The 5 minute setting design
You wanted to start a fresh new setting and have been excited about it for quite some time. The only problem is that you don’t know where to start. You can’t seem to figure out what you want to happen and why. Maybe you don’t even know where any of this action is going to take place. If this sounds like you, then this article could be of great use to you. In it, we’ll look at how to generate a setting that can be further fleshed out on the fly.
What is a setting?
In its simplest form, a setting is where the action of the story takes place. A setting may have a specific time and place (a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) or it can be more abstract and descriptive (a tired old bus station). Often, a game will have the greater setting (the world of Warcraft) and minor locations where scenes or sessions may take place (the city of Stormwind). The important thing to remember is that geography, history, social situations, weather, and time can all be different parts of a setting. This all matters because setting provides the base on which to build literally everything else in the campaign on. Without a decent setting, players will feel lost and cohesion will suffer.
World creation can be done in several different ways. In the top-down form, the largest part of the setting is defined first (continents and such) and then slowly you work your way down to the specifics. Bottom-up is a method where one begins with the specifics (a tavern perhaps) and builds upward. The GM may also elect to follow a mixture of the two. They may begin from the top, defining the geography of the world and then switch to the bottom and describe the tavern that will likely be the base of operations and then go back to the top until the two meet.
The issue with all of these options is that they take an awful amount of time and run the real possibility of having the GM describe places that will never be seen or put detailed work into a place that the players decide to leave behind from the start. Thus, this article is not about creating a fully realized world. There are much better places to learn about that. Conworlding can be a fun and interesting way to design a setting. In fact, there is an amazing little pen and paper game that can be used to generate a fairly strong setting. Unfortunately, I can’t find it. (brownie points to someone who can)
The real world or not?
Basing your setting on the real world has the obvious benefit of having the real world do most of the work for you. You don’t have to think about possible wars because you can crack open a history book. You don’t have to think about geography because you can go to google maps. This doesn’t mean that your setting is done though. After all, “All quiet on the western front” has a real world setting but still needed specifics to be designed.
Not going with the real world means that you are free to design as you see fit. At the same time, it means that you’re operating without a net. Should your design have gaping holes in it, the players will know. They will poke and prod at your world until they’ve dissected it and revealed all the ugly bits that you simply didn’t think of. Creating your own setting whole cloth is quite scary.
It is important at first to decide on a feeling for your campaign. A theme (to use good old english class keywords) is important in really fleshing out a setting. If the setting can “feel” real, then you’ve already got most of the work done. So, is your world an oppressive dictatorship? Is it a political hotbed on the verge of eruption into war? These themes speak to your players and set expectations in a way that sitting down and designing geography can’t compare. A strong theme makes the world have a feeling to it.
Start with the theme: “power corrupts”. This sounds like the moral to some story and a theme is often just that. So, knowing the theme, we can deduce certain things about our world. Since power corrupts, we will have to go back to that time and again. A setting can be a fairly big place and so may have multiple themes. For our case, we will only have a single theme and stick to a fairly limited setting.
Since we know that power corrupts, we have several choices available to us. We can choose to build up an urban setting full of intrigue and deception. The rich and powerful are decadent and cruel while the poor are powerless to stand in their way. Maybe, we want a more rural setting where a dark force has been awakened and grants great power to whomever seeks it but, that power destroys the person from within.
We will start with a mixture. An idyllic rural town where the intrigue and politics of the nearby city are not even thought about. In our town, the days are filled with farming and other hard work. Our players will come from this town and will have learned the value of hard work and ethics (we hope). The city has a tax that the town must pay in order to receive protection from the outside and to keep the city from interfering too much in its affairs.
So, now we have a rural village with a city nearby. We know that the city’s leaders see the neighboring town as a backwater place to be exploited and we know that the villagers see the city as a bunch of lazy, decadent bunch who only care about them when it’s time to shake them down for taxes. We also know that there’s something that the villagers occasionally need protection from. Further, we can deduce that the city itself is easily protected from that thing.
The urban-rural dynamic has a built in conflict that we can take advantage of. The taxation is another hook that we can build on. The judgement of character from both sides is something that we can take advantage of. Lastly, the fact that the village needs protection is something that we can easily take advantage of. When we think of all that through the lense of “power corrupts”, we are starting to see a very specific sort of picture. So, we can address those issues one at a time.
Let’s deal with the protection thing first. If power corrupts, then we can introduce an outside, corrupting force that the village comes into contact with. Long ago, there was a special book that the maker used to create the world. Our forgetful maker however, left the book behind. In time, the book’s power brought many to search for it. Even rumors of the book would call adventurers and scavengers from the world over. Those who managed to possess the book became like gods and lorded over the others. When the maker saw what was happening with it’s book, it destroyed the book and scattered its shreds throughout the world.
That bit of backstory easily sprung from “power corrupts” and the fact that the town needs protection. Why does our little village need protection? Well, there are those out there who may have a shred of the book. With a book that powerful, even a shred can grant awesome power. So, the town needs protection from those out there that are using that power for nefarious reasons.
The issue of judgement is another easy one. In this world, the best route to power is to own a shred of the maker’s book. So, let’s say that three shreds are located in the city. In the hands of its three noble families who run the city itself. If that is true, then obviously the town’s lack of even a single shred means that they are beneath the nobles. The nobles obviously see the village as an unfortunate burden that they must carry and protect.
We already know quite a bit about our world and more specifically about our village and city. Now, it’s just a matter of naming the places, figuring out a look for the places and adding enough plot hooks that something is going to jump out at the players. Time and again, we need to go back to the theme of “power corrupts” because it is our most powerful tool. We know that it isn’t the power itself that is exerting a corrupting influence, it is the fact that it’s being possessed that gives it the corruption. We know that magic is rare and quite powerful in the world. We know that because it comes from the shreds of the maker’s book.
For extra credit, come up with more things that we have learned about the world and post them below.