Vampire: the Masquerade and the Attraction to Evil

Back in the 1990s, every college campus across America had groups of young men and women meeting in public locations while dressed like vampires. This wasn’t for cosplay conventions or Halloween parties, though. No, these people engaged in live action roleplaying (LARP). Mind’s Eye Theatre, the live action version of the roleplaying game Vampire: the Masquerade, had been released, and young people were getting together for social intrigues and clan conflicts. For many, the 90s was a time when vampires became real. For some, they became a bit too real.

On November 25, 1996, a married couple were bludgeoned to death in their home in Eustis, Florida. Four teenagers were charged for the crime—one of them being the couple’s fifteen-year-old daughter. The mastermind behind this atrocious act was a young man named Rod Ferrell—and what he had done would turn everyone’s attention towards this game of storytelling and imagination. Rod Ferrell was the leader of a vampire clan, but his followers had stopped playing a game—the blood they were after was real.

What the factors were that had caused these kids to murder was a question for psychiatrists, but the public created their own answer. Roleplaying had been associated with satanism since Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1973, and these murders caused by self-proclaimed vampires only added fuel to that fire. But is there something about roleplaying—or Vampire: the Masquerade—that attracts people towards evil? The answer is no—duh!—but let’s explore that question anyway. What is it about a horror game that makes people want to play it? What is it about vampires that people are attracted to? And is there something about roleplaying that can do more harm than good?

The Pleasure of Fear

Let’s start by talking about fear—the strongest of emotions. From fear comes horror, a genre that is traditionally associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety and disgust. This has created a paradox: if horror is so awful, why are people into it? (Bantinaki, 2012)

American philosopher Nöell Carroll suggested that the pleasure of horror does not derive from the induced fear, but from a curiosity guided by the pleasure of disclosure. In other words, it isn’t the fear that is pleasurable, but the act of learning the truth behind the danger—the mystery behind the monster. Many are critical of Carroll’s idea, instead arguing that people do in fact draw enjoyment from the negative emotional responses, and that these emotions can be enjoyed in situations when we retain control; when we can at any time choose to stop the experience to avoid having the negative emotions pass a certain threshold. When embracing horror, we control how we approach that experience—we can decide to stop watching the movie, stop reading the book, or stop playing the game. When we have the agency to decide how to approach the experience, pain can become pleasure. (Bantinaki, 2012)

People can be contradicting in how they experience certain situations and emotions; it’s possible that an experience can be both unpleasant and desirable at the same time. It’s also important to point out that not all physical reactions from horror are painful; the adrenaline rush and increased heartbeat aren’t necessarily pains. In certain contexts, they’re excitement. When you expose yourself to certain anxieties from a place of safety, you learn to control your fear and display mastery over your reactions to frightening stimuli. The exposure to what’s unpleasant eases the negative hold the unpleasant things have over you. (Bantinaki, 2012)

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud suggested that both creative and destructive passions are contained in order to maintain social order. Art can be used to reflect repressed sides of human nature—to find ways to express the inner self without breaking the social order (Bowman, 2003). Horror can be manifestations of things society suppresses by cultural conventions. By embracing horror, a person could be expressing disagreement with political and social situations. Others could be drawn to horror as a way of testing their own bravery; some could be drawn to it because they feel abandoned, angry, and seek excitement and meaning by identifying with a character’s powerlessness. There are countless theories as to what drives us to the horror genre; some theories are contradictive, but so are people. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to immerse themselves in the genre—there is always a reason, but that reason could be hidden even to ourselves (Prohászková, 2012).

The Evolution of a Vampire

One staple of horror is the vampire, a mythological creature dating back to ancient times. The vampire can be found as blood-consuming ghosts in The Odyssey, Lilith of Hebrew legend, and the Roman Lamia. The modern vampire is often characterized by either the aristocratic or the brutal and has its origins in Eastern European folklore, though it grew to fame by being featured heavily in 19th and 20th century literature. One of the most obvious adaptations of the vampire was its sexual evolution. The traditional vampire tended to be plump and poor, as contrasted by the more known slender and aristocratic depiction. One reason for this change was because the chubbiness wasn’t seen as sinister, but also to make it more aesthetically pleasing to an audience (A. Asbjørn, 2001). Another reason was due to how society was rapidly changing due to industrialization. Prostitution was common in the new capitalist climate, and the female sex worker became a symbol for disease and disorder. Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists were known for using the female form to represent sexuality and the esoteric, but women’s sexuality overall had been turned into a metaphor for infection, contamination, predatory behavior, and death (Dawmer, 2003).

Fictional vampires, like Dracula and Clarimonde, were reminders of humanity’s darker selves and tested the limits of Victorian morality. They represented threats to and longing for things like gender-crossing, sexuality, and class fluidity; Dracula’s masculinity became a source of envy, and Clarimonde’s sexuality was the creation of starved imagination and suppressed emotions. These vampires were born out of extreme repression caused by the Victorian sexual morality (Icoz, 2003). In the case of Dracula, he represented perversion, and his destruction stood for the triumph of normative heterosexual masculinity (Williamson, 2003).

In the late 1900s, postmodern cultural turns gave birth to a more human vampire. Vampire: the Masquerade moved away from the traditional gothic vampires and modernized them. The game inspired films like Underworld and Blade to the point that White Wolf, the makers of the game, brought Sony Pictures to court for 17 counts of copyright infringement. There are ideas that have originated in the roleplaying game that have now become key concepts when it comes to vampires (Garrad, 2018). Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spin-off series Angel, all helped to establish empathetic vampires who had an intimacy with humans. The new vampires were communal and permitted to love, regret, doubt, and question themselves. Their acts became expressions of individual personality and condition rather than cosmic conflict; a vampire could suffer the pains of everyday life (Williamson, 2003).

Vampire: the Masquerade’s grander storyline is about the relations between clan bloodlines—which define a character’s ancestry and magical disciplines (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). The game is dominated by elements such as political structure, status economy, clan infrastructure, and conspiracy. Together, these elements inspire plotlines and direct the main storyline. When playing the game, whether in tabletop form or as live action, the game structure is largely tailored around social interaction. Through the roleplay, players get to engage in the invention, development, and practice of the social role relations that constitute society: superior/subordinate, parent/child, grandparent/grandchild, employer/employee, husband/wife, clergy/worshiper, and jailer/prisoner (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). There are also similarities in the vampire/ghoul relationship to a sexually charged master/slave relationship. The vampire is presented as a being that is very sexually dominant (A. Asbjørn, 2001).

White Wolf has never sanctioned games that allow actual weapons, drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, or bloodsucking. Instead, LARP games are supposed to be safe places to interact socially and express oneself through characterization. However, LARPs are still highly political, and has a hierarchy based on experience, maturity, and skill. More experienced players become guides for newer ones. This hasn’t always worked out well. There have been LARPs where people have had a hard time separating in-game events from real life, and where Storytellers have accepted money or sexual favors in exchange for in-game gains (Bowman, 2003). There are countless stories of situations when the social hierarchy of a LARP has become the hunting ground for actual predators.

Real Life Murders

It’s known that the flexibility of play in a roleplaying group can be dangerous if not properly regulated. Today, much emphasis is placed on safety tools in order to measure the participants’ mental states, but safety tools weren’t a consideration back in the 80s and 90s. There were cases of teen suicides that raised public concern, and the media questioned if players could distinguish between make-believe and reality. People were afraid of roleplaying games, and this taboo surely attracted predators to the hobby.

Then, we had the incident I mentioned at the beginning of this article, about the couple who were murdered by a vampire leader. Rod Ferrell and his followers were members of an alleged vampire clan (Lawrence Myhre, 1998) that consisted of thirty to forty members. They called themselves VAMPS, for “Victorian Age Masquerade Performance Society.” The group was initially harmless, but once Ferrell joined, they started incorporating sex, drugs, and violence into their activities—all under the pretense of roleplay. Ferrell had a history of neglect, sexual abuse, and a dysfunctional family life. After the murders, he became the youngest person on death row in the United States; though the death sentence was later overturned to life in prison where he remains today (White & Omar, 2010). Ferrell blamed the murders on a rival vampire clan leader who had allegedly sent people to incriminate his friends because he opposed a marriage which Ferrell wanted to set up between a girl named Heather and another member of the cult. Because Heather’s parents had objected to this marriage, Ferrell entered their home and killed them with a crowbar (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

This group had turned their vampire game into a cultural lifestyle. Ferrell wasn’t really playing Vampire, though. He was using the game’s political structure to create a cultural style for his gang. These kids allegedly cut each other and sucked up the blood in ritualistic fashion. They were known to kill small animals and drink their blood. It’s believed that Ferrell was inspired by the LARP in the creation of his cult, but that the members themselves truly didn’t believe they were actual vampires. These murders show how play can be twisted, though, without proper care. In the case of these kids, the game stopped being a game and became their reality (Lawrence Myhre, 1998). Of course, the case of Rod Ferrell and his cult is extreme, and while it struck fear in people in the 90s, it’s a far step removed from actual roleplay.

Roleplaying as an Expression of the Inner Self

But what is it that attracts people to roleplaying games like Vampire: the Masquerade anyway? It’s possible that roleplayers had become bored with the cookie-cutter characterizations of fantasy archetypes, and the black-and-white representation of good-versus-evil. In Vampire: the Masquerade, players operate under a much more complicated system of ethics. They undoubtedly engage in “villainy,” but villainous behavior is nuanced. Vampire: the Masquerade doesn’t care about a hero’s fight against an external enemy. Instead, the enemy is one’s own internal demons. Vampire: the Masquerade is “a game of personal horror,” and it depicts one’s internal struggle as infinitely more terrifying than that of a dangerous enemy (Bowman, 2003).

By roleplaying as a vampire—and using narrative as a framework to suspend aspects of morality—players can arguably reach deeper levels of representation and introspection than they would in a game of black-and-white morality. However, even though roleplaying triggers a mental transformation, the resulting character remains a reflection of you! When things happen to your imaginary character, they also happen—to some level—to you! At the same time, when your imaginary character acts out motivations, fears, lusts, ambitions, and even love, these activities—also to some level—reflect you! You could argue that roleplaying causes a psychological imprint on your real self, where in game experiences affect you out-of-game (Bowman, 2003).

Most roleplayers engage in the hobby for social activity, escapism, creativity, and problem-solving. It’s an excellent way to bond with others. Some roleplayers could have been social outcasts growing up and discovered personal strength through their characters. Others could have felt powerless in life, with the game presenting a new social sphere in which they can flourish. Roleplaying is also a great outlet for creativity or can be used as a psychological exploration. For example, some players’ characters may reflect the best parts of their personalities while for others, the characters could reflect who they might become if devoid of conscience or empathy. A character can be used as a tool to explore one’s own fears, or it can be used to overcome one’s own inhibitions and explore a “true” self—perhaps through an expression of sexuality or gender identity (Bowman, 2003).

Many players claim to have grown from playing the game, such as through increased confidence and self-awareness. Roleplaying is entertainment, but it’s also an escape from day-to-day life. Players who roleplay characters who are serial killers, drug addicts, social and mental misfits, and other social deviants explore darker aspects of themselves. Through dark play, players are enabled to roleplay deviant behavior. Some players learn to appreciate those aspects of themselves while others become disgusted with them. It’s not uncommon that players inject varying degrees of their own personalities, emotions, and motives into their characters—even the darker characters. In a sense, the players are as much like their characters as their characters are like them. Players who inject too much of themselves may reach a point where they roleplay their characters even outside of scheduled games, through their own inner thoughts and social expressions. For other players, their everyday social lives have an impact on their characters instead, and they use their characters to emphasize aspects of themselves (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

In Vampire: the Masquerade, the player roleplays as a predator. For some, this is less about morality and more about catharsis: by playing a monster, you get to face your own fears and inner demons; you get to face things you feel are wrong with the world head-on, such as corruption. By using roleplaying to experience the greed, lust, and corruption that drives the powers of the world, perhaps you can learn to better face the darkness of the real world. By roleplaying as a monster, perhaps you can get a better appreciation of life (Bowman, 2003). Vampire: the Masquerade has mechanics that incentivize morality play, as the vampire must struggle to retain its humanity. It’s possible for vampires to do good, but their inner Beast makes that struggle difficult (Tobias, 2003).

Many players join Vampire groups in search of communal acceptance and social value. The game allows them to present themselves in a new world, limited only by mechanics and imagination. The act of roleplay provides players with an enjoyable way of doing things they couldn’t do in the real world. They are provided an escape from having to worry about bills, employment, food, and war. It’s not uncommon for players to become mentally exhausted after intensive character play. The emotions they feel are real and can affect the real world. A shy player could become outgoing, and those with low self-esteem could become increasingly more confident. A player’s in-game successes could strengthen their personal resolve and shape them to become more like their character. They can earn confidence, empowerment, and purpose (Lawrence Myhre, 1998).

Conclusion

It wasn’t roleplay alone that turned kids into killers; there were social and psychological factors at play, and the game was used to inspire a framework for a cult. But there’s no denying it that roleplay is an intensely psychological activity, and that immersing yourself in an alter ego does—to some degree—affect your real self. One metaphor is that imagination is the ocean and reality is the shore, and roleplaying is the act of walking along that shore, with your feet touching the water while being close enough to land. While walking, you become aware of both the water and the sand, and you can easily tell which is which. But then, all of a sudden, a large wave of water can spill onto land, soaking both you and the shore. This is called psychological bleed, and it happens when the roleplaying triggers real emotions. Without proper care, without safety tools, and without respect towards players’ sensitivities, this bleed can cause harm.

A horror game can delve into territories that trigger real anxieties—causing this bleed—and while this can become a therapeutic and rewarding experience (when done right), it can be traumatizing (when done wrong). I love playing Vampire: the Masquerade and other horror games, even though it becomes difficult at times, but just like mentioned in the foreword of V5, playing as a monster isn’t an excuse to become one yourself.

Sources

A. Asbjørn, J. (2001). From Nosferatu to Von Carstein: Shifts in the Portrayal of Vampires
Bantinaki, K. (2012). The Paradox of Horror: Fears as a Positive Emotion
Bowman, S. L. (2003). “We Only Come Out at Night”: an overview of Vampire Role-Playing
Drawmer, L. (2003). Sex, Death and Ecstasy: The Art of Transgression
Garrad, J. (2018). Bleeding Genre Dry: archetypes, stereotypes, and White Wolf’s Vampire games
Icoz, N. (2003). The Undead: To Be Feared or/and Pitied
Lawrence Myhre, B. (1998). Virtual Societies: A Journey of Powertrips & Personalities – A Dramaturgical and Ethnographic Study of Winnipeg’s Original Live-Action Vampire the Masquerade Role-Playing Game Community
Prohászková, V. (2012). The Genre of Horror
Tobias, J. (2003). The Vampire and the Cyborg Embrace: Affect Beyond Fantasy in Virtual Materialism
White, M. & Omar, H. A. (2010). Vampirism, Vampire Cults and the Teenager of Today
Williamson, M. (2003). Vampire Transformations: From Gothic Demon to Domestication?

Art is from the Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition corebook

Creating Your Own Setting

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 Skeleton  

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.

The Flesh

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.

The Soul

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.   

The Method

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

Why You Should Write Homebrew

My history with designing roleplaying games dates to the very same day as when I played my first one. I was eight years old and had been invited to my neighbor for a game of Swedish TTRPG Drakar &Demoner. As soon as I saw the book, I was immediately hooked, and the game itself threw me into a life of nerdy passion that is with me to this day. After my first time playing, I went home sad that I did not have that cool book myself, so I opened a notepad and started to write my own game. I had never really read any rules before, but I had played a character for that one game, so I basically copied what I remembered and made rough drawings to go with it. I knew I was the best eight-year-old game designer in my neighborhood.

As I got older, I stopped writing games and started writing fiction. I never did it professionally, but I was passionate enough to attend classes in creative writing to try to develop that side. I developed this creative side that made me enjoy building my own worlds. When I later got back into tabletop roleplaying games, my go-to game became Exalted. Though I did a lot of creative writing at this time, I still did not write any homebrew. That started when I began to GM the game myself. I realized that there was always something my players or I wanted that was not represented in the books, and I tried to design rules for this myself. At times I got these fits of creativity that made me just want to write out some idea I had. Because I almost only played Exalted, all my homebrew at the time were for that.

One of the first homebrew projects I posted online was when I revised the Dragon-Blooded Charm set for Exalted Second Edition and wrote rules for Dragon-Bloods associated with the Underworld. I then went on to revise the Martial Arts styles from Scroll of the Monk. There was a lot of revising material that I did in my early homebrew days, and I believe that this was the most important factor behind my development as a game designer. By revising material, you learn the fundamentals behind that game’s system, and you develop an intuition for how the different rules connect. You are not just putting an idea on paper. You are trying to merge your idea with an existing game system, and by testing this homebrew in play, you get an understanding of what works and what does not.

Not every GM needs to write homebrew to get a solid understanding of the system they play but doing so is a good creative exercise to get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. By posting the work online and getting feedback on it, you are speeding up this understanding exponentially. I recommend that all GMs or aspiring tabletop roleplaying game designers try to write homebrew for their favorite games from time to time as a creative exercise. Whether you are a GM for Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted, try to write down some magic items or stat up some monsters. Compare them to existing items or monsters in the game to see how they fare against them. If you do this occasionally, you will not only get a better understanding of the ins and outs of the game’s system, but it will give you more options for creative additions to your own stories. If you have players who have read all the books, letting them face new stuff they are unfamiliar with can be very good for your continued games.

For aspiring game designers who want to create their own tabletop roleplaying games from scratch, writing homebrew for existing games is an important first step – since developing your understanding of one game system can be of benefit to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of a system of your own making – even if the games themselves are unrelated. You do not need to be a professional writer to gain something from writing homebrew. What is important is that it is fun and never feels like a chore. You should only do it if you think it is fun.

Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock