RPG MUSINGS Play The Game You Want To Play

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.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

7 Responses to “Thoughts On Building A Homebrew Setting”

  • Dear Aaron;

    Was reading through your blog. Noticed your appreciation for “Homebrew” material as well as your support for miniatures-based combat in Roleplaying games. I think you might be *very* interested in the book I’m about to share with you.

    Enhanced4E has published the first of a series of supplements for the 4th Edition role-playing game (Dungeons & Dragons). We are very proud of this first volume, entitled Combat in Motion, written by Christopher F. Ash. The book, presently available for sale in PDF and printed formats at Enhanced4E.com, contains material designed to enhance the use of miniatures in table-top 4E encounters.

    The book has already received some positive attention:
    http://thechamberofmazarbuldnd.blogspot.ca/2012/11/review-combat-in-motion.html . If you read through that exhaustive review, I think it will whet your appetite!

    If you would be interested in reviewing Enhanced 4E: Combat in Motion, and posting the review, send an email to Enhanced4E@gmail.com. We will send you a login to the Web site where you can download a confidential review copy of the PDF.

    We look forward to hearing from you.


    Stephen Carr

  • I think I’ve let myself overcrowd things a bit too much in the past. It is so damned easy to get carried away with the stories you want to tell about this really well thought out world, that you don’t realise quite how much your players want to put a stamp on it as well. These days I try to keep it basic, but if I run more than one game in the same setting – homebrewed or otherwise to be honest – I like to let the player’s actions stand, and have consequences for the world.

    A mate of mine created his own world, and ran a game in it for a bout two years, without ever really developing the history. He then decided to do that by role playing it out, and has run several campaigns set during turning points of the game world, usually focused on a specific race with all the players creating characters of that race. It has been great fun, and I got to play a Dwarven character who ended being vilified as a traitor and enemy of his people. There’s even a bit about him in my latest blog post.

  • Stephen – I think that would be very interesting to look at. I’ll send you an email here shortly.

    shortymonster – Yep, I have the same problem. It’s a lot of fun to just create so it’s really easy to go overboard with it. I deliberately try to pull myself back (with varying degrees of success, admittedly) so that the players can help me create the world. The fun part about that is that then the next group of players (or characters) can then see what happens later. The original PCs might have passed into legend, their magical weapons might be considered amazing artifacts, etc.

  • Back when Eberron came out there was a “Ten things you need to know about Eberron.” This was a good way to get people excited about it and something to build on. They worked really hard to make a new world accessible, and I’d suggest that people look to their work to help figure this out.

    You should be able to describe most of the cool things in your world with a sentences or two. Yes, there are subtleties, but people should get the broad strokes.

    If you say our halflings are dinosaur-riding nomads and our elves worship their undead ancestors people have pictures. You can then expand on it for people who want to play them or know more.

    Eberron also had an out for people who didn’t want to delve deeply – some members of the races had integrated into the five nations and were similar to the standard D&D races. Having ideas for people that don’t want to start out learning so much is a good idea.

  • @philo I’d forgotten about the “Ten Things About Eberron” bit, but yeah, that’s the kind of thing I’m encouraging here. I still think that you should have a real multi-page primer if your world is sufficiently different from the norm, but being able to start with just a few sentences is absolutely a good start. The elevator pitch I mentioned, as it were.

  • […] Today I’m going to discuss “The Hook”. This might also be described as an “elevator pitch” and has been discussed by Steve Winter and Wolf Samurai over at RPG Musings. […]

  • Related rule to not overcrowding things: Don’t over stretch. That is, consider how much ‘terrain’ you will actually use. Are your PCs going to explore 25 kingdoms? Are they even going to explore *5* kingdoms? Too many settings–especially published ones–seem to assume your PCs will be complete globe-trotters, and so take as a given that they must be planet-scale.

    The result is usually a very sketched-out world. The old Gazetteer books did a so-so job of describing most of an entire continent. But how phoned-in was most of Forgotten Realms? If they had published no other source books for FR other than Waterdeep and Menzobberanzan, would we really have lost anything?

    So: I say don’t draw settings bigger than a GM and his players can realistically make use of and/or which you the writer have sufficient creativity to make distinctive. One city, one kingdom, a few adjacent kingdoms: these are all perfectly good scales for world creation. Don’t feel compelled to develop things at the continent scale.