Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Benefits of a Skeleton Setting

The Benefits of a Skeleton Setting

A lot of folks use established worlds and campaign settings.  At their best, they serve as a toolbox of interesting locations and characters with minimal prep work.  I have many fond memories of gaming in Freedom City, Oerth, and the Sixth World, but in recent months I've taken to creating my own worlds.

I'm sure that there's an already established term for this, but my method of homebrew is to leave as much of the setting unexplored if possible, filling out the immediate factors when they become relevant and building off of my player's ideas.  I still have a lot of detail when it comes to preparing adventure material, but my setting comes to life as I go along and come up with new ideas instead of filling things out ahead of time.  Instead of a fully-fledged world, organs and all, a minimalist setting is a skeletal framework; both are structurally sound, but the latter has more room to add on and customize with minimal fuss and challenge of popular conceptions.

One of my current gaming sessions is a Pathfinder setting where the PCs are all students at a magic academy, but who are secretly masked avengers who go out and fight bad guys.  I have a central city as a home location (Brancean) and the backdrop of a wider country (Aleria), but aside from that other lands are referenced via second-hand information and backstory.

When I first created my game, half the players were overall newcomers to Pathfinder in general, but they set about making their characters unhindered by the lack of a fully-fledged framework, adding what seemed right at the time without the GM filling them in on things.  One player created a gnome illusionist, Syrasi Tumblebarrow, the latest in a long line of talented magicians.  She was ecstatic to come to Highstone Academy, not just for their stellar reputation, but also to explore the art of necromancy, a taboo subject in Gnomish culture.

Another player chose to play a dwarf, Ritti Dragonslayer, whose people worship the sun deity who is instead known as an entity of fire, justice, and war to those living in the Underdark.  The player also wanted her character to be like the dwarves of Discworld, where gender isn't considered important except for the purposes of reproduction and more or less dress identically and all have beards.

A third player wanted his PC to come from a prominent and amoral noble family, the Von Kleists.

Instead of checking up on setting lore or flipping through sourcebooks for example material to best fit their characters, these factors were decided out of the blue.  Far from being a hindrance, the bare details of setting culture allowed for more freedom for us to create our own shared world.

It did not stop at character creation, either.  I relied upon the in-character talk of the PCs to get further ideas.  While the PCs were searching Brancean's literal undercity for a dark folk priest, Ritti remarked upon the oddity of the concept of training people to become priests.  It was but a minor remark not expanded upon at the time, but it provided potential fodder for future ideas.  Did divine magic come intuitively to dwarves, then?  Where the champions of deities and spirits picked directly by their patrons, with no trials, tests, or ceremonies necessary?  Maybe all dwarves were versed in spiritual matters, making the concept of a religious occupation unnecessary?

The idea of an Undercity below Brancean was also a new idea at the time.  When designing my city I did not care to detail every neighborhood or important person, saving those things for later and building off of earlier notes.  As a person whose free time is consumed by writing future work projects and adventure ideas, I don't always have the leisure of designing settings from the ground up, but I crave the openness of building my own world.

My own designs of a "skeleton setting" were built off of the sandbox nature of OSR games, but combined with the collaborative world-building of 13th Age where the backstories of players also determine the features about the world.  It's worked very well for me, as it combines the best features of many design decisions.