Writing Setting for Play

August 18, 2014

Setting is tricky – it’s what you’re using as a group to create the story, so it’s helpful to have some of it for context.  Enough gets everyone aligned on what to create.  On the other hand, too much becomes homework or a specialized subject – you end up with some players who are experts and other players who barely know it – and instead of bringing your group together, they come apart because their understanding is completely different.

Narrow your Focus

First, most RPGs are…. more like series bibles or like massive lore encyclopedias – things that hardcore fans would get into, but not necessarily useful as a starting point.  Normally you point someone to a book, or a story arc in a TV series, or a comic book arc, or some kind of place that sets up a good introduction if it were another form of media.  

In this regard, it makes sense to narrow your focus SHARPLY for most rpgs.  A single city or region of local cultures is a good way to go.  Even if it’s very cosmopolitan, pick some kind of common factor (“Third rate nobles, desperate for real power”, “The underworld of gangs in the city”, etc.) so you can keep things simple. 

If your game uses some kind of class or splat system, consider cutting down the options and describing how they fit into the specific situation and setting. 

Focus on the Cool Stuff EARLY

One pitfall I see people do is many gamers want to do the “farmers to heroes” story.  What happens is the end up wasting several sessions on podunk stuff that’s not actually the meat of the story. 

To be sure, Tolkien spent a lot of time talking about people walking long distances, but I don’t think most people found that to be the fun part of the stories.  In fact, if you compare the other geek gold standard, Star Wars, you see we don’t spend a very long time on Luke’s farm – in fact, the movie starts with the real focus: the rebels. 

The point of having a “viewpoint” character who introduces the audience to the strange fantastic world is usually an excuse for having exposition about said world, but when players can simply ask, “What does my character know?” or have spent time reading about the setting, it’s not as useful of a tool.


As much as having a quicksheet of a single page (front and back) of important rules is useful, it’s also helpful to have one of the setting bits.  It gives players something to look at and read at the table without being a massive amount of information.  The nice part about a Quicksheet of setting is you can add more, one by one, as the sessions continue, so as to not overload the players with reading homework.

A particularly useful exercise is to consider for ANY given piece of information you’re going to cover on a part of setting is “What is the general, one sentence summary I would write about this?”   Start there.  It’s good to write everything up that way and then see if there’s any parts you absolutely need to do write more about that cannot be covered in play.

“What your character knows is that…”

A lot of setting can be established in play.  I really like to give setting based on character concept – the noble knows the power structure of the city, the criminal knows who’s been economically hurting lately, the soldier can say a bit about wars brewing and people from faraway lands…

If the game has specific knowledge skills you can simply give information based on that. 

“You’ve got Starship Engineer 5? Oh, yeah, you’ve seen these – X4-82’s.  They flooded the market as luxury cruisers, but sold poorly, ending up being popular on the secondary market once everyone figured out they could be modified for high speed smuggling.”

When it comes to setting – simplify your focus like a movie, but give out setting in play like a book – from the character’s knowledge, background and judgment.

Scarcity and Specialization

A useful thing to do is consider where your game is happening.  Is it a particular city?  A star system?  A particular valley?  Then, consider what kinds of characters make sense for that area – in terms of skills, classes, culture, etc.  Now look at the game system you’re using – decide which classes/skills/splats/abilities might fit or not fit.  For a given group/culture in this area, limit what they can pick from.

The scarcity provides context.  A lot of games become weird mishmash settings because there’s no context as to how/why these particular groups are interacting or relative common/rarity of these things.  If wizards only live in the Misty Islands across the water, everyone knows something is up when someone casts magic.  If only the Night Guard of the King use two handed swords, the minute someone shows up one with one, carries much more meaning than the sword itself.

You can do this easily with settings you create, but you can also do this with established settings by considering a location/place and events that may have happened recently to it.  “Yes, normally there would be Templars in this city, but all but the few who are no longer able to fight left when the orders came in.  That was 2 months ago, and no one has heard from them since…”

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