There are two types of GMs in this world: Those that enjoy world-building and would happily spend hours detailing a setting nobody will use, and those who hate world-building and just want to get on with the game.
Alright, I’m exaggerating. There’s actually a continuum from one extreme to the other. Regardless, when starting a new game, you’re going to want to consider the setting very carefully.
Prefab or Original?
The number one concern is this: Do you want to do a completely original world, or would you rather use an existing intellectual property as a launching point? Obviously no matter what you do, you’re not just going to re-create someone else’s story; even if you use all the same plot points the original author did, your players will likely send things spinning in a new and exiciting direction. However, there are many reasons to use an existing IP:
- Ease of use. Having a world already built lets you skip right to the portion where you work out your characters and story without having to define the world. If it’s your first time running a game, you might be feeling overwhelmed – at which point, don’t make more work for yourself than you can handle.
- Completeness. Some IPs have very well developed worlds; many have an encyclopaedia covering knowledge that didn’t occur in the course of the story, which can serve as a launching point for a new story
- Familiarity. It can be easier to find players if you use a popular IP like Pern or Harry Potter, as these have well established communities full of players looking for new games. Furthermore, you can expect that your players will understand the basics of the world before they design their characters.
- Story idea. Sometimes the idea for a game can come from a desire to explore a particular setting in more detail, or exploring an alternate reality in which things went differently. If that’s the story you want to tell, it’s going to be set in an existing IP rather than a new world.
However, there are also many bad reasons to use an existing IP:
- Laziness. Once the game gets going, you’ll have just as much work with an existing IP than a new one. Often, situations will occur that never existed in the canon you’re drawing from; it will be up to you to determine how to handle these things, which means you have to have a very good understanding of the world you’re running.
- System lock. Just because the game system you have comes with a prefab setting, like DnD’s Ebberron setting , doesn’t mean you have to use it. For some systems, like Call of Cthulu, the setting is part of the charm – but don’t ever be afraid to replace the setting details with one of your own.
- Popularity alone. While it may be tempting to tap into the huge network of, say, Harry Potter fans, if you don’t have a story to tell or anything new to say about the world, your game will stagnate quickly. Why would potential players pick your game over the dozens of other options? This doesn’t mean you have to make sweeping changes to the world, or that you have to have a very strong overarching story – it just means you have to bring something fresh to the table, whether it’s new and interesting characters, a pre-existing playerbase you can trust, or a twist on the setting.
- Do-over syndrome. Don’t be tempted to run a game just so you can tell the original story “better” than the author did. There’s a whole class of fanfiction for that. Your game will stop being about you the minute it opens to players – you’ll no longer have complete control over the story. If this isn’t something you want, you’re better off with fanfic in the first place rather than running a game.
On the other hand, there are many good reasons to make your own setting for a game:
- Creative control. You don’t have to put up with ideosyncrasies or unfortunate implications that someone else’s work might force on you if you made it all up yourself. It will be exactly what you want, and nothing else.
- Psychological relief. Some people feel timid about making things up in someone else’s sandbox; if it’s your own sandbox, you’ll often feel much more at ease making up new rules to fit unusual situations.
- Customization. Sometimes the story you want to tell just won’t fit in any world you’re familiar with. Rather than adapt it to fit a world, you can adapt the world to fit your story.
- Fun. Some people find worldbuilding fun and exciting on its own, without even considering the potential benefits to their game. 🙂
And then there are bad reasons to use your own world:
- Because you feel you have to. There’s nothing wrong with a game set in an existing IP; if that’s what you want, do it.
- Because you think it’ll attract more players. Not only are you forgoing the possibility of an existing fanbase, you’re also putting in a LOT of effort just so you can brag about having your own world – and a lot of people don’t want to have to learn the details of a new setting just so they can play, particularly if they have limited time.
- Because you need to control every detail of the game. Players ruin the most carefully thought-out setting, pushing into every cobwebby corner, and generally do exactly the opposite of what you want them to do; if you have to have control of everything all the time, you’re going to make yourself and your players miserable. Consider not running a game at all.
- To avoid doing research. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll eventually have just as much material to keep in your head for your own world as you would have to keep track of for someone else’s IP. Instead of combing through books 7 and 8 to remember that one scene where some guy offhandedly mentioned the thing you’re after, you’ll just be combing through a notebook of ideas for that chart you diagrammed outlining how it works and hoping you actually filled in some details.
Taking a third option
Of course, nothing in life is simple, easy, or binary, and the same goes for the land of RP. There are a number of other paths you could take besides adopting someone else’s world wholesale and making your own from scratch. I obviously don’t have room to discuss every possible tactic in the world, but here are some common ones:
Setting your game in The Real World
For certain games, nothing out of the ordinary is required at all. Therefore, many GMs opt to use the real world or some reasonable recreation of it for their RP. I consider this to be the same as using someone’s IP, except that your canon material is incredibly detailed and in-depth, and you can research a topic using wikipedia or google rather than combing through books. The real world, however, tends to be messy and complicated; don’t take this option if you’re feeling lazy, as you could end up seriously offending someone if you, say, set the game in their country without researching more than hollywood stereotypes. You might even piss off players by doing less offensive things like abstracting out what kind of gun a character has – a gun nut would be eager to find out the exact details, and if you don’t have them on hand, they’re likely to dismiss your game as under-researched. However, if you do put in the requisite research for each character and setting, there’s nothing wrong with setting your game in the real world.
Note that this does not include “the future” – because there’s no evidence to support what the world will be like tomorrow, let alone in ten years, let alone in a hundred years. Imagine setting a game in the United States in January 2002 back in 2000, or even in August 2001 – there was no way to know that a month later the country would be rocked to the foundation, so much so that by the time 2002 rolled around for us, it would feel unnatural to never mention 9/11.
This does, however, include historical settings, for which even more research must be done than current-day games. What was it really like to live in the year 1842, or 1200, or 300BC? Nobody alive today can tell you firsthand, and making things up is likely to confuse and/or piss off someone who happens to be a history buff.
Crossovers and Amalgamations
Why limit yourself to one canon when you can have four? Crossovers, where two canons are explicitly stated to be set in the same universe so that both are canon to the game, and panfandom games, where many fandoms are represented (typically by way of some plot device where characters are yanked out of their world and dumped in a new, neutral ground), are popular choices. Who hasn’t wondered if, for example, Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins would get along well? These, however, can be among the trickiest to pull off properly. Not only do you have to keep track of one canon, you have to keep track of multiple – AND decide how they interact with each other. Can a laser rifle shoot through a Sheilding Charm? Is Lestat weak to the Lumos spell? Does Edward sparkle when lit up by Superman’s solar-powered eye lasers?
One of the biggest mistakes I see in panfandom games is neglecting the “neutral” setting. Yes, the exciting part of the game seeing how the characters interact; however, you have to give them a place in which TO interact. “You all end up in a tavern in an unknown land, go.” doesn’t necessarily make for good RP; putting at least a little effort into describing the setting opens up options that players will take. In a similar note, don’t neglect your plot, even if it’s character-based. You’ll want to have a handful of ideas you can use to stimulate activity if things start to lag. Is there a nearby tribe of goblins who might raid the inn? Is there a pair of star-crossed lovers in town who might rope some of the characters into helping them plot an elopement? It doesn’t have to be much, but a little prep work can go a long way.
Even stranger tides
One of my favorite games to play in is set in the future, in a world with virtual reality; VR allows people to run simulations based on existing IPs or on new ones as they please, with the landscape ever changing so things can be tried out and then discarded. There are dozens of possible ideas – if you have a good example, leave a comment.
Getting started with an existing IP
- Review the canon. Read every book in the series – even the ones by that guy who took over after the other author died!; watch every film – even the prequel trilogy!; watch all the episodes, even the filler ones. This time, review with an eye towards what might be useful to your world. If it helps, write down when important things happened so you can easily find things again – use post-its if you’ve got a book. If someone asks you a question that’s already been covered by canon, there’s no excuse not to know what the answer was, even if you’re going to throw it out and use something else instead (which, by the way, is perfectly acceptable).
- Review secondary sources of information. Guidebooks, fansites, interviews – how will you know if you want to use it if you don’t know what’s out there?
- Decide what is canon to your world and what is not. If you’re making changes to the historical timeline – for example, a “What if Harry Potter was never born” game set during Voldemort’s unchallenged reign – this is where you have to do your homework. What would change? For a timeline shift like that, you’ll want to start at the beginning and go forward. It’s easy enough to say, “Hermione would be dead because Harry didn’t save her from the troll in year one” – but that doesn’t matter if Hogwarts closes down due to Voldemort blowing up half the school. Even if you’re not shifting the timeline at all, however, sometimes you’ll want to disclude things – author interviews, say, might not be canon, or that one filler episode nobody liked can just be retconned out of existance. If you’re doing this, however, ensure that your players know, so everyone’s on the same page.
- Decide where and when your game is taking place. This does not have to be the same as the where and when of the canon; Maurauders-era, for example, is a popular time to run Harry Potter games, due to the lack of known information opening doors for new characters. Generally, if you’re going to allow new characters, you don’t want to lock them out; a spaceship with only 5 people on it will have to stretch to accomodate 15 new OCs, particularly if you’re setting the game between two seasons so you only have 2 months to gain these people and ditch them again, while agreeing to never speak of them. After the end of a series is popular for this reason, as is “somewhere else entirely but at the same time as the series” so you can make passing reference to events without being directly involved. Of course, you could be directly involved. You could decide “Everything up until the game starts is exactly like canon, and from there on I won’t stick to canon at all, it’ll be an AU”. That’s a perfectly valid choice as well. It’s your game; pick a time and place that interests you.
- Decide what types of characters will be allowed. If all the gnomes live in gnomeland and your game is set in elfland, will you accept a gnome character that moved to elfland, or will you only accept elves? Will you accept immigrants from another canon? Will you accept characters native to another canon remade as though they belonged to this one – for example, Kal El enrolling in Hogwarts?
- Decide what characters you’ll be playing. What canon characters do you want to take out of the hands of players? Characters like Gandalf or Dumbledore might be too powerful if you’re expecting PCs that are just starting your journey – you may want to reserve them so they can dispense plot-relevant advice and then conveniently exit. On the other hand, I let a player play one of the substitute teachers in my high-school based game, and he brought a ton of fun and excitement to the game by having his character just make things up (the guy was played as a bit of a nutter who likes to mess with people). If you can trust your players, letting them play authority figures might take some of the burden off you and open new doors. And, of course, then you have to consider non-canon NPCs – will you be using them? (Hint: You probably will, unless every single citizen of your IP’s world is detailed in canon). To what extent? Do you need any right off the bat to get things moving?
- And finally: write all this down, preferably some place your players can find it. There’s no point doing your homework if nobody else can find the information when they need it.
Getting started with worldbuilding from scratch
This post isn’t long enough to cover the entire process; hopefully there’ll be plenty more as this site grows which can cover details, and there’s certainly dozens of sites dedicated to worldbuilding out there. Instead, here are some places to get started and tips to keep in mind:
- Consider the broad strokes. How many continents on your planet? How many people? What races are there? What time period? What technological level?
- Consider the minor details. What does the day to day life look like for a character like the ones your players will be playing? Your players will need to know this most of all in order to start making a character.
- Consider the feel of the game. What genre is it? What sort of feeling do you get from it? Is it dystopian? Utopian? Post-apocalyptic? Modern? A Western? Steampunk? Victorian? Is it a happy place filled with carefree adolescents who go on wacky adventures? A grim place where daily survival is a struggle thanks to alien invasion/corrupt dictatorships/the zombie invasion/the bitter cold winters? Somewhere in-between?
- Consider naming schemes. Players will have to name their characters – are names passed down? Coming from a specific Earth culture? Entirely alien?
- Consider how characters make a living. What is the money system like? Bartering? Coins? Credit cards? What kind of jobs are availible? Or will they need to bother?
- Consider religion. What do characters believe about where they came from, how the universe works, or any similar concerns?
- And finally, as before, write all this down, preferably some place your players can find it. There’s no point doing your homework if nobody else can find the information when they need it.
I hope this helped you get started!