The Alexandrian

One of the problems a lot of RPG sourcebooks have is that they don’t include enough practical, game-able material: The type of stuff that you can actually bring to the table and start playing with. Over the past few years, however, I’ve started leveraging a lot more utility out of my RPG setting sourcebooks by simply rolling back the clock.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain what I mean is by way of example.


Droplet - Eclipse Phase: Gatecrashing

In the Eclipse Phase universe, the Pandora Gates allow humanity to skip across the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds. The Gatecrashing supplement details a selection of the many worlds which lie beyond the gates, including the world dubbed Droplet.

One of the cool things about Eclipse Phase is that Posthuman Studios has licensed the entire game under a Creative Commons license. So if you want to follow along, you can download the Gatecrashing PDF for free from Rob Boyle’s site and follow along. (The section on Droplet starts on page 89.)

The core thing to know about Droplet is that it was once home to an intelligent race that humanity refers to as the Amphibs. The Amphibs gave rise to a technological civilization about 1 million years ago and then abruptly died out. They left remarkably durable ruins scattered all across the planet, but the most significant Amphib artifact is the titanic Toadstool:


This unique alien construct rises from the floor of a shallow ocean, just offshore from Davis Island, approximately 600 kilometers from the Droplet Gate. It is shaped like a mushroom with a stalk 80 meters in diameter, rising 90 meters above the ocean’s surface and extending 80 meters down to the ancient volcanic bedrock that makes up that coastline. Above this “stem” is a flattened ovoid, 460 meters in diameter and 110 meters thick. It is clearly artificial and seamless, made of unknown but sturdy composite materials. After detailed examinations, scientists now believe this structure is over a billion years old, likely established well before the evolution of the Amphibs, when Droplet itself was a much different planet. Despite its age, the Toadstool appears to be in perfect condition, as if it was created no more than a few years ago. Close scrutiny has revealed that its walls swarm with specialized nanotechnology that keep it in perfect repair, removing algae-like biological growths that would normally accumulate from the ocean.

Researchers also assume that these nanomachines— or some other unknown mechanism—are responsible for the fact that the stem of the Toadstool is only 200 meters from the shore despite a billion years of erosion and slowly shifting geology. Though the Toadstool has proven to be impenetrable to all forms of scanning, a careful examination of the underlying rock indicates that this structure is mostly hollow. So far, all attempts to gain entrance to the Toadstool have failed. The walls are made of exceptionally hard materials and repair themselves within moments of any damage being done. No one has been willing to use nuclear weapons or other similarly devastating means to breach this construct’s walls, since the goal is to get inside and not to destroy it. Extensive Amphib ruins have been found in the vicinity of the Toadstool. The native life forms clearly built a large city around it and considered the Toadstool important to their culture. There is no evidence that they ever learned more about it than transhumanity currently knows, but simple graphics of the Toadstool can be found on many of their items that were in daily use.

Amongst the Amphib ruins which surround the Toadstool there are also a number of ruins belonging to another extinct race known as the Iktomi. Gatecrashers have found Iktomi ruins all over the galaxy, but it’s quite unusual to find them on Droplet because the physical conditions of the planet are completely dissimilar to their other habitats. The most logical conclusion is that the Iktomi were just as fascinated by the Toadstool as humanity is. As with their other sites, however, the Iktomi appear to have vanished a few thousand years ago, leaving only their dream shells.

The other odd thing about the Toadstool is that async psi-sensitives find its proximity intensely unpleasant.


And that’s pretty much it as far as Droplet is concerned.

If you wanted to use Droplet in your campaign, one way of doing that, of course, would be to figure out what happens next: What is the secret of the Toadstool? Does it manifest its purpose in some terrible way? Are there hidden archives within the Iktomi ruins which might shed light upon it? And so forth.

These approaches, however, take only minimal advantage of the material found in the Gatecrashing supplement. The stuff you’re creating is certainly being built on the foundation of the material found in the sourcebook, but the active material — the stuff you’re really using in your game — is all being created from scratch.

There’s nothing wrong with simply standing on the shoulders of giants and creating new stuff, of course, but the other way you could approach Droplet would be to simply rewind the timeline. Back things up to the point before humanity had found Droplet and then have the PCs step through as the first explorers of this unknown world. Now all of the stuff described in the supplement becomes active fodder for your game:

  • The PCs get to stumble through the Amphib ruins surrounding the Pandora Gate and become the discoverers of a lost alien race.
  • They’re the ones who discover an Amphib map guiding them to the Toadstool.
  • They get to probe the Toadstool and discover its strange properties.
  • It’s a PC async who first experiences the “blinding stimuli” of the Toadstool.

And so forth.

After you’ve leveraged all that material, of course, you’re now free to continue building on that foundation in exactly the same way that you could before. But now that foundation has been made intensely personal for your and your players: They lived that stuff. So when a Go-Nin team comes through the Pandora Gate and tries to stake a claim to the Toadstool, the conflict which erupts between the scientific missions the PCs have been sponsoring and the hypercorporate stooges becomes intensely meaningful to them.


In the case of Droplet we’re basically rewinding the whole setting. That’s a technique that can actually work in a lot of RPG settings, but it’s also quite possible to take just one aspect of the setting and back it up half a step.

For example, in Shadows of Asia for Shadowrun, we can read about how Queen Michelle of Shaanxi rose to power by funneling support from her sanctuary in England to the rebels fighting the military junta in her homeland. We don’t have to wind back the entirety of the Shadowrun setting in order to back the clock up a couple of ticks and have the PCs running Michelle’s guns.


I think what’s going on here is some combination of two factors:

First, the creation of an RPG setting is an inherently narrative creation. And we have a strong desire to bring our narratives to a conclusion.

Second, most of us live in a world that we largely perceive as as status quo: The United States government was here yesterday. Our job was here yesterday. They will still be here tomorrow. (Of course, we all occasionally experience big changes in our lives. But the change generally comes to an end and then we’re in another form of status quo.)

But when it comes to an RPG, the status quo is generally not very useful. What we’re interested in is the cusp. The thing that is about to happen (or which is currently happening) that the PCs can get caught up in.

Some setting supplements, of course, are better at this than others. For example, I had Heavy Gear: Life on Caprice readily to hand as I was writing this up and I flipped through it looking for a good example I could use. I couldn’t find anything, though, because every single gazetteer entry seemed to make a point of describing what was happening right now. For supplements like that, this tip becomes irrelevant. They’ve already got you perched on the cusp. You just need to push!

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8 Responses to “Random GM Tip: Rewind Your Timeline – How to Use Published Sourcebooks”

  1. Martin Kallies says:

    Oh yes, I can very much relate to that. I very often read campaign setting and learn about events of the past and then think to myself “why are you telling me now? I actually would prefer to play during those events.”

    My work on my own setting started from a Forgotten Realms campaign based around the High Forest. The historical information was so much more interesting than the current state that I went 4,000 years back and fleshed it out with my own ideas. (Soon droping the FR background and making it entirely my own thing.

  2. Brotherwilli says:

    I think you’ve neatly explained something that’s always bothered me about sourcebooks. I’m always more inclined to use the current rumors as adventure hooks, and the existing locations as backdrops. With the Numenera books, I’ve had a hard time incorporating “landscape” Numenera into adventures as anything more than backdrops for the adventure.

  3. Wyvern says:

    Can you give any examples of how you’d do this for Fading Suns?

  4. Gamosopher says:

    So simple, so elegant an idea. Thanks!

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    @Wyvern: It’s been over a decade since I was actively engaged with Fading Suns, so my knowledge of the setting is probably rusty enough that anything I say should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Flipping through the sourcebooks, though, one thing I do notice is how often references are made to Alexius’ ascension to the throne shifting the status quo. The sourcebooks seem to generally do a pretty good job of presenting that in the form of “… and this is happening right now“, but one easy rewind would be to back up to some of the specific decisions.

    For example, what campaign of subterfuge happened just before Alexius finally promised not to use the Eye on Byzantium Secundus? (Byzantium Secundus, pg. 38) Could the PCs get involved as explorers cataloguing and verifying the holdings that Alexius ceded to his brother on Ravenna? (Hawkwood Fiefs, pg. 10)

  6. Ramón says:

    Actually, whenever I play in a commercial setting I tend to do just this: if 7th Sea official starting date was 1668, I would start in 1660, when many cool things were happening, so the PCs would be right in the middle of it.

  7. Alan Kellogg says:

    Then what happened?

    Always remember; stories end, life goes on.

  8. Jack Swallow says:

    This is actually what I’ve started leaning towards with much of Eclipse Phase’s stuff – I’m pretty confident that I’d be unable to match the most “mind-blowing” aspects of the setting, so it would be almost wasteful to just dole all that out as infodumps.

    Much better for the players to discover Exsurgent stuff, pandora gates, etc. on their own.

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