This post was originally posted on Gaming as Women on December 26, 2012.
Update: Off the Shelf has been officially retitled to Tabletop Blockbuster! We're looking forward to completing our in-progress Alpha Playtests.
I am currently working on a project with my husband that is called Off the Shelf (working title). It is a setting neutral system, and it has been a huge adventure! I have had more experience recently working on mechanics than ever before. Though they are not my strong suit, trying to do new things with mechanics is super exciting. One of the mechanics we developed is “Tech Levels”, which are simply what kind of technology is available in a setting. They inform the items available, and can inform how powers are defined.
This has also been a good opportunity to work on my skills in world building and setting creation. I wanted to give options for players who were just starting, guided by the Tech Levels, but I didn’t want to inundate them with information or keep them too limited in a system that is neutral. I came to a question: how much information should I provide, and how do I convey an entire setting without overwhelming our material?
I created a new thing I call micro-settings, which are snapshots of culture, environment, and story that can be used (hopefully!) with any game. First, I’ll share how I decided what to include, and then show you an example.
What are the key elements of a setting?
What do you need to start a game?
- Plot Hooks
Well, that seems simple.
That’s what you would think, yep. And it kind of is. However, when you start to write these things down, it’s hard to balance between tons of information and no information at all. So I wrote a quick template that you can check out to guide you through the how-to.
The most important part is to try to think of general things, but have one or two specific things to help. You’ll want some flavor in the basic description – using colloquial slang for a Wild West setting is fun, and details like how the people and monsters behave are useful too. Describing the physical environment is important – pick one city or town to focus on primarily, and then talk about the climate, any significant landscape features.
A brief overview of culture and the population is vital. What species are common for PCs? Elves, dwarves, humans? Is there only one species in this setting? Is it of important note that a species has never existed before (in case one of your plot hooks relates to revealing one)? Are the species segregated, or intermixed? What are their local customs or cultures like? Do they have religions? Do they settle in one place, or are they nomadic? These things can be stated pretty simply in just about a paragraph, and overall, your description should be about three paragraphs long.
For NPCs, try to think of authority figures or people of specific note. For a Wild West setting, maybe a mayor, the sheriff, or an outlaw. Give a basic description of what they do, and why they’re relevant, and try to mix in some personality traits. Is the sheriff corrupt? Is the outlaw actually good-hearted? Don’t use more than about 3 or 4 sentences here, and always include a name.
Items should be simply that – a sentence or less describing what the item is, perhaps who it belongs to. Like, “Arthur’s Sword, Excalibur” or “A dragon’s hoard”. The item can be big, small, relevant to the culture at large, or perhaps just something that people would want.
Locations should have a name and a single-sentence description, and should be single structures or small locations, like a single town or a tavern. Something like “The Mermaid’s Tale – a library that only sells books about fantastic fictions.” Somewhere that multiple people could meet, and where scenes can occur.
Plot hooks are fun! One sentence is all you need. Describe a simple problem – maybe a child goes missing, or there’s been a bandit attack on the northern road. Make sure to try to tie it into the cultures, environment, or NPCs in some manner.
This is just an extension of the culture and environment, but you can give a quick description of how commerce works in the game. In Off the Shelf we have a simple description related to the Tech Levels.
Power descriptors will inform play. In this section you will explain a few different ways people will use physical or magical abilities (if magic even exists!). Maybe this culture specifically uses martial arts as their fighting techniques, or psychic powers are common, but are based on nanites or hypnosis.
Yes! If you do this, you can create a setting, and once you figure out what system you want to use it with, expand it or add to it as you want, and talk with your players about the tone you want in the game. Nothing is stopping you from making the Stone Age into a nightmare with monsters lurking around every turn, or a post-apocalypse into rainbows and sunshine.
You can check out an example of a micro-setting below.
Good luck, and thanks for reading!
Gaia (Tech Level 0)
- DescriptionSixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Science tells us that there were no humans alive to fight the dinosaurs – but science is wrong. In this setting, prehistoric cultures experience the brutal environment of the Cretaceous period in a battle between man and beast. While the herbivore dinosaurs and mammals are occasionally domesticated, the carnivores are raging and hungry, enemies of the humanoid species.
The environment in Gaia, the focused setting here, is hot. There is a long, rainy season and a humid, tropical rainforest to the south. A mountain range crosses the land and shrinks to low hills near large swaths of land – sandy, dusty desert, and nearby grassy, hot savannahs. The species distribution is primarily dwarves and gnomes, with a very small population of humans and pixies. In this area, there are no known orcs, elves, or hybrids. The population bands together in either settled or nomadic tribes, with either one primary tribal leader or a small group of elders. The only economic exchange is through barter and trade, and is very rare. Most tools, weapons, and foods are gathered and made by the tribes themselves. There is some primal and shamanic magic used.
Below are some useful setting-specific tools to get you ready to run!
-NPCsOonuk – Dwarf
Tribal leader of the largest tribe. Oonuk’s tribe has the prime location for their territory – at the base of the mountain between the desert and rainforest in a utopic oasis. He is fierce and strong, but also friendly to the other tribes, and has been known to initiate trade in the past.
Karluc – Gnome
Karluc is one of the greatest warriors known. She has slayed more beasts than any other, so the stories say, and she rides between the dermal plates of a spiketail. Her tribe travels through the savannah.
Naan – Human
Naan is the matriarch of the Human and Pixie nomads that travel the desert. Her tribe has traveled far, fought sand serpents and ragged-tooth giant lizards, and have developed a strong connection to the primal spirits of Gaia.
Shiy – Pixie
Shiy is a pixie shaman, the oldest and wisest man in his tribe. He is a close friend of Naan, but they have conflicting goals. Naan wants to continue traveling throughout the desert and find another oasis, but Shiy wants to settle closer to the mountains and rainforest, which risks infringing upon the borders of Oonuk’s territory.
-LocationsOonuk’s Oasis – A beautiful, lush oasis at the trailing hills of the mountains between the savannah and desert.
The Great Baobab – A massive tree in the savannah that is said to be a place of sanctuary – the dinosaurs never go near it, but it is not safe from other predators or combat between tribes.
Sand Caves – In the desert, there is a chasm with sand caves within, like a honeycomb. There may be some humanoids who live inside, or something more sinister.
-ItemsKarluc’s Great Club
A magic stone of great power
A stone slab with strange symbols in the center of the rainforest.
-Plot HooksKarluc falls – from illness or injury – and it looks like she may not heal. A miracle is needed.
The Gnome tribe travels to the sand caves and finds a startling discovery.
Someone translates the symbols on the stone slab and plucks at the threads of the universe.
-CurrencyThe primary currency is based on barter and trade, so there is no set currency. For ease of notation, use the b symbol for the worth of bartered item. One resource point is worth 1b.
-Power DescriptorsMartial – these powers are accomplished through intense training and physical skill or prowess. Martial powers include the ability to leap great chasms to escape pursuers, wrestle a huge dinosaur to the ground, or strike two foes with a single sling stone by skipping it between them.
Primal – Primal powers allow characters to tap into the leftover forces of creation to create and channel immense energies. A master of Primal magic might strike down his enemies by freezing them solid or throw them off a cliff with a gust of wind.
Shamanic – Shamanic powers draw from the character’s relationship to powerful spirits and ancestors. Shamanic powers might give the character the ability to communicate with animals, pass unharmed through a thicket of poisonous thorns, or harden his skin like the armor of an ankylosaur.