Back when I started playing RPGs, the GM had a huge job. He had to create an adventure hook, create a world, create monsters, magic items, NPCs, and props each week in order for us to have a great time. He had to portray all the NPCs, roll dice for random events, roll dice during combat, keep track of maps, XP, treasure, and everything else while trying to keep the power level of the challenges relatively in line with the power level of the characters. This was an immense amount of work, and most games gave the GMs very few tools to help him do that. It was up to each individual to figure out how to get all these different chores done while keeping everyone happy and without getting burned out in the process.
In the modern world of RPGs, however, this is not as much of a concern. Games like D&D4e have terrific tools that help DMs balance the power level of encounters with the power level of the characters. Games like Apocalypse World have taken the need for dice away from GMs so they don’t have to worry about fiddly numbers all the time. And most indie games today come with some kind of pre-fabricated setting or situation (e.g. The Mountain Witch, My Life with Master, Psi-Run, Hero Quest, Shock, Poison’d) that takes a huge load off the GM’s shoulders by significantly reducing the amount of prep time necessary for play. This is great, especially for guys like me who have a job, wife, kids, school, church, and other interests that devour free time.
At the same time, though, I think there is an art that is being lost. Designing one’s own setting used to be an important form of expression for roleplayers- especially new ones. Almost certainly everyone who comes to roleplaying has read the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Ann Rice, or Louis L’Amour. Those novels inspired us, provided us with a window into fictional worlds full of love, vice, triumph, and redemption. People who take up roleplaying have those experiences and feelings welling up within them. Play is one way to express those things. Setting design is another, and it’s something I want to talk about today.
There are several ways to approach setting design. First, there’s the AD&D method where there’s basically no guidance at all in the core books. They just present you with things that *could* be in a fantasy world, and then you have to figure out where to go from there. That’s not a good way.
Second, there’s the build-as-you-go method. The game might give you something to start on like in Sorcerer or Prime Time Adventures, but then it’s up to the all the participants to fill in the blanks as play unfolds. This is a nice and functional way of doing things. However, it’s not where I’m going today.
Third, there’s the formula approach. I’m going back to my old standby game: Dogs in the Vineyard. Vincent has one of the most functional and practical set of procedures for original setting design I’ve ever read in a game. You start with a sin, then from that you build relationships, and from that you build geography. To distill that down, the formula goes: Conflict->People->Places. It’s really quite brilliant and consistently produces engaging and effective micro-settings. This type of method can be ported to any type of game from sci-fi to dungeon delving to gritty noir games. In today’s hectic world, the DitV method may be the best type of procedure to use if you want your game to encourage/require players to pre-generate settings for play. The one downside to this style is that if the PCs need to go “off the map” for whatever reason, GMs can get stymied. If all their preparation is geared toward the setting within the boundaries the GM created, he may not know what to do if the campaign shifts to some other location. Such an event could stall a campaign until the GM goes through the setting creation process again or comes up with something on the fly.
Finally, there’s the epic style of setting creation. There have been several world-builder’s guide books published over the years. My first published RPG that I wrote collaboratively with my college buddies included an entire chapter on building a world from the ground up- topography, mythology, anthropology, technology, etc. This style of setting generation is the one that many of us remember from high school or college. We had lots of time on our hands. The newness of roleplaying games energized our imaginations. And the impetus to create something unique to ourselves was very strong. Part of the epic style of world building is emulation.
Most fantasy world or science fiction galaxies resemble the worlds and galaxies the designer grew up with. Middle-earth, Narnia, Gloranthra, Babylon 5, Mechwarrior, Star Wars, and Star Trek have provided countless baselines for roleplayers over the last 40 years.
The obvious shortcoming of this style of setting creation is time. It takes a lot of time to draw a poster-size map, write reams of histories, make up illustrations of important aspects of the world, and then distill all of that into something functional on the relatively small scale of a campaign. There’s nothing wrong with including tools for this sort of thing in one’s game, but the designer should know that the audience for such a game is going to be small.
In the end, I think the third method (the DitV method) is as close to ideal for setting creation as we can come given the lifestyle limitations most adult-age gamers have to deal with. Regardless of how you want to use setting creation in your game, if you even want to incorporate it at all that is, you should provide some clear tools and procedures for the GM (or whoever) to use as he builds the setting for play. If you would like some further reading on setting design tools, I created some aids back in 2006 for game designers, but those same tools could be modified to work for players too if that’s your thing.