Reconciling old continuity with new. Building a connected multiverse. Inserting favorite characters from one setting into another. Stitching two (or more) worlds into one for a vast gaming playground. There are a variety of reasons to take parts of Column A to put into Column B, especially in roleplaying. Swiping — er, borrowing characters for inspiration is a time-honored tactic for the GM in a hurry, while settings with multiple iterations, from Dragonlance to Star Wars, invite stealing bits from one version to enhance another. Creating or connecting entire settings takes more work, but can result in an unforgettable RPG setting when done well.
Adding characters from one story into the setting of another is relatively simple. There’s really only one rule to follow: make the character fit the setting, never the reverse. If there are small pieces of the adopted character’s setting that will enhance the existing world, so much the better, but your game world will thank you for not bending it to fit a particular concept. For example, if you wanted to add Superman to Doctor Who, trying to insert Clark Kent and Lois Lane wholesale probably wouldn’t work, but the Doctor accidentally giving a young comic fan godlike super-powers is exactly the sort of thing one could expect from the series.
In a more personal example, during the Exalted game I was running for my wife, she decided she wanted to track down all of the Solars to defend Creation from the Deathlords. She reasoned — logically — that the Lunars and Sidereals would have their own lists. So I had hundreds of godlike fantasy superheroes to create. Yipe. I ended up “borrowing” characters from somewhere around 150 settings. To use one of my favorite examples, One Piece is the king of shonen, and I love its heroes. I did not try to include Devil Fruits, the Grand Line, or the World Government. I was happy, however, to swipe WG characters for the Realm, while making various main characters Celestial Exalted. For example, Sir Crocodile made a perfect Infernal — there’s a whole sand-themed caste for them — while most of the Straw Hat Pirates became various Solar and Lunar Exalted. Luffy himself became a Full Moon Lunar (warrior-shapeshifter) with, of course, a monkey totem. He doesn’t have a particular weakness to sea water, but he is an Idiot Hero who is one of the world’s greatest fighters, with a crew of bizarre misfits. They’re all avidly hunted by the world-spanning empire, but as Celestial Exalted, that fits the setting precisely.
Reconciling events from multiple continuities of a single setting is trickier than adding characters, but my advice is to follow a similar pattern. Choose a canon as the baseline, then steal the parts you like from other timelines and add them much as you would characters. For instance, a “Star Wars” campaign should either begin with the post-Disney canon or the “Legends” continuity, then add other pieces as desired. Some elements will be easier to add than others, of course. The two versions of the Inquisitorius are relatively simple to reconcile. Simply start with one, then add characters and events from the other to taste. Reconciling Operation Skyhook, the multi-part effort to retrieve the Death Star plans (which is likely a result of over-telling the same story in B-canon), with Rogue One, a much more singular action, is considerably trickier, but not impossible. Elements of Skyhook could be reworked as prologues to Rogue One, intelligence operations designed to track down Galen Erso rather than the plans themselves, to blend those characters and events into a variant of the new canon. By contrast, Rogue One could either supplement or replace the Battle of Toprawa, its closest analog, by being the final piece of the plans-puzzle rather than the sole effort. The question to ask as a GM, always, is “how does this benefit my game?” NPCs (or PCs) are always useful to have around, but events are only valuable if they provide plot hooks for later or concurrent adventures. For example, do you want the events of Rogue One, or just the Guardians of the Whills? Are you looking to use the Dark Forces game for adventures, or just Kyle Katarn and Jan Ors? Know what you want before reworking complex continuities — or, as with many long-running settings, don’t worry about it until it matters. Keep it simple. Your players will thank you.
A multiverse-focused setting, such as Rifts or TORG, is comparatively simple in theory. Each world is its own setting, with its own continuity, characters, and conflicts. Unless all of the settings will be in the same genre, however (like D&D’s Planescape or Spelljammer), a GM has a much bigger problem: rules. There are a plethora of universal systems, of course, but when magic, technology, and even weirder elements collide, character balance tends to go out the window. As for continuity, it can be hard enough keeping one setting’s events straight, so what happens when the PCs can start their day chatting with Captain Kirk and end it thwarting Sauron? A good record keeping system (like wikidPad, a free open source wiki program we use for this purpose) will help with keeping track of everyone, and if you have entire worlds worth of NPCs, having a hyper-linked record of everyone can be a campaign saver.
This brings us back to campaign balance. When running a multiversal campaign, it needs a “glue” of some sort holding it together — a larger conceptual system that connects the various forces the PCs deal with. This allows NPCs from more limited settings have some understanding of forces from other realities, while permitting multiple setting-spanning organizations. Reality itself might be in play (as with TORG and Mage: the Ascension), but even if the PCs can safely access their awesome tricks almost everywhere, so will their foes. An overarching threat is probably a necessity, but that doesn’t have to be a classic master villain. TORG has the High Lords, a fractious collection of reality invaders who fight each other almost as much as they do the heroes. In Rifts, while there are countless threats both within and beyond the ruined Earth of the setting, the Rifts themselves are the real issue the heroes face. A surprising number of examples exist, from the Heartless of Kingdom Hearts to the Anti-Monitor from Crisis on Infinite Earths to Vortech in LEGO Dimensions, a variety of threats exist with various motivations to conquer, merge, or destroy realities, allowing heroes of all sorts to adventure together opposing them.
Easily the most challenging of these concepts is the fusion campaign — taking multiple settings and merging them into a single super-campaign. This has nearly all of the challenges presented by every example above. Why attempt to do this in the first place? If you have a variety of players with different campaign interests, but a multiverse campaign is either problematic or not desirable for some reason, then Frankenstein’s Setting may be an option. Perhaps a set of diverse campaigns have commonalities that make them compatible beneath the surface. Some GMs just like a challenge. Regardless of the reason, each fusion setting must be approached individually based on its various elements, but a few guidelines remain helpful:
1) Even if no one setting is dominant, have a baseline of some kind, even if it’s a genre. That genre can itself be a fusion of some kind, but the themes should lend themselves to a consistent style of adventure. Science fantasy is an old fusion, dating back to at least Flash Gordon, that lends itself to a wide variety of stories. Superhero conspiracy is an odd-seeming combination that’s enjoyed great storytelling success. The DCAU gave us a world where a government black operation schemed to contain or destroy the Justice League, a heroic organization that had saved the world multiple times — and made the operatives’ paranoid fear relatable.
2) Have the most compatible elements mesh as seamlessly as possible. If using two settings from the same genre, for instance, connect their histories and characters as thoroughly as time and verisimilitude allow. Harry Potter and Harry Dresden probably shouldn’t know each other, but some of Dresden’s colleagues can easily have attended Ilvermorny, while the Senior Council makes an excellent “Security Council” for the UN-like International Confederation of Wizards. In a galaxy that combines Mass Effect and Babylon 5, the Citadel would likely replace the Babylon Project, but the terrorist attacks that destroyed the first four Babylons could instead be assaults on diplomatic efforts on the Citadel, while combining the Spectres and the Rangers makes for useful merging of adventuring plotlines.
3) Extrapolate as far as one GM can manage, aka: have fun. All this work pays off in the vast range of possibilities that emerge from smashing multiple settings into one vast adventuring world. Do you have superheroes working alongside superspies? Make sure the evil conspiracy with the awkward acronym name has invisibility-detecting equipment, tiny robot sentries for shrinking heroes, teleportation shields — and supervillains on the payroll. What about something wilder, like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings? Take a few pages from Babylon 5 with Rangers and Technowizards, then give Sauron a giant green hand that can grab starships, and make Mordor a whole planet to be infiltrated by the Federation. How far can you go with this concept? One word: Pokéthulhu. (Yes, that’s a real game. Yes, you can play it. And yes, you will lose SAN points if you do. *g*)(1)
I’m working on a personal setting that will serve as an example in future posts: Primal Paragons, a mix of urban fantasy, postmodern super-heroics, and conspiracy espionage. It combines a whole host of campaign worlds, primarily adding Mage: the Ascension and Assassin’s Creed to Paragons, but also stealing characters, organizations, and ideas from other games to enrich an already gonzo world of broken masquerades and vicious scheming. For now, I end with a simple reminder: anything’s possible as long as the game doesn’t break and everyone has fun.
(1) Note: The makers of Pokéthulhu have a current site, but it has less information on the individual games.