Brave New Worlds: or, “So you decided to homebrew a setting”

For me, creating my own worlds has always been a big allure of tabletop role-playing games. Even when running a game in an established setting I try and find ways to make it new for my table. Where’s the fun in playing a “X-Men” game when you are just following the plot-lines from issue #75 forward with new player characters plugged into the plot?

Actually, never mind that last question. That sounds like it could be kind of fun.

Enter “homebrewing”. This term actually covers two separate situations:

  1. Creating your own rules: this could be some added house rules that either replace or expand upon the rules as written, or it could mean an entirely scratch-built rules system;
  2. Creating your own setting.

This post is primarily concerned with #2 (which leads me to believe I should have made it #1 on the above list).

So, where do you start? There are a lot of different design philosophies on this, but what it comes down to is what works best for you. That being said, here are a few suggested starting points:

  • Start with a Single Community: it may be a small fishing village where all the player characters will be from, or maybe it is a bustling cosmopolitan city. The idea here is to start small, then build outward. In some settings, this initial community may be all you need for your game. Examples: Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar (there was even a boxed set for this setting for 1st Edition AD&D); the village of Two Rivers from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Even if your plans are to leave that starting community almost immediately in your game, this can give you the opportunity to lay the basis of things to come.
  • Start with a Theme: is your world going to be a setting of high political intrigue, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Determining the theme of your world first can help you know what direction to take with building it. The theme will influence whether there are city-states, nation-states, or vast empires potentially spanning multiple worlds. Your theme could be summarized in one word, or it could span hundreds of pages (more on that later).
  • Start with a Conflict: most will choose a war between two rival states, but it doesn’t need to be a traditional military war. It could be a trade war or a cold war. Don’t limit yourself to the different flavors of war. The central conflict could be between two rival merchant guilds. It could be between the “air-breathers” and the “water-breathers”. Knowing the central conflict that will at least be the initial underlying focus of your setting can help you set the stage for all the bits and pieces you will place later.
  • Start with a Non-Player Character (NPC): this may be a child-like Empress seeking champions to save her realm. It could be the local innkeeper looking for some brave local youths to go out and find out what happened to the regular weekly supply wagon. Sometimes your best starting point is a single character. Consider who that character is, how they dress, how they speak, then start to create their immediate environment.

All of these reduce down to one simple bit of advice: Start small, and build from there. Don’t think this means you shouldn’t start with one nation. A nation-state can be for the purposes of development small. What is the name? What is the system of government? Population? Demographics? Imports/Exports? These are pretty easy to fill-in questions, but they then determine later considerations like geography, relations with bordering states, important NPCs in that nation.

I’ve tried designing settings where I started too big. I quickly abandoned those settings. They never made it to play. Sometimes fragments of them would wind up in a future setting, but many just wound up in what I think of as the “world grave”. That right there gives me an idea for a setting.

A lot of people are going to tell you that you absolutely have a map. They are wrong. Maps are nice, but they are not necessary. Honestly, if your setting is fun, I guarantee if one of your players wants a map, they will start making the map for you (some people really dig fantasy cartography). I used to make insanely detailed maps on graph paper for entire cities that my players never even visited, because I liked making maps. I made the Big Ass Map (BAMP) for one of my setting that chewed through multiple printer cartridges and took me a full two weeks to assemble and mount on poster board so it could take up most of a wall. I like maps. But you don’t have to make one. Or, your maps could be very basic.

map generated using

Here we see just some mountains, a path, and what could be an enemy camp. Maybe it is the temple of an ancient deity that still holds the source of some great mystic knowledge. Maybe it is integral to your setting, or maybe it is just a map for whatever particular quest the player characters (PCs) are on.

The important takeaway, is do what works best for you, at your pace. That’s going to be different for every creator. For some, designing a world can be a relaxed broad strokes project. For some, you may finding yourself missing out on sleep because you’ve spent all night developing a detailed cosmology for your world.

Don’t be afraid to read (especially non-fiction). Your world is going to be influenced by whatever media you are taking in. The more you read, the less likely it is your world is going to feel like a carbon copy of whatever particular series you are fond of. If the majority of your media consumption is Star Wars, that’s going to show in the world you are making. Maybe that is what you are going for, but if you want to share your creation with others, that might at some point start asking, “Why aren’t we just playing Star Wars?”

Which leads into the next suggestion: Involve your players.

“But I don’t want my players to know everything!”

Trust me, they will not. Bringing them into the creation process gives them a sense in being a part of the creation, which means they have more of an emotional connection to the created setting. This is important for the initial selling point of getting players to want to play in your homebrew setting. Maybe they have always had a concept for a species that there just wasn’t a space for in the established settings you normally play in. Listen to their suggestions, and use some of them. Find something from everyone that you can work into the setting. Give them that connection.

Something to avoid:

Developing cultures based on cultures not your own. If your game never goes further than your table, this may not be that big of an issue, especially if your group is ethnically homogeneous. If you ever plan on releasing your setting to a wider audience though, you better on-board some people who actually have an actual connection to the culture you want to use. Maybe this just means bringing on-board someone to be a sensitivity reader. Just because you watched some Kurosawa movies and have a “katana” you picked up at the county fair on display on your mantel does not make you qualified to introduce a “samurai bushido culture” into your setting. Pay someone of Japanese descent to at least do a read through and make notes of things that may be considered problematic depictions, and for the love of everything you hold dear, take their advice, change what needs to be changed, and credit that person. It is one thing to have a variety of cultures based on real-world influences in your setting, but don’t do what Forgotten Realms has done (looking at you Maztica and Kara-Tur).

Please please please do not write an entire campaign setting around a culture that you have absolutely no personal connection to, no matter how many books on the subject you have read, or because you lived in that country for a semester abroad. Just do not do it if you are releasing your world to a mass market audience. It wasn’t actually cool in the 80s, and it certainly is not cool now.

Even if it is just for your home game, this is still a practice that I would avoid, as it sends a signal to any of your players that might not be the same ethnic background as you, that your table is not actually friendly to them. Now, if you want to approach that person independently, away from the rest of the group, and ask them, “So I wanted to include a culture in our world that is inspired by Culture X. Would that be something you would be interested in?”

  • If the answer is yes, then follow up with, “I do not want to perpetuate any harmful stereotypes or play into any racist tropes, and since this is just for our table, would you like to collaborate with me in designing that culture?”
  • If the answer to the initial question is no, then follow up with, “Cool. I respect that and will not do it. Thank you. I really value your input and want you to feel comfortable in this space.”

Once again, this is an issue of private versus public forum world building. You may think that you have done all the research, and that you are not being racist or falling into those stereotypical tropes, but without someone actually qualified to read through it and check for that kind of stuff, you can inadvertently walk into a REALLY problematic depiction of another culture.

So, you’ve now got the idea for your world (which may in fact be multiple worlds). Now, how do you populate that world? Is it only humans? If so, are there different kinds of humans (cyborgs, magically enhanced, shape-shifters, etc.)? Start figuring out what the people populating your world are going to look like (in a very broad sense). Realize that most “common people” (CP) in just about any setting are going to have the same drives and goals: work, family, home. Think about reasons why the PCs may interact with the CPs. Figure out what the creatures of your world are like. Maybe you want to populate it with flora and fauna relatively the same as the real world (I refer to this as default environment). Maybe you want default+, where you have standard creatures plus “magical” creatures. Maybe you want something unique and somewhat alien (think Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and all the insectile creatures).

Now here’s some advice I wish someone had told me years ago:

None of it needs to make sense. There are always a way to hand-wave issues with environmental incompatibility. Reptiles in a frozen tundra? They aren’t truly “reptiles”, although they share certain physical similarities. They are actually warm-blooded, with thick layers of insulating fat below their scaly skins. Hey, most arctic marine mammals shed their hair during infancy, right? Try to avoid overusing, “They’re magic.”

Which leads to my next point: MAGIC/HI-TECHNOLOGY! To draw from Arthur C. Clarke and his three “laws”:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

While you may feel compelled to not truly describe how magic/tech functions on your world and just grunt and go, “Well, ’cause it’s magic, innit?” that isn’t very eloquent. Maybe your table is cool with that. In which case, carry on my friend. If you are developing your setting for distribution, your magic/tech needs to have rules. You do not need to be a renowned occultist or have a PhDs in particle physics and neurology to do so. You just need to be consistent and establish certain boundaries, understanding full well that the players in your world are going to poke and prod at those boundaries on a regular basis.

All of this talk on homebrew #2 now circles back to link up with homebrew #1:

Is your world supported by a game system that already exists? If so, you may already have the answer to your magic/tech question. Basically yoink the system from the core game and use that in your world. Maybe do a bit of a “reskin” to make it more fitting to yours. Maybe magic users on your world are literally solar powered and draw their energy from their world’s sun instead of drawing from a magical well-spring of energy. Instead of anti-matter reactors, perhaps the tech in your setting is derived from contained micro-singularities. Here you are effectively using the system mechanics as written, but with different flavor text.

For my last piece of advice, start writing a “World Book”. Effectively, keep records. Did you name the ruler of the kingdom to the east Karl? Better write that down in a document that has some sort of organization. How I do it now, is I have a paper notebook, and if I bring in a detail like that during play, I jot it down in my paper notebook. After the session, I then transfer that into a digital document in the appropriate category (I usually go by nation or city, so I would create and entry for the kingdom to the east, and under people of note fill in something like “Karl – Count of Dyspaire and King of the Five Spirals”). Have a digital reader handy, so if a player asks, “Hey, what was the name of the ruler to the east?” you can just pull that info up and proudly say, “Karl. His name is Karl.” Your players will be pleased with your superior organizational skills.

That’s what I got in me for tonight. I may make this a recurring series of posts, going into more depth on designing maps, functional (enough) ecology, and how much magic is too much magic for your setting!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: