Avoid Poorly Defined Setting Syndrome


We’ve all had campaigns that didn’t live up to our expectations.  You start with a great concept that you and your players are excited about.  Steampunk explorers in Australia – who discover the continent itself is a million-year-old spacecraft.  Pirates voyaging to the edge of the world to help the gods in wage a cosmic battle.   A boy band who is also a team of superheroes.

But somewhere along the way your campaign loses energy.  The cool, unique stuff you pictured in your head keeps coming out as generic rpg schlock.  Maybe the campaign even dies an unnatural death.

Any number of things can kill a campaign.  But one thing that will kill it every time is a poorly defined setting. 

Setting and Scenario: The Difference

You may have a first-rate scenario cooked up for your game, but if you don’t develop the setting, your campaign will struggle. 

The setting is the part of the movie trailer that begins with “In a world.”  The scenario is the part that begins with “one man.”  (or in this case, “one band of adventurers.”)  To examplify:

·         In a world where the field of archaeology is basically treasure-hunting and adventure; where the magic of the ancients is real; and where millennia-old booby traps somehow still function… one band of adventurers would waken a sleeping evil – and now only they can put it back down. (The Mummy)

·         In a world of spaceships, monsters, and swashbucklers; where it’s an inexplicably short trip between planets; and where natural magic powers dark and light sorcerers… one farmboy would rescue the princess and defeat the Empire’s superweapon. (Star Wars)

·         In a world of witchcraft, gladiators, and human-sacrifice; where aliens and extinct species rule as gods, and where steel is considered a mystical secret… a king sends one band of ruffians to rescue his daughter from a snake-worshiping cult. (Conan the Barbarian)

My tendency as a GM is to spend much more time developing the scenario than the setting.  As a result, I’ve run a few bad campaigns, but I didn’t realize for years that “Poorly Defined Setting Syndrome” was to blame.

I’ve learned the hard way that a campaign can only be as good as its setting.  If you’re doing a homebrew setting, that means you have to put in the time to really know that universe – how it works, what kinds of things can happen there, and what are the most interesting things for players to encounter.

If you’re using a published setting like Forgotten Realms, you still have to know which elements of the setting you most want in your game, and develop your towns and dungeons accordingly. 

If you don’t do that work ahead of time, then when your players go in a new direction, you end up flying blind.  And that leads to generic (read, forgettable) adventures. 

Method #1: The Game Bible

If you don’t have a game bible, you are making more work for yourself.  My favorite format is a three-ring binder with a separate page for each concept in my setting.

Yes, compiling a bible requires work ahead of time.  Yes, you’ll probably be writing down some ideas that you never use.  But you’re getting your head into this universe, so you’ll be able to represent it in your game.   Plus you’re creating material you can fall back on if your players ever go seriously off script.  Anything you don’t use in this game will always be available for later.

Method #2: The Long Game

I once ran a campaign for two years.  My bible was pretty sketchy, but the setting never wore thin because the pacing was pretty slow – I was able to develop each new concept just as the players got to it.

This required me to start out pretty generic – dungeons full of monsters and treasure.  But as the players got farther from home, I began to work the more “out there” concepts into the game, giving each one an introductory adventure.

This method ultimately worked, but it almost requires younger players – players with jobs are more easily bored if you’re not breaking into new territory every single week. 

Method #3: Develop Setting As You Write Adventures

Let’s say you’re writing a scenario where a king has a job for the PCs.  Your adventure notes are a great place to write down what the palace looks like, what the kingdom’s values are, what the PCs see in the marketplace on the way there (always  a good way expose your players to the setting!).

Obviously, you can’t rely on the “as you write” method for all your setting development (for one thing, you’re only preparing stuff according to how you think this adventure will go – for another, these notes can become difficult to track down after a few sessions).  But I find that it helps incorporate a task that is hard for me – worldbuilding – into a process that is easy for me – scenario building.  That’s why I recommend a balance between the bible method and the “as you write” method.

Which side of the coin is more difficult for you?  What are your approaches for overcoming the difficulty?