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Defining a Setting

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 140
When beginning work on a setting, it’s useful to start with a concise description of your idea—a mission statement of sorts. Try to keep to the essentials. If the setting is derivative of something else, don’t be afraid to note that. Every artist pulls inspiration from existing work, and this is just a starting point—by the time you’re done, your setting will likely have evolved into something completely different. Moreover, if you try too hard to make a setting unlike anything your players have ever seen before, it might leave them confused and disconnected—having to confront a 60-page synopsis just to be able to create a character gives players a major incentive to go play something else. Drawing from the real world or fictional universes familiar to your players gives them an easy entry point, and when a player can visualize the world you’re presenting, it’s easier for him to get caught up in it. This initial premise is also a good place to note any fundamental rules you intend to follow, such as a lack of intelligent non-humanoids or a quirk in the way magic works. Your entire concept might be something as simple as “an alternate history Europe, but with a Viking empire bigger than Rome’s.”

When working on this setting definition, remember that a setting is not a world. Focus your attention on where you expect to spend most of your time in the campaign. Later on, you can always expand outward—this is often known as the “bullseye” method—and leaving blank space around the edges of the map creates a sense of mystery key to exploration.

More than establishing any concrete facts, your fundamental concept for your setting needs to capture what makes it special and different from other settings. Try to answer questions like the following: What is the single most defining aspect of this setting? What is the one-sentence hook that would make players want to play in it, and what aspect are you most excited to work on? It also helps to write down what type of game you’re hoping to run. Is it a swashbuckling sword and sorcery adventure? Complex political intrigue? Wild magic in the wilderness? A good setting should encompass and facilitate multiple types of play, but defining the game you want to run can steer you toward setting choices that compliment it.