Game Master Diaries #1: Setting up the Story

Welcome to part one of my multi-part series about one of my favorite kinds of storytelling: being a game master! If you’re curious about why I decided to do this series, you can check out my last post here. Today we are going to start at the very beginning, which I hear is a decent place to start. Today we are talking about setting. So without further ado, on your marks, get set!

The setting is the background of your story, the world in which it takes place. To be sure, you could just leave the background in the background and never worry about how or why things happen in the larger world beyond your characters, but that makes for a pretty lackluster story. Instead, we should view the setting of the story as the first and largest character within the tale we are telling.

The size of your setting will vary depending on the scope and length of your game, ranging anywhere from a single dungeon or city to entire worlds and galaxies. The choice is up to you. The most important thing about setting is not the size, but the way it contributes to your story. Is your setting a dungeon? Who built that dungeon and why? Are they still around or have other people taken over after the original owner died or moved on? Are there monsters in this dungeon? If so, why are they there? If not, why not? If your setting is a city, who are the important people and groups in the city? Is it a part of a larger nation, or is it a city-state? What is this city’s main source of revenue? What threats does it face from the outside? From the inside? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask for your setting to go from a simple background to a living, breathing part of your story.

One of the first things to decide about your setting, and your story as a whole is what genre you want it to be. I’ve played and game mastered games from High Fantasy to Hard(ish) Sci-fi, from Fantastical Wild West to Lovecraftian Horror/Mystery. The beauty of being a game master is that you can tell whatever story you want, as long as you can find players who want to tell that story with you. For the purposes of introducing some friends to the game, I opted to go with the quintessential RPG setting: High Fantasy. Some rules sets are better suited to some genres than others, so bear that in mind when deciding what type of game you want to run. The beauty of GURPS, which is the system I use most frequently, is that it is extremely versatile and can be tweaked to fit whatever story you want to tell. The downside to this is that there are a lot of details and rules to know about that give the game its adaptability. If that isn’t your cup of tea, there are lots of options out there that range from rules heavy to rules light and cover all sorts of genres, so feel free to find the system that will help you tell the story you want to tell in the way that you want to tell it. It’s your story, and the rules are there to serve you, not the other way around.

Once you have your genre, the next step is to figure out how big of a scope you want your story to have, and how long you think your game will run. Will it be a single one-shot adventure that takes place in a small town? Will it be a long-running campaign that spans years and entire continents? Will it be a few sessions that still manange to traverse half the known universe? The choice is up to you and your players. However large you want your story to be, you need your setting to be a little bit larger, that way you and your players never have to run up against the edge of the map. Trust me on this, even if you never use it, it is better to know what lies on the other side of the uncrossable river and have your players never go there than for one of them to cleverly find a way to fly over and have nothing prepared, leaving you scrambling and taking everyone out of the story while you figure out what to do next.

Our adventure is going to just be a one-shot, so I decided to have it be cenered on a single city and a dungeon the players will be asked to explore. Despite the small size of the setting, I am still preparing the entire region in which the city and dungeon reside in case I need to know what lies off the beaten track if one of the players decides to go chasing after squirrels. For me this means knowing what is within a day’s journey of the city as well as planning out the entire mountain pass where the dungeon is located. I got a little help with some of this from my dad for a reason that I will discuss below.

The last big thing, once you know what your setting is, how big it is, and why the people there are doing what they are doing, is to know the history of your setting. Unless you are starting your players off in a truly unexplored virgin wilderness, there is some kind of history to the places in which your game will take place, and that history can greatly affect and improve the story you are telling. This history takes two forms: recent and ancient. Recent history would be anything that has happened of note in the last generation or two. What has the state of politics been like for the last few decades, stable or volatile? Who are the big heroes that everyone still remembers? What tensions are there in people’s family histories that might still flare up again? Ancient history is much more big-picture. Who built this city and why? What is the oldest civilization in this area, and are they still around? What has the political scene historically looked like? Is this area the uncontested realm of a hereditary ruler from time immemorial? Have the people never known any form of government? Is this an area that changes hands every century or so? These sorts of details can be worked into the world you are building and give it a feeling of depth and solidity that will make if seem that much more real.

That brings us to my dad. Several years ago now, my dad ran a game with me and some of my friends. This game was set in a High Fantasy world, and it stretched on for years, eventually swelling from three players to six. The adventures we had in this world were epic, and when it came time for me to decide on a setting for this one-shot, I immediately thought of the world my dad had made for us. This world was much larger than I needed for my purposes, which meant that I could pick a single part to focus on and flesh out, but most importantly, it had some great history already established in the form of our campaign. I’m setting this story in one of the regions our party visited, and the recent history is that of our previous game. Our paladin retired to a lake in the mountains to reestablish a holy order whose relics he had recovered, and it is this order that employs the paladin for this new story a few decades later. This sort of history was too good for me to pass up, but if you don’t have an old game lying around to borrow from, you can always develop these sorts of things for yourself. What big events have happened in your world? Who were the people behind these events? What did they do afterwards? Once you know those things, you are ready to add some history to your story.

That’s all for setting. I was going to include a more detailed description of my story’s setting, but this post has already gone on longer than I anticipated. Instead, I will post it as a bonus for you guys on Monday, so check back for that if you’re so inclined. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you all next time.

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About Armorbearer

I am a full-time student who cleans schools to make money, and I live in majestic Michigan with my wonderful wife. I study English and Philosophy with the hopes of becoming a writer/editor/professor/something else equally awesome. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and a lover of stories in all shapes and forms.

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