Setting generation can be one of the hardest parts of the GM’s job. Not all of us are cut from the same cloth as Tolkien and Herbert, and it’s no mean task to flesh out a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy world in the kind of detail that will really get the players engaged in their characters’ surroundings. So, lazy GM that I am, I look for shortcuts for setting generation wherever I can find them.
One option is to use a canned setting, but I find that these can be more of a hindrance than a help, especially if one of my characters knows a canned setting better than I do. Another popular shortcut is to allow the players to help define the setting by establishing organizations and villains in their characters’ backstories, but I know many players who prefer the setting to be better established before generating their own characters. So what’s a lazy GM to do? Well, here’s one option I’ve found works pretty well for my own world generation: play some board games!
Now first, the obvious: not just any board games will do. Snakes and Ladders, Chess, and Parcheesi aren’t really likely to help you define a setting for your next RPG, though if those games do it for you, more power to you.
The best games for defining a setting are ones that allow players to take on the roles of factions or organizations, preferably more than one. By noting the interactions between the factions on each turn, you can generate a history for your game world that really feels lived-in. If you involve your players in the games that help generate your world they can see their own actions in the world’s history. I want to focus on two games in this article, one of which I found extremely useful for setting generation in the past and one of which I intend to use in the future. The former is Small World by Days of Wonder, and the latter is Race for the Galaxy by Rio Grande Games.
To generate the setting for the last game of D&D I ran, my wife and I each played 4 players in an 8-player game of Small World and Small World Underground (the two maps were connected using tunnels). I found the game perfect for setting generation because each of the four players we played controlled multiple factions over the course of the game, meaning that the world history was significantly more complex than it would have been had I limited my scope to the kingdoms of Humans, Dwarves, and Orcs I would have defaulted to without the aid of the board game.
Race for the Galaxy, like Small World, seems perfect for setting generation. Each player builds an expanding space-faring civilization over the course of the game, playing settled planets and developments into their tableau until the game’s end, which usually happens when players have 12 cards in their tableau. Small World’s fantasy theme makes it easy to translate events in the board game into similar events in your fantasy setting, and similarly, Race for the Galaxy’s sci-fi setting allows for easy interpretation. Unfortunately, Race for the Galaxy players control only one faction per player, but because the game isn’t played out on a map, it would be easy to generate numerous different factions merely by playing the game several times and excluding the cards played in a previous games’ player tableaus from the main deck for subsequent games.
If you’re interested in using this method for setting generation, the following are a few quick tips that may be helpful as you get started:
- The flavor of the game need not line up with the flavor of the setting. One can certainly inspire the other, but the former need not constrain the latter. For instance, in playing Small World, one of the available races was “Leprechauns”. I didn’t really want a civilization of leprechauns in my D&D world history, so I reskinned them as Dragonborn, which worked marvelously well.
- Take copious notes! It may slow down the play of the board game, which can be annoying for the other players, but even little details like what one faction was doing on the same turn that another faction was making their move may give you ideas for how to turn these events into a narrative in your setting.
- Most importantly, don’t feel bad leaving things out! The purpose of these games is to inspire you in your own RPG setting design. If you just can’t figure out a way to make some faction an important part of your world in a way that you like, ignore them or absorb them into some other faction you do care about. Ultimately, the game is just meant to aid your own creative process, so if and when it starts being more of a hindrance than a help, jettison it.
Are there any games I’ve neglected that would work well for setting generation? Any other pieces of advice you’d like to add? If so, let me know in the comments.
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