Building a Setting

Dragon Age map

Setting Specifics

Last week Ryan wrote about using a published setting which, I’ll be honest, is something I haven’t really done. World-building and myth-making is one of my favourite parts of roleplaying games, so even when I GMed World of Darkness, I made a bunch of changes to the setting. There’s a lot of work involved in it, and my D&D world has changed a lot over the years, usually from me inventing things from whole cloth and then making them fit after the fact. I’m not going to say that’s a best practice, but it’s also not necessary to invent all of the nitty-gritty of everywhere in a setting for one campaign. If the players aren’t going to go there, it’s a place of rumour and wonder, and doesn’t really need to be filled in. All that said, these are the three things I do when I’m sitting down to create a setting, even for a pickup game.

1. Set the Tone

It may seem weird, but the first thing I do is set the tone or theme. This informs the game, and acts as my guide for everything else. I think of it as a thesis sentence. I usually have one for the world, one for various regions, and then one for each smaller bit. The region my D&D games are in is called Temir, and its tone is “A frontier full of occult secrets”. So it’s post-apocalyptic, and there’s lots of old artifacts of lost civilizations around. Digging a hole in the wrong place could unleash a terrible evil, and that fact informs people’s lives there. When adding elements to your setting, whether it’s characters, places, or adventures, think about how they fit your tone. Sharko the Clownshark probably isn’t a great fit for your grim, dark future, unless it’s a grim, dark future after the clownocalypse.

2. Sketch the Setting

Once I have a tone, then I start sketching the setting. The time, the place, the genre, little details like that. I usually have an idea about this before I set the tone, but setting the tone first means that I don’t get married to one place or idea before I have a theme to construct things around. A joyful adventure game set in 1920’s New York is going to focus on different locations than a noir detective game set in the same time and place. I also design some of the key locations in this stage, and make sure they fit the mood. The early stages of my games tend to stay in one spot, so it’s easy to design a few locales that fit the theme. For the noir game, maybe it’s a back room poker session at the police station where corrupt cops and mobsters gamble the night away. For the adventure game, it could be a street festival, a university, or an comfortable brownstone boarding house. It’s not the location that matters so much as the story you tell about it, of course.

3. Work Top Down

Don’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details. Creating the structure of the setting and then filling in the details is orders of magnitude easier than creating the details and then trying to shoehorn them into some kind of structure, or worse, not having a structure at all. So create the structure first. Maybe it’s geographic structure, with the places and stories driven topographical differences. A planet that stands still, with a light side and a dark side, for example. It could be political, forcing people to declare their allegiances. Are they loyal to the King in the North, or Casterly Rock? There are lots of ways to provide structure, and a good setting is going to employ a few, to give people genuine options, and also make it easier to fit in details. Crafting details before structure is like colouring a page and then trying to draw a picture around the colours and have it make sense. Sometimes it works and it’s brilliant, but more often than not it’s a mess.

We’ll talk a lot more about setting during the summer, but for now I must flee in order to work on more things for Headshots from the Heart. Special hint, we’re giving away two SteelSeries headsets over the next few weeks, so enter to win, and check out some of our awesome auction items while you’re at it! 100% of the proceeds to go Child’s Play, to donate toys and videogames to children’s hospitals!

One comment

  • I wholeheartedly endorse making things up out of whole cloth and then making them work. I frankly don’t see any other way to guarantee that a setting is interesting and exciting. It may not make unassailable sense, but even Middle Earth doesn’t accomplish that feat. And if things are being made up out of whole cloth anyway, the players can be encouraged to join in, which leads, in my experience, to much more player involvement in a setting than if they just have information fed to them by the DM. And they’re less likely to question the logic of things they helped create.

    I do also feel that tone is important to set, especially when players are involved, in order that different aspects of the world at least fit thematically, if not perfectly

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