Smelting the Setting: Before Your Campaign Starts

As GMs, many of us use settings that came with our game, many of us add stuff to those settings, and some of us even use settings from other games/movies/whatever. Some of us also spend hours meticulously building our own settings for our players to immerse themselves in.

Doing so is a labour of love. It has to be. There are so many amazing and well-developed settings out there that you never truly NEED to write a new one all of your own, but many GMs choose to nevertheless. It is certainly one of the most satisfying aspects of the hobby for some. I’m sure there are thousands, if not millions, of amazing settings out there that never even saw the light of day on an RPG table, but people built them because of how rewarding it is.

This post is a checklist of things I have found useful in my setting preparation experience. It is one I fully expect to grow over time, and no doubt there will be follow ups, discussions and lessons learnt. It isn’t meant to be me telling you how to build a world, it is meant to be a thinking tool for myself and others to hopefully learn something about setting creation.

I’ll also get it out of the way and say this post focuses on the practical application of GMing. That is, making your world ready for the table. We’re not writing the Silmarillion here. We’re getting a game world ready to have our PCs wade around in it, looking under rocks and raiding ancient temples and generally being mischievous on a heroic scale.

Before session one:

  • A name that evokes something about the world.
  • A recent & relevant history you can explain in under 2 minutes.
  • An equilibrium for the beginning of the story.
  • A disruption to that equilibrium to involve the PCs.
  • A BBEG driving that disruption.
  • A starting location for the PCs.
  • Some key NPCs for the starting location.
  • Some hooks ready for the players.
  • Some hidden things ready to find.
  • Plenty of empty gaps to allow for player input.
  • Answers to practical questions (What can we buy here? What is the tavern like? What about the local temple?).
  • A clear idea of what lurks in the surrounding areas.
  • Some of idea of factions that exist in the surrounding area.

Between session one and two:

  • Answers to your players questions.
  • More developed ideas for the hook they showed interest in.
  • Clear ideas for how those hooks will develop.
  • Some ideas for how your PC backstories will work into your plot.

Nice-to-haves:

  • Maps. These don’t need to be accurate or detailed, real world maps rarely were until modern times.
  • Complete merchants and services for your town.
  • A longer history of major events ready for player questions.
  • Some appropriate encounters for if the players go full sandbox.
  • Laws of the land and how society handles things like that combat within city/town limits.
  • Some idea of the factions that exist within the broader world and how they interact.

Things to improve over time:

  • A more detailed history based on what the players want to know.
  • Backstories for the NPCs that can be revealed over time based on which NPCs the players bond with.
  • Details on the economy that might be relevant to gameplay, influencing prices for instance.
  • Everything else (see further reading)
  • Your random generation tools

These tips are intended to be a practical, gameplay-focused list of practical things a GM needs to do to have their world ready for players to inhabit. It isn’t the full process of worldbuilding. Below are some links for those interested in the more involved process of creating a more fully-realised world.

Further reading:

Fantasy Worldbuilding @ Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – This is incredible. Just amazing. In-depth articles on all sorts of elements of worldbuilding. If you are stuck, if you feel you need more details or if you are worried there is something you have overlooked, this is the place for you. However, if you are trying to reduce your preparation time, this is not for you.

A World Building Checklist @ Some Girls Wander by Convention – This is also in-depth, but has more an RPG focus. It has some really useful sections about how magic and technology and other things interact with your world and the gameplay experience.

I’m really keen to hear more about your perspectives and experiences with this. This list was made for me to get my new campaign up and running, and it is therefore nowhere near complete. Join me on Twitter or in the comments if you have ideas to contribute or discuss.

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