There are quite a few world building articles (and podcasts) on Gnome Stew. Heck, I’ve even written one. However, that’s not the point of this article. I’m not going to talk about tectonic plates, rivers, mountains, trees, natural and political boundaries, and so on that make up some of the elements that go into building a world. Instead, I’m going to zoom into a defined and limited geographic area and talk about creating a setting within that area.
If you’re creating a setting, I’m going to assume it’s for a game you’re about to run or a campaign that is underway. Either way, you should have the genre determined for the game/campaign. This means you’ll know the genre you’re setting is going to reflect. Dropping a neon sign in the middle of a remote halfling village probably won’t match the theme, style, or tone of a fantasy setting. Sure, there can be exceptions to this if you’re mashing up genres. Do whatever is appropriate for the genre(s) of your game, but make sure the choices are thought out in advance to not break the tone or tropes of the genre you’re representing at the table.
The Area First
Determine the physical size of the setting that will contain your game. This can range from a single building or grow to be a sprawling complex of buildings. It could be a small village, a neighborhood in a large city, the large city itself, a region containing many settlements, a nation, a continent, a world, and so on. In some science fiction settings, you might even get to multiple planets, a star system, a local cluster, a galaxy, or the universe itself. However, I would argue that each settlement, nation, world, planet, etc. can be broken down into its own setting.
I would recommend thinking small and immediate as opposed to bloated and wide-ranging. Handle what your PCs are going to encounter in the immediate few sessions and grow out from there. The trick to “grow in the right direction” as the PCs expand their horizons, so you’re a step or two ahead of them in creating new settings.
If the “world” that you’re in is a metropolis for its time, then I would start with the immediate neighborhood for the initial adventure or two. Give the party gobs of reasons to stay put in their neighborhood and some motivation to stay away from “those other areas” of the city. Basically, keep the clues, NPCs, villains, action points, and encounters centered around and important to the neighborhood. Make sure the plans you have are tight-knit and attached to the neighborhood, so that if the party wants to explore outside the neighborhood, you’ll let them know that it will take time to get there and back and do whatever it was they wanted to do across town. If you have a timer going, this will consume some of that timer until Something Bad Happens. That should be ample motivation to keep the party attached to the local area.
Styles, Themes, and Tone
Step one: Set a timer for twenty minutes.
Step two: Head on over to TV Tropes.
Step three: Plug your genre into the search bar at the top.
Step four: Start reading and clicking and absorbing what you don’t already know about what builds the styles, themes, and tones for your genre and setting.
Step five: When the timer goes off, STOP. Close the tab(s) you have open.
Step six: Let what you’ve read rest. Give it time to percolate on your own. You’ll be amazed at the ideas that will bubble to the top over the course of some time. If you have to do something, make it a low mental effort. Something like a shower, doing the dishes, vacuuming, or walking the dog. You’ll be amazed at what the seeds of information from TV Tropes will do for your idea growth.
What governmental entities control or influence the area for your setting? How strong or weak is that influence? Are your PCs aligned with or against the various governments? In most RPGs, we tend to lean into a monolithic government, but this is rarely true to reality. Granted, we don’t want to get as convoluted as reality because that way lies madness. However, you can represent various controls (or granted freedoms) at the national, state, county, city, and HOA levels in a modern setting. There is plenty of give and take there between all of these entities.
You don’t need to go into deep detail about the five levels of government that I listed above. Just hit the immediate needs that touch upon the game. Also, it doesn’t hurt to make up weird laws/rules that the PCs may or may not be aware of that can alter the story being told. True story: I’ve had a friend almost fined into the poor house because the head HOA person didn’t think the paint on his house was “fresh enough and too faded.” Strange, eh?
I’m also going to put police and military under the government umbrella because these organizations are typically created by, controlled by, and ruled by the government at different levels. Don’t forget to include some level of law enforcement in your setting because for as long as humanity has had laws there have been people tasked with the enforcement of those laws.
Governments aren’t the only official structures that can control or influence an area. There are plenty of opportunities to create companies, megacorps, unions, guilds, and other organizations (see the HOA mentioned above) that the party can run into, bounce off of, become enemies with, befriend, or work for. These are a type a faction, but I have them listed out separately because they generally operate with some level of blessing or approval or licensing from the government.
Depending on your setting and genre, the list of companies, unions, and guilds can be wild and varied. Like with establishing the area, think of your genre and how you implement these aspects of a setting. Everything here should be in support of the themes you’re using. Having a megacorp buy up all of the farmland in a rural, fantasy setting is probably not going to happen. However, the nation’s leader could easily invoke some sort of divine right or imminent domain ruling to come in and claim all of the farmlands for himself or herself in a fantasy setting. If you jump to a cyberpunk setting, my two examples above would easily flip places. In other words, megacorps would be the true sources of power while the national leader would most likely be impotent or weak.
Religious organizations can influence a setting as well. If you have an area that is monotheistic in nature or a strong theocracy, then the higher power of the religion is going to have a strong grip on what does and doesn’t happen in plain sight or in public spaces. If you have a polytheistic set of religions, then each individual higher power is going to have varying degrees of control over how people act. At an extreme (especially in a fantasy setting where diving power is real and tangible), there may even be a governmental restriction (or ban) on religion as a whole.
Factions tend to interact with the setting in a manner similar to companies, but typically outside any government regulation or control. As a matter of fact, some factions are going to be illegal in some manner. Factions range from minor amounts of influence to international control of massive business (or financial) ventures. Not all factions are bent on global dominance. Honestly, most factions in most settings are going to be focused on the “core setting” and maybe the immediately surrounding areas.
A short list of factions includes:
- Political parties
- Youth groups (think scouts)
- Social Activists (legal and otherwise)
- Organized Crime
- Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods (Masonic lodges, VFW, Elk lodges, etc.)
- School clubs
Down near the bottom of the “influence ladder” that I’ve been building thus far are important or independent NPCs. Look at everything you’ve developed above and try to find small nooks and crannies left behind where NPCs can be slipped in like cement between the larger stones. This is where you’ll find your powerful or independent NPCs. They’ll be there to provide services, tasks, missions, quests, support, advice, or even opposition to the party.
What jobs are there to do in the setting? Who is giving out those jobs? Why are they giving out the jobs instead of doing the task themselves? What is the objective of the job itself? What are they paying? What are the risks? What are the rewards? What personal ties do the PCs have to the job? What organizational entities (from above in this article) are allied with the party during the job? What entities are opposed to the party? What entities just don’t care if the PCs succeed or fail?
There are definitely more questions you can ask yourself about each job that you present to your party. The important part is that the job needs to originate in the setting and conclude in the setting. It’s best if the entire job occurs within the setting you’ve built, but this is not a requirement. If you send your PCs off into the unknown parts of the map, be prepared to have some settings ready to go to fill in those blank parts of the map.
Weaving in the PCs
I’m leaving the most important part for last. Once you have the above built, it’s time to present a brief set of information (2-3 pages) to the players in a quick-read format. This should present to them the government style, active religions, major organizations, important factions, well-known NPCs, and so on.
Once your players have read this information (and don’t count on all of your players reading everything, sorry), you can ask them to build out a background with hooks during session zero. One hook should place them in alignment with at least one organization. They should also have an optional hook that puts them in opposition with at least one organization. Another hook can have them be in some sort of relationship with an independent NPC. This relationship doesn’t need to be romantic or even friendly, but they need to know each other. Lastly, there needs to be some intra-party hooks between the characters. However, this is typically outside the setting building, but it can be influenced by the setting quite a bit.
I hope this information helps you build stronger and more three-dimensional settings for your games. Obviously, there are many other aspects of settings that I have not touched on here. What are some of your favorite ways to approach building out a setting? What aspects or angles do you include in that building process? I’d like to hear from you.