... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Approaches to Fantasy Settings

There was a little discussion in the comments on the fantasy literature post, which I expected. Whether or not to use a pre-existing setting is a highly-charged discussion with a lot of varying opinions, some of which were in those comments:

  1. Fully-Statted and Described Commercial Setting, such as Hârn, Greyhawk, or licensed settings, for people who prefer most of the heavy lifting to be done by someone else;
  2. Third-Party Setting, adapted on the fly from the source material, for those who want the familiarity of Middle Earth, Narnia, or Westeros without having to memorize or look up exact stats;
  3. Patchwork Setting from more than one source, with or without the “serial numbers” filed off, with little concern for precise emulation of any of the settings;
  4. Collaborative Setting Building, with or without an aide like Aria or Champions of ZED, allowing a closer connection between the players and the setting;
  5. GM’s Personal Setting, either loosely or thoroughly detailed, to allow GM familiarity with the setting;
  6. Minimalist Setting, with the bulk of the setting details left undefined until actually needed.

I’ve tried to arrange these in order from completely defined by people who aren’t playing in the group through completely defined by the group or by a single person in the group, but there are certainly crossovers, as well as heavy front-loading vs. heavy improv. And there are possible variants of the first three or four based on where on an existing timeline play begins, and how sacrosanct that timeline’s future is. In the case of Middle Earth, you could begin play after the events of LotR, to avoid spoilers, or between LotR and the Hobbit, or before the Hobbit, and in the latter two cases you have a few options:

  • Future Doesn’t Happen (the events of LotR or even the Hobbit are ignored except as possible reference for motivations of major players)
  • Future Is Malleable (Sauron’s searching for the Ring, Saruman is corrupted, Wormtongue is corrupting Theoden, but the Fellowship doesn’t exist and the players are free to interact with events however they see fit)
  • Future Is Fixed (Events in Hobbit and LotR happen exactly as described no matter what players do)

The main considerations for which of these many options to choose are GM workload, player workload, familiarity, and flexibility.

Commercial settings keep the GM workload low before play, but both the GM and the players need to become familiar with the material, and extensive reference materials may mean a heavy GM workload during play.

Extremely well-known settings are easier to get into because of the familiarity, but may still have a high GM workload before or during play.

Collaborative worldbuilding means better familiarity for everyone at the table, but players may resent sharing some of the pre-game workload, depending on their personal interests.

Minimalist and/or improvised settings decrease pre-game workload, but may be uncomfortable for some GMs, and hard to become familiar with unless crossed with minimal references to another setting.

There’s way more that can be said about all of these, which perhaps I need to go into.

Creative Commons license

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.


  1. One thing that you didn't mention is the length of play. Over the course of many years and several campaigns, one can, even with minimal preparation, have a very detailed world the you really know well simply because you were their when it emerged. In many ways, this kind of campaign is akin to a personal Greyhawk, which emerged in a similar way. The problem, of course, is that this approach takes patience and time. The end result, however, is just as good (if not better) than any published setting.

    1. The thing about length of play, though, is that all of the above choices converge over time. The differences are all at the beginning, and most disappear after several sessions of play. The one exception is the minimalist approach, where the GM prep work normally done for a setting is done on a session by session basis instead of being done in bulk before the first session, but even that becomes indistinguishable from the others over months of play.