The World is not enough: RPG Settings

Author’s Note: This article also appears in an edited format within the inaugural Tabletop Scotland 2018 programme – Bill, 26th December 2018.

Planning for the new Against the Odds D&D setting got me thinking: I’ve created so many RPG settings now that I’d  like to think that I’d developed a certain flair for it. It’s pretty straightforward really: creating a decent setting takes  some thought, but it’s fairly easy to do. I’m going to talk about a pseudo-medieval setting here but it applies to any game.

Summarise it. Get a basic idea for the setting in your head – think about the style of game you want to run. It’s easier for some people than others, but give it some time. Your setting will be different no matter how long you take.

Write down your ideas. You’ve got some ideas – write them down, then think about how they relate to each other. Sometimes they don’t work, so discard any that don’t. It’s a good idea to carry a little notebook around, then you can write them down: it’s amazing how easy it is to get random thoughts and inspiration!

Who are the bad guys? This is one of the major stumbling blocks for a lot of people creating a setting. If you’re wanting to start a campaign where the major antagonists are demons, undead or other powerful beings, then your 1st level PCs are going to find it hard to survive. On the other hand, even epic level PCs can be swarmed by Kobolds… customise the challenges accordingly.

Sketch it. Draw a rough map: you don’t want to be too detailed, but you want mountains, coastlines, rivers and any cities. You can add the smaller settlements later along with other terrain like deserts, hills and forests or jungles later. This also gives you a chance to create adventures sites later such as dungeons and ruins.

We’re all friends here. Given the variety of PC races available, think about the different races and how they may react to each other. For example: if dwarves and elves have been at war with each other for years, they will react very differently to parties containing their enemy. Tieflings are unlikely to be welcome in a city where Paladins rule.

Get political. Now you’ve got a rough idea as to what the country is like, you can start working out who the major political factions are – remember that neighbouring countries should also be considered: a warlike empire on your doorstep is very different to a benevolent kingdom. How fortified are the borders?

Movers and shakers. Create a list of the major NPCs – don’ t necessarily stat them up, all you want is a list of them and their motivations (and their “demon” if you use my idea from my previous blog).

Add a twist. What makes your RPG setting different? For example: is magic illegal? Is the kingdom run by vampires? Think about clichés and how to reverse them or twist them. Dungeons ruled by Red Dragons are unlikely to be situated under the capital city – unless the city is the dungeon!

Apply logic. Take a step back: if there’s anything that doesn’t feel right, or seems far-fetched, ditch it and go back to formula. Think about where everything is – most cities are built near water (or a water supply of some sort), for example. How does the country finance itself? Do they have a state religion?

Bend the rules. It’s all too easy to consider stereotypes as canon. Paladins may not be as strait-laced as they appear, tieflings aren’t evil. By modifying an existing race you can create a truly memorable nemesis. For example: the Orogkz in Ashes of Freedom have a few more hit dice and slightly better saves than normal Orcs, but they proved a lot tougher than the players thought! The Lizardfolk of the New World became a lot more formidable when their civilisation was fleshed out.

Create a pitch. You should be able to describe your setting in a few paragraphs. If you want folk to play, you need to sell it: how is the setting different from any other pseudo-medieval one? What do they actually know?

Don’t micro-manage. You can’t predict what your players will do, and should avoid creating the kind of campaign where you lead them around by the nose. You don’t need to create a map of every single area. Keep areas free to expand upon in future games – sometimes players can give you ideas for future games without even realising it.

Don’t give it all away. So you’ve got a cool setting: resist the temptation to give it all away! Don’t give away the secrets too early: make the PCs peel away each layer of the onion slowly.

Pace yourself. Make sure you end a game with a bang – or a cliffhanger!  If your players are discussing the game when they go home, your job as a GM is done. A game should end with a epic fight or a new twist. In my experience, its good to leave the players wanting more: ending just before the epic fight, or when the villain unmasks his/her self.

So those are my thoughts: hopefully they’ve provided some insight into what went into the ideas for my settings.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.