Friday, January 09, 2009

My Problems with a Mostly Modern Setting

Almost done reading through Mage. The main item I've got left is the Boston mini-setting in the back, and then there's some legacies and merits and things that I'll read in more detail later. (It's unusual for me to read a new RPG book as thoroughly as I've been covering these new World of Darkness volumes, I'm usually a lot more haphazard about it. But it's an entirely new system and I've got a lot of time on my hands, and I'd like to do a thorough appraisal before I get back to school and start playing.) So far, I like what I see. The system's spiffy, I'm starting to get this whole "themes" thing, and there's an amusingly large number of references to dungeon crawling -- I mean, exploring Atlantean ruins. Right.

The one thing that's keeping me from enthusiastically throwing myself into running the thing is the setting. Not that it's bad -- for "secret modern occult politics" it's quite good, and I like what I've read of it so far. But it's still modern, and it's still a pre-made setting. Both of those things make me nervous.

I've never run a modern game. The closest I came was when I ran a session of Feng Shui where the characters helped President Harrison Ford fight Nazi ninjas. I've run post-apocalyptic cyberpunk, a fair amount of fantasy, and a brief, ill-fated space campaign, but never anything even close to real world modern. I don't write much realistic (or even semi-realistic) fiction, either. I've started giving it a little more attention lately, but for a long time I just wasn't comfortable writing anything set in anything remotely resembling the normal, modern world. Even if it was supers or something, the real world parts would trip me up.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it makes me wonder if I can do a decent job with Mage as written. What if there's a real, good reason I've avoided running a modern game all these years? What if being uncomfortable with it throws off my game? What happens if, three sessions in, I decide I can't handle it?

Pushing myself out of my comfort zone could be a good thing. But the other problem with the setting is simply that there is one. All but one of my campaigns have used more or less custom settings. I did once run a game in the Diamond Throne, but I completely changed the geography, significantly altered the history, and didn't use several of the races. It's a habit that worries me, because while there's a lot I can do to alter the magical parts of the Mage setting, I'm a lot more limited in geography, history, culture, and most other major things I could change, if its still going to look vaguely like the real world.

The set up does have its advantages. Everyone has more or less the same baseline knowledge of the world: like ours, but darker. I don't have to do much in the way of pre-game explanation to allow everyone to make characters that fit. And there's a lot of material already out there. I can use maps, neat history facts, and locations from the real world, even with a few minor modifications.

But I haven't quite been able to convince myself. I'm still wondering if I should put the effort in and whip up a neat little dark fantasy or cyberpunk world or something, give myself a little more room to breath, a setting more like I'm used to. The only problem with that is that, at the moment, I don't have enough to hang a game on. If I already had some crazy cool idea that would work with the system, I'd be sketching it out without giving it this much thought. Trouble is, I don't have anything like that already, and despite my misgivings about running Mage "straight" I don't know that it'd be worth the effort and risk to try to force a more unique setting.


  1. Something to remember for you - modern settings are best done at a very fast pace. It's a huge problem that d20 Modern wrestled with for years because the d20 system doesn't lend itself well to that kind of combat.

  2. Ugh... as a long time WoD player I advise you to leave Mage the Awakening on the shelf and look at Mage the Ascension from the old series. Mage was my favorite game back in the day and I had high hopes for the new one only to have them dashed against the rocks and split asunder. The system is frustratingly clunky now, and they removed all the mystery of magic. Now there's this watchtower garbage and a set-in-stone history of how magic came to be which I think runs counterpoint to the whole purpose of it being &**## MAGIC!!!

    New World of Darkness (in my opinion) did Vampire really well, werewolf not so well, Mage was horrible, Promethian wasn't so appealing, Changeling is great, and Hunter is excellent. The system is tight so it has that going for it, I'd perhaps say that it's the best system on the market today, especially when it comes to gritty realism. Scion has a very poor system that's quite unbalanced, but the setting is a thing of beauty, if they incorporated the Scion background into Mage I think they would have created a much better game.

    I understand your misgivings about modern settings, it's hard to play in a true-life modern setting because the systems and structures in place that make our lives stable and safe make games somewhat boring, moving past that and maintaining the integrity of the setting is a balance I struggle with. Old mage was good in a way because all the antagonists were comitted to maintaining the status quo, and the PC's were the revolutionaries, that meant that as a PC you could cause all sorts of trouble and it was the bad guy's job to clean it up, not yours. The setting maintained it's self. New mage seems more about justifying it's painfully contrived mythos than standing for anything glorious... but that's just my opinion.

  3. I don't know much about Mage or Chicago, but I've run the occasional modern game.

    I'd recommend meeting things halfway and setting the game in the modern world, but far away.

    Forget Chicago. Put them in Moscow, or a village in Darfur, or Phnom Penh.

    Hope that helps.

  4. To help you get into a comfort zone, you could always set the campaign somewhere you already know. It gives you a 'pre-generated' setting that you can alter to your heart's content, and which is very flexible thanks to the inclusion of the supernatural.
    It would also lend it's self to steam-punk/cyber-punk additions, which I agree are something that could work very well in WoD.

  5. Hammer has the right, and quite constructive reply.

    Because of my love of Urban Fantasy, I used GURPS to run a lot of supernatural modern campaigns that worked amazingly well.
    (N)WoD is only really different in that it gives pre-packaged idea of the World of Darkness.

    You can make it your own, chop here, paste there, change global politics, or stay completely contemporary. Also, the Worlds are their own, well, for lack of a better term, Worlds. You can change them in some ways and leave the Human world contemporary.

    I understand your misgivings about running a modern game. But it many ways, it just like every RPG you've mentioned. In fact, I promise that you'll have an easier time adjusting. A lot of new players come to WoD having only playe D&D 3.5 (or 4th) and just lose the game because it is a social game at its core. Just take what the give you and let your mind/imagination do its thing. I'm sure you'll come up with something and it'll be a blast.

    But if you want some inspiration from novels, I reccommend:

    Jim Butcher: Dresden Files (a must read period, but great for Mage)
    Kat Richardson: Greywalker series
    Simon R. Green: Nightside series
    Rob Thurman: Cal and Niko series (Nightlife, Moonshine, Madhouse, and a new one comes out in March - Death Wish)
    Patricia Briggs: Mercy Thompson novels (great for Forsaken)

    Caitlin R. Kearnin's modern stuff is great

    Charles Stross: The Jennifer Morgue (I haven't read it yet, but I have heard good things from friends)

    Karen Chance to some extent
    Talia Gryphon perhaps.
    Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Chronicles for a different, more Romantic(ish) feel - still lots of fun action and mystery.

  6. If you want to dip your toes in the water of modern campaigns but don't want to leave your comfort zone completely, perhaps a short adventure where the modern heroes are thrown back into ancient/olde times would work for you.

  7. I've had similar problems with modern settings. I think the best advice I ever got on the subject was just, "Don't sweat the small stuff." The setting is an alternate universe after all, with Atlantis and vampires and whatnot, so if some details don't seem right, you can always call it a side effect of this alternate history, right?

    I used to invent fictional cities, much in the vein of DC's Metropolis and Gotham City, in order to avoid 'gotcha' moments where the players know more about local geography than I do. If there's a location you know well but your players don't, you can avoid that little worry; if it's a place they've seen in movies but not in real life, like say NYC or LA, you've got the advantage that a lot of description and flavor is already in their heads, but everyone knows that movies don't get geography right, so nobody will be looking too closely. Alternately, you could choose an exotic location that neither you nor your players have seen in real life. I quite enjoyed a Vampire/Changeling crossover campaign that was set in a really unconvincing London.

    Another handy trick is the "five minutes in the future" setting, where the world is as similar to reality as you want it to be, but things like technology, pop-culture, and politics can be mutated however you like. In a nice variation on this approach, a friend of mine ran a short but awesome Mage (Ascension) campaign set in a dimensional fragment that was an imperfect copy of Boston - but the players didn't know that at first. In fact, i don't think they figured it out during the whole campaign - they just couldn't account for the weirdness until it was all over and he explained it.

    Having said all that, I have to admit the idea of a dark medieval version of Mage: the Awakening would be awesome. If you do any work in that direction, let us know please!

  8. Viriatha: I had an okay time with d20 Modern back in the day (when I ran that cyberpunk/postapocalyptic campaign) but I tended to play it fast and loose rather than strictly by the book. I could see it easily turning into a nightmare if I ran it on a grid and paid attention to opportunity attacks and everything.

    Tony: Old Mage does look intriguing, especially now that I'm paying more attention to White Wolf stuff on forums and such. Before that, I mostly just had a vague impression of it being anti-science, which was kind of a turn off.

    Roger: Ooh, sounds fun. I'm leaning towards something like that or making up my own city, haven't decided yet.

    Hammer: I really want to bolt on some cyberpunk to nWoD. I did it with d20 Modern, and had a blast. I need to get a better grasp of the system first, but its on the list.

    John: I really need to get to a library. Been planning on doing it all year, but that looks like a really good list.

    Tony Law: I'm thinking about going a bit Stargate on the campaign and letting them get a hold of some kind of portal type artifact, to facilitate just such a sort of adventure. (And all the problems that go along with it.) If I end up running Mage, that is. Still haven't committed.

    OdRook: Weird alternate universe sounds like a good way to go. I'll probably end up doing something along those lines.

    Dark fantasy Mage is another project on the "someday" list, as well as my mad plan to combine all the nWoD splats into a twisted parody of D&D. It'd definitely be a different kind of fantasy world.

  9. Even though there are already fantastic elements that should indicate to your players that this is not the world they know, something ever-so-subtle but noticeable could help to reinforce that, and avoid any of the "gotcha" moments that OdRook mentions. Your own post gives a great idea, what about Harrison Ford as the governor of California rather than Arnold? You could make a few other changes of that variety, then anything one of your players thinks you got "wrong" is just setting vs. real world.

    We did a podcast on getting players to go modern, but I don't think it would have much for the GM worried about going modern.

    Hope this all turns out well!

  10. It was a nightmare for me. My boyfriend is a huge 3.5 fan mostly for the combat options so... yuck.

  11. Accidental Fraiser: That sounds like a much better universe. And one that my players would happily accept. I might put a couple personal touches on history, too, so I don't have to worry about botching that.

    Viriatha: Totally hear you. I loved d20 years, but I get really bored in combat. That's one of the reasons I switch to GMing so early -- more to do. So I tend to run games where there's more to do than combat, and don't take it too seriously when it does come up.

  12. I think the most fundamental difference between fantasy and modern settings is that fantasy tends to be organized spatially...battle maps, dungeons, going off on adventures...while modern settings are organized event happens, followed by another event, followed by a twist, followed by a resolution of sorts...etc. In modern settings, there is instant communication, massive access to information and easy travel all over the place, so the characters aren't "adventurers" so much as investigators, enforcers, spies, revenge-seekers, or what have you.

    I would try to avoid the trap of defaulting to dungeoneering scenarios (poking through ruins, haunted houses, and extra-dimensional spaces) instead putting the focus on relationships with NPCs. WoD doesn't do adventure gaming as well as D&D, and the games I've played in that followed that path have been both boring and short-lived.

  13. Tim Jensen: Very true about the organization. I will add that my long running campaigns have tended to start out spatial/location based and and turn into revenge soap operas/love stories/whatever. I've never even done much in the way of dungeon crawl, though I've got my eye on a running a megadungeon campaign someday.