Occasionally, players may want to play in a setting which does not have a detailed canonical lore. Consider, for instance, many computer RPG worlds; their lore tends to be very localized, however, players may want to play in those settings.

Assume the players do not necessarily want to play in the canonical locations, or wish to branch out from them. How should I, as a GM, best accommodate those worlds which do not have the content to support this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ do your players want a world without or with a strict historical/geographical background? \$\endgroup\$
    – Antonio
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 11:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @John Well, the relevant historical details definitely need to be filled in... \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 14:54

3 Answers 3


First of all, a "warning": Many computer RPG worlds have way more background info available than the casual observer might hope for at first or second sight. Google is your friend, as usual, in this, if not your BFF. Search for game-world specific names (locations, NPCs, creature and equipment names) and look for wiki-like sites among the hits. (Wikia, for example, has comprehensive info on tons of video-games, and not just RPGs: see its Half Life section, for example.)

Second: If you don't find what you're looking for, the operative keywords are repeat and extrapolate.


Repeat elements that make the game and the game experience unique. Saturate your sessions with more or less (sometimes subtle is better!) of what you've seen in the game. Use the same, or at least a very similar theme and mood, use naming conventions that match that of the world, and use things -- items (weapons, clothes, vehicles etc), races, creatures, and locations -- characteristic of the world. As I've said before, don't overdo it... that is, don't overdo it all the time. But if you're about to play Star Wars, for example (a bad example, since there's practically more info on SW out there than one would ever need), do take your party to the Death Star (well, a Death Star... like... station) once in a while. ;) Also, to continue this example, give them blasters (instead of machine guns), have them wear tunics (instead of business suits), have them see X-wings or TI-E fighters. Show them images (concept art, screenshots) from the game, and, if available, use sound effects and music from the game at appropriate moments.


This is practically the same as repeat... well, almost the same: there's just one bit, a keyword that makes the difference: twist. Take something (everything :)) that you're repeating from the game, and give it a twist. It's easier to explain through an example, and I'll stay with Star Wars. SW has X-wings, so you should, besides keeping and showing X-wings sometimes, invent and introduce ships that use a similar design pattern. Have T-wings, V-wings, O-wings, etc. (But google them first, you might find they already exist in the world.) SW also has lightsabers. So, introduce, besides keeping lightsabers, lightmaces, lightdaggers, etc. But don't break the world by making these common items: since lightsabers are damn rare, your lightwhatnots should be extremely rare as well. SW has names like Skywalker, so why not name a major NPC "Moonfinder" or "Starkiller"? Wait, that last one does exist in the world (at least I remember having seen it somewhere... so, again, google.) SW uses planets with extreme conditions, and one planet almost always equals one type of setting (Hoth: ice, Tatooine: desert, Endor: giant trees etc), so you should do the same: invent a planet that's all but an ocean (wait, google that, SW has that already afaik), invent a planet that has an SW-ized "Egyptian" feel (with pyramids and stuff) etc. And, as a last example: SW has Darth Vader, a half-cyborg villain, so you should have someone like that as well. I hope you get the hang / gist of this extrapolation / twist method. :)


Get a feel of how canonical your players want the setting, how true they want to stay to what they've seen in there, and try and reach a general consensus. Check whether they want to play after the events of the game, or before its timeline begins ("we're twenty years before Obi Wan finds Anakin on Tatooine"), or synchronously with it - and, in the latter case, whether they want to "witness" or "replay/overwrite" the events of the game. (Do they want to be smugglers who are friends of Han Solo, or do they want to have a chance to run an "alternate universe" take on the world, and start from the very same situation as Luke, Leia, Han and Co., but act perhaps rather differently under different names... and tell the story of the fall of Luna Moonfinder, the lost daughter of Darth Vader, who realizes that she's strong in the Force but joins her father on the Cloud City.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Did Han shoot first? Roll! Interesting answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 7:44
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. And if you are lucky, you'll roll higher than him, and maybe this time it will, finally, be The High Adventures of Greedo the Bounty Hunter who killed Han Solo. ;) (Also, thanks, I'm glad you like my answer.) \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 7:52

Codify what you and your players know.

Anything which the lot of you agree is there is there.

That's actually quite a bit harder than it may seem. Often, some data is well known - species, classes, cultures, weapons, maps - but lots of other data isn't presented in game nor in the hint books. Both Final Fantasy and Zelda lines are notorious for hiding lots of information in the dialogues, and more in the pre-release adverts, and more still in the in-box documentation, and then releasing tidbits through the hint-books.

Pick and choose, and define what canon resources are "valid" for your game.

And, in the case of videogames, discuss the feel and themes, and work with the players to make the tabletop rules address the thematic and tone issues. Make notes on what the players expect, and what they don't mind you changing.

Even in cases where you're playing an RPG with its own canon - if you as a GM don't have access to some bits, tell the players ahead of time, and don't hesitate to say, "And if I don't own it, it doesn't exist for the purposes of this campaign." (The mixed blessing of this is that, if a player is strongly enough enamored with Splatbook Xyzzy, you may wind up with a copy anyway... even tho' you didn't buy it because the reviews said it's totally broken....)

Define where you're going to play.

If the map ends on the oceans, or the fiery fields, or the "edge of the world cliffs," you may need to work from the extant maps.

The extant maps are no different than for any other semi-mapped world. Expand only what you have to, and only when you need to.

The problem is that the other supporting details won't be there. Be prepared to Make Stuff Up.

Define when you're going to play.

Most computer games have some major change in the timeline happen in the game. Often, it's due to the main plot the player engages.

Changing the timeframe can make tabletop easier.

Setting a good bit before the videogame means that most of the setting information is going to stand up, but a little can be changed, and players have little recourse to "but the Nintendo Power Article says..." If you're far enough back, say, a whole generation, most of the NPC's won't be of importance, either.

Setting it right after the ending is great - unless, of course, they're working on a sequel. You can find the surviving big-bad-guys and major-good-guys in the walkthroughs that are almost too common on the nets....

Declare a separate continuity.

Once the game begins, it's generally a good idea to bar the addition of any new source material, unless you as the GM add it.

Also, if there is potential to overlap the game's timeline, just state ahead of time that the timeline isn't fixed in stone, and may change due to any combination of Player Actions, GM brain-cramp, and GM encountered/acquired materials.

Have a clear vision as a GM.

The others in the group don't need a clear vision. You do, mister GM. You need to see in your mind that setting as being at least as alive as, oh, say, a major motion picture you just saw.

That view doesn't need to be complete, doesn't need to be right, doesn't need to even be shared with the players... but you'll draw on it every time you build adventures and NPC's.

Pick a ruleset that you know and that fits the setting.

D&D isn't great for doing EVN, can do Fallout passably, but is the very system behind Pool of Radiance. Certain flavors may even work for Bards Tale.

GURPS will do Halo or Star Trek Elite Forces just fine, but isn't so hot for any of the Zelda games - D&D even isn't that good a fit - but Fate Accelerated can very readily do it quite well by retheming the approaches to Melee, Missile, Magic, Social, Music.

Picking the right game system means not having to write many pages of cumbersome adaptations. Still, during the d20 heyday, not a few such books wound up in print, and some were actually decent!

Knowing the ruleset well allows knowing better what you need to tweak. It also allows knowing whether or not the game's a good fit in the first place.


So, taking, as example, Ambrosia Software's Escape Velocity Nova...

Were I to run it, my players wouldn't actually know the setting. At least at start. One might buy the game just to see what I'm pulling.

There's a lot of buried information that I've just not been able to play through. (I've poked through the files, using ResEdit, and wow - I've only hit about 10%, including the one time I finished the game! If you finish certain of the storylines, you utterly change the setting. And you can't avoid the major themes, tho' you might not recognize them, and might not trigger the plot line, but you WILL encounter it, and it will wait for you to trigger it.

So, knowing what I know, I'd just use the maps, major governments, and basic ship types. I'd pick one of several games, depending on player base.

I'd also use the starting condition. I would probably have the Vell-Os plotline in the background, and the Aurora-Federation War. And from that point on, everything else is just reactions to the players.

Now, looking at what games I'd pick...

  • It needs to support blasters of some kind.
  • It needs to support spaceships fighting.
  • It needs to have psionics rules.
  • It needs to have rules for adjusting prices on trade goods
  • It should require few houserules.
  • It doesn't need non-human PC's, but can use different racial mods for the various sub-races of humans in the setting.

Potentials: Traveller, Diaspora, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Edge of the Empire, Firefly.

Traveller: Blasters need to be houseruled. The Vell-Os ships are houserule, and the acquisition of Psi is also in need of houserules, because all Vell-Os are both telepaths and Telekinetics.

Diaspora: Blasters need to be defined. Ship combat and travel is very workably close, but the maps replace the cluster maps system. Size matters in the EVN setting, so that needs to be adjusted to be covered by ship creation. Psionics are underdeveloped, so that's houserule time, too. Reject, unless my players are FATE Junkies.

Serenity: Needs blasters. Needs jump drives. Otherwise, it's got room for everything but the Vell-Os, and the Vell-Os can be adapted from the Psionics rules. Given the looseness of the system, adding blasters is trivial, and the Vell-Os ship-making is easily added as a series of skill level driven gains. Ship combat is pretty minimalistic - the eponymous ship is unarmed.

BTVS: Yes, I'm serious. Angel, or Army of Darkness will work just as well. There's an adaptation in Eden Studios Presents vol. 1, called Spacefarers and Prariefolk, obviously intended for being Firefly sans the license. So... It needs some trade rules help. But it does have a hand blaster. And it has a great magic system, from which I can fake up the psionics rules. Be a lot of work. But the feel of the game itself is very much fast paced, player involved.

Edge of the Empire: Blasters? Yep. Flexible rules? Yep. Ships? Yep. Space Combat? Oh, yeah! Psi? Yup - adding the vell-os ships is pretty straightforward. Size does matter. Lots of room for modifications. Problem: iconic game books.

Firefly: (Note: NOT the same game as serenity, despite the same publisher!) Blasters? no problem. Psi? Yes, but limited RAW. Ships? Yes, and very flexible, but not covering cargo. Trade Good rules? Not in RAW. (Yeah, surprise! Trade is a MacGuffin in the Firefly RPG.)

So, in the final decision, Traveller or Edge would be my first choices, then Buffy, then Serenity. Firefly would need some major work...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey Aramis, good answer. Can you update it now that games like Serenity and MindJammer have been released. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 12:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Serentity was taken OFF the market 5 years ago, and I've not got MindJammer. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 18:29

I've worked on stuff like this before, and it's always difficult, but there are a number of things I do to try and make things go well.

Work from what does exist.

One of my favorite old video games is Deus Ex. It's convoluted as all get-out. However, there's a number of things that can be known, and you just have to track things back to possible motives. If the terrorists blew up the Statue of Liberty, they had a reason to think that their liberty was being impeded. It's sometimes more subtle than one thinks. If there's an intentional depopulation of the world through the unleashed Grey Death virus, that means that someone thinks there's too many people for some reason or another, whether they're afraid of losing power or they're worried about overpopulation.

That's a really simple thing, however, so I'll expound on it a little with case studies:


I used to play an old game called GearHead, it's a giant robot anime-inspired roguelike, and it's made by a solo developer. This comes out in a number of issues, namely the fact that the world's not fully fleshed out-no individual can create a world without any holes without years and years of revision and tweaking, and when you're trying to bash it into pre-baked game mechanics that's really difficult.

However, there's a lot to visit even outside of normal locations. It's "post-post-apocalyptic", and dealing with lost technology, the new civilization sprouting up from the ashes, and more. I can run an adventure set in Snake Lake without ever referring to any of the NPC's from the game, or even going to the same people. I don't have to worry about contradicting canon, because I can work within plausibility but not have to start over from scratch.


I'm probably going to show off my "indie gamer pretentiousness" here, but Avernum's been a go-to game for me since I discovered it shortly before the Windows release of its third installment (for those looking for how long I've played it, I went back and played Exile so that I could see Avernum 3's story, which was being recreated from the earlier game before it released). And I love the setting, since I seem to have a thing for worlds designed almost exclusively by lone developers over the course of many years.

Avernum, however, creates a lot of interesting opportunities, because it explicitly provides a lot of good hints and tips as to how to do things. It's theoretically based on tabletop gaming systems (at least heavily inspired by them), and its storytelling is not dissimilar to what goes on around a table on a weekly basis. However, we see it almost exclusively from a tactical RPG standpoint (admittedly, a very deep one), but we can assume a lot of things; there's big-name NPC's, but they don't control the world. However, what we see of the game world is entirely decided by game design, rather than setting design. Admittedly, this is a game that not only has a lot of setting-work done, but also an epic amount of content (I've played it three or four times and never made a run even through the first continent without finding new stuff), so it's not as great an example.

Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity is a game I choose because it's one of those interesting games, and it's raising my "pretentious indie" emission levels to dangerous highs, so I may need to open a window quick.

Okay, now that I'm back from that, EV Nova is my exposure to the series (I grew up on Windows, okay?), and it's a pretty generic sci-fi exploration game, somewhat like Firefly but with much less of a focus on hard science-fiction. But, more importantly, it was built very loosely; the player had a lot of room to form their own interpretations and often missed out on the grand narrative.

Working with that sort of game is much harder, because the player's not the driving force in the world. Sure I may have been the hero who freed my people, but I didn't see the whole thing from start to finish. I just ascended past normal mortal limits and brought the rest of the Vell-Os with me; I don't know much about our centuries long oppression because I'm just a human who happens to be the most powerful psychic in the galaxy, and I'm lucky to even know recent history because I only hopped off a rock and into adventure less than a year ago.

So what can we do in these cases?

Accept that you'll be wrong.

At one time or another, you'll contradict canon. This only happens if you come into contact with canon, but either through game mechanics or through going somewhere and causing more trouble than you should your version of Deus Ex will not be the same as Eidos Montreal's. It's not fun to run a game where you worry about trashing the setting too much. Just admit that you'll be off-canon, but try to stay within believable limits, and stick to that.

If I had a dollar for every time my Shadowrunners trashed Seattle big-time, I'd be rich, but I've had many occasions where some setting-shattering impact they have results in the same outcome that the next edition brings out (albeit for a different reason). It's going to be a different experience, sure, but if you want to have agency in the world you have to accept that.

Make stuff up.

It's pretty much impossible for me to run a campaign set in any pre-existing setting without having to create my own stuff. What if the players don't want to go get a drink at Tracer Tong's bar (yes, I'm leaning hard on the DE example)? Improvisation is part of GM'ing, and it's crucial to stay on your toes. Just be sure to think things through; UNATCO may have a secret detention center under their New York offices, but they probably don't have Hitler's brain in there.

Which takes me to my third point:

Be careful.

One of the biggest issues I have with running a game in a setting where the players are going to have a major world impact and potentially contradict known canon is that the reason why we're playing in that setting is probably that we love it. We're involved in the deeds of Commander Sheppard, and we're just as ticked when the GM tramples on Mass Effect as when EA does it.

It's not that you can't contradict the canon-you have to, but learn as much as you can so that you can fit in well. Don't include Robin Hood or King Arthur in a Renaissance setting unless there's a reason for them to be anachronistic. Don't make your favorite characters win everything. You can mess with established timelines, sure. Maybe Handsome Jack defeats the Vault Hunters. But the truth of the matter is that there's a lot of Pandora to explore, and it may be better just to pit the players against secondary characters of similar proportions rather than throw them against the things they know and love.


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