Here in a few weeks, I’ll be firing up a new campaign based on The Expanse (books/TV/RPG), so this has gotten me thinking about “using someone else’s setting” quite a bit. This is an especially potent concept for The Expanse. There are (as of this writing) eight books with a 9th coming in 2020. There are also 4 seasons of TV available to stream on Amazon Prime. In addition to all this, the deep origins of the setting come from an RPG that Ty Franck ran for Daniel Abraham and some other friends. The reason I mention Ty and Daniel specifically is that Ty created the setting we now know as The Expanse and Daniel was one of his players. They’ve teamed up to create the pen name “James S.A. Corey” to write the novels.
Green Ronin Kickstarted their version of The Expanse RPG, and as I type this, the books are in transit to my house. To say that I’m “excited” for the arrival of this material is a weakness of the English language. To say that I’m “nervous” about doing the setting justice is also a weakness of the English language.
How am I going to handle these nerves and excitement? I’m going to work with my group to make it “Our Expanse” while we’re at the table together.
Make It Your Own
Any experienced author will tell you that their words are no longer theirs once the book is published. The words belong to the reader. They get to make of the words what they will. There is no wrong interpretation, but there are many right interpretations, including the author’s.
This means the author (or in this case, the team of game designers) has their intents and purposes for the game, but when the game hits each table out there in the world, the gaming group gets to turn those intents and purposes to their own game. This means they are making it their own. This is part of releasing a game into the world. Again, there is no wrong interpretation of the setting, but there are as many right viewpoints on the setting as there are gaming groups playing the game.
How do we interpret an existing setting? That’s a hard question to answer because we all bring numerous perspectives, backgrounds, traumas, loves, dislikes, and angles to the table. This means there are many ways to interpret the setting that’s published in the game (or on TV or in a series of novels).
The first step is to understand (as best you can) what currently exists in the existing canon. This is fairly easy with a “small” body of work like The Expanse. If you take on Star Trek, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, or another large property, then things get more difficult. Don’t try to absorb it all. That pathway leads to insanity and a huge waste of time. The best thing to do is to focus on what’s in the game book(s). This is what the creators of the game wanted you to focus on, so it’s probably a good idea to follow their lead.
The second step is to find a place to drop your personal story and characters. This is the sweet spot because you’ll make this area your own for you and your players. This is where you’ll make your changes to the setting to fit your needs.
Once you’ve identified your target, dive deep into that area. Absorb even more than you already have, but avoid rabbit holes of research that can lead you astray from your target. (To quote a famous space battle scene, “Stay on target.”)
At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article because of their “low or zero prep” philosophies. I agree with their approach to some extent, but this is more research than prep work. Yes, this can be time consuming, so don’t go overboard. Make sure you have index cards or some other note taking method handy. You’ll want to call out page numbers, references, and brief snippets of brilliance that you find. You’ll also want to note what you intend to change or use in the setting.
Once you have this knowledge at hand, note the changes or shifts you want to make. You’ll want to create a brief list of bullet notes for the players to let those “in the know” what’s going to be changed. Also, during your session zero, you’ll want to explicitly call out that there will be changes and that if some “misinformation” about the setting is used, then it will become “canon at the table” for this particular game.
Here’s where a problem arises. If you’re using a setting that has deep lore (see my list above) or has been around a long while, then there is a risk that a player at the table will know more about it than you. This happened to me in a Dresden Files game I ran. I’ve read the books, the short stories, and seen the TV show (no comment on that last one). However, my brain doesn’t hold the massive amounts of knowledge and information contained within that lore. There were many things I got wrong or didn’t have answers to.
There are two approaches for this player.
The first is the least desirable. This approach is to shutdown the player and let them know that their intense depth of knowledge isn’t helpful in the game. This allows you to run the setting as your own, but it will also alienate your player(s) who have this knowledge. It does allow for more freedom, but it’s making use of something valuable within your game.
This leads to the second option. Lean on the player. Make it known that your knowledge is lacking. Admit to the group that you’ll welcome input and advice on how to handle the setting. Also let them know that you get the final call on how things will go in the game at the table. Once these two “ground rules” are in place, don’t be embarrassed about turning to the player for help with getting the little details correct. This will empower the “know-it-alls” and bring them deeper into your game.
Relax. Someone else may have created the setting, but this version belongs entirely to your group. Own it. Make it your own and interpret the setting as you see fit.
Most of all.
Enjoy the setting!