Last time, I talked about the bottom up setting creation method, or starting small. This time, I’m going to go the opposite way, the top down method, or starting big.
As you might be aware of if you’ve checked into the campaign settings here on the blog, I tend to start big. I try to stick with broad strokes and build along over time.
The entire reason I’ve done this, after 20+ years of roleplaying, is that I now have a bunch of settings I can easily throw together or adapt on the fly to what my players say they want in Session Zero.
I’ll dig into that a bit.
Last time, I suggested that maybe you wanted a war in Heaven to be a big idea going on in the setting, but maybe not what the characters zone in on at the start of the game (I hope I made that clear…).
That trope is present in the background of my settings Sky Island Saga, Frostpunk, though in both cases distantly in the past, and there’s elements of it in Ginnungagap and the Old Crown. But it’s a pretty well used idea across a lot of different media.
I use cultural melting pots in Cambria, Out West, the Hollow World, the Endless Sea and FATEPunk.
I use horror and frontier elements for Out West, the Hollow World and Ostromarka.
Post-apocalyptic ideas crop up in Cambria, Ostromarka and distantly in the Endless Sea.
I use a lot of different stuff that sort of melts in to other things I write. You will do the same things, trust me.
Does this method work for everyone? No. But it’s worked for me so far.
Now, let’s see if it worked when I throw Roman Republic Spelljammer at people!
The main way to start with the top down method is to imagine the overarching theme of a setting, as broad as possible, and see how you could run adventures there.
Is there anything stopping you telling the tale of a small kingdom in a world that has been torn apart literally by a war between the gods, and now consists of floating islands in a vast void? Probably not, your main focus is the small kingdom.
Is there anything stopping you telling the tale of a band of swashbuckling goblin pirates sailing the high seas and raiding elven vessels? Well, in the Endless Sea, I tried to remove elves from the equation, just to change things up. The goblins could still raid an minotaur vessel though?
Is there anything stopping you telling a tale of terrifying cosmic horror in a Studio Ghibli-style world? No, but please don’t do this, you monster.
The easiest way to switch things up is to take a couple of pieces out of the game, and maybe reinforce others. Like I said above, the Endless Sea didn’t have elves, dwarves, dragonborn, orcs, or halflings. I left tieflings and gnomes and humans in, but wanted to see people use different races since I hadn’t run many games with them – minotaurs, goblins, kobolds, tabaxi, tortles all showed up instead.
It sort of worked. My regular characters were a gnome, a tiefling, a tabaxi, a kobold and a human, with a couple of other gnomes popping in and out.
Did it reinforce that the world was a bit different? I think so. But so did the trip into Russian folklore in the second or third session.
Which is also a good way to easily change things up. Take a read of non-European folklore, and adapt a story to it, or adapt it to a new story.
Maybe the characters run into the Leshy, or a domovoi, or Koschei the Deathless. Maybe they encounter versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The trick is making things familiar, but changing them enough to make them playable.
And, as always, have fun with it.