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Modular Campaign Settings: Creating a Versatile, Reusable World

Posted By Martin Ralya On April 13, 2009 @ 3:38 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

Over the years, I’ve met lots of GMs who’ve created and lovingly detailed their own campaign settings, most often for D&D. These settings are usually extensively developed, complete with maps, country write-ups, elaborate histories — the whole nine yards.

But as much as enjoy writing setting material, I’ve never actually done this myself. I’ve dabbled — drawn detailed maps for fantasy worlds, written chunks of material for specific cities, etc. But I’ve never had what I consider to be one of the quintessential GMing experiences: creating a rich homebrewed campaign setting of my own, and elaborating on it — running games in it, writing new material for it — in little bits over many years.

Maybe that comes down partly to personality — something in my wiring that keeps me jumping from game to game, and expanding on published setting material more often than I write my own from scratch. But I don’t think so — I think it’s because it’s always sounded like fun, but also seemed like a good way to do a lot of prep work on stuff that might never see any use at the gaming table.

I’m a big believer that with limited time available for game prep, you should focus your limited time on prepping game material that’s very likely to get used. (See Start Small for more on this philosophy.) And an idea hit me the other day that grew into the topic of this article: Why not create setting material with a modular approach?

The product of this approach is a modular campaign setting — a system-agnostic, genre-specific game world created in discrete, reusable pieces.

Modular Campaign Settings

Let’s break down the three components of a modular campaign setting:

  • System-agnostic. By divorcing your homebrewed setting from any game mechanics, you save yourself work upfront and avoid creating additional work for yourself down the road. You can mention mechanical elements in terms of generalities (“This dude is a badass fighter”), and then flesh out the specifics depending on the game system you happen to be running at the time.
  • Genre-specific. Very few settings are genre-agnostic. Although concepts can often be easily ported from genre to genre, generally the strongest settings are designed for a specific genre. And while the traditional homebrewed setting is fantasy, there’s no reason yours has to be; any genre is an option, but you need to have one in mind.
  • Discrete, reusable pieces. Most homebrewed settings I’ve had contact with seem to have been created hodge-podge — whatever their creators were most interested in creating at the time is what got done. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but with just a few small tweaks you can retain the benefits of following your sparks of inspiration without the downsides of haphazard setting creation.

Sound good? Then let’s kick the tires and see how this might actually work in practice.

Creating a Modular Campaign Setting

To create a modular campaign setting, you pick a genre, leave out everything mechanical, and focus on creating it piece-by-piece. You start with whatever grabs you — let’s say for a fantasy setting, that happens to be a major city that’s located partially underwater.

You develop as much of that city as you can (taking notes on other aspects of your budding setting as inspiration strikes, but not straying from your core task — developing the city), from maps to NPCs to neighborhoods and cultural traits. The goal is to create a city that can stand more or less on its own, but that has some ties to the larger setting, as well.

After giving this city a fairly comprehensive treatment, you move on to whatever part of the setting grabs you next — but you have the city in your back pocket now, ready to use at any time, for any game system you like.

And whatever portion of your world you develop next is approached in the same way, with the same goal: creating a discrete chunk of setting material that you can connect to other elements of the setting, but that can also be dropped into another setting, easily reused in another game, or moved around as needed.

Then when you sit down to run a game in that setting — whether it’s weeks, months, or years after you started developing it — you just pull together several pieces of setting material that you’ve created, add in game mechanics where required, and start the game. As your campaign progresses, you can pull in additional material — juggling it in whatever way best suits the game at hand.

If your players throw you a curveball and bypass that underwater city you created, no worries: Because you designed it to be modular, you can use it again in another game — that prep time wasn’t wasted. You can also plop that city anywhere you like with relatively little lead time, putting it in whatever coastal location makes the most sense as your campaign unfolds.

If you return to this world in your spare time, creating more modular components over the years, you’ll wind up with an enormous amount of highly usable setting material. And that material can be mixed and matched, dropped into other settings, and even developed into a published campaign setting of your own.

By combining different elements of your modular campaign setting, you can create the world you need for the specific campaign you’re planning. You’ll need to fill in the corners, change a few things, and flesh some stuff about — but if you do that in a similarly modular way, you’ll have more reusable pieces available for future games.

I’ve seen published material that draws on aspects of the modular campaign setting concept: Goodman Games’ Points of Light series details modular fantasy setting elements, and White Wolf’s Mysterious Places is full of drop-in locations, as is HERO Games’ Thrilling Places, while WotC’s Mysteries of the Moonsea tackles the Moonsea region through modular adventures. But I’ve never seen an entire setting built using this modular approach — although I’d love to.

Have you used a modular approach like this one when creating your own campaign settings? Do you have a setting bible for a world you’ve been building since you were a little kid? Do you hate the idea of systematizing the creative process of setting creation in this way?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




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10 Comments To "Modular Campaign Settings: Creating a Versatile, Reusable World"

#1 Comment By TheVengefulKoala On April 13, 2009 @ 3:59 am

Whoo! First comment!

Sorry. Newbie here, so I kinda get excited easily.

I make homebrew settings on a regular basis, and I’m also working on one right now, in fact. I agree with a large chunk of what you wrote here…Okay, pretty much all of it. Perhaps it’s just my GM style, but I prefer to do pretty much the same thing: create homebrew settings that, while I might’ve designed them for one system, they can be easily transported to another system with a minimum of work. They’re also (usually) genre-neutral, easily usable with any kind of story.

#2 Comment By baz king On April 13, 2009 @ 8:58 am

I’m in very much the same place as yourself. I put all my time into the game I’ve got at my table today rather than the campaign I might publish tomorrow.
I’m just starting my own world this week, after 30 years GMing. You’d think it would be easy, it’s not! This article helps me a lot, so thanks!

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On April 13, 2009 @ 10:31 am

Back when I did more homebrewed world building, my passion was always the grand sweep of things. You know, a thousand years of fictional histories [between nations] and their interactions, rainfall patterns over the continent, etc. I don’t think this would scratch that itch.

On the other hand, I gave up on those sweeping worlds because so often only I would care about any of the history or other details. This approach is much less time consuming and much more practical.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On April 13, 2009 @ 10:32 am

This is how I build a lot of my settings. Rather than using the old-school concentric approach (starting in a single area and then expanding outward over time) or top-down approach (beginning with a grand vision of the world and slowing zooming into to create details), I get a generic idea of what I want to do in an upcoming game and start making locations, NPCs, and organizations.

As noted, prep-time isn’t wasted because elements can always come into play later on. It’s also easy to juryrig your elements to be used as needed. Maybe you’ve written up a dirty cop you want the players to have to have a sit down with – but they bypass the cops and go to the FBI. No problem – now he’s an FBI agent. Making the change can be seamless because you haven’t stitched the NPC into the rest of the background too much.

I do wonder how the modular method gets passed the hodge-podge trap, though. If you’re creating elements as they grab you, what has changed? More broadly, is there a way to create modular elements independently and at-will, but make sure that, when placed, they connect in an internally-consistent way?

#5 Comment By DarknessLord On April 13, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

Interesting, I think I may try this method once my current campaign is done, as my current custom setting is fun but it really wasn’t made to stand up after the campaign it was designed for reaches it’s conclusion.

I never really thought about the whole not system specific aspect, even if I did let a player run a MAID game in the same canon as my current campaign. XD But the idea of running a full, say, Burning Wheel, game in the same world that your last D&D game took place in, would have stuck me as ridiculous up till this point, but it seems like an interesting idea…

#6 Comment By Ostof On April 13, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

This is exactly the approach the “CityBook” series from Flying Buffalo used several years ago – a system agnostic (but with translatable descriptions, and a guide to help you tailor the descriptions to you particular system) collection of genre specific (Fantasy, in the case of this series) encounters/establishments/figures that you could plug and play into any genre appropriate game or, with very little tweaking, into a the game of another genre. I’ve used several of the establishments in a Champions game I’ve been running, and all I needed to do was update the information to reflect a contemporary world.

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On April 17, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

@TheVengefulKoala – Welcome aboard. :-)

@baz king – We just had a baby, so for me these days it comes down to “Worry less about little stuff, spend my limited time on the important stuff.” This philosophy is an outgrowth of that — I’m glad it works for you!

@DarknessLord – Given the differences in approach between BW and D&D, I suspect you’d develop your world in some surprising directions after making that transaction — regardless of which direction you went. That sounds like fun.

#8 Comment By DocRyder On April 18, 2009 @ 12:16 am

I’ve always kept my world building notes and reused things regularly. The 4E campaign I’m currently developing is a modified version of a world I was building about 5 or 6 years ago and set aside to work on something else. I’m an artist, and most artists I know keep swipe files: accumulations of either our own old stuff, or stuff we see in other places that strikes our fancy and inspires us to steal the idea… :-)

#9 Comment By Old Man On April 22, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

Hi all,

Like Doc, I am still working with the original game world I developed in 1987. My current (PBEM) game is set about 20 years later that my first (Face to Face) games. The new campaign involves basically a second generation of adventurers (some related to the first). And basically a fair chunk is a swipe from various sources (Harn, Lord of the Rings, Greyhawk, etc.) and the rest original.

Regards,
Old Man

#10 Pingback By webjuegosgratis.com » How to write a free RPG – Chapter 4: Setting On January 6, 2012 @ 2:02 am

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