When you’re designing a world for a roleplaying game (professionally, for free download on a web site, or for your own home-grown setting), what makes a world a good roleplaying world? What characteristics will make for an interesting, plausible, long-running, entertaining game? Obviously every gaming group is a little bit different and will enjoy a slightly different mix of elements, and some worlds can take normal rules of thumb and turn them on their ear to good effect. I think I can, however, point out a few useful ideas that you can make use of.
Mystery, Weirdness, and Plot Hooks
One of the problems with a mundane or “normal” setting (such as an unaltered modern world) is that if there are always neat and interesting plots for the player characters (PCs) to solve, things can start to look a little ridiculous after a while. Why do all these weird things keep happening? Why do they always happen where the PCs are?
There needs to be some sort of background, world premise, plot point or conceit to explain why the world is so much more interesting than our own reality, or at least why the interesting things keep happening where the PCs are! Is it a poor world in which resources are scarce and people fight over everything? Is it a fantasy world with an unexplored “frontier” where absolutely anything could be found over the next mountain? Is it a high-magic world where the supernatural pops up at the least opportunity? You can mix and match some of the following approaches that we’ll discuss, and you can use them each at different levels of intensity.
Your own version of “mystery and weirdness” doesn’t have to mean supernatural plots, or violence, or anything else specific. But you do need to have a world rich with things to look into. Imagine a group of PCs settling down in one single city on your world. Would there be enough plots going on to keep them busy for a few years? Would there be enough action to keep them interested? Or would the game master (GM) have to stretch reality pretty hard to continually come up with interesting material?
The Plot Attraction Conceit
Some games solve this problem by working a mechanic or plot into the game that acts as a rationale for the fact that there’s always plenty of weird stuff going on around the PCs.
Plot Attraction as Reputation, Aura or Item
This might be something that causes the PCs to stand out from your average person and that attracts odd things to them. This could be perfectly mundane: the PCs might be members of a group to whom people naturally turn for help, for example. After a while, the PCs might develop enough of a reputation themselves that people turn specifically to them for ait. It could also be unnatural; the PCs could possess some mystical quality that attracts the supernatural to them. The plot attractor could even be an item–a good example of this would be the One Ring from “The Lord of the Rings.” Both evil and good always seemed to seek out the bearer of the ring to embroil him in all sorts of trouble!
Plot Attraction as Ability
This might be an ability that the PCs possess to see or otherwise detect things that normal people cannot. If they can see the supernatural while others can’t, it should naturally fall to them to deal with supernatural things (White Wolf’s “Hunter” falls along these lines). The simple fact that they can see the unusual should also make them targets for the unusual. They could be seen as threats or potential pawns, or even curiosities.
Plot Attraction as Destiny and/or Unique Status
Instead, the conceit could be a destiny that members of the class of characters allowed to the PCs are supposed to have. The TV show/comic book “Witchblade” takes this approach; the mystical item the main character wears causes events to order themselves such that the character is swept up into interesting things, simply because that is her destiny. This is a staple of the fantasy genre, in fact–the idea that some people are simply destined to be involved in the great machinations that go on around them, whether they like it or not. Because of this, no matter what happens, they will end up in the middle of the weird and wild! One variation on this is the plot attraction as bloodline; the simple fact of being born into your race or family is enough to attract plots to you.
Another possibility exists if the PCs are somehow unusual or unique within the game world; this alone should attract plenty of attention to them (the “Farscape” TV series makes some use of this). In fact, “unique status” and “destiny” often go hand-in-hand.
Plot Attraction as Mere Mechanic vs. Plot Point
The plot attraction conceit could be that and nothing more — a simple convenience to make the GM’s life easier, left largely unexplained and unaccounted for. It has often been called “the PC glow” when given no in-game explanation at all. The idea behind this term is the assumption that there’s some sort of “glow” that surrounds the PCs and to which plots are attracted, because how else can you explain the fact that the plots always happen to the PCs? Some games, however, make their plot attraction conceit an integral part of the game-world, making it an interesting plot in its own right. “Multiverser’s” scriff, which enables the characters to travel from world to world, is intimately wrapped up in the entire concept of multiple dimensions.
The Gazillion Plot Hooks Approach
Some games approach the plot-density problem by simply tossing in so many interesting, unusual plots and mysteries to explore within the context of the game world that it would take you years to run through them all. It seems this is easiest to do in a high-magic or high-supernatural world, or a world with ill-defined boundaries of some sort. Some worlds manage to do this, however, simply by having lots and lots of groups, races, and so on, enough that there’s always a new viewpoint to explore or culture to learn about. In these games it doesn’t seem unusual that the PCs get involved in so many interesting things, because the sheer number of cool plots dictates that there are plenty of non-player characters (NPCs) getting involved in neat things too! A good example of this approach would be White Wolf’s “Exalted,” which is packed chock full of things to play with.
Frontiers and Boundaries
Make sure you have a large world if you’re going to take this approach! Even if your PCs plan to stay in one city, you want the world to be large enough that there’s always a possibility of something previously unknown walking into the game area. It might be a good idea for your world to have nebulous or ill-defined boundaries of some sort. This could be a frontier, if your world hasn’t been completely explored. It could be other planets, if you’re putting together a science fiction game (SF games with space travel almost always have nebulous and ill-defined boundaries, by definition). It could be other dimensions or planes of reality (Palladium’s “Rifts”). Or you could just have a really huge planet on which information doesn’t travel all that well (most fantasy settings), leaving you plenty of opportunities to drop new and interesting things into the game from almost any direction.
The Nexus Point Approach
Still other games solve the problem by creating plot devices that draw the unusual and the plot-ful to a specific point within the game-world. This approach uses a nexus of power to account for a high plot density, whether that power is political, mystical, or anything else you can imagine.
Nexus Point as Mundane City
This point could be something as mundane as an empire’s fabled capital city, where absolutely anything can be found. People of all sorts have reason to journey there and bring their plots with them. People who want to accomplish political motives will probably need to go there. People who want to be involved in the power plays of the empire will need to go there. Diplomats and spies will want to go there. Enemy armies will try to reach the city. Merchants, artisans and suppliers will all want to sell their wares there. Parents will want to send their children to school there. When the aliens arrive and say, “take me to your leader,” that’s where they’ll be sent. In short, it’s reasonable for everything weird to be found in this one city because it all has reason to go there. This is much of the premise behind the TV series “Babylon 5.”
Nexus Point as Mystical Source of Power
The nexus point could instead be a source of mystical power. This should attract all sorts of supernatural creatures to it, particularly any that can sense disturbances of power (see “the homing beacon approach,” below). Some of them will want to use the power for things; some creatures might simply feel more comfortable in such a location. The simple presence of all of these creatures, many of whom will presumably want to do nasty things (and others, of course, who will need the PCs’ help) should be enough to drag the PCs into all sorts of plots. A TV example of this would be the hellmouth in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Sunnydale. More than one big bad villain has journeyed to Sunnydale to try to take advantage of the hellmouth’s properties.
Nexus Point as Employment Agency
A small and very mundane example of this approach that you might not have classified as such is the tavern in every fantasy city. You know the one–it’s the place your PCs always go when they’re looking for work. It’s the one where your NPCs always go when they want to hire the party!
The Homing Beacon Approach
Homing Beacon as Item
The homing beacon approach dictates that the PCs have possession of something that specifically directs them to the interesting things in life. This could be an item, whether magical or technological. It could be an amulet that glows near strange things. It could be a device that registers disturbances in the time flow (FASA’s “Doctor Who” RPG) or even simply picks up distress calls (a radio in a modern or science fiction game).
Homing Beacon as Ability
The “homing beacon” could instead be an ability, whether natural or mystical. In “Star Wars” this would be the ability of a Jedi to detect disturbances in the Force. In “In Nomine,” both angels and demons can tell when Essence (which powers certain abilities) has been spent nearby.
Homing Beacon as Employer
Another alternative is to have an employer or boss of some sort who points the PCs at problems that need to be solved. These are the cases that are handed out in any investigatorial game, TV show, or movie (“The X-Files,” “Men in Black,” etc.). In “Doctor Who,”, it’s the directives of the Celestial Intervention Agency.
All of these approaches are valid. All of them can be used at different levels of intensity. They can also be combined in various ways, or even provided as optional techniques depending on exactly what sort of game the GM and players want. Look to TV shows, which need to keep up a high plot level for a prolonged period of time (in much the same way that an RPG does) for inspiration. They often blend these techniques to great effect. “Witchblade” is really a combination of “plot attraction as item,” “plot attraction as unique status,” “homing beacon as item,” and “plot attraction as destiny.” “Buffy” is a combination of “mystical nexus point,” “plot attraction as destiny,” “gazillion plot hooks/nebulous boundaries” (in the form of multiple dimensions), and “plot attraction as unique status.” It helps if you take the time to work at least one method into the fabric of the game, to justify it in terms of plot and world background rather than tacking it on as a bald plot device. Some games have turned such ideas into wild and amazing world backgrounds!