Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on TreasureTables.org. Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

In the recent TT forum thread How Much to Prepare for New (Homebrew) Campaign?, Patrick Benson (AKA VV_GM) outlined his own technique, now dubbed the High School Senior Approach.

It’s a great technique (and it suggested a title that was just too good to pass up), so I asked him if he’d be up for turning it into a guest post. He graciously agreed, and here it is (thanks, Patrick!)
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Worldbuilding can be a difficult task, so I am always looking for tools, tips and tricks to make the process easier. One tactic that I have used is to define what the average resident of the setting would know.

This helps to clarify what parts of the setting need attention, and what parts are just filler. It also helps to create handouts for the players, so that they can jump into the setting using that common knowledge through roleplaying.

To begin I try to imagine what a person in the game world would know by the time that they would be a high school senior in the real world (roughly 18 years old).

Why a High School Senior?

That often is the time of our lives when we have absorbed a great deal of information, yet have not experienced much firsthand yet.

At that age we have enough knowledge to go forth on our own, not enough knowledge to avoid mistakes and more than enough ego to assume we know it all and get into real trouble. What better time in one’s life to go off and start adventuring?

Let’s use a hypothetical U.S. high school senior as an example. We’ll assume that they have been active in their education, and while they may not be a straight A student they are competent and capable of finding work and living on their own.

A Real-World Example

Rather than list everything this hypothetical senior would know, let’s focus on three facts about the United States, all centered on the theme of war:

  • The country was founded by colonists who revolted against the British monarchy.
  • World War II was fought about 60 years ago, and the U.S. played a major role. On one front, the war ended when the U.S. employed devastating new weapon, the atomic bomb.
  • After WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered the Cold War — a war of idealogies and military buildup, rather than open battle.

Note that I didn’t include any dates, names, locations, or precise facts in my list. I also did not include every battle and war fought in U.S. history (the War of 1812, Spanish-American, Korea, etc.) — not because these events are not important, but because they most likely did not receive as much focus as the others during this person’s lessons.

I can now take this list and remove items, expand upon some points, throw in some biases that may have been taught, or include whatever I feel is relevant to the generic person that I am trying to portray.

Applying this Approach

Now let’s take the same approach with a sci-fi game where the PCs are starting out in Station 49, a mining camp located in an asteroid belt. Let’s start brainstorming by imagining a vague summary of the history that might have resulted in this setting.

After a little brainstorming I came up with the following information that the average 18-year-old would most likely know:

  • Mankind began terraforming planets about 600 years ago, after depleting the natural resources of some planet called Earth.
  • Approximately two centuries ago the various governments of the terraformed planets rebelled against the government of Earth, and several wars were fought as more and more planets tried to establish their independence. These wars are collectively known as the “Independence Wars.”
  • After 50 years of bloody conflict, the Independence Wars came to an abrupt end when an alien vessel crashed into an outpost on Pluto. Mankind became fearful of alien invasions, and discovered that this vessel had technology far beyond mankind’s abilities to produce.

With a list of facts like these, I now know where I should focus my world building efforts for the greatest benefit.

Earth isn’t too important, and most people don’t care about it. The alien technology is important, so I might want to expand on that a bit. The Independence Wars set the stage for a more recent conflict (one that affects the PCs directly), but they’re not that significant to the game on their own.

And perhaps all of that history is mere fluff for the game. I might want to focus more on a list of current social issues. A real-world 18-year-old might be concerned with pesticides sprayed on produce, so maybe I’ll have my game world 18-year-olds concerned with the additives being put into the synthetic food cubes that the poorer residents receive on Station 49.

I can create several lists, choose the items that I want to expand upon in the game, and leave the rest for flavor. By expanding some of those lists and culling others down to their most significant entries, I can focus on only the most important elements during my worldbuilding.

So the next time you decide to create a new setting, take the time to try and see that world from the eyes of an 18-year-old. After all, if you want your players to explore the game world you have to build it with a perspective geared towards discovery.
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Thanks, VV!

Starting small is a common approach to worldbuilding, but before reading VV’s high school senior approach I’d never considered tackling it in this way. His technique is simple, intuitive and expandable.

What do you think of this approach? Have you done similar things in your homebrewed games?

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.



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8 Responses to Homebrewed Settings: The High School Senior Approach

  1. This is brilliant. I’m sure it would be useful in writing as well as RPG, and I’ll be sure to use it in the future.

  2. Not yet, but I have a wiki waiting for me to fill it to bursting with this sort of thing.

  3. Cool approach. I’ll use something like this in my next campaign.

    Depending on their origins and race, certain characters may know more or less (or have different interpretations) of their history and surroundings. I’m not sure how to put that into practice, but just a thought…

  4. Definitely seems doable. I will probably work up my next one this way. I usually start small but that is pretty nice.

  5. I like it– it’s practical and prevents me from doing too much work that no one would know or care about.

  6. I’m glad Patrick’s post is going over well — I realy dig this idea.

  7. I dig it too. ;)

    The reason I started using this approach is because I realized that starting small sometimes could exclude important world elements. So I wanted to try something different that would take the big picture and then filter it down to the small stage that the PCs start on.

    I’m glad many of you are interested in the approach. Let me know if it works for you, or even better if you find a way to improve upon it!

  8. Very interesting post, I like it! This really gives a great perspective on how to introduce your players to the history of a world. Most people don’t really know specific dates, unless they’re history buffs. I could imagine a character like a wizard nowing more than the average person, especially if they took ranks in a Knowledge: History skill. In such a case a simple Knowledge check against a DC based on the obscurity of the knowledge would be an easy way to determine if a character new specific information beyond the general.

    I could see creating a general handout for the players to read over about your world before the game with bullet points to the same effect as your example.