Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Importance of the Setting Bible

A recent screening of the Deep Space Ninepilot “Emissary” reminded me, in a roundabout way, of how a continuity bible remains essential in establishing a sense of setting with brief descriptions of characters, locations, and other elements necessary to operate in a fictional world.

The local film archive theater recently ran a double feature in its “Where No Shatner Has Gone Before” series of Star Trekmedia sans William Shatner. The feature started with the original cut of the Star Trek pilot “The Cage” followed by the Deep Space Nine pilot “Emissary.” While I enjoyed “The Cage,” remarkable for its time and with Majel Barrett’s subtle yet striking performance as Number One, the Deep Space Nine pilot reminded me of the excitement I felt when that series began way back in 1993. At the time I enjoyed watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when my busy, early-professional schedule allowed, buying books about the Trekuniverse and otherwise immersing myself in it. I’d been publishing my first game-related articles and seeking inroads into the roleplaying game industry. When Deep Space Nine aired I found yet another universe in which I wanted to game. So I did what any gamer would do…create their own game using a familiar engine and cobble the setting together with material gleaned from the television show and available continuity resources.
The game itself still resides in its loose-leaf binder on my game shelf, in the section now reserved for the host of Star Trek-themed games I’ve acquired over the years. It’s not impressive at all…mostly a re-skinning of R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 game engine (a favorite of our gaming group at the time) to the Trek universe, with some innovations from my then-favorite first edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game and an original but not-terribly-impressive starship combat system. I even drafted two solitaire tutorial adventures for it plus a few other group scenarios I recall running for my gaming group (nothing particularly noteworthy). It gave our group several enjoyable gaming sessions and gave me a solid grounding in the Star Trek universe for future freelance game writing work on two versions of official Star Trek Roleplaying Games(by the late Last Unicorn Games and Decipher).

After the screening the other night I pulled out my old home-brew Trek game binder to reminisce about my gaming days of yore -- now 20 years in the past -- and discovered I’d later included some Deep Space Nine continuity materials I’d come across. The cache includes photocopies of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Bible (Revised), typewritten, double-spaced, dated 1992; a much more graphically refined technical primer for the series (also dated 1992); and a host of press materials promoting the series, with background for the series, a “fact sheet,” glossary of terms, and bios on all the actors and their characters. I don’t know how or where I found these photocopies, probably after I joined West End Games in July 1993 and started attending gaming and science fiction conventions to promote The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal (which I established and edited) and the company’s classic and much-loved Star Wars Roleplaying Game using the D6 System. I don’t remember if I got them from West End’s archives, fellow staffers, a friend who knew my interest in the series, a convention dealer, or colleagues in other companies. (I cannot imagine I received them as continuity materials for either Trek-related roleplaying game freelancing I did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for by then Trek references in print were easily available and quite comprehensive.) At the time -- and in conjunction with the then-print source material resources -- the bible notes stood as an excellent example of the basic information a fictional universe needed for players to game there.

What struck me reviewing the material today is how well both the series bible and the press releases summarized the universe, its inhabitants, locations, and potential conflicts. It reminded me the important role a setting bible plays, even for small projects. (The technical primer was quite detailed but not terribly concise.) Roleplaying game settings benefit from this treatment when introducing new players to less-conventional settings, or even new settings based on familiar clich├ęs. Publishers developing games and seeking freelancers find setting bibles easy ways to bring new writers up to speed on what they’ve already developed and the overall tone of the game line.

The Deep Space Nine source material reminded me of one aspect of the fantasy roleplaying game I have in development. I’m toying with a default regional setting, a borderlands area just beyond civilized lands rife with adventure potential. Though I have yet to draft a map based on the impressions in my head, I have some basic locations and concepts I’d like to develop as teasers, friendly allies, and potential adventure ideas. Just for fun, here’s a quick sample of my setting bible:
Greydeep Marches

This easternmost region of the Sverdboug Kingdom remains only marginally civilized for those seeking to setting within its borders. Two millennia ago the region formed the western border of a vast and wicked empire long since fallen into ruin, though vestiges of its power still lurk in dark forests, forlorn ruins, and subterranean labyrinths.

Greydeep River: The defining geographical feature of the Greydeep Marches, the river forms the western boundary of the wild lands annexed by the Sverdbourg Kingdom four centuries ago. Several tributaries trickle down from far-off mountain ranges (including the far-eastern Ostmaur Peaks) through Grimwald Forest, the northern steppes, and the fertile grasslands along the river. It serves as a natural obstacle preventing incursions from monsters and other denizens seeking to infiltrate the Sverdbourg Kingdom. Passage across at the bridge at Turmhaven or the Northern Ferry occurs under the watchful eyes of the Sentinel Knights and their agents. Swimming or rafting across remains a dangerous proposition due to unpredictable undercurrents, submerged hazards, and the river’s great breadth.

Turmhaven: The largest city in the Greydeep Marches remains the only point where a bridge spans the river. Situated on the western shore of the Greydeep River, it technically sits just outside the border territory as defined by the river’s westernmost flow. The city serves as the capital of the borderlands and the seat of the elderly Duke Latikov of Sverdbourg, Warden of the Border Marches and cousin to the younger King Rusicus. His slowly deteriorating castle  stands on a promontory high above the river.

Keep of the Sentinel Knights: Across the bridge from Turmhaven on the borderlands shore rises a turreted castle, the headquarters of the Order of the Sentinel Knights. All traffic between Turmhaven and the Greydeep Marches passes through the keep’s gates, subject to inspection and interrogation by knights or their agents. Pairs of armored knights and their crossbow-wielding sergeants patrol the marches as couriers, justices, and guardians, making circuits between Turmhaven and the borderland’s major towns and villages every month.

Northern Ferry: The broadest point of the Greydeep River also serves as the only place safe enough to operate a ferry, though the crossing often takes an hour each way. A small settlement on the western shore provides amenities for travelers. A tower and reinforced timber-frame house serve as a post from which a Sentinel Knight and her sergeant monitor traffic traversing the river.

Grimwald Forest: This dark wood forms the eastern border of the Greydeep Marches and a buffer against the foreboding Ostmaur Peaks to the far east. In the earliest days of settlement colonists from the Sverdbourg Kingdom cut the forest back, but in recent years the dark trees and lurking underbrush have crept back. Few venture within for it harbors bands of hostile humanoids and fearful monsters bent on claiming these lands for themselves.

Redmount Hills: These iron-rich hills rise from the grassy plains between the river and Grimwald Forest, providing an ideal enclave for several reclusive dwarven  mining communities and a source for ores refined and exported to Turmhaven under a grant from the Duke.

Silverfrost Forest: The northernmost lands under the Duke’s domain in the Marches, the vast pine forest serves as an elven enclave. Separated from Grimwald Forest by cold, barren steppes, the Silverfrost offers elves a secluded and bountiful home.

Greenfields Township: This central town serves the surrounding countryside (known as Greenfields), an enclave for halflings and other farmers living in the relative safety of the Greydeep Marches’ western border with the Sverdbourg Kingdom. Several smaller villages and manors dot the landscape with a few days’ ride of the township.

Ragged Coast: The western bank of the Greydeep south of Turmhaven opposite the Croaking Swamp consists of cliffs with occasional harbors for small fishing villages. The region sees some maritime traffic along the river and coastline to other ports in the Sverdbourg Kingdom

Croaking Swamp: Although the Greydeep River remains a navigable waterway in the west along the Ragged Coast, some of its waters meander off into the vast marsh, depositing silt, growing stale, and nurturing a tropical boggy habitat. The swamp gets its name from the constant noise from innumerable reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and the bubbling marsh gas.

The setting has a few more equally brief but hopefully evocative locations to inspired adventures and pique player interest, all awaiting time and attention to find their way to the page. Now all I need is time to draft a map…and ultimately a good artist to bring it to life in an appealing style.