Tuesday 3 January 2012

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 4: Setting

In this Chapter, you will learn how to write an unique setting; what to include and how to avoid common pitfalls. The setting is the imaginary world that will act upon the characters and that the characters will change with their actions. Even if you are writing a generic roleplaying game system (such as Fate, Risus or Five by Five) then you should still consider writing an example setting that showcases the unique features of the system. Show the prospective GM what can be done with the system, it will help you differentiate your game from all the other games out there. Make sure your setting is a place where things happen, fill it with conflicting organisations and danger.

Creating a setting is a huge task and this guide is far from complete, acting only as a starting point.

Implicit vs Explicit Settings

Your setting can either be explicit or implicit. An explicit setting is one where you create maps, locations, a range of NPCs, plot hooks and so on. An implicit setting is where you do not write any of that but you do create a bestiary, spells or rules that constrain how the game is played. For example, for spell casting, the difference might be:
  • Explicit Setting: Magic is rare and difficult to perform, it is controlled by an Archmage who lives in a tower.
  • Implicit Setting: To cast a spell, roll 2D20. On two rolls of 20, the spell passes. Otherwise nothing happens.
The explicit setting lays out in black and white that magic is difficult but adds the flavour of the Archmage. The implicit setting makes spell casting difficult through rules but means that the GM is free to decide on how it is implemented in the setting they create.

If you are not writing a full setting, I recommend you take the middle ground, noting that magic is difficult and then demonstrating why. A free RPG should make life easy for the GM and as such create an explicit setting and let the GM ignore it if they wish. Be aware that you may inadvertently write an implicit setting by system or resources.

Building your world

Novel settings are best described from a top down point of view. Begin with the major themes of the game and how they interact. Try and keep the themes limited in number and intertwined. Expand on each of the themes, adding only detail that the GM or players might need to play. Stop when you have described the parts of your setting that the player characters directly interact with. Unless going to the toilet is something the player characters will be asked to do a lot, do not describe it. World building is a huge topic, which is very dependent on the genre of RPG you are creating. Here are some general tips:
  • Make the world exciting. If the world is mundane, there will be no desire to explore it.
  • Ensure that organisations, Gods, nations, NPCs are in conflict with others. Give them opposed goals and motivations. This conflict will make your world more interesting.
  • Before you start writing, list all the aspects you want in the setting and then list the things you do not.
  • Give the characters something to do that is interesting.
  • Avoid absolutes - it is better to say that there are few Gnomes left after the Gnomageddon rather than none at all.
  • Assume that if you include a location, the players will try to go there. If you include an NPC, assume that they will shoot it in the face.
  • From top-down, you don't have to draw the whole map or include all the races, you're only specifying the big themes.
  • Give your places, organisations and NPCs more than one weakness. A single weakness can be difficult for players to spot.
  • If providing a broad description, use an adjective. 'On a mountain' is less inspiring than 'On a craggy mountain'. Big list of adjectives
Be as fantastical as you can. If you want a flying upside down mountain, then do so. If you want the heads of state of two major nuclear powers to be having an extramarital affair then go for it.
The Chgowiz RPG is set in your home town and your home set in a world seen through the eyes of a crazy person. The Government are all powerful and view the people of your fine town as worthless test subjects. As a Chgowiz Clone, you are part of an elite army and fight for the Government to protect the people against huge mutant monsters, who want to trample and burn your home town! Little do you know that the Government sent the monsters in the first place.

What to include

Only include the minimum setting description needed to meet the themes you specified in your concept. Settings are typically where game bloat occurs. When defining the concept in Chapter 1, you defined a number of themes (such as dangerous magic, continents at war or space federations) start by describing these themes. When describing a theme, begin with what is known from the general populace's point of view and then add information that the heroic characters would know. Here is a list of entities you might wish to include:


Locations should act as seeds for adventures as well as the places they take place. If you cannot think of a good plot or reason a player might want to go there then don't include it. To create the a location:
  • Begin with the geography and an adjective. Examples: on a windswept glacier, on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by rivers, on a lonely plain, snug in a valley, clinging to the side of a mountain, sprawling across a savanna, by the golden beach or in a sweaty jungle. If you are having difficulty, put the noun of the geography (such as Jungle) into Google Images.
  • Provide an overview mention its architecture (broadly). A tall stone tower of arches and pillars, a squat village of stone and thatch buildings or a gleaming metallic space station.
  • Describe its prominent (or extraordinary) features. These should be places the players will want to go. Try and make the prominent features unfamiliar. If you describe Sauron's Tower then the players will automatically associate the tower with the Lord of the Rings.
  • Give the purpose of the place. Why does it exist? Who made it? Why should there be a village there? What purpose does it serve? Do not feel you have to explain away every location but purpose can make a mundane place feel special.
  • Give the place a name. Use a thesaurus to help find a word that describes it.
In the Chgowiz RPG, I am cheating here. The players will be playing in their home town. Building a map of local places and roads will be part of character creation. To make it more interesting, some locations will have a previously unknown secret fact. For example, the mall might be a meeting place for a Druidic chapter.

People and races

Describe the people who live in your world. The people will make up the majority of the people your player characters will interact with. You can add flavour to your setting by introducing different races with physiology, philosophy and wisdom. Racial differences do not need to be large and can be the source of great prejudice. With prejudice comes conflict, which in turn makes your setting more interesting.

It is wise to keep in mind the role your player characters have in the setting: Are they the good guys or bad? Are they made up from the different race or all one?


This is a generic name given to groups of NPCs that work together. An Organisation might be the inhabitants of a place who share a common goal or a secret society.
  • Aim: what do they want to achieve?
  • Resources: What resources do they have at their disposal? Use general terms such as 'Can influence the creation of law.' rather than 'Has 4 councillors under payment'.
  • Public knowledge: What will the characters know about the organisation?
  • Reach: Do they operate only in the city or countrywide, across a continent or throughout the galaxy?
  • Activities: What do the organisation get up to? What do they not do? How do they raise cash?
  • Allies and Enemies: Who are the organisation friends with, who do they hate? How do they interact, is is subtle or openly hostile?
For the Chgowiz RPG, The Government are the most important organisation as they provide the monsters, the Clones and the Gadgets!

Aim: To take over the world with an amazing army of either Chgowzi Clones or Giant Monsters (whichever comes off best).
Resources: Huge amounts of gadgets and monsters. They can do all the usual stuff a Government an do too.
Public knowledge: The public are thick, they think the Government are nice and care about them!
Reach: The Government are countrywide but like to think they have global reach.
Activities: Sending in Monsters into small towns to see how destructive they can be. Sending in Chgowiz cloned soldiers to mop up the monsters.
Allies and Enemies: The Chgowiz RPG is too simple to have them fight another organisation. In a sense, they are constantly fighting themselves.

Flora and Fauna

Plants and animals breathes life into your setting. Avoid creating an entire ecosystem. Choose some plants and animals and give them a twist to make them different. Then decide how they interact with each other. Include a Bestiary too


If Gods figure in your setting then be sure to describe them by what they do and why people praise them. Long back stories and history are only interesting to Classics scholars.

Common NPCs

Kings, Lords, famous heroes, arch villains, well known craftsmen, heads of guilds, merchants can all add to a setting's depth. Don't forget that if you include an NPC, you should expect someone to shoot it in the face. For an NPC to be interesting, they must have a goal, stereotypes are fine but the goal must be easy for the GM to understand. The complexity will come when the game is played. Make sure you include at least two NPCs that have conflicting goals. It is through conflict that interesting stories are formed.
Agent Backstard is the Clone's contact at the Government, Backstard will provide them with just enough information on the monsters. He's a tall, gaunt man with shiny black hair that begins every answer with 'Yes yes yes', even if the answer turns out to be 'No'. He doesn't come across as trustworthy because he isn't.
T is the equipment man and called only by his codename "T". He is scatterbrained and finds it difficult grasp that his creations are used for fighting. He can be contacted at any time over the radio and can parachute equipment in.
Doctor Socks is a fictional man created by the Government. He is blamed for creating the giant monsters. He is pictured as a cackling old man in a plaid arm chair.


A map is a useful tool to show the scope and scale of the play area. Concentrate detail to one area of the map rather than spreading it out, you should give the GM somewhere well described to start their campaign and yet allow plenty of area for them to expand.

Recent History

Include large events in the recent history, particularly if they explain why the world is the way it is. Try and include a couple of events in the recent couple of weeks that would effect everyone or that would signal that there is going to be a big change. Recent History can be useful for the GM to create plot hooks.

GM Information

Give the GM some extra details on the places you mentioned. Help the GM create adventures by providing plot hook ideas by posing "What if..." questions. Explain how you intend the setting to be used and what themes you had in mind when you designed. You need to be explicit because it is difficult for a prospective GM to understand the nuances of a new setting through the text.

Sample Adventure

A sample adventure should showcase the novel parts of the setting (and system) and demonstrate why the GM should run the game. The sample adventure should be aimed at starting characters so that the GM can run the adventure straight off. Keep the adventure simple to achieve and include some combat or excitement.

Making your game different

During the ideas phase, you had to ask yourself "What's its closest rival and how is it different?". Many free RPGs go ignored because what they offer is barely distinguishable from commercial PRGs that the prospective GM already owns. Here are some techniques you can use to avoid common themes. I refer to genres specifically here but only because it is fantasy where the greatest overlap occurs.

Avoid standard fantasy elements

The definition of player character races is the first place where you can depart from fantasy lore. You may have an excellent idea for Elven creatures but the word 'Elves' brings along a huge amount of baggage. Use a different name and you are free from the strictures of fantasy canon. The only exception is 'Humans'. You don't have to put Humans in your game but if you do, then it is an understandable benchmark. If having Elves, Humans and Dwarves defines fantasy to you then do put them in but be aware that your game is running down a well trodden path.

Go back to the folklore source

So much of Eddings, Tolkein, D&D and other great fantasy proponents is inspired by northern European folklore and history. So can you! I'm no expert in folklore, and neither is Wikipedia. You don't have to be to pillage for inspiration.
For Chgowiz, there are two folklore sources: Godzilla (the original 1954 film) and Chgowiz himself. I've got hold of the original film (trailer below) and emailed Chgowiz for source information.

Japanese version is way more terrifying - probably because my Japanese is minimal!

Read other games

In research, there are two schools of thought: Ignorance provides you with freedom and knowledge allows you to avoid other's mistakes. Having tried both academically and in roleplay, I can recommend the latter. By reading other games, you will be able to find a niche for your own game by reading what is already out there. You might think Norse mythology is different enough but then you find Midgard by Ben Redmond or The Beast of Limfjord by Nathan Russell.

Invert a popular theme

By taking a popular theme and turning it upside down you can end up with a very different type of game. For example, magic in most games is wielded by Wizards. Instead, what if magic was the purview of the general populace? Or in Science Fiction what if the human race could not survive on planet surfaces and were stuck in space craft forever.

Borrow from outside the genre

With care, you can take concepts from outside fantasy and build them into your fantasy universe. While watching a Sci Fi or CSI:Miami, think about how various things would look in the fantasy world. Robots might be magical constructs - beings moulded from natural detritus and bound together as a servant. Perhaps your game is about fantasy Crime Scene Investigation: the Dwarf is missing a head, find the head, find the killer. To go further with this idea, you might want to crash two (or more) very different genres head on. Steam-punk-fantasy, Space-Opera-Supers, Cyberpunk-Anime-Supers, Modern-Fantasy.

Take from the natural world

The natural world is an awful place. So inhumane! Lift some of the terrible things animals do to each other and place them into societies. Imagine a player group stumbling into a society of mostly ladies and young boys only to find out that the local custom is for the woman to eat her lover after conception! When projected onto sentient species, the actions of nature reads like a nightmare.
The Chgowiz monsters will be taking a lot of their inspiration from nature. I used the BBC's Live n Deadly programme for inspiration.

Other resources


Emmett said...

I can't agree more with this statement.

"Even if you are writing a generic roleplaying game system (such as Fate, Risus or Five by Five) then you should still consider writing an example setting that showcases the unique features of the system."

The fear is that by applying a setting to a generic system, the players will be unable to break out of that setting. In reality if they're not able to break out of the example setting, then they're unlikely to develop a setting on their own anyway.

I'm falling into this trap myself with SPF. I essentially want a modular setting. What I need to do then is to define each of those modular components of the setting and how they work in the system.

In essence this is what GURPS ended up doing. GURPS had the advantage of introducing the idea of a generic system but made the smart move of making sourcebooks that explain the different settings that can be played and how to use the rules in them.

So don't say "I can't make a setting because it will limit the players." Make three settings (or five) and show how the rules work in them. They don't have to be long or overly complex, but they should attempt to explain the extremes of the system.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for your comment, Emmett. My experience with systems without settings (particularly fantasy ones) is that it is very difficult to tell them apart. Many of them use the same sorts of mechanics with a very minor twist. Often the spells, bestiary, player races and so on are identical (fantasy tropes) so there is no difference there.

I am looking at extracting the system I use for Cloudship Atlantis, Commando 1940 and Chgowiz and making it into a generic system. This is backwards to the way that most people do it but at least I know it is generic enough to run those three settings! That is essentially what you have recommended in your close paragraph - I have made three settings using the same sorts of rules.

Aldo Ojeda said...

Sorry for the question, but I'm continuing the translation of the guide and find difficult to interpret the term "game bloat". What did you mean with it?

Rob Lang said...

Game bloat is another term for adding content where it is not needed.

Rob Lang said...

Game bloat is another term for adding content where it is not needed.