Aquatic Summer has been a great go, but this is its final week as summer wraps up! So the last article in this great project will be about one of the parts of running a game that doesn’t get covered too much. The transition between thematic settings.
This is something that happens most often when a group is using the same characters across multiple adventures/campaigns. The transition takes place when they move from one environment to another, where they’re not as well suited. And it’s one of the biggest obstacles that GMs and players alike face when considering a campaign in a thematic setting. Why? Optimization.
The Optimization Trap
This isn’t what you might think it is. It’s common for players to optimize their characters with the right skills and equipment for the adventure they’re on. That’s perfectly normal. But when the player characters are operating in an extreme environment for a prolonged period of time, it gets into sunk cost territory and players become less willing to explore outside their optimal zone. Ironically, prolonged operation in a “conventional” environment has the same effect, with players often seeing any kind of long term (more than one or two sessions) in an extreme environment as being too much. The key here is that it’s about perception more often than actual mechanics. People get used to a specific visualization of their characters, and can also get used to a narrow or expected application of their character’s abilities. Again, not something out of the norm, but it can be challenging when trying to bust out of a comfort zone to do something new.
To approach this, what I do as a GM is normalize the use of different loadouts by players. Some games, especially ones like Pathfinder or D&D, tend towards a single “best” set of equipment; best weapon, best armour, best spells etc… And for certain types of adventures and campaigns, this is fine! But by emphasizing the utility and practicality of different loadouts, as a GM I found my players are more willing to try different things because their conceptualization of their characters was expanded. It was channeling their optimization from one package into multiple ones based on what they’d be doing and what they’d likely be up against.
New Spaces Need Connectivity
One of the big sins of world building is silo-ing, or atomized design. This is where locations in a setting are created with little or no connective tissue; they’re effectively islands or the patches of a patchwork quilt. And this makes getting players to try new places difficult. There’s no organic connections to encourage or interest them in other places save for “adventure tourism” style one shots. This is even more pronounced when you mix in extreme environments like aquatic, jungle, arctic, or desert ones.
To address this, what I do as a GM is use transitional spaces as much as possible. These are locations where players can jump into multiple environments depending on their interests and what the GM has set up. For aquatic campaigns, port cities or towns, towns or cities in river deltas or at forks, all kinds of places like these offer a mix of aquatic, air, and land elements for the GM to use. Even a high tech undersea facility can offer multiple locations and types of adventure; external ops in suits and subs, internal stuff in “regular” gear, and mining areas with mining equipment all offer distinctive feeling experiences.
Make Movement Organic
Going into and back from a distinctive setting needs to feel organic to the players. And by that I mean it’s not a jarring clean break. This dips into “travel” as a thing again in games, past simply “we ride four days to X” or “catch a flight to Y”. And this means transitional travel vignettes. These don’t have to be full sessions or anything, just a natural bridging event that the player participate in to help link where they were to where they’re going so the world feels connected. This can be anything from a random encounter involving challenges from the different areas happening at the same time, to a travel “experience” (missing luggage, airport shenanigans, other quick events), to some fun slice-of-life scenes involving skill checks associated to the location they’re leaving and headed to.
By doing this, the players get a feeling of bridging and connectivity in the world. Another method to use here is cultural shifting. Within the narrative, descriptions, and encounters (hostile, friendly, or neutral) of the setting transition, show that things are changing. Food, clothes, religion, greetings, and all that good culture stuff all shifts as you move around. Even within a larger setting with a theoretically monolithic culture, there will be differences between the coast, mountain, and plains subcultures. Lean into that to help form these connective links.
Above All, Keep it Fluid
I know I talked previously about not losing the unique aspects and challenges of an aquatic setting in the sauce of otherwise conventional adventures. Here’s where I say “your mileage may vary”. What’s most important is maintaining a level of fluidity and adaptability as a GM. Players are going to player, and trying to force them to do things just makes your life harder than it needs to be as a GM. If you find they’re not investing in the aquatic (or whatever environment) setting, don’t be afraid to ask why.
Science Fiction vs Fantasy Challenges
Interestingly, this is a challenge in different ways in each of these genres.
For science fiction, the challenge tends to be that unique settings are just stop over points. Convincing your players to have multiple loadouts is the easy part, because it’s part of the genre. You have space gear, deep sea gear, terrestrial gear, toxic environment gear… It’s all good. The work here happens for the GM. In space-based games, it’s the “site of the week” issue, the players are bouncing around so selling one location is tough in the timeframe you have to work with. In less travel heavy games, it’s a matter of doing enough world building to make a setting a place that the players want to stick around.
Fantasy is a different ball of issues. Fantasy settings are infamous for their silo style world building and for their “one perfect loadout” tendencies. So here, the GM not only has to do a lot of world building and narrative construction to get the characters to invest, they also have to get buy-in on the idea that optimization can be more situational.
One of the hardest things you can do as a GM is tie a world together, especially when you start mixing distinctive setting types. But it can be done, and the recognition of the how optimization can aid or hinder, the use of transitional spaces, and keeping things fluid and organic are some of the tools that can used for this. Aquatic Settings are where this all started, but this advice can work for desert, jungle, alpine, subterranean, and stranger places like elemental planes. I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s worth it for the increased immersion, higher investment, and variety that can keep a game interesting years after it otherwise would have gotten dull.