As noted in the original devlog, I honestly don’t know what genre Exiles belongs to. I designed it while geeking out over Ultraviolet Grasslands, Acid Death Fantasy, and the Soft Horizon series — the gentle weirdness of The King Machine, and the treasure hunting for inscrutable artifacts of Sand Dogs.
The designers above mention Moebius comics, metal music, and Heavy Metal magazine among their influences. So, before I started working on Exiles, I started diving into that stuff myself. I’m not sure if it would be disingenuous to cite any of those media as direct influences on my design process; I still feel a bit like a tourist taking pictures of the landmarks that inspired more accomplished artists. Still, I dove into all that to try to get myself into the right headspace, and kept on swimming in it even after the game was done because it’s pretty fun stuff.
Finally, while I don’t usually list Troika! among the influences for 2400 (just because the rules are so different), it did have a subtle, significant influence on the earliest 2400 installments, especially Exiles. The later 2400 games betray my preference for a short list of “ability scores” over a longer “skill list,” but Troika! is the reason I decided to go with more granular “skills” to begin with. I absolutely love how a short, highly specific package of skills and items can tell you so much about a character so succinctly.
To be honest, I’m not actually sure I succeeded in this by using such granular skills in Inner System Blues, Cosmic Highway, ALT, Xenolith, and Eos. A shorter skill list would certainly make character creation faster in those games, albeit with some tradeoffs (like accelerated character advancement, and less niche protection). But I still love how skills work when you use them in backgrounds.
Before Exiles, 2400 characters are all composed of a “specialty” and an “origin.” Exiles eschews that approach for a list of 20 “backgrounds” (and a few skill increases, and several oddly specific starting items), following the lead of Electric Bastionland, Troika!, and the Troika!-derived Acid Death Fantasy.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love when RPGs let me construct a character from familiar archetypes. That’s why the first few 2400 games have you put together a specialty (akin to a D&D “class”) and an “origin” (akin to a D&D “race,” a term I can’t even use without pointing out that it’s inappropriate to keep using it to refer to species in RPGs). It’s a familiar approach that collapses a lot of characteristics into just a couple significant decisions for the player. It’s less daunting to many players than a system of meticulously spending points to build every aspect of a character, but it offers more flexibility, variety, and customization than a system of just taking a pre-generated character. It’s an enduring approach because it works.
All of that said, more narrowly constructed backgrounds offer one thing that archetype combinations aren’t as good at: They make it easier to make a character that is very, very weird.
It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the other games I cite as making good use of background packages are often described as “weird” games. Electric Bastionland‘s “failed careers” include options like “Dead-Shoresman” (someone who came back from the lands of the dead), “Mockery” (basically a mechanical muppet), “Urchin Pack” (maybe a couple kids bundled into a trench coat, or a few kids and a dog), and “Retail Therapist” (not your standard adventuring background), among others. Troika!’s backgrounds include a “Befouler of Ponds” (“a high priest, a pond-pisser”), “Claviger” (“festooned with keys,” counting as armor), “Member of Miss Kinsey’s Dining Club” (a discerning cannibal), and “Poorly Made Dwarf” (treated like a shoddily crafted inanimate object by those of their kind more finely crafted from boulders).
If you’d asked me while I was designing Exiles how to design a “weird” character, I’m not sure I would’ve had an answer. In retrospect, though, looking back at these games’ backgrounds, I think a common point is that they are frequently specific, rather than general or archetypal, and they defy traditional RPG expectations, rather than building upon them.
“Classes” are a great design building block when you want to build upon traditional RPG expectations. But I don’t want a “class” for something like “people with a symbiotic bond with an alien crustacean,” or “AI cores from crashed starships.” I want those characters to feel specific — unique to the setting, and perhaps even unusual within the setting.
You can, of course, come up with your own backgrounds. (Exiles doesn’t say “roll for, choose, or come up with” as some other 2400 games do, mostly due to space limitations. But “choose or come up with” are always options on my lists and tables, as far as I’m concerned.) I wanted to present pre-made backgrounds, though, not just as a template for your own, but for the sake of getting started fast. As I talk about at some length in my interview with Electric Bastionland and Into the Odd creator Chris McDowall, Agents of the O.D.D. takes a similar approach because coming up with strange and interesting characters can be quite difficult, or at least time-consuming. I love how systems like Fate Core let you build the character of your dreams, but I recognize that not everybody wants to obsess over that the way I like to.
Backgrounds also give you more leeway in terms of how many skills or items a character should start with. I’m not generally super concerned about “balanced” characters, but I do want everybody at the table to feel like they are The Right Person For The Job at least some of the time, and I don’t want anybody to feel like their character is so good at avoiding risks with the dice that the player never gets to do any problem solving.
Most 2400 games are pretty careful to give starting characters the approximate equivalent of 2 skills plus gear from their specialty, and three skills or equivalent from their origin. That can all go out the window with backgrounds in a highly specific setting. A crashed starship AI core can start with high skills in mathematics, navigation, and piloting, because of course it would. How will you use any of that? Who knows. But now you have some added motivation to find a spaceship, or an interesting character arc about figuring out new skills that are actually useful in a situation you never wanted to be in. And, of course, you start with 3 other skill increases that might actually be useful — maybe from whatever you picked up since crash landing.
Isolation as a setting prerequisite
Exiles is the first (of what turned out to be a few) 2400 games that I felt required some amount of cordoning-off from the rest of the 2400 universe. I wanted the game to focus on scavenging for both necessary resources and for strange artifacts. That feeling of danger and scarcity falls apart if anybody can just hop on a spaceship and leave, or if supply drops come by regularly.
And so, Exiles sees the characters stranded on a quarantine planet under orbital blockade, isolated due to nebulously-defined “plagues.” (Of nanites? Diseases? Mutating radiation? Up to you — as usual, I prefer to let you fill in the gaps.)
The galactic economy doesn’t count for much here, so instead of doing jobs for credits, characters trade favors and (sometimes quite heavy) salvage, including the weird xenotech left behind by whoever occupied this planet before humans arrived. I used the “$” symbol because it looks like an “S,” which is the first letter of “salvage” in my native language. And I use currency symbols instead of saying “salvage” every time because in this format, I am that pressed for space.
You might notice that I only refer to this setting as “the world” or “the planet.” In 2400, I tend to offer names for places you might visit, and for places we already have names for (Earth, Venus, Alpha Centauri, etc.). Otherwise, though, I feel like a made-up name for the central planet in a setting is just a piece of non-functional “lore” I don’t want you to feel pressured to memorize. Search online for “list of potentially habitable exoplanets” or “planet name generator” if you really need it.
The GM prompts on the back page are still quite close to the format used in the earlier 2400 games, but they demanded a lot more thought than usual. I wanted the world to feel very small and very weird, which required a lot of deliberate decisions.
This world was a desolate ruin for a long time. Nobody is supposed to come here — but once you’re here, you can’t leave. In that situation, I imagine folks would try to gather together in the closest thing to a community that they can muster. So, while the lists of 20 people and 20 places don’t represent everyone or everyplace in the whole world the list of 20 jobs refers to specific people and specific places to draw your attention back to the smallness of the place.
I covered my (sort of unwitting) philosophy for designing for weirdness above, in the part about backgrounds. I think the weird stuff might work best when it’s mixed in with some slightly more familiar stuff, so I tried to get something of a range in the lists of people, places, and jobs.
Some items on this page are fairly standard sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fare (like the raider “community” with frequent bar fights, and Starmind Master Undu, who is legally distinct from Jedi Master Yoda). Others are more directly inspired by works closer to this specific genre (like “Motherworm, fossilized, miles of ‘tunnels,’” an invitation to run this with Ultraviolet Grasslands creator Luka Rejec’s “Deep in the Purple Worm“). But I also tried to sprinkle in some things that I just don’t recall seeing elsewhere before (even though I imagine everything in here has been done somewhere, somehow), like a spring of potable sand and a turnip-headed pawnbroker. (Though in retrospect, I bet I was unwittingly channeling Mike Mignola’s pandemic sketches.)
I figured job generation didn’t really need any “twists” when the jobs and people themselves are so strange, and there’s already a single, overarching side quest of sorts: survive. That opened up some space on the page for a list of xenotech artifacts, as salvaging alien technology is such a big focus of the setting. My only regret is that I don’t have space for more, but that is the ever-present limitation of this format.
You can, of course, fit “more” artifacts by making an artifact generator rather than an artifact list. I like spark tables for prompting tons of weird little ideas, and I did end up experimenting with those more in later 2400 games. At this stage, though, I felt more confident in my ability to design very specific items, and I knew I’d be able to integrate them more easily that way in play while GMing. That approach does limit the game’s longevity, but my hope was that I’d provide enough additional material in the long run that you could keep a multi-session sandbox game going by pulling in other modules.
Combining with other 2400 games
If you want to run Exiles, but bring in more options, any 2400 game with spacefaring characters can be used to create an unlucky castaway. The most obvious contenders are those that start the team with a ship that might crash here: Cosmic Highway, Orbital Decay, Xenolith, and Eos. Characters born from ALT and The Venusian Job probably have relatively easy access to ships, too. And it would be deliciously, horrifically ironic to escape the orbital blockade in Data Loss, or rediscover space flight in Xot, just to end up stranded in Exiles.
In theory, you can also make an Exiles character with some other other “origin” in place of the 3 skill increases they normally get, though some origins require more explanation than others. (Maybe you could be an android hosting a brainworm colony, but I leave it to you to figure out what that means.)
Most of all, though, there’s a lot of potential overlap between Exiles, Zone, and Xot, so a lot of material can be shared between them. The “alterations” list in Zone and the “distinctions” list in Xot offer a bunch of mutations you could use to create new backgrounds. (As a rule of thumb, the more useful it sounds, the less gear and skill bonuses it comes with.) Zone and Xot also offer tables for randomly generating alien artifacts, and Xot has expanded rules for especially unstable, single-use items. The GM prompts from both games include a bunch of options for strange locations and odd job requests. Any of this would fit right into the setting of Exiles.
If you want to run another 2400 game, but use stuff from Exiles, you can use “backgrounds” as a replacement for “specialty” or “origin” during character creation. Even though backgrounds sometimes have more skill increases, they’re meant to be roughly equivalently “useful” to other specialties or origins. Such a character might be an escapee from the planetary quarantine, or you might just cut the idea of a “quarantine world” out of your game entirely.
Backgrounds like the brainworm colony, plague bearer, and symbiont could serve as alien species in a game built on Xenolith or Eos. Backgrounds like trash picker, canid-spliced soldier, and bountybot would also fit in fine as specialties in settings like those, or Inner System Blues. And practically anything here (but especially ex-warlord and expelled gladiator) would shine as a combatant in Battle Moon.
And, as implied above, if you’re running Zone or Xot, I recommend plundering Exiles for its xenotech lists, locations, jobs, and mutations from backgrounds, There’s not much here in the way of interesting rules to transplant to other games, but there’s still plenty of content to port over — as long as you like it weird.
Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).