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Creating custom game play content for a group can be challenging for even the most experienced GM. Understanding how your group members' play and understanding what they want to experience is important.

What one tip would you give to a GM trying to write content for a generic fantasy setting?

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For those interested in the subject, there is a similar question here for D&D: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1128/… –  high bandwidth Jan 10 at 21:23
This is a pretty old question, and has relevance to RPG.SE now - however, I think it currently fits the definition of 'too broad.' –  Emracool 6 hours ago
Oops. I VTCed as "opinion-based" but I meant to VTC as "too broad." –  Alex P 5 hours ago
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9 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

For a Generic fantasy setting? Start small when it comes to details. Use broad strokes for the big picture. New PCs need to know the name of the tavern in town they stay at, but they don't need to know the name of the Duke's 2nd cousin. They might like to know the name of the country they are in, and that orcs live in the mountains, but not much else. The details will fill in as you go.

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+1 For "The details will fill in as you go." –  cthom06 Aug 19 '10 at 20:18
Yes, YAGNI or 'fill in as you go'. Also allow the players to suggest what they would find interesting, but if they succeed and if they fail (so no prep-work there either: 'as you go along', as long as it doesn't wreck your plans too bad. –  Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 21 '10 at 19:14
That being said, if you fill in as you go, make sure to take notes...otherwise there's no way you'll remember it all. Nothing kills realism like players remembering something you'd forgotten, and left out. –  Beska Aug 25 '10 at 18:05
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I've based my home brew adventures off of video games I've played in the past, novels I've read, movies, my own imagination and combinations of those.

For instance, a campaign I'm running now is based loosely off of the "Legend of Blacksilver" video game (old Commodore 64 game), some novels I've read and my own imagination. The adventure is not a copy of these sources but more of a mix of them with elements from each and a large healthy chunk of my own imagination.

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Get input from the players.

The easiest way to do this is to have the players write a short (or long) character history. In that history they will give up plot hooks. There are few things that will draw a player into your realm than having a childhood friend of that character show up later in the story, or having something they did in their history affect the game world.

When I start a game, I let the players describe as much, or as little about their character's place of origin as they would like. This also helps flesh out the game world. I can then take the histories, put the various starting towns on a map, and poof you have a nice starting region.

So, to make a short answer long, let the players drive the story and setting as much as possible, then build off their ideas.

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This idea is okay with an experienced group. Newer players may have trouble making up interesting/useful character history. I split the difference and handed out note cards. I asked them to write down three complete sentences on the card that relate to the character. My example card included: "I have a sister.", "I want to earn wealth to improve my village", and "I am terrified of spiders" –  MadMAxJr Aug 20 '10 at 18:54
When too much backstory requirements are killing to the players: have them put in stuff as you go as well. Both success and failure blanks could be up to them, especially if their driving the game at some point where you don't already have plot planned. –  Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 21 '10 at 19:16
Good points. I've seen that difficulty with newer players just recently. Do you have them write down three sentences at the beginning of each session, or only at the start of the campaign? I think I'm going to steal that idea. Have them start with three, and then at the beginning of every session have them give me one more and let them accumulate into a richer history. –  digitaljoel Aug 21 '10 at 21:10
This was going to be my answer! Let the players help design the setting. With newer players, I would ask them to give input on what they would like to see in the game itself. –  Bricu Aug 25 '10 at 19:18
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Don't paint yourself to a corner with too tight a definition.

Always leave room for expansion.

Start both top down (general ideas, history, mythology, large-scale geography) and bottom-up (flesh out a village for the characters to use as an initial home base).

There's always time to make up details as the plots progress. But do try to get the characters to experience some of the unique qualities of the world as soon as possible.

Do not try to do all the work yourself - let players participate in the definition of the world.

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Consistency. Above all be consistent in your writing and in your design. From the politics to the religions, races to monsters there should be a consistency throughout. Whether it is a unifying theme or style be consistent. Too many times I have picked up poorly written adventures that have incredibly intelligent villains/monsters doing stupid things or NPC's acting completely out of line with their background for no reason.

The other piece of advice I would give is to ask "why" a lot. Why would the orcs raid that village at that time? Why would the god of forest be married to the goddess of alchemy? Why is the king such a mean guy? If the GM thinks it through first then it will be available when the player's ask the question. This also leads back to my first piece of advice about being consistent and can help greatly with that.

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If you are working with vanilla fantasy, try focusing on an underlying theme relevant to the players in your group. Think of fantasy as the style, but the content as a vehicle for the players to creatively express themselves.

Are the players interested in kicking down doors? Focus on dungeons, monsters, and treasure.

Are the players interested in overthrowing a tyrannical government? Focus on the structure of power, some commonly held beliefs and misconceptions, and of course influential and interesting npcs.

Are the players interested in exploring the great outdoors? Focus on interesting locations, wandering encounters, and hidden places to discover.

If the players aren't interested, the campaign's themes isn't relevant. Discover what they are interested and focus on bringing opportunities to the table that allows them to pursue their interests.

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Create good characters. Challenge your characters. Make your characters grow through overcoming challenges.

A good story is based on interesting characters. Create believable characters, with goals and flaws. Heroes, and villains. Create story by putting obstacles in the path of the characters (the PCs need obstacles, but so do the NPCs). Obstacles should reflect a character's flaws, or weaknesses; a character grows, and becomes stronger or better as a person, by overcoming them over the course of the story.

Read up on the hero's journey, and how to structure a story.

Here's a good article, in that vein:


If the players write backstories for their characters, you can tailor subplots and challenges that face each individual character. You can reward players for their efforts with a starting bonus, like a feat (for D&D), or bonus XP.

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Focus your efforts on creating material that will be useful to players.

Too many settings blather on and on about stuff that happened ten thousand years ago, or explain the vagaries of the weird calendar systems that the nine different cultures use. In general, players never use this stuff.

While you want your setting to have enough of a backstory, enough history, to "hook" the players, you don't want to put them to sleep. At the very least, do not emulate boring history books when you write your world's history.

Anything that you can sum up in bullet points should be five or ten bullets.

Here's what players really want to know:

  1. What is this? What makes this campaign setting different than all the other ones?
  2. Who am I? How do they create characters that fit into (and hook into) the setting?
  3. What's happening? What is the immediate situation their characters face?

Anything you create beyond that is likely background they will gloss over, even ignore, until it's relevant to their characters in play. In other words, you didn't have to write out ten pages for them to read; it could have been a one-paragraph Arcana check at DC 18.

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A bullet list of important things:

  • Create only what you need for play. Details you can't imagine needing this month aren't that necessary.
  • Focus on one to three things that make your world unique. Don't create a generic fantasy world. You can buy five or six and save the time.
  • Think about what happens without the player's characters. Then figure out how their actions change it.
  • Pick two different and at least somewhat conflicting inspirations (Conan and The Belgariad) and make your spice from how they clash.
  • Never be a slave to your players' desires. Make your world what you want.
  • Never make the players slaves to your desires. Make your world one they enjoy exploring.
  • Have fun.
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