Running a Shared Universe: Road Maps and Sandboxes
Hello heroes! I hope the multiverse is treating you well today. As some of you may know, in addition to working on Mutants & Masterminds here at Green Ronin, I run my own streaming network The Untold Stories Project. USP is something I started a couple of years ago with some friends of mine who were interested in showcasing games and voices that don’t get as much attention as something like Fire Lizards and Renovated Caves. Since 2020 we have played a ton of interesting games but one of our main stays is M&M. Shocking, I know.
In February of 2021 we began our playthrough of the Netherwar story arc which is coming to an exciting conclusion in the next few weeks. (I know it only has six modules but somehow, I overwrote that into a year’s worth of mayhem and mischief.) This was meant to be a stand-alone foray into the Earth-Prime universe, but we decided to try something bold. One of our other games wrapped up and one of our GMs said he wanted to run Emerald City Knights on the channel. We decided it would be interesting to pull a MCU and run Emerald City Knights in the same continuity as our Netherwar game. Hence the USP Earth-Prime Tabletop Universe—USPEPTTU for not as short as it should be— was born. We have had one mega crossover event with 10 PCs and 1 GM and are gearing up to release a Starhaven game in the same continuity later this year.
It’s been an interesting experiment to say the least, and not unique to USP. The Freedom City Discord server has another Earth-Prime shared experience. It makes sense that this happens in superhero gaming groups. The superhero genre is rife with team ups and shared consequences, so it’s natural that it should reflect in the gaming sphere. This got me thinking about some advice that I can give to anyone else looking to collaborate with another GM. I call this technique the Road Maps and Sandboxes method.
I am firm believer that the MCU works as well as it does because they had a strong central vision guiding where the story was going to go. They built a timeline of events and for the most part have stuck to that timeline. If you want to work with other creators in a shared space, you need to outline heavily. This came up in our USPEPTTU planning when I decided to do Starhaven after Netherwar, because there is a crucial plot point in Emerald City Knights that leads to the reason Starhaven is needed at all. The other GM and I sat down and worked out the plot points that needed to be modified to make Starhaven’s creation make sense. We also use our interconnected stories to help one another. A new player is joining our Emerald City Knights campaign and that character’s backstory is tied into what is happening right now in the climax of Netherwar. It’s pretty cool!
We have a couple of resources in play that help us build our stories and decide when those stories are going to intersect. We have a shared Google Sheet with all of the canon Earth-Prime villains. This Sheet lists if they’ve appeared in other games, their current status—at large, incarcerated, dead—and their home base. Our GMs update it as needed. I also try to keep the other GMs apprised of the story arcs I have planned. Finally, we write up synopses of our various story arcs for easy reference, rather than forcing anyone to rewatch 300 hours of video for precious context. Those documents are available to the public (www.untoldstoriesproject.com) on our website for similar reasons.
There’s an unspoken statement in the USPEPTTU that we try to stay in our lanes. As the Netherwar and Starhaven GM, I do my level best to keep my action out of Emerald City. The Other GM as such sticks to the City of Destiny and the surrounding environs. We started doing this after our first crossover episode when I had the following Netherwar story take place in Emerald City. I felt like I was walking on eggshells trying to ensure nothing too devastating happened in town while our Freedom League Dark was there. I still wound up blowing up a penthouse, but you know what they say about eggs and omelets. After that episode I made sure not to set a story in that GM’s sandbox if I could avoid it. Partitioning out the setting goes a long way to establishing freedom for the GMs involved in your project, and ensures people aren’t scrambling to patch things up in each game from week to week. If one person is telling a story of the Furion resistance to Omega in the Terminus, try not to set adventures in the Terminus for the other groups of heroes.
Sit down with the other GMs you’re working with and share your ideas with one another. You can divide the universe in whatever way makes sense. This can be as large as whole alternate dimension down to a neighborhood of Freedom City. Say one GM wants to do a street-level vigilante game in Freedom City’s Southside, another GM working with the Freedom League should make sure the Freedom League is dealing with other parts of the city—or even other parts of the galaxy. Anytime you want to cross the partition, speak with the other GMs, and see if you can work together to do a crossover or find a way to spread the action between the two games.
I’ll leave you to chew on that for now. I’m going to share some more insights of running a shared universe in the coming months. As it stands, I’m still learning as I go, but I do believe it is a worthwhile experience for you and your friends. If you want to see the USPEPTTU in action, you can catch us live On Twitch Mondays and Tuesdays from 7pm EST-10pm EST. Thank you for reading and talk to you soon!