Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location: How to Create Your Setting

Every story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or an adventure game, has a setting. Maybe that setting is a whole new world, with strange beings and stranger magics, or maybe it’s a complex network of planets in the distant future. Maybe it’s an apartment complex in Chicago! No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it has to be set somewhere.

What do my players need to know?

World-building for an adventure game is very similar to world-building for any other story. You need to keep the same ideas in mind: structure, clarity, internal consistency, and so on. But there’s another challenge to keep in mind, one of perspective. For an adventure game, you’re going to have other people playing in your world, so you have to figure out what they need to know, and then how to convey it. So what, then, do they need to know?

They need to know everything. Surprise!

Your players are going to be acting as characters who live in this created world full-time. They need to have an understanding of how the world works. They need to know the geography, the politics, the social dynamics, the hierarchies, the major figures, the culture, and so on.

Going through this a couple of times, you learn quickly that people aren’t good at processing vast information dumps like that. As such, it’s important to figure out what matters most and concentrate on that. You can come up with all those details in your head, and you can mention them during world background, but they’re not what you need to focus on.

Does the game’s plot revolve around a succession crisis? Then give an in-depth explanation of how the monarchy works. Is it set at a boarding school? Focus on the social dynamics of the upper- and lower-classmen. Each story has different things that matter most about its setting. If you can find these defining characteristics and emphasize them, you’ll get a much stronger and more coherent setting.

Another interesting issue is that of misinformation and lack of information. World background can become an interesting exercise in releasing information calculatedly, which is a fancy way of saying “lying to your players”. I ran a game where I told my fantasy society all about their gods and how much they worshipped these mythical beings, which resulted in a lot of surprise when the gods showed up in-game and turned out to be conquering aliens from another dimension.

You can also use diverse world backgrounds to play with expectations. I co-ran a game that involved two cultures locked in a Cold War-like conflict with each other. We separated the players into two separate groups, and then gave them each different, propaganda-fueled information about the opposing side. Each side thought the other was a horrifying wasteland, and that they themselves were clearly the heroic protagonists of the game. When during the game the two armies were forced to work together against a much larger threat, the ensuing culture clash and misconceptions drove a lot of fascinating interactions.

What do the characters know?

The answer to this may be the same as the answer to the previous question, but not always! Many of our games are fantasy or science fiction adventures, in fictional worlds we create. In those cases, yes, the characters know all about the King of Mars and his sweet rocketship. But what about games set in the modern day, in secret societies or cults, or with various cultures?

In these sorts of worlds, many of the players may have characters who are otherwise ordinary people, and don’t actually know about the dark magics and demons they’re about to wind up involved with. In cases like this, games with secrets and mysteries, you have to strike a careful balance. You want to give your players enough information so that they know how to deal with the magicks and murder of your world, but not so much that there are no surprises. It’s a fine line, but an important one to keep in mind.

Often in worldbuilding for modern-day settings we talk about the idea of the Masquerade. This is the idea that the majority of people in the world have no idea about the secret world of vampires, or wizards, or ninjas, that goes on when they’re not looking. The masquerade is equal parts ignorance on the part of the normal people and careful secrecy on the part of those with power. An important consideration when doing modern-day setting design is the relevance and stability of the masquerade. Is this a world where vampires are openly accepted? A world where wizards are on the cusp of discovery? Are there people who wish they could wield their powers openly? How much do “ordinary” people know?

How do I know if my setting is working? If you’ve ever been to camp, you know that half of World Intro is taken up with the infinite sprawling telemetries of Q&A. Campers love asking questions, and will often ask things that catch the gamewriter entirely off guard. When you’re caught up in creating a setting, it’s easy to get bogged down in details, and miss some huge inconsistency that worked its way in. But rest assured, a camper will ask about it five minutes into the Q&A, and you’ll have to come up with an answer on the spot. Sure, you can handle that by being a master of improv, but there’s a better way.

Once you think you’ve got a solid idea of how your setting works, find a friend you trust and sit down with them. Make sure it’s someone who doesn’t know anything about your game yet! Now explain the setting to them, in as much detail as you plan to do for the campers, and see what questions they have. A fresh mind looking at your world will be able to spot things that probably slipped by you. They also might raise fascinating new ideas that hadn’t occurred to you, which can be great inspiration for character concepts, PC teams, or even flow points!

So, to recap:

1. Figure out the core of your setting.

What elements of the setting matter to the story? What are the central conceits that matter most to the characters and define the story? Figure out those characteristics, and focus on them. Make them shine, and make sure you understand them in detail. But remember that too much detail can be as overwhelming as too little detail is disappointing!

2. What do your players and characters know?

Figure out not just how the setting actually works but how your characters think it works. Their perspective on your world can define their worldview, and, characters with vastly different perspectives, or operating with false information, can lead to some neat developments.

It’s also an important thing to keep track of in a story—unlike in a game, the person controlling the character knows more than they do, so you have to make sure a character isn’t spouting knowledge they shouldn’t know.

3. Q&A time!

Get a friend (or better, a couple of friends) to come over, and then explain to them everything about your setting. Then have them ask you questions about it. See what comes up! You might be surprised at how much new material you wind up with… and how many holes you have to patch.

Later on, we’ll go into more detail about how to create settings and worlds of specific kinds, like high fantasy or urban magic. Write on, worldbuilders.

Original Post 12/13/13