Campaign Setting 1: Looking for Themes in Alt Modes

Well, I’ve established what I want to do – I want to create a campaign setting for Starfinder, that focuses on the adventures of shape-changing alien robots inspired by the Japanese shape-changing robot toy boom of the ’80s, and the American franchises that followed them. It’ll be set on an alien world, and the campaign setting will focus on D&D-like action adventure, putting the players in charge of their adventures as they seek fame, fortune, heroism and mischief.

That’s a concept, f’sure – but where to go next?

Beyond the general concept – sci-fi stories about alien robots – we need to really settle on some themes for this campaign setting. If we were to encapsulate all our adventures and setting into, say, a city or a small stretch of land, what is the story about that place? Once we work that out, we can describe the people who live there… and perhaps more exciting, what kinds of things those people change into when they want to move about!

There’s plenty of ways to approach this, but flipping the above paragraph around might lead us into some interesting themes. If we think about things that our alien robots can turn into, what does that say about the place they live in, and what could that mean for the adventures within a campaign setting located there?

In this article, I’m going to highlight some alt-modes particularly popular with alien robot fiction, and then try and see if I can stir up some ideas for adventure themes and settings based around them. Then I can go away and think about which of these I like the most, and use those ideas as a foundation for the rest of the project.

This shouldn’t limit the actual adventures within this world – ultimately I want the players to choose and define characters that appeal to them and the adventures they seek, and whilst the setting might be full of police corruption, military invasions, underground adventures and space exploration… they might just make four characters who want to punch Cthulhu in the face:


Clearly this party are ready for a night of Call of Cthulhu, but with robots.
(Source: Twitter, used with permission, check out Dave Reyn’s DeviantArt!)

So, what alt-modes shall we talk about?

Police Cars
Law enforcement officers are an easy setup for stories – both in general fiction, and in roleplaying groups. In this setup, it’s easy to imagine action sequences, there are clear good guys and bad guys, and from the perspective of the gamesmaster it is easy to give out plot to the players via superior officers. Law enforcement is an obvious candidate to start spinning the setting from – you can define gangs that are trouble for the police, or serial killers that they need to investigate, scummy bars that they need to observe, and so on and so forth. It’s an obvious candidate, right?

Well…. maybe. This is, after all, 2020 and the genre of police action has come under a lot of spotlight as a result of the way law enforcement is executed in many countries around the world. This has led to many people quite rightly questioning the media they consume when it comes to depictions of police and in particular police brutality; the current Transformers comic has been questioned for its portrayal of an otherwise ‘heroic’ Prowl using excessive force on a detainee, and Paizo have had to put out pretty series statements about their new adventure path Agents of Edgewatch.

None of this should entirely exclude us wanting to focus our setting on a police-centric story; and there are plenty of interesting adventures our players can find themselves in that depict the police in a positive or negative light, or both at the same time. Whilst we could have stories about the players as police officers, we could also have adventures where the players are private investigators who are ex-cops, or resistance fighters fighting against crooked cops, or just outright criminals fighting against cops (crooked or otherwise!).

My biggest reservation about such a focus though is that it all feels pretty real; when the news headlines are talking about government crackdowns in Hong Kong or people being shot in Wisconsin, who wants to spend time playing police cop? I don’t really feel equipped to create a setting that adequately addresses the complications of law enforcement with the required amount of sensitivity it deserves. Even writing this makes me a little nervous, to be honest. In another time, though, it would be a good base for a setting – and that’s why characters such as Prowl and Barricade keep coming back to Transformers fiction.

In the end, I think I’d rather a campaign setting felt escapist; so with that in mind, I think the police cars can take a back seat for this one.

Police matters are never black and white.

Ambulances
… but then why not look at other emergency services? What about stories that focus on medical staff, or even the fire service for that matter?

The medical service is an interesting concept in alien robot settings, because the line between healer and mechanic suddenly becomes blurred. If someone is an expert in auto-mobile maintenance, are they also a licensed medical practitioner? If someone can repair the robots in the party, can they also hack into the computer and deactivate that alarm panel? If someone makes a crack about what type of insurance a Transformer needs, will I sigh because that’s the seventeenth time I’ve seen that joke this week?

A setting that puts the spotlight on medical – or mechanic? – personnel would definitely ask a lot of interesting questions, and those can spin out into the lore of our aliens and thus suggest adventure hooks for the party. For example, if these alien robots are mechanical, are their lives like humans – they live until they die, and never comes back? Or are alien robot lives more complicated than that – could they come back if only the right mechanimedic shows up, replaces their old parts and reactivates them? If that said mechanical medical expert were to travel deep into an ancient tomb where the legendary hero of ancient times past, and find his body, could he bring him back to life to help bring his disunited people back together?

Such characters could also fill in for archetypes if we want to break from typical role-playing traditions, too. Most D&D-esque games have the role of healer be filled by religious or mystical types; and whilst sci-fi games do often move away from that, a setting entirely composed of alien robots lets us keep the concept from a gameplay perspective, whilst being very different in narrative terms. Healers are simply those who can help restore mechnical beings quickly through technological means, not through implausible holy intervention.

Finally, given the importance of healers in D&D, it might be interesting to see a setting that throws a medical institution into the centre of the story. Perhaps a well placed hospital puts out calls for crews of volunteers to venture out and find injured people in nearby hazardous or dangerous areas, rewarding them financially for their help? Which, again, sounds very similar to the common role of temples in D&D.

When exactly did Red Alert move away from Fire Services to Medical?

Military Vehicles
An easy option might be to focus on military vehicles; they are obviously attractive to a player, since their purpose in an adventuring party is pretty clear. Alien robot who turns into a tank, or a jeep, or a fighter-bomber has a simple role: that person is there to do a fight, and do a fight is the thing they will do.

If we let our setting focus on such characters, we’ll need to work out why these characters might exist in our world. Is our world war-torn? Was it at war centuries ago? Very recently? Still at war? At the brink of war?

Possibly my biggest reservation against military vehicles as a focus is they possibly drive our setting to one that is more atypical and well-trodden – in both RPGs, and in the kinds of stories told about alien robots. I like to think that RPGs might be more interesting and will give more freedom to the players if there isn’t a clear-cut war taking place, or overly obvious prejudices as the result of long wars heavily present in the foreground. I’ve also previously mentioned that I don’t really want the setting to be a faction vs faction setting, which is all too common in Transformers and GoBots shows and stories.

That pretty much means I want to put military vehicles in the background of my setting, not the foreground. I would still like to have the option of tank-bots and fighter-planes, I think they are a staple of the genre; but like police cars, I’d like them more in the background, rather than the foreground.

Obvious transparent picture of my coneheads.

Construction / Mining Vehicles
So here’s a thought – what if our heroes are the common working men and women, who spend their life deep in the mines?

When I was a wee lad, I had a game on the PC called Mines of Titan. This game wasn’t great – it was dated, even at the time, the game play was probably not great and there was a crash whenever you got to the good stuff in the game. But there’s a few things that really stuck with me in that game, not least of which was it’s central plot thread: the mines had been closed due to some sort of incident, the government were covering up the reasons, and a band of heroes (who would include miners) were going to look into things and find out what was happening.

Mines lend themselves well to classic hack n’ slash adventures – there’s barely any difference between a mine and a dungeon other than who constructed them. There could be anything lurking deep in those mines, as we’ve all learned from Fellowship of the Ring, and because our planet is probably made of metal, we have all sorts of interesting setting considerations to think about – what does a mine in a metal planet look like, and what are they digging for exactly?

Beyond that, there’s a wide variety of vehicles that are used for mining, so we have a variety of alt-modes we can immediately associate with the setting. Perhaps the most obvious is a driller; characters with drills for arms (or for heads!) have been showing up in alien robot fiction since the very beginning. However we should also consider dumptrucks, cranes, diggers, caterpillar trucks… not to mention something called a Bagger – boy researching mining vehicles is likely to result in some interesting alt mode concepts! We’d have to think about how mining is undertook in this world, and what kinds of vehicles (and people) are needed to work the mines.

That’s also not to say that all those who work in the mines need to turn into mining vehicles; workers might find themselves turning into mundane things like cars, too, but having characters turn into mining vehicles definitely gives some flavour.

I always think of Impactor as a drill tank… despite not having a drill. But hey he’s still a miner, right?

Summary
I’ve only considered four immediate options here, there’s plenty of other typical alt-modes we could consider that would suggest all sort of other interesting settings – monsters, spaceships, fighter jets… not to mention devices like guns, science equipment and spy tech. But just from thinking about four separate groups of alt-modes I’ve found I like two groups in particular – mining and medical vehicles, and pushes two other groups to one side. That not only suggests some story to our setting; a closed down mine, and a medical mission, but also says a lot about the tone I’m pushing for – less militant, less real life drama and politics, and perhaps more geared towards unlikely heroes than those that desired to pick up a weapon.

Next time I’ll want to get more specific about the alt modes I want to see in this setting as ideas start to take shape. I want these alt modes to essentially be integral to character creation, so they warrant specific discussion.

Until next time!

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