It occurred to me recently that there’s lots of lists of “inspirational media” out there that are supposed to help you improve your game. I’m guilty of this too, I’ve done it for Cyberpunk, fantasy games, and even Aquatic Summer! So how, exactly, are you supposed to use these inspirational resources? Let’s dive into it!
The Obvious Stuff
First up is, well, the setting details themselves. This is your nations, locations, cultures, characters, and plot concepts. This is where you’re pulling directly for inspiration to inform the where of your game or some of its details. The big thing here is to not just copy wholesale, sand off the numbers at least otherwise you run the risk of the players clicking more with the inspirational material’s content than yours.
Next are monsters and opponents. These are super straight forward ports of what you’re seeing on the screen to the system you’re using at the table. This can be challenging in the sense that you may need to invent some powers to make them work.
The Finer Details
This is where it gets more complex. This is where you’re looking at the types of conflicts in the media you’re using. The political, interpersonal, environmental, and external conflicts that are happening, and more importantly how they’re being facilitated and actioned. The trick here is to take notes deeper than “X betrays Y” or “the undersea avalanche traps the crew in their ship”. Look at how these things affect and are affected by the setting details you picked up on.
There’s also the equipment used in this category. This is a finer detail because a lot of shows explore the world and its challenges but only spare short blurbs of exposition for their equipment. But in a tabletop RPG, equipment is important. So look in the background, read between the lines, and check out the official sites, wikis, and whatnot to dig into the “how” and “what” of the equipment used. What’s the fuel/power source? Is it limited? What are the limitations of the equipment? How does that translate into the game and its atmosphere?
The Nitty Gritty
This is a big one, and this is where atmosphere and vibe live. Sure, these are immediately observable at the “Obvious Stuff” level, but it’s down here in the nitty gritty because it’s the hardest to pick up on the “how” it’s maintained. Especially in reference to conversion to the mechanics of the RPG of your choice. So this one has two aspects.
The first is “what is the actual atmosphere” and “what is the vibe”. These are important to nail down because if you want to use them or avoid them, you need to understand them. So look at all the societal and environmental factors that the media is using to create and maintain its atmosphere and vibe.
The second is system matching. This is the contentious part in the modern hobby, because multiple system tables are less normalized now than previously. But when you’re looking to match atmosphere and vibe, system matching can make the difference between an okay-ish deviation from the norm and an amazing experience that sticks out past the game’s end. The key here is to pick a system that has mechanics that match the atmosphere and vibe, and that will reward and work with the players as opposed to either running counter to it or ignoring them.
Aquatic Summer Movie Time
I finally broke down and watched Underwater (2020) this summer. I’d previously avoided it because the Black guy dies first and I’m so very tired of that trope, but it’s a major movie that matches this summer’s theme, so here we are. Overall I give it a 3.5/5, and it’ll probably be on my “infrequently rewatched but rewatched” list. Might even get the Tian Industries and Pontus Endeavors t-shirts because undersea movie merch is rare. But I digress. So using the loose criteria from above, what do I pull from that movie that I could use in an undersea campaign?
The setting is Earth, and about 20 Minutes into the Future. Things are higher tech than today, but not so much as to need a lot of suspension of disbelief. The primary setting is on a deep undersea drilling and research rig; the crew is international, the company (based on the name) appears to be Asian. There’s three chief opponents to the survivors on Kepler, the juvenile spawn, the deep ones, and the Cthulhu-esque monster. But surrounding that is the ultimate opponent: the ocean, and more specifically the depth their at and how that constrains their actions. Moving past that, I see that isolation is a major component; there’s no comms in or out, just at an interpersonal level, and that light plays a big part of the show, in that it’s limited and helps create the claustrophobic feel that the setting needs.
On the monsters, there’s a few finer points. The first is that they’re mythical to the station’s past crew; enough o have warranted murals in the dive room. They’re not friendly or interested in friendship or communication. They’re near the “utterly alien” category in terms of abilities, drives, and so on. They also appear to have senses outside the norm for us, but in spec of deep sea life. They don’t appear to have technology, and have been driven to act by the actions of Tian Industries. In a way, this can be seen as anti-colonial violence and is justified on their end; which may be a message to weave into the game.
There’s not much political conflict in the direct action, but there’s a lot of interpersonal and environmental conflicts, and the population is low. So that means that there’s an overarching political conflict (Tian Industries keeping going when they know something is happening/corporate malfeasance), but most of the conflicts are going to be down to the players and how they interact with each other and the few NPCs down there. So the main driver will be successfully escaping from the station, and the main challenges to that are unstable NPCs, monsters, damage to the station itself, and the depth of the ocean. The station is basically a reverse dungeon where they need to find the entrance/exit.
In terms of equipment, there’s a lot happening. There’s submersibles, escape pods, ADS (atmospheric diving suits), and a lot of mining gear. Included in that last category are single shot reloadable deep sea flare launchers (for lack of a better description), what appear to be some kind of rivet gun. There’d be lots of other tool type weapons and equipment around too, so that’s what’s going to be informing the equipment lists and availability for this game. It’s an industrial site first and foremost, and that’s going to be communicated. A key, absolutely key, piece of equipment is the ADS though; they have weaknesses (cracks in the helmet can cause explosive depressurization), limitations (oxygen scrubbers), and hazards (an audible alarm). All of which affect how they work and interact with the larger setting which in turn will influence how the players act and interact.
The next part, the atmosphere and vibe, are set beautifully by the opening credits and the opening scene. Watch them, it’s AMAZING.
The opening credits set up the vibe. It’s dark, mistrustful, and mysterious. There’s been repeated sightings of unknown beings. There’s corporate coverups. There’s unexplained accidents. More coverups. It establishes that while the core of the setting is going to be science fiction, there’s a dose of horror-survival and possibly even the supernatural happening in the background that’s going to drive a lot of the action. It also does a great job at subconsciously prepping the viewer for the tech, layout, and baseline of the setting.
The opening scene is some in medias res action; not a great choice in my mind, but it is solid at communicating a few things: the players will be completely reliant on the tech around them for survival. Building from the atmospherics in the opening credits, it shows that it’s also a high stress, quick time event, and violent setting where if things go wrong, they go really wrong, really fast. This is the missing piece to the vibe set in the opening credits.
So in terms of atmosphere and vibe, what I’m looking at is a tight, claustrophobic setting that works to constrain the players environmentally and that makes things that are conventionally comforting, like lights, into a hazard and contributor to the stress. This isn’t likely to be a long-term campaign, but definitely more than a one shot, even across a few sessions. The goal is not to defeat the final boss, but rather to escape.
The final challenge is system matching. The immediate temptation is Blue Planet or Polaris; they’re both aquatic settings to start with, but they’re also really well established settings and that’s a speedbump I don’t want to deal with. So after some thought I came down to one of two systems. The first is R. Talsorian Games’ Interlock system or their older Fuzion system; Cyberpunk 2020 and RED are primed for supporting an Underwater type game, 2020 in particular with its ACPA mechanics. Fuzion, a system related to Interlock, would be a bit of heavy lifting, but it would work well too as it has the technological supports and bits I need to make it work while maintaining the atmosphere and vibe. The alternate is FATE Core; Underwater (2020) wasn’t deeply hung up on the hard science end of things, and with the right group, FATE Core could work very easily. But my first choice is either Interlock or Fuzion, primarily to reinforce that science fiction aspect. I think that if I’m integrating it into an existing game, we’re going Cyberpunk 2020 or RED, and if it’s a stand alone? Fuzion or FATE Core.
Using media to inspire your own games and content is a practice as old as time, but not one we really talk bout much outside the legalities of copyright and trademark. So looking at how to actually use it is important. This isn’t the last Aquatic Summer article, so watch for more right up to the finale on the 23rd of September!