A setting is the time and place used to define a narrative. It adds context and atmosphere to a story but also acts as a stage the characters can inhabit and interact with. The setting is one of the pillars of a roleplaying game, but a good setting is also like a character in itself. It has its own heart and soul, as well as different moods that influence the characters and their actions. When creating your own setting, you need to picture it as a character. Characters are the sum of their parts, living entities formed over time and influenced by their experiences. A setting is also the sum of its parts, a living breathing entity formed over time and influenced by history, environments, people, and politics. By understanding how these aspects formed the setting, you will understand how the setting responds to new influences and new experiences. While this blog post will focus on building a setting for a pen-and-paper roleplaying game, much of the information we will go through here will be useful for other creative endeavors as well, such as writing fiction. I am going to divide this post into four parts: the Skeleton, the Flesh, the Soul, and the Method.
The first thing you need to figure out before creating your setting is to know what kind of setting you want to make. This can often be tied to a certain genre or theme you are going for. There are a number of different genres that you could write a setting for:
- Fantasy tends to reflect a setting containing magical or supernatural elements. It is a genre often associated with historical settings, but it can also be added to contemporary or futuristic settings if it is believable within the context of those settings. Star Wars is an example of a futuristic setting (even though it is technically in the past) that contains fantasy elements, though as soon as midichlorians became a thing, those fantasy elements were narrowed in by perhaps unnecessary scientific explanations. But even though the midichlorians could explain the fantastical elements within the setting, you could still just as easily call Star Wars a futuristic fantasy as well as a science fiction.
- Historical settings are arguably one of the most difficult genres to write, at least if you want to make them believable. A true historical setting must be based in facts, and if it contains too many inaccuracies, people will notice and criticize it for them. Many fantasy settings, such as Forgotten Realms, use historical elements to define the setting, but because it is primarily a fantasy setting, there is not the same need for historical accuracy. Regardless, even a historical fantasy benefit from researching the historical period or culture you use as inspiration.
- Horror settings are defined more by their atmosphere and mood than by whatever historical era they are most closely associated with. Horror is difficult to write, because it relies on your ability to portray atmosphere through your writing. If you fail to convey the atmosphere, the setting becomes trite and silly. You want your horror setting to instill emotions in the players, and it becomes more effective if you focus more on the atmosphere than on taboo subjects and gore. You want your players’ discomfort to be because they are afraid of what lurks around the corner, not because they are uncomfortable by the subject matter, though some subject matters can certainly be used to reinforce certain emotions.
- Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. While it is often as broad and fantastic as fantasy settings are, it tends to root its explanations in science, or at least alleged science. This science does not have to correspond perfectly with real world science as long as it is believable within the context of the setting. It tends to use technologies instead of magic as tools to solve problems, and it often requires some manner of research if you want to make your science and technology compelling to the players. Science fiction can be added to contemporary settings by extending and developing our own established technologies and understandings, but it is often seen more in futuristic settings than in historical ones.
If you write fantasy or science fiction, it is likely that you will need to build an entire world from scratch. Doing so is a much bigger project than creating a setting that uses the real world or an existing world as its foundation. The closer your setting is to our own contemporary world, the more people can relate to and immerse themselves in it. But if you distance your setting from the well-understood contemporary world we live in, you can also distance yourself from explanations and inaccuracies, which gives you more artistic freedom to basically create what you want to create.
Before deciding what kind of setting you want to create, also keep in mind who your intended audience is. Different settings appeal to different people, and you may need to alter your presentation depending on the audience you want to reach. The reason A Song of Ice and Fire reached the non-fantasy audience is not because of dragons and ice zombies, but because it focused the story on human behavior and political intrigue that had not been seen before to that extent in the fantasy setting – though it is much more common today, most likely because of A Song of Ice and Fire. No, George RR Martin managed to ensnare the non-fantasy audience by gradually introducing the fantastical and never letting it become more central than the characters themselves. If you know who you write the setting for, it will help you figure out how to best present the setting to that audience. If you want your fantasy setting to ensnare the history buff, do as much research for your fantasy setting as you would do for a historical one.
Also consider if your setting should have any overlaying themes. Do you want to say anything with your setting? Does it represent something important to you in the real world? A setting’s theme could be ideological, inspirational, or emotional, or it could be a combination of things. You do not need to know everything about your setting’s themes before you start writing, but you should try to be aware of it as your writing progresses. The setting for Cyberpunk 2020/Red could be said to be ideological, as a commentary on corporativism, capitalism, and transhumanism. The inspirational theme for Blue Rose‘s setting could be said to be the value of human connection, and how a person should strive to forge bonds before making enemies. The emotional theme for Vampire: the Masquerade‘s setting could be reflected by the Beast’s toll upon humanity, and how losing control could lead to fear, pain, and desperation.
Every setting has a number of themes, and by deliberately exploring these themes when writing your setting, you will get a clearer picture of the kind of setting you create, and what kind of stories could be told within it. And this brings us to the topic of player interaction. How do you want players in your setting to interact with one another? Some settings inspire cooperation, while others encourage competition. What will your setting inspire in the players and what will they want to do when playing in it? You do not need to have answers to every question at this stage of the project, but it is important to keep these questions in mind as your project develops.
When fleshing out your setting, it is recommended that you first focus on the overview before zooming in further and further until you have established a stage and provided tools for plot. The overview could be categories of information such as individual planets, nations, climates, and cities. From there, you zoom in on stage foundations such as neighborhoods, hospitals, and forests. Finally, you provide the tools for plot, such as buzzing markets, greedy businessmen, or dangers in the dark.
When building your overview, keep in mind that individual climates influence both situations and people. It is important to understand how a desert differs from a taiga for example. Because a desert is limited in resources, a desert society is less likely to use an abundance of wood in their architecture compared to a society that lives in taiga. Harsh climates make for grim lives, while fertile climates allow for more carefree lifestyles. No matter where in the natural world the setting takes place, take note of the geography and the climate and think about how it could influence the story and the characters. After you have established the overall climate and its influences, zoom in on humanity’s influence upon the geography. Man-made landmarks such as dams, bridges, towns, or ruins are important to represent a living world with history and meaning. Avoid a static world where everything is its own isolated community with no history beyond the present point and no reach beyond its borders. Instead, try to figure out why life in your setting is the way it is. Different landmarks should have different ages to represent the flow of history, and different eras could have had different cultures with their own influences on these landmarks. You could study any city in the world and find remnants of older generations. In our own world, modern high-tech cities are built around ancient castles. Buildings centuries old are intermixed with buildings from this decade, and while old buildings may still be used for modern means, they still stand out from the rest and their history is still apparent. These are details that make locations interesting, and that makes the world feel alive and everchanging.
This applies to the people inhabiting these settings as well. Cultural, political, and social influences range widely and affect people in different ways. An open society have intermixed different norms and cultures into their own, while isolated societies are more set in their ways. People are also influenced by ancestral culture, which can be noticed in their cuisine, celebrations, attitudes, and values. Contemporary changes have drastic impacts on culture as well, such as when a free democracy becomes a fascist tyranny and a people with one set of values are forced to endure another. This is common in settings ravaged by conflicts, where war has torn countries apart and people with clear memories of better lives are forced into squalor. These are the types of details that not only help to bring the setting to life, but also present tools for the players to use when crafting their own stories. When writing about the people of your setting, keep in mind details about demographics, such as what different types of groups and belief systems are prevalent, and how they connect. What are people’s social views and how do these vary between groups and individuals? Most societies usually have one set of social views that are considered the norm, and contesting views that are considered alternative or variant, and that may be seen by the norm as cause for conflict. What exactly this norm is varies from group to group and location to location. In our own world, we constantly see clashing ideologies, both in real life and in social media. Try to represent this in your own world in order to show that people are similar but different, which will ultimately make the setting feel more real.
When presenting the setting in writing, too many details can be overwhelming. Instead focus on the major details that characters may want to interact with. Always look over your own writing and try to determine if the information you are adding to your setting is a focus or a backdrop. While backdrops are important to glue everything together, the focus is what will ultimately be the stage for the story. Do not over-describe the backdrop. Instead, focus on the main stages and leave the backdrop as a vague canvas that the game master can fill with their own information. Always remember that your setting will be defined by the quality of the details, not the quantity of them. For example, instead of describing a town’s blacksmith in detail, present a backdrop that makes people understand that the town has or could have blacksmiths, and shift the focus to what really stands out in that town – maybe the town is run by a cult of the spiral god, or perhaps a curse has cast the town in unending night. Both are details more important and more interesting than the fact that the town has a blacksmith. But if you want the blacksmith to be the main stage of the town, you must present some kind of driving force that hooks players in. Maybe the town’s blacksmith has an anvil forged from a fallen star, and every weapon forged on that anvil is a weapon that can slay a god. Suddenly the blacksmith is both important and interesting.
Once you have determined primary focuses and story hooks, as well as backdrops to connect them to the overall location, think about what lies beyond the central location and how it connects to that. If you have written about a city or a nation, try to figure out some details about surrounding environments, cities, and nations, some interesting aspects about them, and ways they connect to your central location. These become more than simple backdrops, because they place the central location within a larger context and make the world more alive as a result.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of adding history to your setting to make it feel dynamic. But time does not only need to represent history. You can use the passage of time to show how your setting changes. How does the city you are writing about change with the passing of the season? Are there any important festivals honoring gods, saints, or heroes? By using the passage of time as an additional setting detail, you introduce new ways to use a setting and reasons to come back to it and still have new experiences. On the macro scale, you can design your own calendar, constellations, and astrology to come with it and then connect those details to your setting’s cultures.
Even after you have built a setting that presents a time and a place for adventure, there are aspects to consider that would vastly improve your setting from another. I already mentioned the importance of a living and everchanging world, but the soul of the setting is what will truly immerse players and present endless opportunities for stories and adventure. One such element is the setting’s inherent plot; something that is constantly happening around the characters to make the world dynamic and to present story hooks the GM and players can use for their chronicles. A setting needs conflicts and obstacles to overcome. This could be political turmoil, the end of an era and the rise of a new. A driving force that influences the setting itself just like the setting influences the characters. The GM needs to introduce challenges for their players every session, and the more tools for conflict you add to your setting, the more tools the GM will have to challenge the players. In Harry Potter, the magic is used to flesh out the world, but the magic is not the soul of the setting. That is the return of Voldemort, the driving force that influences the setting and forces it to react to its presence. While the setting for Harry Potter could contain countless stories that involve magic, Voldemort’s presence is the driving force and ultimately the soul of this particular story. When writing a roleplaying game meant to inspire countless stories, you need to riddle your text with Voldemorts to present as many opportunities for story as you can. You basically try to animate your setting’s flesh.
Some may say that a good roleplaying setting needs incompetent authorities or militaries in order to have the conflicts last and the players become meaningful. I say that this is nonsense. The argument there is that competent authorities would negate conflict and solve problems without the need for players. That is poppycock. Your job is to create a believable setting, which includes believable authorities and believable militaries. You create a dynamic world where people try to live their lives without being idle morons waiting around for players to solve their problems. The conflicts and story hooks are contained within and surrounding this inhabited world. Just because an authority or military is competent enough to solve their own issues, does not mean that other issues do not exist, or that there are not obstacles for them to overcome. If you find no meaning for players to be challenged within a setting, the setting is probably too simple to be interesting, and does not provide enough context or inspiration for the GM to grab on to. So, the next time someone tells you that your setting needs incompetent authorities and militaries, tell them that you have no time for guff and baloney.
You can use language to establish mood in your writing. Different setting pieces should have different moods, and this signals to readers how to interpret certain aspects of your writing. While I do not want to go into too much detail about writing tricks in this blog post, I still think these are important suggestions for how to give your setting as much soul as possible. By focusing on a few aspects when writing, you can drastically control the mood. First, you should present details of the setting by describing non-visual information, such as sounds, smells, taste, and touch. Do not be satisfied with describing the dire wolf’s gray fur and sharp teeth. Describe how its howls make the mountains creak, how it masks its scent by rolling in its prey’s blood, and how its bite feels like being stabbed by icicles. New writers often forget about the non-visual senses, but there is no denying it that adding these details to descriptions makes the setting feel more alive and the mood more apparent. These types of descriptions also help to guide the GM in how to present your setting to their group which will be important to ensure their immersion. Talented game masters will add sensory descriptions themselves without you having to tell them. However, remembering to add them when writing your setting will only serve to improve your text and inspire the reader.
Also remember to highlight stark contrasts within your descriptions. If your setting is dark and dystopian, contrasting the darkness with aspects of light and hope helps to further accentuate that darkness. If everything is bleak or everything is perfect, the setting becomes blasé, and the setting’s character is nothing but a corpse. Even a dark and dystopian setting must be written with the intention of giving it life and meaning. The Shire stands in stark contrast to Mordor, and while these two locations are divided by a lengthy story, they are both connected through that story. By recognizing the contrast from where the story started and where it ended, the story itself became more vibrant. That is something to consider not only when creating a new world, but also for storytelling in general.
Whether you place your setting in the real world of not, it is helpful to research contemporary locations. If you cannot visit a place yourself, you can use Google Street View to give yourself a virtual guided tour of places all over the world. When creating a city, try to narrow down common features among real contemporary cities. Even if your city is placed in another historical era, there are things you could learn from contemporary cities that could translate to historical ones. Translating an aspect from one era to another is a good creative exercise in order to make interesting cultures, just like it is to blend different aspects together. For example, what would it look like if you used the Sami as an inspiration for a culture of futuristic space nomads? What if you decided to take inspiration from ancient Mesopotamia and add it to the Sami to create an amalgamation of the two cultures? These types of creative exercises not only act as guidelines towards creating unique cultures, but they also help you to better understand real life cultures and what it is that makes them stand out.
If you have trouble imagining your setting, Pinterest or Google Image Search are both good resources for inspiration. As long as you don’t plagiarize, you can steal ideas for your setting from similar or related settings. If you are writing science fiction, watch as much science fiction imagery as you can to trigger your brain. If your setting is historical, you should read history. History in particular is a good resource for most settings, even contemporary and futuristic ones. Learning about the rise and fall of empires on Earth could inspire you to write about the rise and fall of empires on a galactic scale. I personally draw much inspiration from music, and choose music based on what I am writing. There are plenty of mood music available on both Youtube and Spotify that you can play when writing. I try to avoid music with lyrics for the most part because it distracts me from focusing on the writing. Inspiration is probably the key component to create a setting. If you are not inspired by every aspect of your setting, you cannot hope to inspire your readers. It is important that you feel strongly for your creation, or it will end up flat and boring.
It is also important to be accurate and consistent. Every setting needs rules that define it. A historical setting should be as accurate as you can make it, and while most readers can forgive certain inaccuracies in your historical setting, larger inaccuracies such as adding dinosaurs and machineguns to your Ancient Rome setting may be a harder pill to swallow. Do your research and keep notes of details about your setting even if you will not use those details in the text itself. If you actually want to create a setting that depicts Ancient Rome with dinosaurs and machineguns, you need to make it believable within the context of that world that dinosaurs and machineguns exist. Even if it does not make sense when compared to the real world, it is important that it makes sense within the setting itself, or you cannot hope to have the players immerse themselves in it.
I’ve talked a lot about things to keep in mind when creating your own setting, but the most important thing of all is to have fun. If you do not enjoy your work, you should reevaluate it or take a break from it. I know that my own setting projects are full of flaws in many ways, but they still inspire me, and I still enjoy working on them, and that’s why I’m confident that they will be good in the end. And even if they are not good or if I get criticized for things I thought were good, I can see that as valuable lessons that will be helpful for future projects. Once you ignore people who offer constructive criticism on your work, you not only escape from valuable lessons, but you also prevent yourself from developing as a writer and game designer.
Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock