Every game needs a setting. Well, I suppose that isn’t true, Tetris doesn’t exactly have a setting, so if you are making some sort of abstract puzzle game then you can ignore this article.
But if you are making any other kind of game, a setting is needed. And with an RPG, a setting is usually doubly as important.
I could write an article with a thousand ideas on methods to make a setting that is intriguing and unique, but I think sometimes we lose ourselves in talking in generalizations. So instead, I’m going to discuss a specific setting I’ve made, and walk through the steps of how it was created. Instead of just telling you “this is a method that works”, I’m going to show you the connections I made in my own head, and hope that you can divine some use out of it.
But first, a word on setting and story: To me, these two are intertwined. The setting serves the story, and the story serves the setting. You can’t separate the two. Because of this, you will notice that not only am I creating the setting, I am creating the story as well. Now, not the whole story. But the setup for the story. The characters and the history that make the story happen.
The history that is important to a setting will ALWAYS be the history that makes the story happen. The rest can be INTERESTING, but it is not always important.
I’ve found the best way to develop a setting is to start with what I call the Seed. The Seed is that little bit of something that everything else will be built around. It can be an image. It can be a theme you want to discuss during the game. It can be pretty much anything.
In this case, it was a character concept. Only two words: Hobo Warrior. It had stuck in my head, this image of a warrior with ragged clothing, beaten but well taken care of armor and sword. Instead of the “mysterious wandering warrior” stereotype you normally get, calm, collected, “so coooool”, I pictured a character who was hard, with clear issues that prevent him from being part of normal society. But still supremely skilled.
I imagined him wandering from place to place, surviving off the land, and fighting some form of enemy that has a personal meaning to him, not because he is trying to save the world, but because of a personal trauma.
I feel this works solidly as a Seed because it is a unique hook. I mean, don’t you want to explore the life and times of Hobo Warrior already? A good seed is like this. It will hook in readers just from hearing about it alone.
Growing the Seed
Now, with this seed in place, it needs a world to inhabit. So, I come to the question I ask myself all the time when creating a setting: How?
We need not just a world that this character can be part of, we need a world that would PRODUCE him. How did he get this trauma? How did the enemies he hunts come about? You would of course, need different how questions with a different seed, but the idea is similar: How did “the seed” come to be? Or How will “the seed” be ? in the case of a theme
I decide to build this around two things, loss and personal betrayal. To build the most loss, I decide that he started at a high point in his youth, some form of high ranking nobility, not in line to take control of his house, but instead a young knight, trained to protect his kingdom.
So at this point, his house has to fall. But why stop there, when we can have his whole kingdom fall? Everything he ever cared about taken away from him. What if a portal into some form of “demon” realm was opened that enveloped the entire kingdom? Not just destroying his people, but even the land itself being warped into a dark reflection of what he once loved.
This is what I will call the Touchfuzzy Law of Infinite Angst: If you are going to create a character who angsts, that we are supposed to like, at least give them something traumatizing enough to be worth angsting about.
As for why demons? Honestly, I don’t really know. Sometimes you just have to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. And sometimes “cliche” is simpler, especially in the early planning stages. I can always change it later into something more unique if I want to, and for the moment the cliche fills the need. But at the moment, I’m not sure I even want to. Demons are horrifying. Destructive. Everything I need to do to my main character is there.
Stealing From Others
So now I need to ask again: HOW? How did this happen? So at the time when I was working on this setting, I was also watching the first few episodes of The Shannara Chronicles. Somewhere in its vascillating between being something halfway decent and being a mess of teen fiction, I got to thinking about the Druids from the Shannara setting.
I rather like the Druids, I’m a huge fan of the books (which while, not high literature, are certainly entertaining), and the idea of super powerful wizard/monk/historians struck me as interesting. And the idea of an order like that turning to “evil” as they did in the history of the Shannara books was appealing.
So… why not steal it? I mean, yes, you should never just rip off an existing setting wholesale. But individual bits and pieces? There isn’t a creative person alive who hasn’t done a bit of that (and I’ll certainly do some more before this setting is done). Steal the bits and pieces you need and combine them like Lego into new and interesting arrangements.
So an order of super powerful wizard types who go rogue. Since I wanted a personal betrayal involved in my main characters trauma, I believe we need to establish some kind of relationship between him and this order.
What if his Kingdom is really run by this order? What if the nobility exists mostly as a form of figureheads and bodyguards for these wizards? Somewhere along this idea my hobo warrior goes from just high up nobility to one of the younger princes of the realm. I figure with the real power laying with the magical order, who I refer to as Magi (singular Magus) at this point, I might as well move him up into the position where he will have had a lot of interactions with them.
Stealing From Yourself
So at this point, I had the bare bones of a fantasy setting. Realm destroyed by demons brought through by a powerful magical order going evil, with the hero of our setting being the prince, stripped of everything he had wandering the land to fight them. But I hadn’t made his pain PERSONAL yet. That was an early goal I set out to do.
So I needed another character, a character he could perceive as having betrayed him, someone he used to be close to.
While writing up this part, I had also been looking at a few of my older, abandoned stories. One of them was the beginnings of a sci-fi novel that featured a highly talented member of a psionic order many believed destined for greatness, who suffered suffered from extreme self-doubt. He developed a personality of “If I never try hard, all my failures are a result of my not caring, rather than that I couldn’t really do it.”
Well, I certainly wasn’t using him in that story, it had sat there for years filed away in the back of my brain untouched, but the character itself was something I felt would be interesting to explore, so why not import him directly in.
Rather than a psionic, he was now a Magus. I decided to give him a sister, equally talented, who he always felt he could not live up to. She rose to the upper echelons of the Magi, he hovered in place, never taking things as seriously in fear that it would backfire and show everyone what a fraud his “talent” really was.
I developed a relationship between him and the young prince who would become Hobo Warrior. They were close. Not close enough for him to open up about his doubts, as he would never do that with anyone, but the closest relationship that either of them had.
So now that I have Hobo Warrior and Doubting Magus. Two characters set in a kingdom that has gone horribly horribly wrong. Most of my setting work so far has been to establish the story so far: AND THAT IS GOOD. I can never stress this enough times. Your setting serves the story. Your setting serves the story. Your setting SERVES THE STORY. You can include as much detail as you want, but the important bits to figure out are what makes your story click. All the rest is just details. Wednesday, I’m going to come back to give you part 2, where I’ll delve even deeper into more thievery, more cliches, more asking questions, and hopefully, a few more methods you can use in your setting creation.
So did you learn anything interesting? Have your own little tips, or maybe even stories about how you came up with bits of your setting? Share them in the comments section below.