Setting is an important RPG element. It's a foundation of a game and sometimes even a pretty good reason to play one. So, how do you create and breath life into new worlds? What's your process, what are the steps? What are the most important setting elements, what must be done right?
* * *Chris Avellone, a Black Isle's veteran and a co-founder of Obsidian Entertainment; designer on Fallout 2, the Icewind Dale series, lead creative designer on Descent to Undermountain, creative director on Neverwinter Nights 2, lead designer on Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic 2, and upcoming Alpha Protocol.
This is going to be a little bit of rambling seeded with examples, but bear with me.
When approaching world design (and with more recent IPs I’ve been working on at Obsidian), I usually begin with “what do I want the player to do that’s the coolest thing ever?” Whether that’s allowing the player to convince a mutated dominant lifeform out to enslave the future that his master plan is wrong and talk him into committing suicide, great. If that’s allowing the player to stand in a fortress built out of a thousand lifetimes of regrets on a plane of negative energy and argue with the possibilities my life about why it’s important I be allowed to die, great. If I want to stand in an ancient elven citadel shattered by magics and provoke two half-demons and their army into battle to prevent the destruction of the Ten Towns, so be it.
Asking “what would be cool to do as a player” is then followed by, “okay, what sort of framework could I build around the world to build up to that cool moment(s)?” World building is similar to story building in some respects… if I want to make a game where I can voyage inside an android’s brain, help a pregnant alley give birth, or a world where I can weave death sounds of the beasts I kill into audio-inspired spellcraft, that cool sample moment of player experience is the starting point, and I start constructing a framework around the world to support and give more power to those moments.
For raw material, I take a lot of notes from books, games, and movies, good and bad, and use those as tiny mementos for things I’d like to seed a world with. It can be anything from a profession name (“anathemathician” – which almost became the profession of a character in Planescape who could use chaos math to alter reality like spells), or the idea of an effect in the world called “consensus” (where if enough people within a certain radius believe in a course of action, all actions taken along those lines - defending, attacking, even menial labor - gain a pseudo hive-mind bonus), or even watching the movie Unknown and seeing the game puzzle possibilities in a character armed with an electronic car key trying to find the right place to stand in a sealed-off warehouse to trigger the car alarm outside as an SOS signal. All these mementos add up to flesh out a world unconsciously.
But practically speaking... if you’re starting with your own original IP, you want the setting and the world to complement your theme and your game mechanics. That may sound like a simplistic answer, but you want the world itself to be intertwined with the game system – one of the best examples of this is the Warhammer universe, which makes no pretensions what’s it’s there to do – it’s a world that leaks conflict, chaos, and everything about it complements the fantasy tabletop battle aspect. The world allows you a multitude of factions, a diversity of units, and a spell system that is focused mostly for large-scale conflicts (if you’ve ever played Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, some of those 4th level spells could wipe a continent clean of life)… and the world even allows you to mutate new units if you want. Also, the theme of the world makes it clear that it’s always one step away from destruction unless you take violent steps to prevent Chaos from taking hold.
At Obsidian, we approached Alpha Protocol in the same way – we started with, "we want to make a cool espionage RPG,” then started dissected the genre into game mechanics that would help the player feel like they were part of an espionage drama. We’re pretty happy with how they’re turning out (details to come soon, I hope).
Next in world building, is another “practical” parameter – the scope of the game. System Shock 2 and Bioshock, for example, started with a good sense of how many levels and how much free-roaming the player was going to be allowed – and furthermore, how many actual conversations they were going to let the player have, so this factored into the design of their world. Bioshock’s Rapture and System Shock 2’s Von Braun are two isolated environments (in all dimensions), and it’s easy for the player to understand why these environments are isolated and why the player’s movements are naturally restricted. Next, both have suffered catastrophic disasters that have wiped out many of who would be considered “friendly conversationlists” in both environments, and in making these two choices in tandem with the scope of the game, the world has come to complement the design.
Also in world design, there’s the matter of accessibility. At some point, as irritating as it may seem, you need to decide how accessible this world is to the public. Do you want to shake them up a little? Do you want to present traditional fantasy escapism? Do you want to present a cliché world, then give it a twist one hour into it? Fallout and Planescape, for example, were arguably never as accessible in their presentation as the Forgotten Realms games, nor World of Warcraft, for example, both of which built on more mainstream fantasy and Tolkein-esque settings that players were more comfortable with. Personally I'm very curious about how you developed an RPG setting for Aliens, so if you can actually discuss it, maybe without being specific, that would be appreciated by all. You've mentioned that you watched the movies before you started. What did you learn and notice? What notes did you take? What were you first steps; what did you start from? - Vince
With regards to Aliens, I was the Creative Lead on Aliens only during a chunk of pre-production, and then I transferred over to a Lead Designer position on Alpha Protocol. Josh ran with the storyline and world creation for Aliens after that – the characters developed for Aliens are all his, for example, and they're pretty awesome.
As an example of how to approach the setting, though, it's a good one, so I don't imagine speaking about the approach to it is really a huge breach of etiquette, and it's pretty similar to how we approach doing settings in other franchises.
Before beginning, we usually have a sense of what the engine will be for the game and what "type" of RPG we're creating (action, turn-based, 3rd person party, etc.). Following that, I try to absorb as much about the genre as possible, including any tangential or off-the-beaten path explorations of that genre (for example, I studied the Expanded Universe in Star Wars extensively, and for the Aliens genre, I also made sure to cover all the Predator vs. Aliens material as well as all the Dark Horse books and novels). The reason for this is pretty simple – one, you don't want to do a story or character someone else has already done in the field. Second of all, it lets you start listing all the hallmarks of the genre and what the core appeal is.
So, let's take Aliens as an example. What's cool about Aliens?
Well, it's scary. But why?
The Aliens typically attack people in situations where there's little or nowhere to run, and there's no way to get help quickly. Isolation to spur terror is a big part of the genre… no one is coming to save you.
The Aliens are a primal, predatory force. The more you know about them, the less scary they are (knowledge and details about your opponents makes them less threatening in general), so when introducing them, it's best to keep them as a nebulous, predatory force that serves as an adversary to the player.
Next, the threats in Aliens are actually two-fold. One is the aliens themselves, which are shadowy, nebulous threats lurking in the dark. The other threat is the human factor – routinely in the movies, it's the human psychological element that causes the secondary, and usually greater, threat. One could argue "the company" is basically another, equal shadowy nebulous predatory representation of the aliens. As an example, Burke's greed in Aliens is a huge threat. Hudson's panic is another. Gorman's arrogant by-the-book incompetence is another, his unwillingness to admit he's in over his head nor that he is unfit to command. Apone follows stupid orders. Vasquez is recklessly berserk, and her keeping her storm gun in Aliens and opening fire during the first encounter in the Hadley's Hope nest actually sets the timer limit on the detonation in the colony. Dallas in Alien is clearly apathetic about following the company's directives, and his apathy puts the crew in danger. Parker in Alien wants his share, etc, etc. All of these human elements serve to create equal, if not more, significant problems for the player. So having the human factor as a gameplay elements is equally important, and it should be tied into NPC and PC psychology.
Now, let's take Ripley. Ripley is the hero, and her strength is her perspective on the situation (usually the smartest perspective – "nuke them from orbit"), and her ability to take the psychological handicaps of her crew and immediate party members and either course-correct or overcome them (Hudson's fear, Newt's catatonia, Hick's unwillingness to step up and take command, Burke's sliminess, Ash's company loyalty, etc.). So this also seems to be an important part of the franchise.
So basically, you research, you immerse, you absorb, then you start distilling the keypoints of what makes the genre what it is and look for ways to make it part of the world you’re creating, and more importantly, part of the game mechanics.
Usually, after this point, I have a lot of notes, and I also start branching out into related movies that feature claustrophobic horror, or waves of enemy aliens, or more modern-day approaches to the sci-fi genre, and see if there's elements or key mechanics there that work that could also benefit an Aliens RPG.
* * *Josh Sawyer, another Black Isle's veteran and the lead designer on Icewind Dale 2, projects Jefferson and Van Buren, and Obsidian's Aliens RPG.
I start with a high-level concept that seems fundamentally intriguing. The intrigue often comes from an unusual juxtaposition of concepts or a novel way of portraying (visually or thematically) an otherwise "typical" setting. E.g. the American south if the Civil War were interrupted by the appearance of angry African orishas and the introduction of folk magic into the world; 3rd century mythic Libya portrayed as a moving Byzantine icon, etc. I need to be able to mentally picture the setting in action. I have to be able to imagine characters moving through, behaving naturally in, and otherwise acting out their roles in the setting. What captivates me, and I think what captivates many people, is looking at a single image from a setting -- whether it's a frame of a movie, a book illustration, or a screenshot -- and being immediately pulled into exploring what's going on.
Early on, I try to avoid going too "deep" with the setting. I need to be able to shift around pieces fluidly to establish and communicate the high-level concept. I think many people (a younger version of myself included) have a tendency to drive down with and obsess over details. People love details and backstory, but early on in the process I think it's best to keep the big picture in mind. Ultimately, the details will only work well if they support the big picture. And the big picture is all that most people will be able to grab onto early on. When working with a team, it's very important that your colleagues are able to really "get" what you're going for.
From there, I like to work on establishing little "vignettes" that allow the major ideas to be expressed while exploring a subset of details. This could be a single scene that contains key characters, a key location, and an important event in a "mini-story". This allows people to focus on building both the tone of the setting as well as the visual style. To do this, the team needs to "get" the high-level concept (established above). The goal is to cement this idea with the core team and allow newcomers, from inside or outside the company, to grab onto the major ideas just by looking at a few pictures.
Assuming everyone digs the direction I'm going in (also, please assume that there's feedback and revision at each of these stages), I start personally fleshing out the details of the setting and coordinating others to flesh out the setting as well. I return frequently to the core themes of the setting to insure that the details do not undermine or otherwise operate contrary to the "pillars" that were established early on.
* * *Kevin Saunders, lead designer on Mask of the Betrayer
First a caveat. My creative credits are lighter than many others taking part in this interview. I’ve designed numerous quests, areas, and MMORPG event storylines and characters. I wrote the two page story that formed the setting for the MMORTS Shattered Galaxy (a story-light game to say the least). And while I was the Lead Designer for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, much of the credit for the excellent story and characters goes to my Creative Lead George Ziets. And the rest goes to designers Tony Evans, Eric Fenstermaker, Jeff Husges, Matt MacLean, and Chris Avellone.
The best story and characters I created were for a game you’ll never get to play (the project was ultimately cancelled, as happens sometimes). But even in that case, I only set up the initial foundations. Another great creative designer, Brian Mitsoda, did most of the work.
So while I like to think creatively and I like to write, I don’t feel I’ve established myself as an expert in this regard.
I don’t have a very “pure” approach to game design. In my opinion, the setting, story, and characters should all be secondary to the goal of making the game. In many respects, I approach game design as a resource management problem. How do we best entertain the greatest number of our players with the time and resources we have available? I don’t mean to suggest that, for example, a setting isn’t important, but that the choice of setting should be influenced by the realities of game development.
Here’s an example. While working on Neverwinter Nights 2, we learned that creating stunning exterior environments with our artists and technology took much more time (3-4 times as long) as creating equally stunning interiors. So for the first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, we consciously decided we would have a higher percentage of interior areas and we chose our various module settings accordingly. This allowed us to create more, to polish more.
Getting back to the original question... one thing I think contributes greatly to a setting is establishing the cultures. Cultures are fascinating. What are the people like? What motivates them? An interesting and well-established culture can create a great deal of immersion. It also helps define the artistic style of a region, what types of quests would be given, etc. Look at how games that aren’t RPGs, without much traditional storytelling, can establish the setting by touching upon culture. I think StarCraft is an example of this. Though simplistic, the “cultures” of the marines, protoss, and zerg define that world compellingly.
In MotB, we tried to accurately depict the culture of Rashemen (and Thay, to a lesser extent) as established by the Forgotten Realms setting. I think this approach worked very well, increasing immersion and even helping give the designers solid guidelines to approach writing characters and quests. And, developing and depicting a culture is cheap (depending in some cases on the specifics, of course). It’s not necessarily easy – it involves a lot of thought, iteration, and attention to detail. But thoughts and ideas are relatively cheap in the world of game development. Implementation is what’s expensive.
* * *George Ziets, creative lead on Mask of the Betrayer
To me, a great RPG setting needs to be immersive. It doesn’t matter so much whether the setting is steampunk fantasy or modern day military fiction - I should be able to immerse myself in a believable world, to the same extent I’d immerse myself in a well-crafted movie.
So how do I ensure that my setting feels real and believable? For me, it isn’t really a matter of following any specific process. Creating a believable world is a matter of consistency. For example, look at a game like Bioshock. Every aspect of that world - sound design, character design, architecture, NPC dialogue - reinforces the setting that the creators were trying to achieve.
It’s all about the details - and they all need to reinforce the setting that I’m trying to create.
NPC dialogue is a good place to start. Characters should use appropriate language for their place, time, and social class. Sometimes it’s worth creating some common expressions or slang used consistently by many NPCs. (Think of the characteristic speech patterns of Hive dwellers in Planescape: Torment.) Every NPC should feel like an organic part of the world. Personally, I try to avoid references to real-life pop culture, even for the sake of humor (unless I was writing for a game like Sam & Max).
Quests should reflect the setting, too. I try not to settle for generic RPG fare - instead, I ask myself what would really concern the inhabitants of this world. I think about local superstitions, rivalries amongst notable NPCs, and the unique difficulties that people might face when trying to survive in this setting.
If NPCs live in a community, then they’d certainly know each other. Anyone who’s lived in a small community knows that people develop strong opinions of each other, and you can’t talk to one member of the community without hearing about friends and rivals. Creating and reinforcing relationships amongst NPCs is an excellent way to reinforce the believability of the setting, and also to develop interesting quests.
These are just a few examples. In practice, I try to ensure that every aspect of the player’s experience makes sense, and fits into the larger picture. The arch-enemy of immersion is the glaring detail that smacks the player on the head and shouts, “Hey, I don’t belong!“ Like the villager who speaks in a cockney accent, when everyone else in town talks in a smooth southern drawl.
This level of consistency takes some active creative oversight. Someone on the design team needs to make sure that all these elements work together. This can be difficult when different designers (often with very different styles) work on different areas of the game. But if effort is made to be sure that everyone “gets” the setting from the start, and one person is responsible for ensuring that everyone stays on the same page, the results can be well worth the effort.(If you can't get enough of George, click here to read his "Anatomy of a Quest Arc" - fascinating stuff. - Vince)
* * *David Gaider, a writer-designer/lead writer on Bioware's Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Night games, and Knights of the Old Republic.
When you build a setting for a game, it really needs to serve two masters -- it needs to be interesting in and of itself, but it also has to incorporate elements that are going to make for an interesting game. You're going to need varied environments to explore, for instance, and if you want to have ruins or dungeons to delve into there's going to have to be a reason for those things to exist. So when starting out you're going to need to identify first off all the elements that you want to include and try to work those into the overall concept. I know the first time I set out to make a setting I didn't do this. I came up with a very "high concept" setting that might have made for a very interesting story, and I of course was very enraptured with the entire idea behind it, but as people looked at it more closely and began pointing out things in it that would be ridiculously not fun to play I realized my mistake (though not without plenty of griping, first).
At that point, I'd say you need to establish the "rules" that are going to govern your setting. What's going to make it different from other settings in that genre? What makes it interesting? Is it going to be very fantastical or gritty and realistic? Every setting has its own internal reality -- and once that's created you need to stick to it. I find that setting which don't really have a firm foundation behind them are easy to spot. It's the difference between a painted backdrop and something that feels like a real place, like people might actually live there. Make it a little worn around the edges, like an old shoe -- give it a few quirks and imperfections in places, a few unsolved mysteries, a few conflicts and goings-on in the world beyond that are unrelated to the game's story but serve to make it seem like maybe not everything revolves around the player -- and at that point it will be a place that the player could imagine actually going to, themselves.
Is this always successful? Maybe not. Unlike when you're writing a novel there's more required to give life to the setting than just imagining it and writing it down. But that's definitely a good way to start.
* * *Alan Miranda, an ex-Bioware producer and founder of Ossian Studios; lead designer on Darkness over Daggerford and upcoming Mysteries of Westgate.
I’m a very visual person and often get inspired by unique locations in real life. When I come across these inspirational locations, I always have fun imagining little scenes: characters materialize onto the stage, actions start playing out, background motivations come to light, and an emotional ambience is born. So finding that emotional ambience is what kindles and then drives the creative process for me. From there, it becomes more of an extension of story, what the characters will do, and the motivations of the groups that they belong to that determines how that setting grows and how I fill it out. I am also someone who appreciates and desires realism and believability in the games I play and create, so developing a believable historical background is important.
For NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate, the game takes place in the well-established D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms, so it’s a different experience from creating a setting from scratch yourself. On the one hand, it may seem more limiting, but on the other hand, many Wizards of the Coast people have put in a lot of time and thought into developing the background, so it can make the job easier. The city of Westgate itself is documented to a certain extent in the 2e and 3e sourcebooks, although nowhere near as much as a city like Waterdeep. So we had a decent amount of reference reading to do and then attempted to weave together the parts of the city we wanted in order to focus our adventure there. For example, it isn’t specified where the gladiatorial arena of the Quivering Thumb is located in Westgate, so we moved it to our Arena District (aptly named after the Quivering Thumb arena). We also invented the location of Undergate (not sourcebook canon), a district that spans the ancient sewers beneath Westgate, which originated from an idea of accessing a secret and dangerous place in the city via magical, odd-looking entrances.
Listening to the various ideas people had on the team, and feeling inspired by them, I wrote the first draft of the MoW story, which was then partially adjusted and added to by our lead designer, Luke Scull. The other writers on the team also gave their input on it, critiquing any weaker aspects so that we could fix them. But really, the core story was just the skeleton of what the city was to be. The flesh, you could say, came from what our writers, scripters, and level designers all came up with – sidequests, ambient NPCs, layouts and visuals, and the small details. Those all helped to bring Westgate to life. I don’t believe that breathing life into new worlds can be done by any single person – that would result in a very homogeneous experience. It’s the creative variety from many people that brings authenticity to an experience.
* * *Luke Scull, co-lead designer on Mysteries of Westage.
The most important thing when breathing life into a setting is to understand the basic flavour of the world. Theme and tone are vital to a story. With Westgate, we identified the key aspects of the setting -- corruption, greed, mistrust, amoral enterprise -- and reflected them in our story at a conceptual level. Many of our characters have traits that exhibit these "qualities." Since setting is so important and largely sells an RPG, it is necessary to capture as much of a setting's unique essence as possible.
In addition to the story and characters, maintaining the internal logic of a setting is also hugely important. A balanced, believable world will be recognized as such by players. Nothing gets my goat more than writers and designers using the "But it's fantasy!" excuse to explain away a blatant inconsistency or plot hole. I can buy all manner of magic systems and other fantasy staples, but people should still act like people. A benevolent archmage living a stone's throw away from a small village community under threat from orcs is not going to kick back and relax in his tower when the green horde descends. I love fantasy, but when the conceit I'm being asked to maintain extends to basic human behaviour, I turn off.
The devil's in the details. Once a setting ceases being believable, it ceases being an interesting place to spend time in.
* * *Mat Jobe, writer on Mysteries of Westgate
When you're dealing with an existing setting like the Forgotten Realms, it obviously starts with doing a lot of research -- reading all the official source materials, cruising fan sites and wikis on the Internet, and generally making sure you know as much about the setting as the biggest, baddest Forgotten Realms fanboy on the block. This is important not only because you're dealing with intellectual property and Wizards of the Coast will insist that you get the setting right, but because there really are those Forgotten Realms fanboys (and girls) out there waiting to call you on your mistakes.
For Mysteries of Westgate, we selected the setting before we did anything else. By the time I sat down to design my first quest, I had the source book information internalized and was drawing on that knowledge and revisiting the materials constantly. I had a mental checklist of things that I found essential or interesting about Westgate and tried to explore those subjects in my designs. Later on, as we were polishing the game, we went back and added some finishing touches to give the areas more of a "Westgate feel." However, those finishing touches would have seemed like mere window dressing if we hadn't done our homework up front and made sure that the entire game reflected the setting from start to finish.
* * *Russ Davis, writer on Mysteries of Westgate
I guess I don’t agree that setting is the foundation of a game, though I recognize many others – even potentially my Ossian-mates – disagree with me. I think characters and story are key. I’d rather play a game in the well-worn Sword Coast of Faerûn if it has a compelling story and characters that will move me, than something in oft-overlooked Kara-Tur that’s got a lame premise and terrible characters.
So it’s therefore difficult for me to answer the question. I start with a story and then choose a setting; not the other way around. And yes, I recognize that a setting can suggest story elements, but I think it’s an incredibly rare story that could not be set elsewhere with a few mostly-cosmetic changes. In fact, I understand that Mysteries of Westgate started out set in Rashemen with the mask being those of Rashemi witches. No problem to change settings; the Night Masks are linked with their domino masks as well, though others would have to say how “cosmetic” the changes to the story were. However, knowing the story as I do, I bet we could do the same adventure in guild-plagued Calimport by maybe changing the mask to a cloak or scabbard. <Alan Note: Apart from the cursed mask concept itself, none of the Rashemi story was used. It was a lucky coincidence that there was a fitting opportunity to use the mask in Westgate, although this would have been substituted with another item if that hadn’t been possible, as Russ suggests.>
Now once the setting is set, then you want to make it as authentic as possible, and this means adding in little details unique to the setting. In the case of Westgate, that meant finding canon locations, characters, and organizations to include. We also added several ambient characters and encounters meant to stress the cosmopolitan makeup and rough nature of the city. However, the biggest difference between table-topping and computers is the visual one, so I think mapmakers are key here to really bringing out the unique nature of each location, and we had two of the best on Westgate.
* * *Jeff Vogel, the indie RPG industry veteran who kept it alive with the Exile, Nethergate, Avernum, and Geneforge series.
As a lone wolf developer, I'm really low key about it. Every world I've come up with has been a flash of inspiration/sudden impulse thing. Then I make up neat stuff about the base setting.
* * *Thomas Riegsecker, lead designer of recently released Eschalon: Book I
With the Eschalon trilogy the setting was pretty much predetermined and so it was not too difficult to establish. We wanted to keep the familiar "high fantasy" foundation that is present in most early computer RPGs- a medieval setting on an alternate world inhabited by Dwarves and magic and monsters. The settings of these early cRPGs were pretty much directly inspired by the first-edition D&D modules and classic fantasy literature.
The process of creating the world of Eschalon for us was simply to start with a large sheet of blank paper that would eventually become the world map. Upon drawing out land masses and rivers, mountains and towns, it's easy to imagine the stories that spawn from these locations. As boundaries are drawn and factions are established, you begin to understand the dynamics of the world you are making- the conflicts and treaties which have shaped the land and people since the beginning of time. Once we have made a world that has come to life on its own, we then work in the storyline that the player will be part of. This gives the player a sense that the world really does extend outside the boundaries of the game, which is important in an RPG.
* * *Jay Barnson, a Twisted Metal and Warhawk developer turned indie; lead designer on Frayed Knights, a "blob" RPG
It's gotta hook me. At least at first. Sure, we may all get sick of our own worlds after a while... but for me, it's often the setting - coming in bits and pieces - that appeals to me first before the rest of the game comes together. There are two things I pay attention to:
#1 - What is cool about this world? What makes it compelling and makes me care about it?
#2 - What are the fun things I can DO with this world, particularly the things that I might not be able to do elsewhere.
* * *Jason Compton, better known for his Baldur's Gate series' mods; lead designer on The Broken Hourglass (in development).
My personal approach to this problem is "have somebody else who specializes in settings do this for you." While wearing my lead designer hat I fancy myself better than a room full of typewriters and monkeys when it comes to storyline and character, but devising settings is not a personal strength or passion. So I looked elsewhere for one. I was fortunate enough to know two designers who had been working on an RPG setting for some time, so with the right nudging I was able to get them to commit to finalizing it in a form we could use for a computer game.
I know that they were in part motivated by a desire to shake up some common sword-and-sorcery conventions, without creating something that would become entirely alien. They wanted to create a history which, while intriguing, would feature events and conflicts and decisions that you wouldn't necessarily be entirely proud of today. Humans and the Ilvari, as cultures, have a lot between them that both sides can be ashamed of—even the unfortunate offspring which result when a human and an Ilvari get over cultural and physical differences on a personal level. A source of mystery and intrigue which can go just about anywhere always makes a handy storytelling tool, so we have the synthetic, ambivalent Illuminated.
* * *Gareth Fouche, lead designer on Scars of War
I just blatantly rip off someone elses setting, maybe changing the name a bit so I don't get sued.
Actually, while I don't steal ideas I do generally rely on some form of inspiration to come up with a setting. In fact I find it nearly impossible to sit down and simply come up with an idea for a game or setting out of nothing. Trying to force that is a sure way to failure, for me. Instead I find that ideas come in response to daily stimuli. I'll watch a movie, listen to a song, perhaps see an image of some sort and an idea will pop into my head. Rarely does a concept for a setting spring up fully formed. Instead I will get a flash of some concept, often merely a single scene, a scenario or a sense of mood. Some of these flashes are junk, some will serve as ideas for plot elements and some form major idea seeds, seeds which will go on to become concepts for settings, fundamental plot hooks or major characters.
From there I will brainstorm around the idea seed. While I struggle to create something from nothing, once I have a concept to mull over I find the ideas grow and give birth to each other, like a tree branching outwards. This process can take weeks. Calling it a "process" is perhaps giving it too much credit; it is a very nebulous, organic methodology. Hard to quantify, hard to keep to an exact schedule. For that reason I keep an idea journal. Since you never know when an idea will come to you I try to write them down whenever I get them, while I still remember them. That way you tend to have multiple ideas simmering in the back of your mind when you need one. The best way to ensure you come up with a good setting concept is simply to flesh out as many ideas as you can. Many will be crap but there will be a few pearls in amoungst the garbage.
Probably the most important element of a setting is some form of mystery. Human beings are a curious species, nothing drives us quite like the joy of discovery, the thrill of seeing what lies beyond the horizon. Your game's setting can be thought of as a form of metaphysical geography. And just like any form of geography it is most alluring when there is some new part of it to uncover, some secret to reveal. Once that secret is discovered it loses much of its drawing power, just as any familiar territory can become stale over time. When you design a setting you must be careful to build up secrets for the player to discover, mysteries which you reveal as he or she progresses. You must be just as careful to leave hints to tantalise them, encouraging them to seek your secrets out. A secret the player is never even aware of isn't particularly alluring. These mysteries don't need to be completely puzzling, they can be things as simple as an alien culture to explore and interact with or pieces of history to piece together. Probably one of the most fundamental reasons that players enjoy RPGs is the opportunity they provide us to experience worlds and ideas outside the scope of our everyday lives. Uncovering mysteries is fundamental to that drive.
As a final point about mystery I'd say it is always a good idea to leave some elements of the setting undiscovered, even after the game is complete and the plot resolved. Leave them wondering about a few things. Sometimes the process of speculating about something is more engaging than simply knowing the truth of it. Without absolute certainty there remains room for the player's imagination to explore the possibilities.
* * *Michal Madej, lead designer on The Witcher
I think our case is really an interesting one. From the beginning of the project, we were aware of how a good setting is important for RPG, and that’s a large part of why we decided to use The Witcher license. As a result we got a very rich background, full of vivid characters, hundreds of stories and foremost the unique idea of modern fantasy without the 'good vs. evil' cliché. On the other hand, Sapkowski didn't ever pay great attention to making a detailed, complex and comprehensive setting - for many years he even refused to draw a map of the world. That’s a really unusual approach in fantasy literature, completely different from what Tolkien did - but the writer did that on purpose, he didn't want to reveal all the lore and strip the world of mystery and secrets.
Because of that our work with The Witcher was slightly different from what you have in most RPGs, where you either create a setting from scratch or use well-described lore. We had a really huge amount of detailed information, but our job was to gather that info and combine it to help us create a coherent background. For example, Sapkowski described only a few situations where Geralt uses magic, six Signs in total. That included a brutal telekinetic blast, a mind-influencing charm cast on a horse, a monster-repelling ward applied to seal a coffin, two different protective shields and a fire spell used to mend a broken pot. In the design process we based the witchers' powers on five elements, combined both protection spells into one, created graphical symbols and eventually redesigned their functionality to fit gameplay purposes.
So our work was highly creative, but more like archeology - first we were gathering all possible pieces of information, then trying to get the whole picture, discover any patterns and connections, finally adapting that to the gameplay.
* * *Leonard Boyarsky, one of Interplay veterans and Troika's co-founders, lead artist on Stonekeep, art director on Fallout, project leader and designer on Arcanum and VtM: Bloodlines
The three times I've been involved in creating and/or realizing world settings have been three very different experiences, each with a different process. Regardless of the process, however, my goal is always to make the most compelling and intriguing world I can in order to entice the player to delve deeper into it.
My first experience in world creation, Fallout, started from an art standpoint. I was heavily immersed in retro 40's and 50's art with a twisted edge at the time (including but not limited to things like the original Batman movie, the City of Lost Children, Brazil, the Hard Boiled comic book) and I became intrigued with the thought of basing our look on the aesthetics of the world of the future as envisioned by the culture of the 1940's and 50's. Once that initial vision was agreed upon, we knew it needed to bleed through the entire feel of the world.
On Arcanum, it definitely started from a more intellectual level. We became enthralled with the idea of an industrial revolution upending a Tolkien style world. That initial inspiration immediately started us thinking about how the politics of a world like that would play out, and how that would inform our quests, NPCs, storylines, etc. While the early heavy industrial machinery look was very inspirational to us from an artistic standpoint, it also became a fitting thematic element as it was literally crushing the magic out of the world.
The challenge on Vampire:Bloodlines was different – we were working with an already established world, so our approach was to drill down to what we felt was the essence of that world, what intrigued people about it, and those elements were the ones we then focused on building the world around.
I agree with the other designers that your setting needs to reinforce the gameplay and the themes of your story, but I always come to those issues after I have the elements of a setting that feel intriguing from a visceral standpoint. If I don't feel excited about a setting from a gut level, neither will the people playing it.
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Part II - Roundtable: Story
Part III - Roundtable: Characters