6 Ways to Make a Published World Your Own
From D.L. Campbell
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #475
When deciding on a game setting there are two choices – create a world of your own or use a published setting.
Designing your own setting offers a chance to flex those creative muscles and invent something specific your group’s taste. It does take a great deal of time and effort, though, and some GMs are not interested in creating their own worlds.
Using a published setting lets you benefit from the work of proven professionals in game design. However, a world developed by someone else and meant to appeal to a broad audience will probably fall short of meeting your needs in at least a few areas.
There is a third way to go: find a published setting that is close to what you want and modify it to suit. In this case, two (or more) heads can be better than one. Veteran setting writers are skilled at developing worlds that provide entertainment, balance, and fertile ground for adventure, plus you end up with a world shaped to you and your group.
Even if you expect to make a lot of changes, having a starting point helps. Kind of like starting out with cake mix, then adding ingredients to improve the taste and give it some flair, rather than making a cake from scratch.
Here are a few tips for making a published world your own.
Give Yourself Permission to Make Changes
Give yourself permission to change anything and everything you want to. Anything from geography to history to races and classes are fair game.
The writers created this world for others to use and enjoy. Everything they have done is not going to work for everybody.
Even if the writers don’t realize that, they will not find out what you did, storm angrily over to your house, and beat you up. If they do somehow show up at your door, just don’t open it.
Do Make Changes with Caution
Before you start happily making changes, read through the setting as is. Take note of how all the pieces fit together. Make sure the changes you’re considering won’t destroy any structure you need.
Certain parts of a world are designed to fulfill specific purposes. For instance, it might be established that dwarves live in the mountains. There might be a mountain range with a circle of communities at its foot, and dwarves are important to those local economies. If you decide to move that mountain range, there’s now no ready explanation for the dwarves’ involvement, since they don’t have a settlement nearby.
That’s not to say you couldn’t still relocate the mountains. Maybe you’ll move the dwarves’ homeland elsewhere, or create a history in which some clans of dwarves migrated from the mountains to this area. Perhaps someone else could fill the dwarves’ role in the economies.
You just don’t want to be in the position of describing a place and get caught flat-footed when a player asks, “Wait – I thought dwarves were from the mountains? If there are no mountains around here, how are the dwarves so involved in these towns?”
Also, the various races and classes usually have their respective strengths and weaknesses, and counterbalance each other in some way. If you add or subtract these setting elements, be careful to keep that balance of power in mind.
At the same time, ask yourself if are there any parts absent you think should be present? For example, if you think the undisputed mastery of a certain group should be a little more disputed, then create some rivals for them – maybe even your PCs.
Keep Your Players in Mind
Tailor things to your players.
Say you have a player who loves intrigue but the setting is heavy on combat. Since there are so many adventurers and fighters around, you could add that the competition has led them to start forming guilds, who are now battling each other over resources and jobs. Alternatively, cities are usually a magnet for intrigue. Build up a nearby city so the PCs can visit and get involved in the politics there when they need a change of pace.
You don’t necessarily need to make large-scale alterations to the world – just enough to put your own stamp on it. Don’t feel compelled to make changes just for the sake of it. Make changes that help you provide the most inspiring playground for you and your players.
Start with a small area. Modifying an entire setting at once would be the work of years. Get ideas of the kind of adventures or campaigns you would like to run, then choose an area that will work for them.
Make your changes to that region only at first, and a few other large things if needed.
For instance, if you want to make sure there’s a particular kind of city located nearby, or a homeland for a race not covered in the setting, or there’s certain geography that you require, only worry about those changes right away.
Otherwise, get a small starting area set up and fill in the rest as you go along.
Treat new supplements in much the same way as you treat the original campaign setting book. Feel free to cherry-pick from the information and decide what material is a good fit for your version of the world. Ignore the rest.
Keep in mind you don’t have to use the material in exactly the way it’s presented for it to be useful.
A particular regional supplement might not apply verbatim if you changed or removed that area, but if you have a similar area, there should be some things you can use. For example, if it’s a book about a cold-weather region, maybe you can use the material in your own cold-weather region.
It’s always a good idea to at least take a glance at new supplements as no one can have every idea themselves. The people who write the setting might have great ideas that might never have occurred to you, but which you end up loving.
Discuss The Setting with Players
It might be a good idea to tell your players which world was your starting point. In some cases, you may not think your players have ever heard of the world you’ll be using, but you could be surprised as players don’t always just read what the DM expects them to.
Someone at the table might be a fan of an author writing fiction in that world, or may have picked up an intriguing-sounding sourcebook from eBay just because it was cheap. It might not have come up because you haven’t been playing in that setting, but they could recognize it once you start describing things.
By explaining what setting was your starting point, but that what they know may or may not be true, you can head off misconceptions and assumptions. Don’t let anyone insist that the way things are in sourcebooks is the way they’re supposed to be.
Make it clear you are departing from the established version as you wish. If players are very familiar with the setting, you can add changes to well-known aspects just to keep everyone on their toes.
For instance, many modern settings feature laser weapons in addition to mechanical ones. Maybe in your version, laser weapon technology hasn’t been perfected yet – there are prototypes only a few have, but they’re unreliable. The competition to perfect weapon technology and get the jump on everyone else adds an element of an arms race.
Most worlds have some kind of well-known major city; you could alter the details of that. Maybe you could change the stage of development of the city. If it’s at its height in the setting, show it just reaching its peak or in the midst of a decline. Maybe you create twin cities out of it, dividing the sourcebook’s material between two places and adding touches of your own to flesh them out.
D.L. Campbell has been playing RPGs for about fifteen years, but has only recently started to peek behind the curtain into the DMing side of things.
Reader Tip Request
Hackmaster Crit Generator
A reader asks:
Do you or any of your readers know of a critical hit generator, program or Excel sheet for the Hackmaster system? It’s the most detailed crit system I’ve seen and to have it available at the click of a button would be useful.
If you have a tip, shoot me an email. Thanks!
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Combat Chess Clock
From Eric Garcia
I’m running a D&D 4th Edition campaign, and because of how tactical combat is I noticed it could drag when someone was trying to coordinate a complex attack or even figuring out which power to use. So, I’ve come up with a solution – I bought a chess clock.
At the beginning of battle, I give each side a certain amount of time. The PCs start at 15 minutes; the GM’s time is based on how many enemies and types of enemies are present. If I’m not sure, I start both with the same time.
Then, combat starts. If your side is up, your clock is running. The clock is only paused at the GM’s discretion, typically for rules clarifications. Once either side runs out of time, characters on that “losing” side only get 60 seconds per turn for the rest of the round. The “winning” side gets 90-120 seconds per turn. The winning side then gets a free standard action at the end of the round, usable by any character.
After that action, the clock is reset, modifying the GM’s time up or down based on who won and by how much time, as well as what enemies have died. The goal is to have the sides as close as possible in time usage.
It’s worked out nicely for our group so far. Everyone is more conscious of who has to act next. Since the time is spread out for the whole party and not just any single player, many player turns end quickly to save up time so when someone does need extra time, they can take it.
And one extra action every 25-30 minutes doesn’t unbalance the game all that much. It’s just enough to add a dash of urgency to combat without removing the tactical nature of the game system or singling out any one player.
Inspiring Satellite Images
From Tyler Elkink
There are 60 neat satellite images of earth here: Stunning Satellite Photo.
These include some good ideas for settings and locations. Take a look at the Brandberg Massif, for example; what better location for a walled city than on an exhumed granite intrusion?
Lost Cities and How Stuff Works
From Loz Newman
For those GMs looking to inject a little verisimilitude into their campaign backgrounds: 5 Lost Cities.
The How Stuff Works site is full of weird and wonderful tidbits like that. Usefulness is highly unpredictable, but it should allow GMs to rapidly bone up on a subjects for modern campaigns.
Two-Word Culture Labels
From Loz Newman
One trick is mentally tagging an in-game culture with two- word labels to guide your future presentations. For example. Greek Pirates, Viking Merchants, Aztec Duelists, Syndic Knights, Mage Smallholders.
I even once (during a massively multi-cultural world) added the tags into the written recap of the world given to the players to help them swiftly grasp the essence of each culture.
The basic principal I’m trying to illustrate here is a small effort, well spent ahead of time, beats flailing around any day. AKA, Prior Prep Prevents Poor Performance.