Running Unique Settings

I’m a big fan of starting sketchy and building out as you go. My current D&D game started with pretty much just this:

It’s a primarily forested world with a bleak coast to the east and an uncrossable mountain range to the northwest. The major city of the mountains is a highly centralized and hierarchical monotheistic culture that is waging a crusade against the more decentralized polytheistic cultures of the forest. They want to control everything from the mountains to the coast. The PCs are explicitly free agents, not on either side just trying to make their own way in a war-torn world. And that’s it.

Similarly I’m planning on running a Sorcerer & Sword game soon that will pretty much have this as the starting point:

18th Century style city centers isolated by a dangerous and difficult to navigate forest that is deeply mist shrouded and dotted with medieval ruins and communities.

And like, that’s it. Once the group decides on a locale and builds characters I’ll build out details as needed.

3 Likes

There are pro’s and con’s for both I think.

Established/Existed Setting:
PRO:

  • You have wiki’s and stuff to draw upon. A lot less work for a GM in world building effort.

CON:

  • You are constricted by established facts not of your own choosing, especially if you have a rotating cast of characters. (can be avoided by establishing that the GM may change things around).
  • You (as GM) might not be the one who knows the setting best. Which might turn around to bite you.

Your own setting:
PRO:

  • You have your own creative freedom.

CON:

  • Your players might not get what you’re trying to put down (especially when you’re trying to super creative). It will take a lot of work explaining, and even then some things that seem normal or evident for you might not be so for your players.
  • A lot of work, depending on how you work on world building. (There are techniques to help with this)
3 Likes

I did collaborative world building for my Spelljammer game and I go over how I did that here: Collaborative Faction Building

I think it’s about picking specific influences for the game: space as imagined in the 70s plus master and commander. Then you can look for images that align with that.

Also: don’t try to do it all in the beginning. Discover stuff at the table and share the creative load with the players.

1 Like

I start from the premise that you never invent anything, but you can reasonably remix and hybridize other people’s ideas.
the main problem (which is at the base of FKR) is to have a shared world
using a world already established (from a book, a movie, a comic book, etc.) is easier, because everyone draws from that source and if someone in the group is not familiar with that material is easy to address it
inventing your own genre/environment is creatively exhilarating (and exhausting) but it’s harder to convey the idea to others who aren’t in your head
the best chance (and the experiment I’d like to conduct sooner or later) is to create the shared world from scratch in session zero and then use it at the table with an FKR approach
I would use Microscope probably

2 Likes

“Unique setting” does not equal “unbeholden to genre.” Genre is a red herring.

The real meat of a setting is made up themes and images and conflicts. Even if, on the surface, the setting belongs to a genre you’ve seen a hundred times before, a solid foundation of themes and images and conflicts will make it a vital, living thing.

3 Likes

I’m going to post this again as a reply:

Let me rephrase the main theme of this thread then, I was aiming for discussion about settings which do not fit into a genre that is easily communicable and familiar to the players, and techniques to use when running them.

Of course, a unique setting is not a requirement for a good campaign, you can run a great game in, say, a bog-standard fantasy D&D world, but I feel like rpgs offer the ability to let creativity run freely and imagine types of fictional locales and societies which are not already well established.

I just disagree that a setting has to stand apart from established genres to be “unique.” I don’t know, maybe I’m nitpicking your word choice. I also don’t think avoiding established genres altogether is the antidote to the kind of “genre emulation” discussed in the tweets you linked to at the top of the thread.

But, fair enough, you want advice for communicating something unfamiliar to your players. If the previous suggestions regarding group worldbuilding don’t work for you, single-page handouts with everything the players need to know distilled into a few sentences are a good tool.

1 Like
  1. I suppose that every setting is some level of unique, yes. This thread is not an attack on settings that follow the conventions of an established genre, but instead a place to discuss settings that require more effort to communicate their ideas to the players. I would prefer it if we moved on from discussion of word choice in the title.
  2. This thread is less of a request on my behalf, and more of a place to share tools. I intend to use stuff here in the future, but I already have some good ideas on how to share a setting (starting players with a one page summary is, of course, a good idea). I feel like Discourse is a good place to establish a list of techniques to share with people who may have similar questions in the future.
1 Like

Oh, I didn’t take it as an attack. Sorry if I’ve come across as defensive, that was not my intention.

2 Likes

I often use the Tekumel method for nearly any setting - the characters are travelers from another part of the world and aren’t expected to know too much of the specific differences. I will assemble a little player’s booklet outlining what they do know and see, and then just show them by running the game.

I’ll start with the most similar actions and behaviors familiar to the players. I tend to only play adventure games, slice of life, and/or domain management stuff, so its pretty easy to have a “core loop” that is familiar for them. Sure they are migrating to a massive weird science fantasy city with a byzantine political structure, but 80% of the game will be dungeon crawling as the unique setting elements slowly seep in.

I try to leverage on art as much as possible and will create a mood board for the setting, all with repurposed art (unless playing in an existing setting). I will also cite movies, books, comics, basically anything I can leverage to be like “sorta like this.”

5 Likes

I think that Justin’s suggestion may be the best way to introduce a highly peculiar setting. (I say peculiar because “unique” seems to be misleading in this discussion so far.)

That is, players experience the visitation of a new realm along with their characters, who are all new arrivals in the setting hitherto foreign to them. If some of them die, they can take “local characters” after having achieved a sense of the place.

The “visitation theme,” as Jon Peterson calls it in Playing at the World, is extremely popular in fantasy, from Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the stories of John Carter on Mars to the kids in the Chronicles of Narnia to the kids in the old D&D cartoon series. When the main characters experience the wonder of the new place, it transports audiences, and it works for RPG players, too

Another way is to give short primers, like that booklet that Justin just referred to, as well. I remember when I saw Lynch’s Dune movie when it came out in 1984, they actually handed out glossaries for the audience to understand the factions and terms. I thought that was great, as a boy. It gave me the sense of entering a truly alien place.

I find myself just elaborating on what Justin said! I’ll come back with more ideas later.

3 Likes

Unique settings are literally everything I do lol.

I have definitely had mixed success, but over time I have tried to do the following (in no specific order):

  • Set expectations. I often describe my style of GMing as Performance Art. Players absolutely do have agency, but the agency comes in how they interface with this very strange world, and they have to be prepared to have their expectations violated and just be ready to come along for the ride.
  • Find a point of reference. My current setting Maximum Recursion Depth is a very Weird, Magical Realism version of modern day NYC. I took inspiration from superhero comics, where even though they are in many ways truly the kitchen sink of all genres and all things, there is this shared point of reference of them almost always centering around the present world and an identifiable place. That does not have to be the point of reference, but it has recently become my preferred one.
  • "Deconstruct" (if you don’t mind me using that term colloquially) or subvert genre expectations to your advantage. The idea being, even if what you do runs counter to the genre expectation, by virtue of being counter to it or reconceptualized from it, it becomes another point of reference. I think if you over-rely on this you lose some of the uniqueness, but it can be a powerful tool to allow you to get away with having a more unique setting, without running into the problem of being so Weird that Weird becomes Normal.
  • Play fast and loose. To some extent this is a personal preference, and it will not be to everyone’s tastes. But if you’ve got a unique setting, you need to be ok with the possibility that misunderstandings will sometimes happen, and try to roll with it rather than make that a sticking point. Let your setting be malleable, and let your players’ expectations guide the setting. It’s ok to say “sorry actually I think we’re really misunderstanding each other” sometimes, but if it’s happening too frequently, use those misunderstandings to your benefit, and likely the players won’t even notice the difference.
  • Plant seeds. I usually talk about this more so within the context of running a campaign rather than worldbuilding per se, but I think it’s true in this case as well. Lay down a bunch of ideas, it’s totally ok if they’re half-baked, and see what the players interact with and how they interact with it. Over time, if you lean into the things they like, you’ll find that you’ve created a really interesting world that will from the player perspective appear as though you had perfectly and pristinely conceived of it from day one, when in fact, as I said before, really you just played fast and loose with your ideas and let their decisions guide what it means in the end.

I’m sure I can think of a million more points, but already these are starting to overlap and these were just a handful off the top of my head so I’ll leave it here for now.

3 Likes

A further thought about this interesting topic.

What counts as peculiar (again, let’s not say unique) is in the eyes of the beholders. (No, not that Beholder!)

If all your players know Flash Gordon really well, or if they are all medievalists on the job, the web of common references is thicker in that direction and you have less explaining to do. If you are playing with young kids who simply lack extensive experience in the varieties of fantasy available in the various globalized media of our time, any setting may be peculiar and full of wonder.

So, peculiarity of setting and the need to bring players up to speed on your world depends on their experiences. The more your setting includes features familiar to them from other sources, the less peculiar it is. Where everybody has setting expectations that overlap, genre exists.

By the same token, if you are trying to blow their minds with something weird, dig into sources that they have no connection with. The risk is that you alienate them, giving them a setting that they can’t relate to.

4 Likes

I think you made a very good point there, “unique” or “peculiar” is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if, say, Warhammer 40,000 rpg or Shadowrun players have their own discussions about how to bring in new players who are not familiar with the setting. I imagine that the challenge would be very similar, although the issue would be filtering through a huge mass of information rather than having too little.

3 Likes

They probably do have these discussions. Then again, for Shadowrun, it’s easy to say, “Imagine a near future cyberpunk world injected with D&D fantasy: Elves, Orks, Dwarves, etc.” Players can pick up the names of corporations etc. as they go.

Warhammer 40k must be different, but saying, “Imagine a cross between Dune and Star Wars, but much, much darker than either, and with battle-armored space marines fighting aliens in the name of a God Emperor,” they’d get it if they have a handle on those references.

The trick is conveying all the details. And that means that the less the referee needs them to understand details, the easier it will be for them. Broad brush strokes do the most. If you want a blue backdrop, broad brush strokes with blue paint get us there fast. If you want red, start with red. But the detail takes time to develop. What do you think of that idea? If it works, then perhaps a good intro for players to a peculiar world is to start with those tones and colors and moods and most easily-grasped concepts. And then hope that your world’s details are not off-putting deal-breakers for the players you’re trying to hook.

2 Likes

I think starting with broad brushstrokes is a good way of describing it. Early on introducing the big, easier to grasp and most fundamental aspects of the setting. And letting the detail slowly develop…through exploration, collaborative worldbuilding or a combination of the two.

A corollary to this question that I’m curious about:
If you run a unique setting how unique and peculiar to the setting do you make your player characters? Do you prefer to start with more well-known types of characters and throw them into a strange land? Or allow character generation to be part of the intro to the setting, and have some of those idiosyncrasies introduced there?

(Not really thinking there’s a single right answer, of course, but curious about people’s approaches)

2 Likes

You can embed setting into character creation.

A life path system can also serve as a tour the setting. Players not only see the choices they’ve made, but also the other choices available.

PbtA style playbooks can embed a ton of setting information, again not just from the choices made but via what’s on offer.

You can also have a session 0 / group character creation procedure that has the players tie their PCs to the setting, often while making meaningful contributions.

For example, in Stonetop, the session 0 procedure involves:

  1. Taking time for everyone to read a 4-page setting/game overview
  2. picking and filling out playbooks
  3. for each playbook, picking 2 special possessions (a smithy, a herd of goats, a cache of weapons, trading contacts, etc) which informs not only gear you have access to but also defines some of the home village’s economy and sets expectations re: material culture)
  4. for each playbook, making some important choices about the setting (what danger out in the world is the Ranger worried about? What is Blessed’s goddess like? When did the Marshal last lead the militia into battle and why? Etc.)
  5. Running through a series of guided introductions, where players introduce their PCs and answer questions as they go. Some of these questions are from the GM, working off a list of prompts but also following their own curiosity. Others are questions they choose to answer from a list (“Which NPC have you been secretly watching over?” “Which NPC’s heart do you hope to win?”).

It’s an involved process, and it doesn’t make everyone experts, but it does typically get everyone involved and invested and largely working from a common starting part.

(Edit: formatting)

5 Likes

How long does this typically take? I recall you saying 45 minutes.

Oh good lord no. 45 minutes is for a standard Dungeon World or Homebrew World sort of setup, like what I do with my recipe for starting adventures.

The process above for Stonetop is a full session… 3-5 hours, depending on number of players you’ve got, their familiarity with the game, how chatty everyone is and how firm a hand the GM keeps on the rudder. I always pitch session 0 as play, but a different sort of play. More like a round of Microscope, y’know?

It’s definitely an investment.

4 Likes

This is definitely a question I’ve run up against a lot running Ultraviolet Grasslands. UVG isn’t entirely without genre, of course, but it’s such a distinct mix of things, and Luka Rejec is so wildly inventive, that it’s difficult to rely on convention and genre expectation when you’re unfolding the setting.

Ultimately (and Rejec is explicit on this point), you have to take the setting as written as a toolbox, or even just a yardstick, for assembling your own UVG-esque setting. But it took me a while to come to grips with that.

6 Likes