Is there an easier way to make an engaging campaign setting?
If you’re interested in being a game master, there’s a good chance you have a love for world-building. Many of us find ourselves in this role because we love story-telling and all the creativity that goes along with it.
But building an entire fictional setting can be time-consuming. It’s easy to get lost writing pages of history or lore that never sees the table. Sometimes the amount of work we think we need to do prevents us from actually enjoying the setting in game.
The good news is that creating your own setting and story doesn’t have to be a monumental task. I know it’s tempting to become engrossed in writing, but the real fun of a custom campaign setting happens when it hits the table. Getting it there sooner will mean you’re spending more time enjoying your creation and sharing it with your players.
No matter what kind of setting you’re thinking of, there’s a few key things that will help you make your vision a reality sooner. I’m going to talk about why you should focus on what’s most important and ignore the rest, why you should create tools instead of lore, and why getting the players involved in the world-building process can save you time and take your creation further.
Focus on what matters
Tabletop RPGs have endless possibilities when it comes to settings, and with few constraints it can be tempting to try and take on too much. If you have an amazing setting idea but don’t know where to start, the best thing you can do is figure out what is most exciting about it and narrow your focus.
Even though I love working on my settings, the fact remains that I don’t have an infinite number of hours to spend on them. So right from the beginning, I try to sum up the setting in a sentence or two (you might recognize this as an elevator pitch). Take some time making this. Try a few different drafts. When you’re happy with it, you’ll know what the most important part of your setting is—and that’s exactly where you want to spend the most energy.
If your setting is about political intrigue among the nobility within a gothic city ruled by the undead, then you don’t need to go into detail about the five other neighboring kingdoms. You don’t need a write-up of every shop and building in the city, either: you could create a quick list of different districts and focus on making the different noble estates unique and exciting.
If you’re worried about forcing this focus onto players that have other interests, it can be a good practice to make a list of things your players are excited about, too. Feel free to send them your setting pitch at this point and ask them what they think. They might come up with ideas you haven't considered—maybe one player wants to play a rogue that’s part of an all-vampire thieves guild that runs the city’s largest gambling den!
If your players are really not interested, I wouldn’t force it. If its the only group you’ve got to play with, creating something that’s more of a compromise is ideal. But don’t be afraid find a different group that is more excited about your setting if you have the option! Getting stuck running a campaign that you’re not interested in is a sure-fire way to get burnt out.
When you’ve settled on the things you and your players are most interested in, make a short synopsis—one page or less—and send it to them. It will get ideas rolling before character creation, and they can bring up any questions they have before you put in too much work. Keeping this page handy when you work on the setting will help remind you where your efforts are best spent.
Once you know where to focus, it’s time to look at what you’re actually creating.
Create tools, not lore
Our inner storyteller gets a huge kick out of digging into a fictional setting and seeing how much detail we can create. Many game masters (myself included sometimes) put a lot of effort into building cultures, histories, languages, maps, and other in-depth lore. The more detail we add, the more real our setting feels to us.
And that’s the problem: detailed lore does not make a setting feel realistic at the table.
No amount of writing is going to make this setting come alive. Because until it hits the table (and so much of our lore never does), it doesn’t exist.
I’m not guessing at this, either. I recently had to create a setting for a live-streamed campaign and didn’t have a ton of time to prepare. I kept my work short and sweet: I focused only on creating things I could easily print out and reference at the table. I made a list of towns and wilderness locations and wrote a small paragraph describing each one. I had a list of names and some random encounter tables. I was a little terrified going into character creation—I felt like I cobbled together some vague ideas instead of actually making a setting.
But I had a focus from the beginning, and it meant the work I did was relevant and exciting. I spent my time on the things I cared about, and it showed. My players were thrilled to create characters in this world I made, and their questions filled in some of the blanks I was afraid of.
The things I made were improvisation tools. When I wrote about a new town or wilderness location, I kept things simple: I made a list of descriptive adjectives I could use, 2-3 cool locations and NPCs (one-sentence each), and listed some potential threats or events that could cause some trouble. I didn’t even make a map.
What you need to make depends on scale. Think about where the campaign will take you: it might take place across a giant continent, within the borders of a single kingdom, or limited to a small village and the surrounding wilderness. I made a bunch of towns, wilderness, and dungeons, but your time might be better spent creating kingdoms or countries, with a few lines describing major cities or landmarks. Maybe you need to create districts within a city, and list a few important shops or buildings in each one. This part is up to you, but at the very least you’ll want to have a couple of locations and NPCs to throw in as you need during your first game or two.
When it comes to these kinds of tools, you know best what kind of tools you need, so trust yourself. I’m not great at making up locations on the spot, so giving myself some adjectives and interesting features helped. I’m good at making up small details for NPCs, so I stuck to a list of names and short descriptions. I’m comfortable plopping locations down as they are needed, so I didn’t spend time on a map. I’m not great at making encounters, so I made those before hand in the form of tables that I could roll on or choose from as I please.
If you're worried that this kind of light work will leave a lot of gaps, you’re right. The trick is using those gaps effectively. Instead of poking holes in your setting, they can provide opportunities for your players to contribute.
You don’t need to do this for every single location and NPC in the world right now. Figure out where you want the first adventure to begin, and focus there. As my players explored the world, I spent an hour or so fleshing out more of the setting between each game. This stopped me from working on things that wouldn’t get used, and meant I could add new ideas as they came up when we played.
I can’t stress enough that this is all you need to run a great campaign. I stuck with the process, and my players have told me again and again that this is one of the most engaging and interesting settings they have ever been a part of. And I believe it’s because we put small amounts of detail in just the right places instead of large amounts of detail into lore they won’t ever see.
Get the players involved
One of my favorite techniques (which is a big part of Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker) is turning a player’s questions back on them. During character creation and during the actual game, when a player asks about something I haven’t decided on yet, I ask them about it. Then I use their answers to add to the world.
This comes up a lot in character creation. A player might ask something like, “Is there a local bog that my witch character grew up in?” Unless it’s something genre-breaking, tell them yes and ask them about what this local bog is like and why they left.
It can happen as your playing, as well—at one point my party rescued an aarakocra warrior, and my player, also an aarakocra, asked if they recognized them. I told them yes, and instead of deciding who the NPC was myself, I asked them who this character was. Their answer (a childhood friend they hadn’t spoken to in years) was much better than anything I would have come up with on the spot!
Giving this agency to your players makes them feel like they are helping you create the world. This, in turn, makes them more invested and excited about it. If I had written out every detail about that NPC in advance, I would have missed the opportunity to include my player's input. And now, with zero time spent preparing them, I have a new NPC my player cares about that I can use in a future adventure.
There is some other prep work I value: customizing the rules when players make characters. For most games, changing features associated with their class or race is quick and easy. This can help the characters feel like they really fit into the setting. I was working on a harsh desert setting and one of my players was interested in being a waterbearer druid, part of a sacred order that protects local water supplies. We decided that their druid focused on water-based spells, even though they lived nowhere near the coast.
Small changes like this are all you need. 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons uses backgrounds (loose collections of training, gear, and personality traits) and creating some of my own is one of my favorite ways to get a feel for the setting and what kinds of people exist in it. Look for small changes you can make to your system, and remember not to take on too much. While a custom class is tempting, it’s definitely not necessary.
Go forth and create!
There’s so many ways to build a fantastic setting, and this is just one set of techniques. These tips work great if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, but I recommend them even when you do have plenty of time—when I let go of my lore-writing tendencies and embraced doing less work, it resulted in some of my most engaging and exciting games to date, for both me and my players.
Working on your own setting? Struggling to get your ideas on the page? Have your own tips for quicker world-building? Let me know in the comments!