I’m sure many of you out there have experimented with home brew material. Maybe even going so far as to make your own setting. Playing in established worlds is great. There is plenty of readily available information, so a lot of the heavy lifting has been done for you. But what if you want to make something completely original? A simple search of the internet will reveal a plethora of information about how to go about the task of world-building — but it can be daunting. Where do you start?
Today, I thought it may be useful to take a look back to the year 2002 when Wizards of the Coast took the unprecedented step of hosting a contest for the world to submit to them a proposal for new campaign setting. This was the contest that eventually gave us Keith Baker’s ‘Eberron’, so I’m sure you can imagine that the response was overwhelming. In the first round, applicants had to submit a one page proposal based on six questions. From there, ten people were selected to write a 10-page treatment of their setting proposal, and from those lucky few a handful were selected to write a 100-page setting bible.
In 2002 I, and my then partner in dice-rolling crime submitted ideas for consideration and we (along with countless others)… uh, well, we lost. Of course Julie (my co-creator) and we were disappointed, but perhaps losing in the first round was a blessing in disguise. Why?
Well, our submission…was awful.
It was directive, irrelevant and didn’t offer anything innovate or even fresh to the Dungeons & Dragons product line. It was banished to the Abyss; into a mire of submissions that were passed over because they were equally unremarkable. Losing made us take a hard look at our work. Forcing us to reevaluate, rewrite and edit what we had become determined to put into the world – contest or no contest. That didn’t quite work out for us either. So in the end, our work didn’t reach the audience we felt it deserved. As time went on, Julie and I drifted apart and stopped playing tabletop with the same frequency we once enjoyed.
Having spent years working on this setting, I didn’t want to just abandon it so I pushed it to the back burner; picking it up every now and then for rewrites, trying new ideas, filling in gaps if for no other reason than to always make sure I had a project. Here I am, some 16 years later, and the setting we had originally submitted has transformed into something drastically different and more importantly something far more unique and compelling.
So, I’m going to present to you the six questions that Wizards put forth for the one page proposal. As you read these questions and their explanation as set forth by Wizards of the Coast at the time the contest was announced, consider each one. I know that you know the answer. It’s your work after all. But remember: this was a proposal, a slightly long form elevator pitch. You may even want to think of this like an 3rd grader’s book report. You have a limited window to get the key concepts and flavor of your setting across to your audience. Ok, it may not be a pitch to Wizards but its a great way to hook potential players in your game or explain your setting to players who may be familiar with table top role playing games – but not your specific setting.
1. Core Ethos Sentence. [A sentence that describes the core ethos of the world. For example, Forgotten Realms is a world of sword-and-sorcery adventure, where heroes battle monsters with magic.]
What is your setting about? Think of your world, your campaign setting, as a vessel for thousands of individual stories. What shape does it take? What is the general theme of those stories? You can see the loose description of Forgotten Realms doesn’t describe, say, Dragonlance. Sure, they’re both sword and sorcery adventure but each has its own, unique, nuanced approach to that same one or two sentence description. Can you describe your world in that same space? If you can’t encapsulate it as such – why?
2. Who are the heroes? [Brief description of heroes central to the setting. This need not be a comprehensive list.]
This is not the place to go into detail about specific heroes in your story or the game that spawned these characters. This is your chance to describe in general terms the types of people who take on the role of the heroic characters in your setting and what influence your setting has on those characters as well as the hows and the whys behind their goals and motivations, which leads us right into…
3. What do they do? [What are the main objectives of the heroes, and what steps do they take to achieve those objectives?]
Ok, so you know what type of characters take up the role of heroes, now we need to know why they would do that and what their motivations and goals might be within the context of the world as you have thus far shaped it. Whether its taking up the sword and slaying orcs and dragons, or signing up for a terraforming mission to some distant planet, for the most part heroic characters set off to do heroic things. Its the flavor of your setting that informs these character’s decisions.
4. Threats, Conflicts, Villains [What is the main danger to the world, and from whom does it come?]
You may read this and be tempted to explain a lengthy list of all the super cool bad guys that make life difficult for the good and honest folk of your world. Think about it though, be it in the form of an RPG or in real life, are things like threats and conflicts ever that black and white? A villain to some is a champion in the eyes of others. This question is asking you to address how your world’s flavor informs, creates and to a certain extent resolves conflicts. This could be on the macro scale of world politics or the micro scale of the players subverting the efforts of the Big Bad Evil Guy. Yes, threats and conflicts can arise from a clash of good versus evil but again, it’s almost never that binary. What’s good for one thing is bad for something else. Complexity in the conflicts of your world make the challenges your players face far more dynamic and compelling.
5. Nature of magic [What is the source of magic? How abundant/scarce is it?]
This one probably should get a post all to its own but here goes… Knowing how magic, or super science or whatever fuels the fantastic elements of your setting is critical. This is something that has to work in much the same way that in the real world we accept and understand things like gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear force. Magic or advanced super-science or whatever your setting has, treat it as though it were a sort of 5th fundamental force of nature. It’s something that should be regarded by the characters as a powerful, unyielding fact of life. This isn’t suggesting that these forces be static; in your world arcane magic could be just as prevalent as gravity is in our own world but with a twist. As long as you as the creator understand how it works your players can as well. If these kind of powers exist in your world, you have to know how they work, who has access to them, why the have access to it and how is it used or at least understood.
6. What’s new? What’s different? [What makes this setting unique?]
This is your change to go into all the detail you wanted to in question one. But don’t go crazy. Give the audience some interesting highlights. What makes your sword and sorcery type setting different from every other one? These differences can be subtle but this is your opportunity to sell all the cool, original ideas you’ve been working on and in all honesty, your best chance to really hook a potential new player (veteran gamer or newbie) with some aspect of your world that sparks their imagination. If you’ve been honest with yourself and the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into your setting you should have quite a few things that can stop a potential player in their tracks and spark an idea for a character that not only exists in but truly inhabits your world.
Get your pile of notebooks out. Fire up that text file. Reach on to the shelf for those dogeared rulebooks and see how well you can answer these questions. If you can’t fit your answers on a single page, you’ll see what needs to be worked on and what needs to be shaved away. Keep at it until you have simple, solid answers for everything. You’ll have a better grasp of your setting. Your potential players will understand it. You’ll have a glimpse of what Wizards of the Coast looked for back in the day and in the end, you’ll have a solid game world for you and everyone else at the table to enjoy.
The world needs your stories – contest or no contest!