This “Best of” post dates from May 7, 2009. We’re giving it another view so Berin can have a little more time to recover from the flu.
The following is a system-independent method for creating a setting. It was developed with tabletop roleplaying in mind, but can be used for fiction writing projects and similar endeavors. The object is to keep it simple and fill in detail as needed. Note that every step is entirely optional, and the process should be modified to suit your particular needs.
The Movie Pitch
The movie pitch is a one-line description of the setting, comparing it to two or more things people are already familiar with. “It’s like Lord of the Rings, but with more dinosaurs”, or “It’s a mashup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ocean’s 11″ are two examples. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it provides the gist of the setting without drilling down to specific details.
The Elevator Speech
An elevator speech is a short summary of the setting with a bit more detail than the Movie Pitch, but not too much. You should be able to rattle it off to someone in about 30 to 60 seconds, the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator (hence the name). Written, it should be no longer than 2 or 3 paragraphs.
“It’s a GENRE thing that takes place in TIME LOCATION ETC. The METAPLOT THEME CONCEPT. The player characters are CHARACTER TYPES who WHAT THEY DO. They get to use MAGIC POWERS GADGETS STUFF. The main bad guys are BAD GUYS. And there’s INTERESTING FEATURE OF THE WORLD.
If you have a captive audience for a minute or less, the Elevator Speech should get them psyched to play in your game. Think of it as a good movie trailer that shows you enough of the good parts to leave you wanting more.
Core Mechanic Synopsis
Most game systems can be boiled down to a single-lie description. The rest is extra crunch. D20, for example, is summed up as “roll a d20, add modifiers, and beat a target number”. The idea is to provide the reader/listener with some comfort level around the game mechanics without overwhelming them with minutiae. This is especially important if you’re trying to recruit newbees, and why this step come after you’ve sold them on the cool fluff. Yes, Your Favorite System has a lot of flavor and nuance and awesome crunchy bits, but save that for later. Let folks new to the system get their head around the one basic concept first.
Player Character Roles
A couple of lines describing what characters do within the game can be helpful. In many cases it’s obvious, but if you’re in a rich, multifaceted setting like a superhero world where many things are possible, or are doing something off-beat and atypical with a familiar setting, this will help clarify. This may already be covered in your Elevator Speech or Movie Pitch, but some things can’t be repeated enough and clarifying appropriate character types is one of them.
This is also the best place to expand upon templates, archetypes, classes, races, and so forth. You can detail the place of these character types, suggest new types, and advise players of any character types explicitly not allowed.
Adversaries and Roles
Who are the bad guys? This can be fairly generic (“monsters!”) all the way up to a very specific “big bad” (Count Orkoff, Chaos Vampire!). A note of who the standard cannonfodder bad guys (Orc! Nazis! Ninjas!) should be included.
As a player, I have always found it useful to know who the bad guys are prior to character creation. You don’t waste effort or points on abilities that aren’t going to be used, and can focus on what’s going to come into play.
Allies and Roles
What, if any, supporting characters should the players know about in advance? Player characters will frequently need outside help. Healers, equipment suppliers, information brokers, backup firepower, and transportation specialists are a few common examples. It’s helpful for the gamemaster to know who these NPCs are, and it’s useful for players to know who these folks are and what established relationships the NPC has with the party. It can aid in roleplaying, and save time in the thick of an adventure.
Bystanders and Roles
In addition to cannon fodder villains, there may be unnamed ally or neutral character types aplenty. Soldiers, police officers, pedestrians, merchants, and so on.
Mooks and Shemps
To save yourself time create a couple of generic stat blocks, at different power levels, to be used for one-the-fly characters. In my experience, having stats for an average person, a player character-level person, and more-powerful-than-PCs ready at hand is a lifesaver when players do the unexpected and carry a story in a direction you haven’t planned for. You can get more specific as you go along, adding new types, the basic three give you a good start.
Like a supporting cast, it’s good to have a few stock locations set up ahead of time. You can figure out what you need from the supporting cast you develop – a clinic or temple where the healer can be found, the dark alley where the information broker likes to meet, the tavern where the player characters hang out. The locations become characters over time, will open up story options, and should be constructed with the same care as a player character.
The player characters are, hopefully, not the only organized group of people pursuing a goal. Having organizations in the setting provides a respawning source of allies and enemies; you can kill an individual, but the organization lives on. I start with five basic “flavors” of organizations: religious, political, military/law enforcement, business, and criminal. Start with one of each — and they don’t have to be the largest or most powerful in the setting, just the most prominent in your campaign — and see how they interact. You can switch it up, based on the nature of the setting, with multiple churches, multiple government parties, rival crime syndicates, and at new types of organizations such as schools, hobby clubs, and so on. Knowing each group’s goals and their relationships to one another will flesh out the world and generate ideas for stories and character backgrounds quickly.
Rewards and Recognition
Within the setting there should be intrinsic rewards, motivations for the characters to do things. Treasure. Fame. Doing good deeds. Titles and promotions. Favors. Think about what best suits the needs of your campaign and the desires of the players. Then make sure you have the infrastructure – supporting cast, locations, organizations — to provide those rewards.
This is just the foundation, the starting point for building a world. You will of course add to it as you go along, incorporating things not mentioned here and ignoring some of the above advice. As well you should, because the object of world building is making it your own unique thing.