Posted by: markfender | February 28, 2012

How to Write a Setting

I suck at writing settings for games.

I come up with settings all the time, but writing them down is tougher. I think it’s because I’m used to seeing the finished product in a game book and somehow expect to whip that off at the drop of a hat. But coming up with a cool idea (“They’re all frog people!”) and then translating that into the standard History/Society/Geography sections that you see in your standard game book is hard. Or, more likely, boring. I thought of the frog people thing but I don’t really have any idea about who their 3rd king was, nor what sort of points of interest there are in their realm (other than the swamp). So the interesting bits exist as short notes to myself that don’t map to your traditional presentation-to-players style. And I get bored trying to fill in those “required” sections with information that isn’t in my brain yet.

But, there are times when you can’t just give an elevator pitch to your players. Sometimes you need a bit more information written down in a cognizant form so that other people can look at it. I had such a game project once. I had a bunch of nations, a map, and some historical footnotes, but no real overall way to express that to players. So I decided to try a different way to brainstorm out the process to fill in those “boring” bits. Maybe someone else will get use out of this as well.

This is more of a writing exercise than anything else. I don’t even think I saved my original ideas anywhere. But my process was as follows:

1. Write down important bit at top of page (In this case, it was the nation’s name).

2. Write ten Aspects about elements of that nation. (I use the term Aspects because I’m familiar with FATE games, but essentially you want some short pithy statements. For advanced credit, these should be double-sided statements, statements that can be conceived of both negatively and positively. Something like “Blood and Honor,” could just be a part of the overall cultural makeup of the people, but you could also see where that could be negative. Sometimes it’s tough to come up with 10. Depending on your game world and how much background you need, you could cut that down to five, I suppose. The relevant point here is you want to come up with a few more than you already have in mind to help fill in some gaps that you probably haven’t even thought about yet.)

3. Write a paragraph about each Aspect. (Again, this is all part of the writing exercise, so these paragraphs don’t even need to flow together. All you’re really looking to do is to explain each Aspect to a reader – where did that Aspect come from, how does it impact your nation, what does that say about the people there? That sort of thing. “Blood and Honor” might be fine to sum up a samurai-like warrior culture, but your paragraph might explain how the nation arrived at that point, some of the finer points of that honor, or even explain some of the negative aspects of that.

4. Ta Da! You’re done. (Okay, not really. At this point I discovered for myself that I had more information on that nation than I had originally thought about. Those frog people now seemed to have some enemies, a dark past, and a bold plan to expand the swamp into other lands. At this point, I decided on my generic nation format (History/Geography/People/Places of Interest/etc. or whatever sorta points that your write-up needs) and restarted the entire writing process. But this entire process had expanded my own knowledge of the world and given me ideas about what sort of historical events needed to fit into that history, what sort of crops the people of that place would grow, etc. You know, the boring shit you read in game books all the time. I think my eventual write-up wasn’t much longer than 2-3 pages per nation, but certainly more background than I’d started with.)

Sometimes I stare at something like Forgotten Realms and see the world of detail and think that my settings have to have that much information as well. This is patently ridiculous, of course. I’m sure there’s a name of this expansionistic sorta of brainstorming that I don’t know, but I have found that this method creates small, workable blocks to creating a much more alive setting.



  1. Ok Mark, i’m going to try this, i’ve been working on my Fading Suns meets the Roman Republic game and the amount of back story has been killing me. When i’m done will try to post it.

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