The Art of Compelling Settings

Posted: April 3, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

Settings are memorable when there is something about them that makes the players want their characters to go there and do something. The art of creating compelling settings isn’t easy, and that despite the title, I don’t have everything honed to perfection, but there are a few things that every GM should be aware of when it comes to making a setting that will encourage the players to be proactive.

Before we go into further detail, let’s go back a bit and discuss why settings have to be compelling in order to be good. A setting, at heart is the sandbox, the environment that the player characters are introduced to and where all their actions take place. The places they visit, the people they meet and the challenges they face all exist within this setting. As such, it becomes important that the players feel motivated to take action, to change the status quo for good (or for ill, if they’re into that sort of thing.)

The point is, players who aren’t motivated to do anything in the setting won’t have fun. Period.

So how do we make the setting compelling?

The setting is pliant – The setting is affected by the events in play. Whether it’s the war that the players fought in, or the evil plague that the villain unleashed on the population, the setting has to change and reflect the consequences of the actions taken in play. In doing this, the players suddenly realize that they are crucial to the setting and the situation, and that they must take action.

The setting is intriguing – The best settings are those with vast mysteries just dying to be unraveled by the player characters. Whether it’s the nature of magic in that reality, or the truth behind the Lord Ruler, having mysteries breathes a certain kind of allure to a setting, and the players find themselves with something that they can work to unravel. I find that and sci-fi fantasy settings work best when there’s always some new and astounding discovery to make.

The setting is exotic – Let’s face it, exoticism is perhaps one of the most common elements of RPG settings. While some settings have lost their appeal (the standard western fantasy being one example) there are countless others with that interesting spin on things that make it worth playing. Exotic in this case means one with marked and striking differences as to feel unique and special. These are the settings that instill a sense of wonder to the players, who find extra enjoyment in discovering the little intricacies of the world though the lens of their character’s experiences.

Of course, one can find countless settings out there with their own unique spin on things. Some may be appealing to some groups, and others not so much. My advice is to explore the games available, as broadening your horizons can only be a good thing, especially since you can start cherry picking through the little bits and pieces of what intrigue you and spin off your own setting from scratch, after all, nobody’s stopping you.

  1. Hikkikomori says:

    Other elements which also aid in mood and pacing are – time and weather.

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