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The Setting Less Traveled

Written by Nicholas - Published on December 5, 2008

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

There are a few settings with which all fantasy RPG players are familiar.  We’ve all played games set in a land that looks a lot like Europe in the Middle Ages with a dash of magic for flavor. But when is the last time you played a game set in the Maya civilization just as the Spanish arrive into the New World? Is there some reason you can’t have adventures in the grasslands of Africa before European expansion?

There’s only one drawback to utilizing a new setting to surprise your players. If they don’t know about it the odds are good you don’t know much about it. So you’re going to have to do some research, but what should you be digging for?

Inspiration: Every culture has its own set of tales, each populated by their own heroes, magic, monsters and perhaps most importantly, values. If both players and DM embrace these things in your game, you can truly immerse yourself in the simulation. An ideal hero in a feudal Japanese legend is selfless, he acts for the good of the group and will obey the word of his lord above all else. His opponents will often be other honorable warriors or evil spirits which rely on deception. Quite to the contrary, the ideal ancient Greek hero is larger than life, usually with some divine support or ancestry, and when he goes to battle it is with mythical beasts and other supernatural figures. Understanding the ideals the culture chooses to raise to legendary status can be your guide for making your own stories in their style.

Props: One of the benefits to using historical societies and places is that they leave a lot of stuff behind. Instead of having to make a map of your campaign world, you can easily find ancient map images depicting how the period you are playing in viewed their world. You can also jump start your players’ imagination by including cultural artwork and costume pieces in your game. The visual stimulus of passing them an Egyptian scarab necklace or the DM carrying a walking stick with African carvings can be very effective at shaking loose the Euro-centric mindset.

Hazards: Just as each culture has its own values and customs, they all have pitfalls. Some of them are social, in certain lands and times a breach of etiquette or violation of a taboo can be deadly. Other hazards take the form of the environment itself. Scarcity, disease and harsh climate can all prove detrimental to the characters. New cultures can also have monsters and other creatures your players don’t know, bringing with them the excitement of never knowing what to expect or how to react. That’s much more exciting than slaying the same old dragon and Expy will thank you!

What roads less traveled have your characters walked? Was it worth the trip? Stay tuned here in the coming months as I pitch some new locations for you to frolic in, plus give you a taste of the inspiration, props and hazards you can find in each. First up, the sands of Arabia.

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



8 Responses to “The Setting Less Traveled”
  1. Wayne says:

    My biggest problem with unusual settings – particularly those not based on a commonly known license – is the fact that players don’t know it and it takes a lot of effort to fill them in.
    With D&D it’s pretty simple. A vague mish-mash of Tolkien and medieval Europe familiar to anyone who’s read fairytales when they were a kid. Very little knowledge or experience is needed for players to jump in. Wizards, Thieves, Clerics, Fighters etc are all archetypes that that even the man in the street can grasp without much explanation.
    Equally, if I wanted to run a game of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, the players need only watch the movies to get up to speed. Even with settings like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness, the players start in our world and slowly uncover the new one, so very little setting introduction is needed.
    With a completely new setting – if I wanted to run a game of Fading Suns or Jovian Chronicles, say – then my players need to know the setting in order to know all their options for character builds and background choices. That usually means reading half a book – oten over a hundred or so pages of history and politics and racial and career profiles before they can even look at their character sheet. I know some players might be allright with that. I think many others would find it a chore.

  2. Wyatt says:

    I tried to go half/half with my Spirits of Eden campaign setting…and I have to agree with Wayne, even with just half inspiration from other things over the bulk of Europeish D&D, it is still difficult to get players into character, or to make them comfortable with their options (even if those options are exactly the same as in the core D&D 4e…) The notion of familiarity is hard to beat.

  3. paddy says:

    Whats worse is if your players know more about the setting than you do and start correcting your descriptions mid game!

  4. Erin says:

    I’m a mythology buff, so some time ago I decided to embark on a world-building project that would incorporate all of these ideas. The world consists of three continents and ten countries, each country representing the culture behind one set of mythologies: Norse, Mesoamerican, Celtic, Russian, Middle Eastern, Anglo-Saxon (i.e., Arthurian), Native American, Japanese, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman. It’s great, because each campaign can occur in a different part of the world and thus have a different flavor — parties are interesting because they often contain members from all over — and I can rely on existing information as much as make up my own cultural backgrounds.

  5. Steve-o says:

    I use mostly the European flavor that is common to most games. But in the past I have used Native American, Norse, Roman, Greek, and Celtic influences in creating a campaign world. I still usually work those cultures into any campaign anyway no matter which one I choose as the main influence upon the world.

    I don’t know enough about other mythologies and histories to try them out, though I am thinking of developing an Egyptian and possible African area to explore in the campaign I am running now.

  6. Bryce says:

    I take the lazy DMs path and base all my settings on great scifi movies. My players are currently exploring Los Angeles in Blade Runner, complete with enchanted gnome contraptions that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. The overall setting is that of The Chronicles of Riddick. I just watch the movie once, then replay it over and over as I type away. The great thing about movies is that they also provide factions and characters. I can’t use any screenshots or the layers will instantly lose the sense of exploration, but good scifi movies always spawn fan art.

    Real world settings are great, but I need movies to get my creative juices flowing.

  7. The Gouge says:

    I was recently inspired by an art history class that I was taking that had just wrapped up a unit on Mayan artwork, so I used it as a setting. The players were a little freaked out by the unfamiliar aspect of jungles and all the dangerous stuff that lives in them… Like disease and lots of poisonous beasties. It was pretty fun, we are wrapping that up and I’ working on one set in a culture similar to ancient Greece or Rome. That is going to be fun. I’ll get to really throw in alot of interaction with Deities, which I don’t use that much.

  8. The Swordhand says:

    I like to use The traditional middle-ages european as the enemy in campaigns. I stick to stuff like the new world or the crusades. That gives the players something new for them an the way the players then understand their enemies is really cool. Crusades is my very favorite setting of all I would think.

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