The recent release of a Colonization update to the game Starbound, plus having been playing some of the Civilization games, prompted me to think about reasons why you might want to play a game about founding a colony. This was followed up by someone complaining that Starbound had dared to use the word ‘colonization’ for the update, and the rest followed from my bafflement.
So here’s my take on why you might want to try playing a colonization or nation-building campaign.
It’s a new kind of challenge
Even stepping away from the standard adventure model where a group of would-be heroes undertake quests and looking at the wider spectrum of game types, this kind of game is unusual. You’re not dealing with a villain or villain group. You’re not interacting with an existing civilization (well, you might be, but more about that later) or relying on the support of a pre-existing industrial base. The player group is going into a wilderness area – possibly just untamed wilderness, in a fantasy game, but with a sci-fi game we might be talking the colonization of an entire new world. They won’t have anything more than limited and infrequent support from ‘back home’ in the best of circumstances.
The GM should allow a larger-than-usual starting budget for players in this kind of game, with the exception of exile-style games (more on that below). This allows everyone to feel satisfied that they’ve prepared for things as best they can, and can let the GM see what kind of challenges they’re expecting to face. For most games, groups should have at least a rough idea of what’s in wait for them – climate and terrain, possibly a map of some level of detail. A fantasy game is more likely to just have a rough lay of the land than a sci-fi game, since with sci-fi the settlers can dispatch probes that travel just a little faster across the interstellar distances and get to collect years of information on climate, large-scale maps, and so on.
Everyone should get to have a hand in creating the colonists; players get to have a tie to at least some of the NPCs, linking them together with the PCs and other NPCs and giving themselves a sense of investment in the game from the get-go. At the same time, this is where the biggest challenges are going to come from. There will be unforeseen personality conflicts, challenges to authority, illnesses, and more. What will the PCs do when the settlement’s only blacksmith or medic cracks under the stress and runs off into the wilderness? What about when two of the most charismatic members of the colony break off their relationship and try to rally everyone against the other, threatening to tear the settlement apart?
The land is unknown and dangerous
Even in a far-future setting, there’s a limit to how much information can be gathered and how detailed it can be. Short of seeding the world with nanotechnology that effectively builds a civilization before the colonists arrive, there are going to be threats and risks from the environment of the new land. Everything from unfamiliar terrain to aggressive wildlife that doesn’t fear humans can threaten people. Even if the PCs enact curfews and defensive perimeters, people will get drunk or bored and decide to go sneaking out, leaving the characters with a choice of risking the wilderness to save the missing or being accused of abandoning them to the wilds.
Even just attempting to explore and settle the area right around the initial base camp has the risk of numerous dangers – discovering that the woods that were going to be a source of raw materials for building have a cave entrance that’s home to some big, hungry predator demands a quick response. The discovery that the base camp is right in the middle of a migration route for a species of large herd animals that think ‘walls’ are just things to be pushed through can make it necessary to quickly pack up and move, or else make an effort to drive the creatures to the side of the settlement.
Native plants can wreak havoc among attempts at farming crops. A rash of weeds with a foul odor and oil that causes an itching rash at the slightest touch can make life hell for everyone, requiring characters to think creatively to come up with solutions, and the insects that feed on those weeds may carry some unknown and nasty illness that healing magic or modern medicine doesn’t have the ability to treat without spending a lot of time and effort on research – time and effort that has to be diverted away from other tasks.
Every player can find something to do
People on the Method Actor end of the scale can indulge in the interactions and politics of the settlement, from simply settling disputes and arguments to running campaigns about issues to handling setting up a government and running an election campaign. Those on the Tactician end of things can enjoy planning the layout of the settlement, arranging the defenses, organizing scouting parties, and handling the more violent disputes that crop up. Explorers have everything from an isolated wilderness to an entire planet or star system to dig into the mysteries of.
Combat hounds can find themselves in the role of law enforcement, dealing with everything from belligerent drunks to hostile wildlife – or possibly even hostile locals or later colonization efforts. The roguish types can put their inclinations to use scouting, hunting wild animals to feed everyone, and keeping tabs on malcontents around the settlement. Those who prefer to delve into lore can dig into their surroundings, either via magic or science, assembling information to help the colony out – and giving the player a chance to help build some of the lore of the area, if the GM asks them beforehand what they’re looking to find, and building the answer on what their skill checks produce.
Potential conflicts on a new level
There’s the chance that the colony might not be the first into an area – or not the last to arrive. If there are others there ahead of them, there’s a question of whether they’re natives to the area, or perhaps an earlier colony that might be better developed. There’s a chance that peaceful contact might be established, arranging trade and aid between the groups, but also the distinct chance – particularly if the cultures differ – for hostilities to commence.
If the group is indigenous, there’s the question of how they measure up technologically and resource-wise against the new arrivals – and which side has the deadlier diseases in their systems against the others. A sudden illness seizing the PC settlement after first contact, threatening the death of many unless the players can either devise a treatment or make peaceful contact with the natives and get a treatment from them to help minimize the impact and damage.
If they’re earlier arrivals, there’s a chance that they might be wildcat colonists – people who went to settle their own land illicitly, without any support or writ from the original civilization. They might even be settlers from a nation hostile to the one that the PC colony comes from – so what do the players do when disaster strikes in the form of a massive earthquake, torrential downpour that causes flooding, or even something like a meteor impact or volcanic eruption, leaving both colonies in shambles and likely to die unless they work together?
And what do they do when a later colony effort shows up, outraged to discover someone here ahead of them and more than willing to initiate hostilities with the PC colony over what they see as ‘their’ rightful land? Do they try to make peace and relocate, fight to the last to defend their new homes, or resort to more nefarious means to secure their safety?
A reason to be central without being heroes
If the PCs are the organizers or the chosen authority of the colony, they have a reason to be at the center of the action without the story needing to revolve directly around them. The individual stories of the other colonists can be woven around the PCs, making them central to everything that happens without any of it actually being about them.
Two families come to them to ask them to settle who has a claim to a particularly fertile stretch of land. A child goes missing, run off into the woods, and someone has to organize the search effort and go looking for them. A pack of hungry predators show up and menace outlying farms, and someone needs to go drive them off or kill them. The list goes on – once things are settled, those who relied on the PCs early on start to agitate to displace them, or talk a portion of the other colonists into abandoning the settlement and going into the wilds to make their own encampment where they can enact rules that the PCs have been denying.
Perhaps there are secrets hidden beneath the pristine wilderness. Someone exploring finds a crevice in a hill that leads to a building buried completely underground, the interior suggesting a whole new civilization that no one has ever heard of before. A scout finds an ancient machine of unknown purpose, which has been laying still for so long a tree has grown up through it. A lake turns out to have unnaturally regular lines, and one side turns out to be an artificially crafted dam.
Or perhaps the PCs decide to create things themselves that will one day be the mysteries of the past – a temple to the gods they left civilization to be free to worship, hidden in the deep forest, or a statue in their own honor raised in the middle of their town. The colonists who split off to do their own thing are found – or the ruins of their attempted settlement is, with no trace of the colonists who founded it.
Building a new campaign world
Finally, after a colonization campaign comes to a close, the group has created a new place to play in during later games, seeing how things play out in the future. The small town they painstakingly built becomes a metropolis, the quarry they set up becomes a lake when it runs out, or the temple they built becomes the center of a kingdom’s faith. The wilderness falls back, and they can come back to the other, more familiar game types, but now they find streets named after their old characters, monuments they built still standing – or standing in neglect, in need of a new generation to revitalize them.
All of the familiar pieces of gameplay, but now every bit has had their hands involved shaping it, making the world that much more real for them as they build their next character to fit into it.
So consider giving a colonization game a try; it might just be worth the effort!