What do you want from a game setting?


I want a framework to build something with my group. My love of PbTA comes from genre simulation. That can be looser like Monsterhearts or more structured like the watch it’s not like City of Mists.

I’d go for direct franchise games next - Doctor Who is ok (but really a RTD emulator), Star Wars is near but give me Star Wars World every time. Star Trek and 2D20 is a form of pergatory.

That is not to say that a detailed setting like CoM, Blue Rose or ever Forgotten Realms are not fun - but the level of investment is higher - for the GM and the Players. I am sometimes in awe on that level of investment they put into games but not for me, at least not any more.


Something that just popped into my insomnia filled head, but talk about how long your gain normally can sustain itself. Let people know “yea this tends to work well for a 5-6 session window” or “it’s very episodic, but you can run it for 3 years and keep it feeling good and fresh”.


So the first resource I go to first that helps me get a feel for a setting is a name list. Usually this is the Story Games Name Project. Then it is images, usually from Pinterest or just Google.

So what does that mean for a setting resource?

  • I want names. Names for people, names of places, names of items. I’d love pick lists or rollable tables.
  • I want pictures. Of people, of places, of items.

Other stuff I would want:

  • What themes, motifs, and story hooks the setting should evoke. For these more lists and rollable tables.
    • Is food scarce? Is it a mineral rich town? Is it a port town with confluence of foreign goods and people? etc.
    • Class disparities, Trouble from bandits, The empires war has drained all the people who could fight from the town, The magical university is the whole reason this town exists.
  • What is different about this setting. What makes it stand out. Why pick this setting. Ideally this might be a one paragraph bit I could use to elevator pitch it to my group.

Most of the time it’s wonderful to know that some super fine details exist… but those are pretty much never useful to me as a player. I appreciate collections of broader stuff and smatterings of detailed things. Great purple prose fluff text can be fun to read… but I’d much prefer simple really straight forward blunt guides of “this is why this is important”.


I want details of places with evocative descriptions and at least a few images, things for us to creatively bounce off of. A bustling city made of pale yellow sandstone, where at dusk as the heat radiates off the stones, the wind blows and seems to whisper bitter regrets.

When you describe a place or being, give me smells and sounds.

If there is a built in conflict, give me compelling emotional reasons that support the conflict from both sides, and tell me how it might escalate, or what might help resolve it.

Give me some NPCs for the players to love, to hate, and to love to hate, that are integrally tied to the setting.

Fill it with contrasts that surprise and intrigue.


When perusing a book for the first time, I find that the quickest way to get a sense of the setting and potential for adventures is to peruse character archetypes


I GM most of the time, so I definitely come to this question with that perspective.

So I like hooks, prompts, details I can weave into my description that give a flavor to scenes, but also a setting that leaves open spaces for me to build upon.

I think a huge part of why I played Blades in the Dark so much was because of its use of setting. The introduction + timeline + neighborhood maps were the right amount of inspiration. I felt like I could basically run a game based off the maps and GM sheet of setting details with almost no other prep, and it felt cohesive.

Which, stepping back, part of that might be because it required minimal reading. Fiction-in-world doesn’t work for me for this reason: it tends to be a lot of text, that leaves little open space to build upon.


I just had a wild idea.

What if the “setting” section of the RPG was just pages and pages of really evocative and inspiring art of amazing set pieces, awesome looking people, rad items and fearsome perils, and the reader interprets what they are and mean?


So a Pinterest board? :nerd_face:


Sounds like the Dixit approach to setting description!


Joking aside - this approach could blossom a robust online presence in which players share their interpretations of the rulebook illustrations.


That would be so cool.


To be clear, I’m talking about images from one artist with a really consistent style, recurring characters, architecture, flora and fauna, & etc, so that the reader feels like there definitely is a real, fleshed-out setting that you could almost visit if you only looked it the images carefully enough.


My game Magicians is kind of like this. There are a lot of cards with artwork on them - objects, factions, locations, threats that players choose from and write something evocative on.

All the cards go into a deck and everyone gets a card each turn (rotating GM) and that card is used to set each scene. Resolved cards are discarded, ones not resolved go back into the pile and the deck is shuffled.

I’ve been working on a more traditional fantasy version for awhile. Main problem is great art is expensive and you need a ton so a Pinterest board or something like that is a smart way to do it!


I’d be curious to hear your take on the Strange Stars setting book – Trey and Lester designed it so that the setting info is presented like a Dorling Kindersley reference book, with little snippets of micro-information about the setting and its assumptions, and with the rules completely separated out into independent books.


I haven’t read it, but that sounds like a fantastic approach to me. The fact that the setting book is an authentic artifact of the setting feels really immersive and nice, and also means it’s easy to take that book and apply it to other games if you want. I don’t know how deeply enmeshed the setting is with the rules, but if they are already separated this way, I assume they are parsable.


Kinda hard question and i see already a lot of great feedback.
The main thing I personally look for in a setting is inspiration. It basically never happened that I would stick to all the specifics of a setting, but I would take core aspects from it and spin my own take on it. So i guess the best setting for me would be something like a central concept with just a bunch of specific key-items directly linked to it.


I recently used Microscope to worldbuild for a Dnd campaign and it has great suggestions. Some of my favourite bits were local legends/gossip (there are sirens in the woods), mysterious places (the well with no bottom, the old wall), where do the roads go?

The Monsterhearts “small town” settings are great because they build in themes and conflict as well as character hooks and scene locations.