On retooling the Fading Suns setting. Part One here.
BUILDING A WORLD FOR PLAY
Most setting designs for RPGs fall into two major approaches: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down approach begins with a general world concept, builds around that and then figures out how the players are going to interact with it. You've got a logline- like "A Roman Game with Gunpowder"- and some ideas about the world. Concepts, details and structures should spin off from the base idea. The goal is to build an interesting and consistent whole. Broad themes and concepts can be constructed. Most licensed properties work this way, since you have that existing world and then have to cut a hole in it for PC participation. Some things seem easier and friendlier than others. Looking at sci-fi, for example, Firefly feels open and interesting, in part because it is a set of stories focused on characters and an ensemble. Something like the old classic Ringworld, despite being a lovely game, feels less open. That's a story with emphasis on ideas over characters- something common to a lot of classic hard sci-fi. Sometimes that makes outsider entry- in other words PCs- difficult.
On the other hand, a bottom up approach still begins with the logline. But it then imagines what a PC group might look like in that setting. Or it considers the kinds of stories which could be told at the table. The GM then shapes the elements of the setting to match that. What do you want the PCs to do- what opportunities do you want to give them? The GM has to consider both the positive and negative- what setting details might shut down interesting or hoped for behavior or approaches. If there's a drawback to this approach, it might be that it can create inconsistencies. Or at least continuity and structure take a back seat to other considerations.
These are simplifications, but I think point at the direction of thinking we as GMs sometimes take. I suspect there's switching back and forth in the that process. But sometimes when you find yourself stuck, it might be useful to move from one approach to the other. This doesn't take into consideration power-sharing setting design approaches like those found in Diaspora (system building), Microscope (history/world building), and any games which offer authorial power into the players' hands during play.
LEGEND OF THE FADING SUNS (finally)
So my new approach- reworking the Fading Suns brings in some of the elements I like from Legend of the Five Rings.
Probably the greatest modification I'm envisioning comes with the noble houses. Right now in the setting there are five, plus a number of smaller houses. I know some of the supplemental books add some depth to those houses, but they still remain fairly uniform. In my reworking, each house would be like a Clan from L5R, and within that House there would be a handful of Branches (like families in L5R). Let me talk about the big picture of that first.
I'd like to establish a formal ethos for the Noble orders- something like the Bushido or Chivalric code in other games. I know FS already has some discussion of the roles and rules of the nobility, but I want to formalize that. The players should have something concrete to grab on to and play off of. Other games use Virtues do to that, so I think I'd like to stick with that structure. I haven't settled on what those virtues would be, but let's start with placeholder list: Cleverness, Wisdom, Loyalty, Prowess, Piety, Eloquence, and Justice. Each of the Houses would be the "key" House representing that virtue (again I'm borrowing really heavily from L5R here). I'd want to consider with those virtues what might their dark side (Cunning, Esoterica, Obedience, Force, Zealotry, Manipulation, and Vengeance). Optionally one could borrow the virtues of the Church (for the eight Saints). I'm imagining the Five Houses, plus the Church, plus the Imperial House, plus perhaps a new alliance of minor houses.
Within each House you have the families, each with their own name and briefly stated specialty. I'll be using the term branch and family interchangeably here. We can assign simple types to these families. For example you'd have the martial branch, given over to matters of warfare,but shaped by the primary virtue of the house (Clever Warriors vs. those focused on Loyalty). You'd have the social family, the craft family, and/or the psychic family. The social family might be academics, diplomats, explorers, salon masters, merchants, or negotiators. A craft family might mean engineers, scientists of a particular field, artisans. weaponsmiths, shipwrights, etc. The psychic family would be either a particularly faithful branch blessed with unique theurgy or else those developing psychic talents. Related to that, I'm imagining a less adversarial relation between the Church and psychics in this version. Provided that psychics stay within certain restricted roles and powers, they could be accepted. Finally, I'm imagining each House would also have a unique family, with either a distinct modification to one of those roles or something completely new. Each House would have one branch serving in the "leadership" role. That provides some possible future conflict right there.
CHURCH & IMPERIUM
The Church would operate in much the same way, with a main branch, plus several orders. The same thing for the Imperial House which would have the Emperor's family, plus the Imperial Guard, the Offices of the Imperium, and the Imperial Priesthood. One of the key things in this structure is that the Guilds get eliminated- instead their roles and offices move to branch of the Houses. There would be free agents of those roles outside of the Houses, but for the moment they're less important. They're also not PC types. What about the aliens? They're not present as a PC choice. A GM might decide to allow a player to play a non-human, but one adopted into a Houses.
So what's the relation of the Imperial House to these Houses? It holds pretty close to the one in the book, with the exception that the current Emperor would not be a Hawkwood or come from any of the big five. He would instead be from another House which has essentially become the Imperial Holdings. As with Fading Suns currently, the Imperial House would be relatively new. The settlement of affairs would have been as much about the five other Houses realizing that conflict was costing them resources and putting the whole of the Empire at risk as military conquest. The Imperium would be a return to a previous state- there had been an Grand Empire which fell within the last century. Thus the Emperor has picked up those pieces and banked on nostalgia for that time. I like the idea of there perhaps being one or two Houses who fell and went into exile during the recent changes. They could serve as civilized human adversaries, in addition to the Space Barbarians, the Lovecraftian Symbiots, Corrupt Psykers, Alien Enemies and the like.
SCIONS OF THE HOUSE: A CAMPAIGN FRAME
I think what I'm suggesting isn't that far away from Fading Suns as it stands right now. It just shifts things slightly. It doesn't answer the problem I have with ship combat, but that's more of a system than a story concern and can be fixed depending on what system I use. Most of this is aimed at a bottom-up approach. Now that's an imposed approach, in that trying to build a world in which a particular kind of game will work, but I'm still imposing that vision. So what does that campaign actually look like?
Players will all be nobles- but nobility represents a general background rather than determining anything about role or class. Players can still play rogues, engineers, psykers, priestS,etc. But those function within the context of the House and Family. To put together a campaign like this, I would first create an outline of the Houses and the families underneath them. I'd write a couple of lines about each- giving the players a sense of what the House is like and the key element of each family within that house. Players would then collectively choose a House. Then they would collectively choose a family to take up (except the leader family) or choose to make up one on their own. For this they would build a number of aspects for that family, borrowing a page from John Wick's excellent Blood & Honor. They'd choose the focus of the house, the resources, special knowledge, the leader's personality and so on. B&H provides a simple system for this, I would elaborate on it. Players would have a collective "buy-in" to the background of their creation. Key to this would be the idea that members of the family don't necessarily have to follow the "key focus" of that family, so you could be a psyker in a martial family or vice versa. As with L5R, you can get training for your role in another family of your House (or even outside your House). The players would additionally decide on the starting state for their family- are they entirely new, established based on trecent exploits of their founder?; is the family in decline, rolling downhill?; or are they ancient and nearly collapsed, but for the recent events in which the PCs had a role? I'm borrowing from Ars Magica here and the idea of seasons for the Covenants.
With a family built, I would next have the players use a modified form of Microscope to construct their family's history. The starting point could be collectively decided on, but I would think something like "Beginning of the Emperor Wars" or "The Tide Turns Against the Five Houses," would be good. The players could then tell the story of their family's role (or the role of their founder or the role of the House in general) in those events. They could even add the character they're thinking about to that timeline. Players would have the list of Houses and Families, plus a list of Adversarial Elements (like the Outcast House(s), The Symbiots, etc) to build into that timeline. So we would get a second level of buy in. Finally, I'd work up a system of roles or offices for the players to choose from. That's another idea from Blood & Honor, with the PCs not being faceless members of the clan, but having some important duties and responsibilities- ones which would compliment their adventuring and exploration hopefully. I used that in my Last Fleet game and I think it worked pretty well.
I think these things would make the game more interesting to me. Again, I don't see this as a huge shift. It simply offers another entry point into the setting, using tools borrowed from L5R, Pendragon, Ars Magica, Microscope and Blood & Honor. Of course there still this question: what does this gain you over playing a game of Legend of the Five Rings (since that's the one I'm borrowing from the most)? One, I think this game serves better those players unfamiliar or uninterested in the samurai genre. I'm not one of those people, but I know those who are. I think taking it out of historical (or even psuedo-historical) context opens it up for novices. It does remove some of the great cultural implications of the genre, but with a gain in ease of entry. Two, I love the L5R history and setting. I would have a hard time mucking around with it, or letting players muck around with it. This concept really requires mucking in order to get the players to feel ownership. Fading Suns- well I don't feel any great tie to the history and I can't think of anyone in our group who would...or even would have a significant idea of what makes up that continuity. But there's the question, why not just do fantasy or straight samurai? Simple- spaceships, blasters and ancient tech. I like those things and I want to play with them in a player-driven sandbox.