Thoughts On Building A Homebrew Setting
Arguably, the most fun I have when I’m running a game is world building. I love it. I get to let my creativity flow and throw all the fun ideas I have into one pot where it can melt together into something I can share with other people by way of my campaign. It’s just a blast. You get to create nations, histories, cultures, species, conflicts, continents, cosmologies, and more. I know there are a lot of other people out there in the tabletop RPG world who feel the same way. And because of that, a lot of people might take some of the bits of advice and other things I’m about to say poorly. After all, if you’ve been doing it this long and it’s worked, why would you need to change anything. Which is a fair point, but just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be made better. Not exactly in terms of how you build the world, but in terms of how you communicate that world and make it as good for players as it is for you.
Alright, Sell Me
One of the things that I think a lot of GMs drop the ball on is showing or describing how or why their campaign world is better, different, and potentially just as interesting as published or established settings. You should be able to describe, in just a few minutes, exactly why players should want to and be excited to play in your world as opposed to Greyhawk or Eberron or whatever. Which means, of course, that your homebrew setting should have unique elements to it that can’t be found (or at least can’t be found in that combination) elsewhere. The unique elements should be interesting and make for fun gameplay. If the only special thing about your campaign world is that there are no half-elves or half-orcs, people might feel pretty meh about it. If elves are creatures tied to the moon and their power and vitality wax and wane with it, they might find that different enough to be interesting. So, try and think of between 3 and 5 things that are unique to your setting.
Which brings me to the next point. You need to be able to effectively communicate all those cool ideas that you’ve thought up so that you can hook your players imagination. You need an elevator pitch. You don’t have to write it out or anything, but you should think about how to present your setting really briefly (less than 5 minutes) and make it sound awesome. If you can’t make your setting sound awesome in 5 minutes, maybe your setting isn’t as cool as you thought.
Gimme Something I Can Work With
This is a more recent revelation, one that really only crystalised in my head when I recently joined a game that was in progress that wasn’t set in a published setting. If you’re doing a homebrew campaign setting, you need to make a campaign primer. What do I mean by that? I mean a short document that gives the players just enough information for them to understand the setting and allow them to make characters that fit into the world. You can tell players about the world to get them interested, but you should give them something more concrete when it comes to getting them to understand it. It doesn’t matter how awesome your setting is if the players can’t find a good way to place their characters (and by extension themselves) into it in a satisfactory way. Without it, they’re likely to feel lost and disengaged and probably just lose all interest in the end.
It doesn’t need to be something long, in fact it probably shouldn’t be more than 10-12 pages at most. It should the things you think are most important about the world and specifically about the campaign you’re planning on running. Players don’t need to know everything, they just need to know enough. Tell them about the history, the culture, the changes to races, classes, skills, magic, technology or whatever. List a few important NPCs that they might have heard of. Describe the geography and, if you can, give them a map. Doesn’t have to be a good one, but a visual representation can help make things more understandable. The important thing is to give them a starting point, a seed from which their own imaginations can take over and fill in the rest once you’ve started playing.
Feeling A Little Crowded Here
Don’t. Overbuild. Your. Setting. What I mean here is that you shouldn’t fill every last area of the map with a village. Every house doesn’t need a detailed list of residents. Every event in history doesn’t need to be listed. This is something I’m guilty of as much as anybody. Certain published settings are also exceptionally problematic in this regard. Why is this a problem? While it may be fun for you as the GM to go into lots of detail about the world and just let your ideas flow in an unending torrent, ultimately I feel like it constrains player imagination and a game is just as much about the players as it is about you. If a player has a cool idea to be from a hidden elf village and you’ve already written the world so that there are no hidden elf villages, that’s a bad thing for the player. If a player wants to be a veteran of an ugly civil war and you say that there hasn’t been a civil war in over a hundred years, that’s equally disappointing for the player.
Build your setting enough that it feels real and coherent and interesting, but resist the urge to fill in all those gaps and tell every story. Leave the players, as well as yourself, some flexibility so you can tell the most interesting or fun story together. Give yourself some breathing space if you have a really awesome idea later on that you want to add to the game world. Let the campaign itself help you build the world. It might surprise you with the places it goes and the things it does.
In the end, your homebrew setting is your own and I can’t tell you exactly how to build it. However, I really think that a lot of GMs would benefit from doing one or more of these things I’ve written about here and that, in the end, will probably make things a lot more fun for everybody at the table.