Caravel Island – On Playing a Game in a World You Create – Part 1

So, around a month ago and at the behest of a friend who’s been watching a lot of Harmonquest, I agreed to run a tabletop game for some of our local group. If you’ve never had the experience of being a GM/DM (game master, dungeon master – both interchangeable terms for the person in charge of keeping the game moving, knowing the rules, and so on), it’s quite a bit more than being the guy who happened to read the manual. Perhaps the most important part of such a role is that the GM is responsible for the story. 

You can buy modules – pre-built tales with encounters and such – for various settings, of course, but the moment-to-moment action occurring around the table has to be driven by you, the GM. This has so many parallels to creative writing that, really, you can almost think of one of these games as you sitting around a table with your characters and attempting to moderate their various levels of insanity.

In this post, though, I’m going to talk about how I arrived at a system for running the game. In other words, the laws that govern the setting and help the players accomplish their goals (or die trying).

First, a bit of description: Caravel Island is a fantasy setting, a world that I’ve fleshed out to a light degree (though I plan to dig deeper later), in which humanity, after generally ruling things for a number of centuries, has been ousted from power by a conglomeration of other species and magical beings. In the aftermath of humanity’s collapse, everything’s in flux, and the remnants of humanity’s forces are attempting a strategic retreat to a number of places. Including a large island that has, thus far, been left alone for mysterious reasons. It’s on a ship to that island, as prisoners, that the story begins.

For a novel, you could take that and just start typing away. For a game, though, there have to be some rules. Knowing the group of players, I didn’t want to take something so involved as D&D. While I like their setup, I thought it would be too much for the lighter level of questing we were looking to enjoy. I did not, for example, want to explain to someone who’d never tried a game like this before all of the various permutations of clerics. Why a halfling isn’t a great choice for a barbarian, and so on and so forth. I wanted something simpler. With a focus on story-telling and minimal, yet impactful, die rolls.

I’d also experimented with Fantasy Flight Game’s (FFG) Edge of the Empire Star Wars rule set, which strips a fair amount of complexity away in favor of what they called a “cinematic” story-telling system. Of course, most of their materials were based on a science fiction, heavily licensed setting.

So I tried to combine the two of them in creating this one. We’re using FFG’s dice and general form of encounters, skills, and other such things combined with a fantasy world. It all seemed ripe for disaster.

And yet, after the first session, I’m cautiously optimistic. My friends turned out to be savvy, heartless killers, but that they were able to do things well apart from what I anticipated and the whole thing held together is important. The best part of being a GM is seeing the players get immersed in the world and trying to keep up with them. It’s a kind of stressful high, with lots of laughter when people make decisions nobody, sometimes even themselves, see coming.

Without getting into the minutiae, the specifics of what I took and changed and created for Caravel Island wound up being heavily focused on combat/skill elements. I wanted to make skills accessible and relevant without making them obtuse or require lots of writing/erasing on scratch pads. As such, most are focused around arranging/rolling/rerolling dice rather than outside effects that have to be tracked and dealt with. In many ways, building these components felt like plotting out a novel. Getting to the core of what was necessary for the enjoyment and cutting away the fluff… then carefully adding back in that fluff that was important.

Anyway, if the opportunity arises for you to take on the role of a GM (though I’d strongly suggest giving these sorts of free-flowing games a try as a player first), you ought to give it a spin. It’s a unique experience, and one that really tests your ability to “pants” a story as your players invariably take your grand plans and ruin them.

I’ll be doing some more posts on various aspects of Caravel Island, including what does and doesn’t work, as the group continues their adventures. And if you have any questions on building one of these up yourself, feel free to drop me a line!

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