Tabletop Tuesday — Deck of Worlds, or “What to do when your idea well dries up before a session.”

Right now, I’m narrating three campaigns, though one of them is in a holding pattern. I’ll be running a Mutants & Masterminds one-shot for an upcoming charity play (check out Bag of Giving, by the way), and I’ve got two Star Trek Adventures campaigns ongoing, like I mentioned last week. And while I’m generally Mr. Plan Ahead when it comes to being a narrator, sometimes a session looms, and I look at my notes for ideas and nothing seems good.

And I can’t think of anything else, either.

Now, one solution that I 100% endorse is picking up some pre-written adventures for any system you’re running a game for. I have a half-dozen M&M adventures in my back pocket just in case I hit a wall, and I’m going to be running one of those Astonishing Adventures for Bag of Giving, but sometimes, nothing lands right, feels like it will set the right tone, or you want to create something new and only have one piece of the puzzle.

When I hit that point with gaming—and even with writing, too, since I’m an author and the same thing happens sometimes when it’s time to start a new project—I have a couple of boxes I reach for, both put out by The Story Engine. One is the initial product, the Story Engine itself, the other is the newer release, Deck of Worlds, and that’s the one I’m going to talk about today.

Pick a Card, Any Card

At its core, the Deck of Worlds is a set of cards broken up into six categories: Region cards (think of these as a major terrain type), Landmark cards (a geographical point of interest), Namesake cards (which you can add to Region cards or Landmark cards to name a location), Origin cards (which bring up a key moment of the location’s past), Attribute cards (which gives you insight into the present day of the place), and then Advent cards (which points out how things are progressing toward a future). Just by drawing one of each, you create a setting, and even better, that setting comes with a prompt or two built-in that’s just perfect for a RPG session.

Let me walk through an example, drawing only from the Worlds of Chrome and Starlight set, as though I was sitting down to create an adventure for one of my Star Trek Adventures games, and see what happens. For my Region, I get “Crater(s),” so maybe we’re talking a moon? That’s cool. The crew often visit moons in Trek, so that works.

I draw a Landmark next, and these cards each have two options on them (you tuck it half-under the previously drawn card, hiding the other half). My draw has “Factory” and “Observatory” on it, and I decide I’m going to go with Observatory, because I like science-based adventures, and I can imagine the crew finding out about whatever strange science thing is going on at said Observatory, or maybe even showing up there to find out why they’ve gone dark? Either way, Observatory it is.

Next comes a Namesake, and these cards have four options on them, around the edges, and you choose one and tuck it under either the Region or Landmark (or you can draw more if you want and do both), and my draw gives me four options: “Prime,” “…that warps,” “…of Data,” or “…of Drills.” As much as “Observatory of Data” or “Crater(s) that warp,” give me pause, I really like the idea of this being the “Prime Craters,” as that’s a name that says something major has happened here, and add in there’s an observatory here, too, and I’m intrigued. Maybe the rest of the cards will help me flush out just why this is an important first site, but if they don’t, I can always draw more.

An Origin card is next, and this is another card with four options. My first three choices are “Founded by hacker(s),” “Waypoint on an interstellar treasure map,” and “Never recovered from an economic crash,” which are all fine, but it’s the fourth one pairs perfectly with that whole “Prime Craters” feeling I liked: “Created by reckless experimentation.” Now, technically, the Origin card is supposed to be placed under the Landmark card, but I like this so much better for the craters, so I tuck it there instead, and already an idea is forming: whatever happened in that experiment, the fallout of it requires observation.

The Attribute card choices are another foursome where you pick one, and the options here are “Known for body modification(s),” “Wired directly into the source,” “Hiding spot of world-ending tech,” and “Irradiated landscape.” Either of those last-two sound great, but I decide “world-ending” is too high-stakes for the tone I want to set—I’d rather mystery and wonder than nail-biting danger—so I go with “Irradiated landscape,” which lends itself to the whole “something went very wrong with that reckless experiment” vibe.

Finally, it’s time for an Advent card, and here there are two options. The first, “An anti-tech movement is rapidly gaining ground: due to a disaster, data leak, or fake study,” which would suit just fine given the circumstances—I could see said movement taking over the Observatory and trying to shut down any further experimentations, say—but then I read the other option: “Scientific impossibilities are being reported in the area: time anomalies, spatial warping, or gravitational fluctuations,” and hello! We have a winner.

Welcome to the Prime Crater Observatory

An image of the cards listed in the blog text; the Region card is covering most of the other cards, which are tucked beneath, showing their relevant slice of writing above, below, and to either side of the "Crater(s)" card.

At this point, I’m all set with a setting for my adventure, complete with a few initial roadblocks and plot hooks by virtue of the draws. The crew will be called to Prime Crater Observatory on a moon orbiting a Federation World with a history of war and violence. In the past, the moon was used as a testing ground for new weapon systems, and the devastation wrought by a subspatial weapon test gone wrong irradiated the moon. At the Prime Crater site, a weakness in subspace formed, and a small, shielded observatory was built to keep an eye on the anomaly, which mostly stayed quiet, but had a tendency to fluctuate during times of solar flare activity. Recently, the anomaly has started to show signs of further instability—and, more worrisome—growth.

The crew will need to come up with a way to compensate for the radiation, which keeps spiking—EVA suits, perhaps, or the Chief Medical Officer could buy them exposure time with a medical option—and once down in the Prime Crater Observatory, they’ll start to study the anomaly, and try to figure out just how big a threat it might be, and what is causing the instability, given the local star isn’t particularly active.

Now, a setting doesn’t an adventure make—after all, who or what is behind the anomaly acting up? Why now? But it’s a place to start—literally, it’s a place—and I’ll dive into some antagonists, NPCs, and conflicts next week in a follow-up post using the Story Engine deck to build the people and conflict into this adventure setting. See you next week, and in the mean-time, tell me your favourite idea prompt generators. Do you go for walks? Do you have a book, like the Writer’s Book of Matches? Story dice? Hit me with your favourites.

2 thoughts on “Tabletop Tuesday — Deck of Worlds, or “What to do when your idea well dries up before a session.”

  1. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Preprinted Adventures (or, “Store-bought is fine!”) | 'Nathan Burgoine

  2. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Throwing it Together (or… “I can barely keep awake…”) | 'Nathan Burgoine

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