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What Makes a Good Campaign Setting?

Most packaged role-playing systems come with their own setting to play in. If you’re a GM that likes to use those sort of settings, this post isn’t aimed at you. But for those of us out there that enjoy building worlds from whole cloth, I’ve found, through trial and error, some criteria for what makes a good setting for an RPG. “Setting,” in this context, is a broadly inclusive word. I don’t just mean the place itself, but also the nations, cultures, laws, and notable personas that inhabit it.

The potential for good PCs

This is always my first litmus test. If I can’t come up with at least four playable PCs off the top of my head, then it’s a no-go. If, for instance, I was considering a campaign where the PCs were pirates off the Spanish main, what are the possible PCs? The captain, dashing and well-rounded. A first mate in the bruiser/enforcer mode. Um… a rich noble’s son who ran away and became a pirate. And… and… I dunno. A native? A freed slave? What makes those characters fun aside from their nationalities? What if nobody wants to play the native? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the pirate campaign.

The first question you have to ask yourself as a GM is how varied you want the abilities of the PCs to be. Most of the pre-built settings assume a wide variety of character archetypes in a single party. A thief, a cleric, a wizard, and a paladin. A street samurai, a hacker, and a shaman. Vampires of clan Ventrue, Malchavian, and Tremere. These archetypes are defined by their special characteristics and abilities and give the player a roadmap for their character.

There are, however, campaign settings where this is not the case. If you’re running a military special ops campaign, your PCs are all going to have the same core skills and abilities, with minor variations to set them apart. They all have skill with guns and tactics and hand-to-hand combat and so on, but one guy is the explosives expert, one’s the sniper, one’s the machine-gunner and so on. If you’re okay with having PCs with small differences in capabilities, you have a lot more leeway in terms of settings.

I really enjoy having parties where all of the PCs bring vastly different skills to the table, so I try to find settings where different flavors of adventurer are playable. The important thing here isn’t just that there are character options, but that there are fun character options that your players will want to play without feeling shoehorned.

Something that captures the players’ imaginations

What makes this setting interesting for the players? If it’s a campaign set in space, how is it different from the existing, established space settings? If it’s a fantasy setting, what makes it unique? Does it have some unusual magic system, or a strange geography, or unusual fantasy races and monsters? You want something that makes your players think “Yeah, that would be a cool world to inhabit for a while.” It’s important to keep in mind that whatever hooks you provide will be the ones that players gravitate towards when they make their characters.

I’ve touched on this setting before in a previous post, but it also serves well here. Bakad was a fantasy campaign set in a city by the same name. The setting had five sentient races, none of which were humans.* The races were the Niall, an artistic, nimble, monkey-like people; Goblins (in the GURPS model, which means smart, social, and sneaky); the Kzin, ferocious cat people stolen straight from Larry Niven; the Inari, a race of cerebral and emotionally detached flying reptiles (stolen from GURPS Aliens), and the Fantir, a peaceful race of minotaur-esque creatures that tended to be builders.

The other tidbits that I passed along to the PCs before they built their characters: the city borders on a giant jungle full of dangerous flora and fauna. It is ruled by a vampire (a Fantir), and he has two lieutentants (a Goblin and a Kzin). No other vampires are allowed in the city. There is a tower where most of the magi live and study. Assassination is legal, as long as the proper paperwork is filed and the proper practices observed. Some Kzin have extraordinary senses of smell that let them track people.

So what PCs did the players make? One was a Goblin who worked for the vampires who ruled the city, and wanted to become a vampire himself. One was an Inari mage who studied the wildlife in the jungle. One was a Niall assassin that treated murder as an art form. And the fourth PC was a Kzin bounty hunter who tracked people with his amazing sense of smell. Nobody chose to play one of the peaceful minotaur guys – they seemed boring. Instead, they latched on to all of the things that I had provided to give the setting flavor.

For a less positive example, Star Wars is pretty standard space fantasy, but with Jedi. When people engage in RPGs in the Star Wars universe, most of them want to play Jedi. As a distant second, they want to play a bounty hunter. And if they can’t do that, they want to be a smuggler who owns his own ship. Probably a Wookie. Why are these the only archetypes that people gravitate towards? Because those are the only interesting things about the setting. Jedis, Wookies, smugglers, and bounty hunters are cool. Nobody wants to play C3PO, or an Eewok. If, however, there were a new branch of the army consisting of Vader-style cyborgs with built-in weapons and enhanced strength, then somebody would probably try that (they’d probably still want to be a Wookie). Or you could introduce a clan of secret ninja assassins that knew how to make themselves invisible to the force, and used low-tech weapons instead of blasters. Anything that you add that seems new and cool will excite the players, and give them ideas for characters.

Well-chosen constraints

The setting for a campaign governs what is possible and/or desirable for the players to accomplish. When you’re making your own setting, it’s important to think about what sort of things you want to have happen, and particularly what things you don’t want to have happen.

For instance, the first real GURPS campaign that I GMed was set on a polynesian island. GURPS combat, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is pretty realistic, and consequently significantly more lethal than standard RPGs. I was really worried that one of my PCs was going to get into a fight and die, particularly in a setting with no armor. So I created rigid social rules about how combat was handled, and what weapons were allowed. The rules stipulated a list of weapons, but it just as easily could have read “nothing that cuts or impales.” Blunt weapons could still be quite damaging, but they weren’t likely to kill someone before they had the opportunity to surrender.

The standard RPG systems also have these sorts of constraints built in, but they tend to be subtler. The original D&D strove to be clean, classic high fantasy. One of the ways that they accomplished that was by constraining what weapons, armor, and abilities each class could use. Mages can’t use swords or axes, clerics can only use blunt weapons, fighters can’t climb walls, and so on. Vampire: the Masquerade wants its action to be shadowy and full of intrigue, instead of gun battles between vampires in the middle of crowded shopping malls. So they created the Masquerade, a feature of the setting that constrains PCs from doing things that would expose themselves as vampires.

So let’s say that you have a particularly bloodthirsty player in your group, and he’s ruining everybody’s fun. They all like him, and nobody wants to kick him out, but something has to change. You, as the GM, could force him to play some sort of pacifistic PC. But that’s just going to ruin his fun – making people play against their own nature never works. You could, instead, build some constraints into the setting that make it undesirable for him to act that way. If it’s a fantasy setting, the Gods are real, they are active, and they are watching closely. If you kill an innocent, they will sweep down from the heavens and dole out some harsh punishment. If it’s a sci-fi setting, perhaps everyone is wired with special chips that shock you when you commit a felony. As the GM, you have a lot of dials at your disposal to tune the players’ experience.

Manageable scope

I’m fascinated by the apocalypse. I thought that it would really fun to play a campaign where the players were apocalypse survivors who were just beginning to rebuild, and then their home is destroyed, forcing them out into the world. I fleshed out the setting, worked with the players to build PCs, figured out what was going on in the world at large, and was all ready to start… when I realized that this thing was just too big. I had no idea where the players were going to go, or what they might choose to do. I wouldn’t have time to prepare for all of the possibilities, and while I’m good at improvising, it would begin to show quickly.

Also, I didn’t really know what was possible. If one of the PCs tried to rig a radio to work based on a ton of old car batteries, would it work? What if they went to a library and looked up how to make gunpowder? I didn’t want that. How was I going to stop it? Was I going to burn every library? What if they came up with a clever way to refine gasoline and get the cars running again? I don’t know anything about cars. Nothing ruins an experience for a player faster than being told “You can’t do that. Why? Umm… I don’t know. You just can’t.” I called off the campaign.

Similarly, I’ve always thought it would be cool to play in a setting where magic replaced technology. The world had modern-era levels of convenience, but using magic instead of science. So the elevators had built-in levitation spells, and everybody carried communicators that worked like cell phones and so on. Something about it captured my imagination. So then what makes that setting interesting? Why, the magic, of course. The players would be drawn to playing wizards that could tamper with the powers that drove all of the technology. Did I really want to have to figure out and then explain how the magic communicators worked in enough detail that they could manipulate them? Nope. Too big, too complicated (at least for me).

Fun

This seems really obvious, but it’s not. A lot of times the settings that capture the mind of a GM are not actually fun places for a character to inhabit. “Predator” is a kickass movie. The jungle terrain is interesting and cool. It’s main characters closely resemble a party of PCs in the special forces model described above. It has a lot of Rockmost moments. But at it’s heart, it’s a story about competent, skilled, well-armed soldiers getting stalked and killed by something better and stronger than them. Would that be fun for the players?

This is a common pitfall when people stray from the standard role-playing fare. The classic model of an eclectic group of talented individuals on a quest to kill a monster/save a princess/find a treasure works really well. When GMs get tired of that model, however, it’s common to go in the opposite direction – “you’re all peace corps workers in Liberia, trying to provide clean drinking water in spite of warlords and a corrupt government.” It sounds cool and different, but is it fun?

Ever since Ben introduced me to the idea of Rockmost, I’ve reworked my thinking on this a little bit. When I consider a setting, I think “what are the potential rockmost moments for this setting?” If the setting is a space station mining colony, what are the coolest, most rock awesome things that could happen there? They could shoot a hole through the hull and have to deal with sealing the breach. That’s kind of cool. They could have a battle outside the station in spacesuits. Also kind of cool. They could have space sleds that haul the ore back and forth from the asteroids, and have a fight on those. In spacesuits. Using laser drills as weapons. That sounds pretty sweet. But if that’s the best possible scene for the setting, it’s probably not good enough. You can either add some more things that make it more fun (Aliens-style power loaders, weird bio-enhancements for the miners, etc) or you can scratch that idea and come up with something else. Ultimately, the guideline for how to choose a setting is the same as everything else: “What would rock most?”


*I highly recommend trying a fantasy setting with no humans, as it puts the emphasis on the fantasy races and forces the races to more than just stereotypes. It is, however, more difficult for the GM, as every random NPC that they encounter can’t/shouldn’t just be some default race.

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