Why is it some games can give you 1-4 pages and sell you on the concept and give you enough to roll with, and other games have 200 pages of made up history that does nothing for you?
The trick to setting is that it has to be meaningful. The meaningful bits are what you load context with, that makes any given scene or event powerful instead of mundane. These are the hooks with which players build stories and meaning for play.
So like those last couple of posts where I redid Bahamut and Tiamat? I basically loaded them with values. Values are an easy way to load any setting with meaning. Groups, politics, philosophies, even the way you write the setting and the history explains an attitude about how to approach life, and players identify with them or want to twist them a bit, or express something about those values. This is a trick that White Wolf games use to the utmost with their splats and clans- the groups exist to sort players ideologically and set them against each other (or at least, provide tension in the face of larger problems).
What about places or objects? Again, it’s about detailing their history with something meaningful the players can play off of. A field of bones means little. The field of bones where most of your people were killed? The field of bones where dragons come to die? The field of bones of angels? There’s all kinds of ways to slant it and tie it specifically into your setting history and make it meaningful for players.
The other thing is to take the generic, and give it something specific. If we’re talking D&D and we have wizards? Come up with a specific order of wizards. What are the costs and prices for joining the order? What is the price if you leave the order? It’s one thing if being a wizard just means, “knowing how to do magic”, it’s another thing if being a wizard means using a magical pot full of the bones of children, or if it means having rescued a ghost, or if it means giving up half your lifespan. Maybe it means you’re automatically ocnsidered the enemy of giants and they’ll seek you out if they ever hear of you.
This context now loads the choices the players make in character creation. It provides both a cost and a challenge and gives more direction when people make those choices in play. It also loads the context when the players encounter a wizard (or whatever) in play.
The questions I ask (not necessarily in this order, but generally):
1) What is the local area/culture that the game is set around (city? nation? star system?)
2) What are the most relevant conflicts going on right now?
a) Who are the major powers in that (large factions-wise)?
b) What are their motivations?
3) What history plays a part in that?
4) Are there any kinds of slants or twists I want to take on game’s classes/clans/etc.?
a) Tie those into the above(or come up with them first maybe!)
b) Decide if this has any mechanical stuff I need to change
5) Tie the above into places and/or objects
6) Add description and color!