Unfortunately, he instinctively adopts the mannerisms and voice of whoever he is talking to (changing physical appearance need a conscious effort). The typical reaction varies between people getting annoyed because they think he is taking the p out of them, or getting creeped out by how unnervingly accurately he's copying them.

  2. Sounds really good Kev, thanks! I particularly like the idea of the island as sanctuary for socially unacceptable powers.

    Did you want to pick one concept and give them a name and short backstory to set the ball rolling?

    Also - what about a normal human who washes up on Atlantis?

  3. OK ... so here are some initial thoughts from me.

    As a counter-cultural person I think Cynthia Carls would consciously cast Atlantis' architecture in a quaint, ruined Greek, Roman, Mediterranean mode - i.e. what fantasy artists and New Agers imagined lost civilisations to look like.

    See Giorgio di Chirico's more conventional paintings to get an idea.

    I'm thinking that to pull an island out of the sea and invite people to live there takes some kind of visionary, and it makes sense for Cynthia to write her manifesto in stone.

    Character with powers - a religious hermit with extraordinary powers of toughness who lives on a purpose built pillar in the remote corners of Atlantis island. Definitely a Bernard, I think, and a New England Irish Catholic, but I'm not sure what his beliefs are yet.

    For an un-powered character, let's bring the war home and have a Vietnam veteran as the new community's engineer and handyman. He's a tough no-nonsense kid from Cleveland.

  4. For an unpowered character, there's got to be a fair smattering of objectors to the war, disillusioned with the USA. I'm thinking a uni student from a well off background. He was studying law - he likes to think he took law so that he could fight for justice and all that good stuff, but truth is it had at least as much to do with what his parents wanted as what he did. He joined in enthusiastically with the anti war movement, but then after being arrested at a demo, had a massive argument with his pro-war parents - the tipping point for him to look for a new, more enlightened home out of the USA. (I kind of picture this character as a woman, actually, but I'm not sure the expectations on a girl to study law would fit as well in the 60s.) Once on the island there will no doubt be plenty of legal challenge from the US authorities to help with (not least arguing how far US laws apply to US citizens moving to the island) - even if his role is mainly as a liaison with more experienced practicing lawyers.

    For an alternative powered character to my general theme above, a watchmaker with the ability to make incredible clockwork creations. He can make clockwork dragonflies that are no bigger than the real thing, and are capable of flying. But the real magic is the spark of life he can give them, surrounding himself with tiny clockwork pets, that nobody is sure whether they are just machines or actually alive in some sense. Since coming to the island he has started to work on equally astounding creations on a much larger scale, designing "clockwork" alternatives to using electric, gas or petrol (eg his clockwork car that runs for an unfeasible time after a short wind up).

    For flora and fauna, i imagine an area with plants that respond to emotions (eg flowers opening when people nearby are happy and laughing) but also enhance the emotions of nearby people in some kind of reinforcing feedback loop. Good if you go there for a party, bad if you're upset and go there to be alone.

  5. In my efforts to come up with interesting powers that could be used in a game, but aren't just lifted straight of the pages of the aberrant manual, here's an idea for a time-travelling character:

    A fairly run-of-the mill, but slightly geeky / awkward high school kid who finds that he has the power to travel back in time by a few seconds. Not far enough to make any real changes to history or anything, but just far enough so that when he trips and falls in front of the whole school, he can go back a few seconds and avoid tripping, or when he says something embarrasingly naive in front of the cheerleading squad and they all start laughing, he can go back and keep his mouth shut.

    He comes from a small town where hew as a fairly unremarkable kid (even though he has a power, nobody can tell he has used it as only he can remember the original timeline ever existing, and it's not powerful enough to make any real difference to his life - in fact, most people he told about his powers didn't really believe it existed). That meant he faced very limited prospects of ever making much of his life or seeing the wider world. So when he graduated high school and found out that someone had created an island where other people with powers lived, he saw it as a way out (without really knowing what he was expecting to be going to).

    To make it a bit more interesting, though, he finds out with a bit of experimentation on the island that he can concentrate for a while and create a fixed point in time that he can return to later, but there are some limitations:

    1) When he goes back in time, he will remember everything that happened the first time he lived this period of time, but things will not necessarily happen exactly the same on the second run through. People will tend to behave the same and make the same decisions, but any truly random factors are random on the second run through - so going back and buying a lottery ticket won't work.

    2) He will only be able to return to the fixed point he creates for a certain period after its creation. How long this lasts depends on how long he spends prepping / creating the point, so while there might be no theoretical limit on how long the point might last, there are very definite practical limits. The prep time needed to extend how long the fixed point will last increases exponentially. for example, using some very easily tweakable numbers:

    - i minute prep lasts 5 minutes
    - 2.1 minute prep lasts 10 minutes
    - 21 minutes prep lasts 1 hour
    - 1.5hr prep lasts 2 hours
    - 5 hr prep lasts 3 hours
    - 16 hr prep lasts 4 hours, etc

    So realistically the "fixed point" aspect of the power would only really be used in specific pre-planned situations, and even then you're probably only talking about going back minutes.

    If something bad happens he can't decide at that point to go back in time to prevent it, unless he happened to have created a fixed point far enough back to prevent it, that hasn't already expired (extremely unlikely unless he knew in advance something was likely to happen).

    Also, once he goes back in time, his "fixed point" is used. He could create another one straight away, but this would require the prep time again. In other words, he can't use his power to keep reliving the same period over and over again.

    He can 'bunny hop' back in time a few seconds at a time using the aspect of his power that doesn't need advance prep, but every time he does that it will use up some of his energy which will run out before he's managed to go back more than a minute or two.

  6. Super-powered character: Ex-jockey Malcolm Archer loved horses, even after his career-ending injury. He would spend every available moment with his beloved equines, whether it was riding them for enjoyment, teaching horsemanship or even mucking out their stables. He always had a good rapport with them, but when he gained powers that took on whole new levels. He could converse with them and make them perform better than they physically should be able to. His skills went beyond horse-whispering though, as he was able to modify them physically, for performance and aesthetics. It could have been his route back into professional horse racing, but it seemed wrong to him. Not only was it an unfair advantage, but he no longer felt as at ease with riding his friends as a mode of transport or a sport. It turns out, as they assured him, they didn't particularly like it. But the arrival of Atlantis gave him a new possibility…

    Fauna: Archer created… the unicorn. A small herd of these proud, intelligent beasts now exists on Atlantis in the care of Archer.

    Normal human: Wilhelm Metzger is not a nice man. He was an apprentice under Mengele in WW2 and secreted away by the US government after the war ended to assist in their researches. He was always fascinated by the seemingly limitless potential of humankind, something borne out with the emergence of the superhumans. He travelled to Atlantis to study and to escape the 'unreasonable' restrictions imposed on him by the US government and by his refugee status.

  7. Kev and Stef, I'm loving these ideas... thanks so much for mulling this over. When my brain is back in gear I'll try and pull this together some more. :-)