Writing a Campaign Setting Sourcebook
by Lloyd Brown Jun 09,2005
Getting a campaign setting sourcebook published is for many game masters the ultimate dream. You’ve spent countless hours developing this setting through your course of your game mastering experience. Each hill, each town, and each dungeon represents many hours of fun for you and your friends. You’re certain that if the rest of the world knew how great a time you had, they’d love it, too.
Unfortunately, publishers don’t share you enthusiasm. Many new publishers started publishing mostly with a particular product line—their own RPG setting, complete with their own emotions and memories—in mind. They don’t want other settings. Other settings would dilute the value of their brand. Other settings would divide sales between their own setting and the new competing setting. Other settings would take away the fun of reliving their own games.
It sounds foolish, but people often make decisions based on emotional reasons. Even business decisions.
Wiser publishers realize that a single product is not likely to sustain them, and they look for additional products. Green Ronin and Mongoose Publishing have both had exceptional success understanding this fact. If Green Ronin had been content with Freeport, the market would never have seen Testament and The Black Company. If Mongoose had never branched out beyond their Slayer’s Guides and Quintessential series, they wouldn’t have known the success of Conan and Babylon 5.
So the RPG market does have a place for additional campaign settings, although convincing a publisher of that might be a tough sell. It involves convincing the publisher that this setting stands out from hundreds of others. The writing and the selling are tied together.
To do either one, you have to have a clear hook. This hook will end up being the one-line sell that game retailers use to sell the book off the shelves. Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight is “a miserable world ruled by an evil god” or some such variation. White Wolf’s Adventure is “pulp action roleplaying.” You’ll use this one-line sell concept when you pitch it to a publisher, and the publisher will use it to sell it to his distributors.
Hint: “It’s like D&D but better” are words that guarantee rejection. Your setting must have its own identity.
After you sell your idea to a publisher, you need to develop it. Your writing plans should include at least Tone, Places, History, People, Religion, and Rules. While describing these elements, you’ll fill a reader need by describing information the characters need during play. You should also keep in mind how each of these elements supports your setting theme. Use your writing to reinforce your concept.
In some ways, the tone really determines your setting. Fading Suns has tones of both menace (hey, the suns are fading) and hope (the birth of a new civilization) and this contrast strongly flavors what might otherwise be a generic space opera setting. Your tone should be closely tied to your campaign hook.
You can establish tone with a couple of different tools. Your probably-too- copious use of character monologue that you paste all over the book is one tool. This overused element would be better off if used sparingly and within your secret guidelines. For example, you might use a different narrator for each culture, and include misleading or incorrect information based on that character’s point of view.
Sample adventures are another tool. Midnight’s popularity waned after it appeared through no fault of the system because many campaigns featured a meta-story wherein the players killed off the evil god! So ends the flavor. Giving players a couple of dozen adventure ideas in which they could stymie the evil god without making him the climactic encounter of a big dungeon crawl could have been useful for those GMs that used the setting in such a way contrary to the designer’s intent.
Depending on how many additional books you allow for, you might need to describe each individual city or just briefly flavor each country. If you’re writing about a fictional pre-Norman England, for example, you might describe the kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, and Northumbria, saving greater detail and information on the lesser regions for later supplements.
The setting should work within the framework of the game you’re playing. If it’s a generic fantasy D20 setting really meant to work with D&D, your huge mega-city has to have some way of featuring fantastic non-urban monsters to fight. Dark, secretive creatures that prowl the alleyways are one option, as are barbaric humanoid hordes that close in on all sides of the city.
Give a background on the setting’s history, explaining how it got to where it is now. If it’s a fictional setting, you might start with a creation myth and work from there. If it’s an alternate history setting, where your history deviates from real-world history is a good starting point. For science fiction games, background elements usually include Earth’s exploration of space and first contact with aliens.
Describe the races and classes, the cultures—the people. Show how they live, where they live, and what makes them interesting. Are they happy, rebellious, or belligerent? How do they interact with each other? How will the PCs interact with society?
It doesn’t take much to paint a picture of a culture. You could mention their art, their dress, their burial customs, or how they fight. A culture of body-painting naked savages that eat their dead and fight in howdahs on the backs of rocs is a terrifying image, totally different from a gold-wearing, white-robed race that venerates their ancestors and prefers arcane weapons over steel.
The PC role in the campaign setting is important. Are they the rogue heroes in a world of villains? Are they average guys with above-average curiosity? Are they epic heroes whose every action is a source of legend?
Describe how the people worship, where they worship, who they worship, and how much they fight over their worship. Describe the level of importance of religion, the interaction of any organized churches with the government, and how divine beings (if any) interact with people.
Myths about the gods and the afterworld help define a people, too. The Norse without Valhalla would be not Norse. A race that believes that stab wounds in the back equate to eternal suffering in the afterlife will detest assassins and will never flee in battle.
Whether you’re using the D20 rules, another system’s rules, or creating your own rule system from scratch, you need to include the rules that apply to your game. This might be as simple as assigning domains to gods or might be as complex as designing a whole new rules system.
Whatever level of detail you need, remember that players need to be able to play the setting and GMs need to be able to run it. Either provide enough for both or write multiple books and make sure the need is clear to the reader.
Since this article is about setting design and not game design, we’re not going to discuss what chapters go in the rules section.
Have a Guideline
As long as you’re the only one writing it, you don’t need to have anything on paper. The minute you open it up for further development, however, other people will add to your world. The means to retain control of that development to some degree, is found within your development guidelines, or setting “bible.”
Your guideline contains “behind the screen” stuff that probably won’t ever see publication. If your campaign has a big secret, the answer to the secret might be in there. If you have particular cultural models for different sub-races or ethnicities, say so in your guidelines. For example, if your Krontak barbarians are modeled after 10th century Swedes but NOT 9th century Danes, be clear about the distinction.
Creating a good campaign setting involves than just creating a complete campaign setting. However, even a good idea can fail if the execution is poor. After all, ideas are free. Execution is what writers charge money for. Make your campaign setting fill all the player and DM needs and you’re many steps closer to making a sale.