IntroductionFirst off, I made a few absolutely shameful omissions in talking about OSR settings last time. I totally forgot to give a shout out to +Mateo Diaz Torres and the Pernicious Albion setting, which is just awful, since I'm helping with layout on its upcoming publication. Really, it's fantastic stuff. I also neglected to mention +Courtney Campbell 's Numenhalla or upcoming Perdition settings, even though I've read lots of Numenhalla posts for megadungeon inspiration, and Perdition sounds like it will be pretty rocking. Finally, in the published space, I forgot to direct your attention to the very fine Red Tide by +Kevin Crawford . As with all of his stuff, it is chock full of material that has its own strong flavor, but is easily modified to any genre or setting. Go check all of those out if you aren't already familiar.
So, now that we have my foolishness out of the way, let's get back to the topic at hand. We’ve gone through the second edition campaign settings and a handful of OSR settings and figured out what makes them compelling (or at least, elements of what makes them compelling). So now I want to take the descriptive stuff we’ve identified and turn it into prescriptive advice on how to create a campaign setting that grabs people.
What to Do
I think the way to make this advice practical is to use the different lenses we identified in previous posts, but consciously think about how to link them. Does your setting have a theme? What about some distinctly different play style? Art and art direction? Look at these separately, but then come back to “what ties all of these together?” It’s hard to articulate, but I think you can probably go pretty far with “do these go together?” Trust your tastes.
When I say “the Right Mechanics” I mean that you need some rules that reinforce the aesthetic you’ve developed (like a Crab People Race/Class for Yoon-Suin), but that aren’t so wild and involved that you’re pitching a whole new game. I suspect there are a couple of dials and knobs you can play around with here. For example, you can probably include a lot more new DM-facing rules than player-facing rules, because DMs are crazy people who hoard rules like Scrooge McDuck does coins. Likewise, the more central a thing is to answering “what’s new and exciting about this setting?”, the more you can probably introduce new rules. Super involved social conflict rules would make sense in a world of exaggerated courtly intrigue, but would be annoying extra-fiddliness in a world of large scale military command.
In the comments on the second post, +George S Hammond asked a question that made me think harder about the distinction between "stuff" in the world and people and events in the world, and why detail in one is more likely to be better than in the other. What I realized is that places, things, and cultures in the world are much less likely to impact the agency of PCs than people or events. The worst risk they run is being boring or overly detailed. People and events, though, they act on PCs, rather than being static things on which the PCs can act. So it's certainly not that you shouldn't have people or events, it's just that they have a higher risk of constraining PC agency, and so should be used with care.
So, for the events and people of the world, I think that settings do better to limit themselves to history and the current state and to strictly avoid intentions and what “will” happen. Getting into plans and intentions for NPCs and factions is probably better handled in adventures, where the players’ involvement is assumed, and changes to the NPCs’ plans are expected. I think that the creators of a lot of settings have felt the need to fill it in with a bunch of proto-adventures. This makes sense on first blush, but I think creators do better to instead focus on making an interesting world full of interesting stuff chock full of potential without committing any of it to a particular expected course of interesting events. Rather than intentions, I'd argue it's best to prepare interests for NPCs. Not the actions the NPC will take, but rather the things that they want. That way, how those interests translate into action, and more importantly, how that action interacts with the PCs, is more flexible and more in the hands of the GM and the party.
What to Avoid
Essentially, you should try to filter every sentence you write through the guidelines to a good and interesting campaign setting. I have found in my own editing work that it usually pays to be harsher than you think necessary and cut out more than you think you can. I always just remind myself that I’m writing for a smart audience, and if something is unclear or mysterious, DMs are good at making stuff up to fill in gaps.
That being said, I think there’s a place for it. In the last three years that I’ve closely followed OSR stuff, I’ve seen a hell of a lot of discussion and innovation around rules. I’ve also seen a hell of a lot of creativity around settings, but it’s been in a less shareable way than the rules stuff. That’s really what this series is about: how can we figure out a way to share the messy, “fluffy” side of our creativity as easily and successfully as we’ve shared rules and adventures and tools. If this has been at all helpful to you, I can’t wait to see what you make.