As I was writing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: The Official Series Bible, some folks had some doubts as to it’s viability as a roleplaying game setting. It’s a pretty linear story, isn’t it? Things wrap up pretty neatly at the end. And frankly, it’s a pretty bad movie. Since roleplaying game adventures based on movies and television shows are usually prequels or sequels to the original property, who would want to see a continuation of a bad movie?
Well, me, for a start. When I wrote about watching the writing, I talked about seeing the unfulfilled potential in a film. There’s always worldbuilding going on in works of fiction, whether the medium is a movie, a television show, a comic, or a novel. If writers and game designers can learn to see the worldbuilding going on even if bad movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, you can pour that knowledge back into making your own settings stronger.
A Setting Isn’t a Story
New York City isn’t a story. It’s a place where stories happen. It is a backdrop, but it has elements that not only allow stories to start, it provides obstacles and the means for stories to end. How? Okay, look at what happens in New York. It has a world-renowned theater district, television shows get made there, it’s the financial capital of the United States, it has history and tourism. There are rich people, poor people, people of every race and ethnicity. It has landmarks, it has traffic, it recently survived superstorm Sandy. That’s setting.
Drop a character with a motive in there, and you have story. Let’s use the old cliche of the kid who gets off the bus from the Midwest and wants to be a TV star. There’s a reason to be there. A lot of people have that dream. There’s competition. New York can provide that dream, so people go there. If you know New York, you can see how it warps the story. It sets up success, it provides bumps in the road, it sets up failure, it makes the characters suffer, and fight, and work.
The Starship Enterprise isn’t a story. It’s a setting. It’s where things happen, and it takes characters to where things happen. It establishes some rules and tells us some things about the universe. People can travel across space. They sometimes run into bad things, because the ship has weapons. The technology offers some implications, and ramifications. Drop that kid from the Midwest with the dream of being a TV star onto the Enterprise, and you have a very different story than you do with New York City. It offers different opportunities, different challenges, warps the story in different ways.
Think about how things work, how people dress, what technology or magic are present, how the vocabulary is different. There’s setting.
Let’s go back to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. How does the setting differ from the real world? Well, Santa allows reporters into his workshop, for one. There are Martians, for another. But that world of 1964 looks a lot like the real world in many ways. The Cold War is on. The United States has a space program. But there are also Martians. They have their own culture, different from ours. They eat food pills, and are educated by machines while they sleep. They have ships capable of interplanetary travel, which we’re still working on. In the cracks of those differences are stories. How are Cold Warriors concerned about Communists going to react to Martians? How will knowledge of Martian technology affect human technological development?
Then there are the key conflicts of the film. First, their technology has led to children becoming joyless automatons. That theme can be explored more. From our view in the 21sts century. I think we have some concerns about how our tech affects us as individuals and as a culture. The second conflict is the concern about cultural contamination. The nominal bad guy of the film is concerns about how human culture, in the form of Santa Claus and Christmas, will alter Martian society. There are a lot of stories there, then reverse it and consider the impact of Martian culture on Earth. Scrape off the silliness, and there’s a decent premise for a science fiction setting in there, with a lot more to be explored than is contained in the movie.
What’s the Emotional Hook?
Readers of a story, and players of a roleplaying game, have to be able to connect with the setting. New York is exciting, because there are things to do, but it’s also large and noisy and dirty and has a higher crime rate than most small Midwestern towns. I can relate to the emotions that stirs up. The USS Enterprise is exciting because it would be cool to travel in space, seek out new life, and all of that. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians grabs me because I love Santa Claus, I love the Cold War period of history, and I love science fiction that centers on first contact and the ramifications thereof. I these things are cool. They hook me emotionally. That means the setting is doing its job.
What’s the Thing of the Week?
If you’re using a setting for a one-off story or novel, this doesn’t matter. If you want to write a series of stories, like an ongoing comic book, a television series, or a roleplaying game campaign, you need to think in terms of formula. Every week, our would-be TV star goes on auditions in New York. The thing of the week is trying out for a show, a play, a commercial, something related to acting. Every week, the USS Enterprise orbits a new planet, heads into a new section of space, takes us to the next weird thing. Every week, there is a conflict arising from the difference between human and Martian cultures and technologies.
Where Are the Stories?
Setting isn’t the story, but it implies story. A good setting allows you to ask questions, and leaves you room to develop the answers. It offers plenty of choices for characters, and ways for them to succeed and fail in interesting ways. When you look for those elements in a story, you can pull apart the worldbuilding and begin to see how its done.