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Where oh where am !? Crafting Settings for Role-Playing Games

Updated on April 28, 2015

Previously I have spoken about the core concepts of gamemastering; the broad-strokes of qualities that I value and aspire to as GM. For this article, I wanted to take a more in-depth* look into a singular skill of GM’ing: Setting-building. Crafting the various settings is important for your campaign. After all, how are you going to tell a story without it taking place anywhere? (Not that you can’t do that, but such experimental role-playing/storytelling isn’t the point of this articles). Also, sometimes the very setting is the biggest “selling” point for your story/game for players. After all, players may be looking for something different than your typical hack-and-slash fantasy adventure epic; instead, you can offer them the chance to play in a world where technology reigns alongside magic, while dark and unholy terrors dwell beneath the surface of the world and the nations of the realm war endlessly with one another.

I think I heard about this somewhere . . .
I think I heard about this somewhere . . .

When discussing setting, there are three primary tiers to consider: the World, the City, and the Scene. Each tier presents challenges and opportunities for creative thinking. Also each tier has its place within the greater structure of the narrative that you as the GM will be constructing. And just as a point of clarity, each tends to have equal relevance within the context of a story; depending on the details of your campaign of course.

*Well, to be honest, “in-depth” is a bit of a stretch; more like an overview on the topic.


When it comes to the World, many players will think of your game in this manner (e.g. this is your world). World-building is an exercise in setting the mood, motifs, and other major atmospheric and global themes for your game. The overall world sets the tone for your story; will it be dark and brooding? Whimsical and fun? Gritty and brutal? Or light-hearted and carefree? Many games have a developed global setting (e.g. Ravenloft, World of Darkness) but you still have room to wiggle and adjust to fit your sensibilities and your group’s tastes. You all have found something to be enjoyable about playing in that setting; so you just need to fine-tune it to what your group will find most enjoyable.

How much the details of the World impact your story is really up to you and your players. If they find certain aspects worth exploring, they will do so; and you are going to help provide answers to their questions. As a bit of advice, if you are having trouble coming up with an immediate answer to a player’s inquiry, just be honest and tell them you need a moment; they generally will understand. If it isn’t that vital of a detail, then ask them if you can have some time to think about. This has gone over really well for me in the past because not only am I trying to help fill out the world for them, but I am taking their questions seriously and with genuine interest; which I am.

There is a great deal more to get into here. However, I have already spoken on this topic at length previously. So, rather than repeat myself here, I will just redirect you to the original article on the topic. If you haven’t already read it, in it I cover much of what I said here, plus got into the nitty-gritty details of designing your World and the mentality that may be most productive for what you want.


The next stage in filling out a world is to fill it with cities. Cities come in all shapes, sizes, populations, and cultures. The concept of a City in role-playing games is the major location wherein the story or stories take place. The difference between a World and a City is scale and detail: the players reside in a city and may travel to another one if need be; under most circumstances, they aren’t leaving the World anytime soon. Even if you are running a sci-fi game where the group can planet hop, the idea remains the same; simply find-word-and-replace every instance of “city” with “planet” and you have the same concept along with the World being the galaxy/universe of that campaign.

Besides the breadth of scale, the major difference between City-building and World-building is that of casting. In other words, it is at this level that you (both GM’s and players) are no longer looking at characters in general terms such as race and instead are looking at individuals; going from abstract (game) mechanical concepts and are now looking at specific people within the setting. It is one thing to talk about the United Federation of Planets and the various space stations and space docks within their sectors; it is another thing to talk about Commander Benjamin Sisko or Dr. Julian Bashir on the space station Deep Space Nine. Having a cast is important because these are tools by which you as the GM will most often interact with your players’ characters in terms of the story.

And Quark!  Can't forget about Quark!
And Quark! Can't forget about Quark!

Just as with World-building, there is so much more about building your Cities (or other major locations) that I could go on and on. So, rather than overload everyone with it here, I will get another article up on that specific topic (ideally, within the near-future). So stay tuned everyone!


The final sub-set of Setting-building is the Scene. Scene are the most ubiquitous of settings when it comes to RPGs. Why? Because every time there is any characters interacting, it has to happen somewhere specific. Yes, if characters are just talking in some dank alley that may be just fun; however, there is still plenty of fodder for story-telling and interaction in that scummy alleyway. After all, who else is down there? Why are they there? And many more questions to follow.

Let’s put it another way: if World-building is to City-building as laying-down the foundation is to framing the house, then Scene-building is doing all of the electrical wiring for your house. It is all about utilizing the groundwork already established to provide great aesthetics for your players to work with. At the same time, you are being considerate of the functionality of your scene. You as the GM will develop your skill at Scene-building much more quickly than you will with the other settings. Let’s break it down like this: every time you want to run a different campaign (which may not happen as often as you may think, unless you like switching between games frequently), you will have to devise a new World; each World will need key locations (Cities) to fill it up, but you are only going to need may three or four at the most, depending on your story and campaign; but each and every one of those Cities is going to need multiple (read: countless) Scenes for you to tell the story and for your players to interact. Trust me, you will get PLENTY of practice crafting scenes.

And again, there is still a great deal to get into about Scene-building. And just like with City-building, I will dedicate an entire article to that discussion; there we can focus more on the challenges, rewards, and various techniques that go into crafting your perfect and dynamic scenes for your players and for your story.

In Summation

For Your Players
overall setting
sets tone, atmosphere, genre
draws them into the game
specific location within World
establishes cast of characters
key locations for story
individual settings within City
permits interaction with characters
allows the story to progress


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    • Kevin Debler profile image

      Kevin Debler 2 years ago from Expansive Highlands of Michigan

      Thank you.

      It is a sad thing to say that I am most likely not attending GenCon this year :(

      If that changes, I will see what I can do to let everyone know :)

    • profile image

      Ryan S. 2 years ago

      Hey Kevin,

      This was incredibly helpful. I look forward to reading more of your posts! Hope to see you at GenCon this year.