I’ve had an idea in my head for a game setting for some time now, and after some trial and error, I think I’m ready to get it out. What’s important here is not necessarily the details of my idea (though you’ll get some of those), but rather how I plan on structuring it to make a cohesive and fun game world.
I start with a central theme for my settings. My group has relied on some repeat central themes, one we keep on returning to (mostly my fault, this one) is the Dark Future(tm). I’ve played in three completely different Cyberpunk settings, and yet in some ways they’re all the same. The Dark Future(tm) promotes a mercenary attitude, makes others hard to trust, and surrounds you with powers that will always be more powerful than you. And yes, there are cybereyes and guns. But those don’t matter nearly as much as you’d think.
For my new setting, I really wanted to change things thematically. For this reason and a few others, I ended up choosing the Age of Sail to base my setting off of. Now, though the Age of Sail refers to a specific period in human history, this will not be a historical game. Rather, I wanted a fantasy game with muskets and big boats. Not so glamorous when you put it that way, though…
What ends up being important first is not the details of the world, but rather what you want the game to look like. I want there to be at least some focus on exploration, so this world is going to be a colonial-type situation, with the main setting for the game separated from the homeland by a great ocean. If I wanted to really emphasize sailing and boats, I could make this new world an archipelago. I’m thinking deep and dangerous wilderness, so I’m going to stick with a vast continent for now. An archipelago as a feature isn’t out of the question, though.
So, this being a fantasy game, I want magic. I want magic to be accessible to the players, but not common. In some ways, D&D presents a world like this, where you must be a specialist of some sort to access the magical arts. Compared to a world like Piers Anthony’s Xanth, where everyone is born with some magical talent, this makes magic relatively rare. I actually want magic even rarer than in D&D. I want the world to progress almost like magic doesn’t exist, except for some dark corners of the world.
Now, if I want it accessible to players, it can’t be rare because it’s that difficult to perform, though there are some things we can do with that. Instead, magic is rare in this world because it isn’t trusted. Add to that the need for unusual materials to perform any magic, and suddenly it becomes a rarity, dangerous and powerful. This is what I’m going for.
I have some backstory for this. The religion of the colonial continent worships a God of Order. Magic is seen as the ultimate disorder in nature, altering the laws of science as they are known. I have an interesting backstory for why magic exists the way it does, too…but my players will read this, and that backstory is going to be a bit of a surprise.
Now, the native peoples of the New World will have a different relationship with magic. The details of which I’m leaving out/haven’t come up with yet, but the long and short of it is that this creates significant distrust between the natives and these new settlers.
As an additional little complication, the nations of the settlers, though they worship a God of Order, are becoming secular. As science is becoming more clear, the purpose of God in the world is becoming less clear. So now you have a tension in that society. Add to that how the settlers relate to this tension, and you have a lot of interesting dimensions.
That was a rough start. From here, there’s a lot of writing to be done…but there’s already some great sources of conflict, as well as an establishment of a good hook (in this case, settling a new land). Throw in some details and mine those conflicts for story seeds, and you can almost run a game already. All I really need to do now is some detail work (The politics of the two continents, technology, how magic actually works) and some detailed detail work (maps, maps, a bestiary, and maps), and this may be gameable. I almost make it seem too easy.