View Full Version : How much detail do setting books need to run actual campaigns?

2018-10-27, 12:41 PM
Earlier this week I bought the Cinderheim setting. It's 40 pages of content, in large font, on small pages. In something like a D&D book all that text would easily fit on well under 10 pages. And my first reaction was that I felt ripped off, even though it's already one of the lowest price things you can find.
But after a while it really warmed on me because I couldn't really point out any pieces of information that felt missing.

Now admitedly it is a very small setting: One desert, seven settlements, seven warlords, seven sleeping demons. Some RPGs could easily make a 300 page supplement covering just these things.
Here is the description of one settlement and its warlord (https://talesofthegrotesqueanddungeonesque.blogspot.com/2018/07/mama-lesedi-gheda-cult-leader-of.html).
And I have to say it feels pretty complete to me. If it would be a hundred times longer, would it give GM's any more to work with in an actual campaign?

I tried to write up two of the cultures for my own setting in a similarly condensed form and the outcome was this.
Appearance: Medium height and build. Tanned skin and dark brown to black hair.
Clothing: Linen, wool, and leather died in shades of brown, green, and red. Tunics, trousers, and skirts with simple, practical cuts.
Society: Communities are governed by councils of elders from the all the villages. Farming consists of growing barley and cave mushrooms and keeping goats and tauns, with additional food comming from fishing and hunting and harvesting cave honey from giant bees.
Settlements: Villages consists of large wooden farmhouses often constructed partially or fully on posts over water, protected by simple wooden pallisades. Usually located on river banks or lake shores, on small islands, or on top of natural cliffs.
Religion: Worship of the spirits of the lakes and rivers outside the villages, rites performed by priests of the Keepers.

Appearance: Tall and slender build, pale white skin and light gray to blond hair.
Clothing: Wool tunics, trousers, skirts, and cloaks died blue, gray, or reddish brown. Square topped woolen caps, long scarves, and fur anoraks for winter.
Society: Villages are governed by an elected headsman, castles by a noble family. Main crops are barley and potatoes with main food sources being fishing and hunting. Dried salted fish is produced in huge numbers for winter storage and being sold to visiting sailors. They highly value manners and politeness but don't usually seek talk with strangers.
Settlements: Villages consists of log houses next to rivers and lakes. Nobles live in ancient but well maintained castles of white stone of unknown origin.
Religion: Worship of the spirits of the wind, mountains, and lakes, rites performed by family heads or village headsmen. Occassional small informal shrines of the Moon Cult.
It feels terribly short, but I don't actually have anything more to say about them, and can't even think of what else I or any other GM could use in the game when creating settlements and NPCs.

What are your thoughts on such an ultra condensed presentation for settings? As a GM, I actually really like it because I can read all there is to know very quickly, and I can look up everything in a moment when I have to make up content in the middle of an ongoing game.

Mark Hall
2018-10-27, 01:17 PM
It's axiomatic, but the less there is, the more work there is for the DM to do... but that's not entirely true. The less there is, the more work of a certain type there is for the DM to do. If you have a comprehensive setting (say, the Forgotten Realms), you've got a lot of reading to do, and deciding WHAT you want to use. Is the Cult of the Dragon active here? The Zhentarim? Do you know the difference between Zhentarim and Zhentilar? How much of the different novels are you working with? What year are you choosing, and how does that impact the setting?

If you have a brief setting, the DM has to make up a lot of stuff, but there's less memorization and discrimination... I have to know what's in these few pages, and everything else is up to me.

Darth Ultron
2018-10-27, 02:39 PM
Well, by it's nature a campaign book ''has'' to include a lot of stuff. So that is limited amounts of pages per chapter. So when it comes to details about a place, you will only get a small block of text.

But then it is only the campaign book.

And, sure, by the dishonest marketing perspective they will put the lie of ''everything you need to run our super awesome game, right here in one book" on the cover. But it's simply not true.

A campaign supplement book, or even an adventure module, is the place for lots and lots and lots of detail.

2018-10-27, 02:57 PM
I use published settings to help set the baseline expectations for a game.

In my experience, the level of detail matters less than the type of expectation being reinforced.

The Eberron Campaign Setting was a good example of a fairly detailed book which provided useful details -- stuff like "these two guys are gunning for Merrick(sp?) de Cannith" -- stuff which would be helpful for me as a DM when my players do the sudden yet inevitable and trash the place, or when they unexpectedly turn a planned assassination encounter into social combat.

On the other hand, Eberron contains too much information to be useful in isolation. I can't communicate expectations unambiguously just by saying "Eberron game". I need to pare the setting down and specify:
- "Eberron game, Sharn gumshoe noire"; or
- "Eberron game, political intrigue around Thronehold"; or
- "Eberron game, basically Raiders of the Lost Arc type with dinosaurs, and the Nazis are replaced by Daelkyr"; or
- "Eberron game, rediscovering the lost lore of the Giants as sponsored by the Kalashtar who need a defense against a foe the Giants defeated, basically a sword-and-sandal game except the corrupt civilization nearby is Stormreach so you've got Renaissance tech in your Conan, and some dragon-slaying because your goal means the Dragons are not your friends".

The communication efficiency enabled by having a published setting obviously varies with the type of game you want to run, and also varies with the other cultural cues & short-hand you can use (like "Raiders of the Lost Arc" and "Conan" in my list above).

A svelte setting book can be good for communicating a tight theme, which won't serve every game but could serve its target genre admirably.

2018-10-27, 05:54 PM
I actually think even the Forgotten Realms campaign book isn't comprehensive enough. Telling me that the population of Athkatla is 302,451 (or whatever it is) doesn't tell me what an urban environment will look like for the purposes of a battlefield. Telling me that a particular realm is ruled by a council of nobles doesn't tell me how the political system actually works. Who inherits a title if and when the PCs kill a noble? What voting laws does the council work on, and how often do they meet as a council? What sort of administration do they have at lower levels? If you tell me that court politics is a deadly game of intricate etiquette, you have to give me examples of what that etiquette is, and how it can become deadly. What is rude in my culture might be expected in another.

2018-10-27, 06:19 PM
This depends on what your setting is intended to do, and also, particularly, on the level of verisimilitude it is intended to have.

Ultimately all your setting book needs to present in a functional backdrop to plan adventures within. If the verisimilitude demands are not high and you're running on the rule of cool, then the places in your setting just have to be cool, they don't actually have to make sense. D&D drew inspiration heavily from this formula: go someplace weird and cool, find evil there and kill it, take all the valuable stuff and haul it home. Both Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser went to weird places and did interesting things. Most of those places did not actually make much sense from a worldbuilding perspective, often being completely unsustainable as societies, but the audience was generally not inclined to care. Characters who are freelancing around the map and not sticking around enough to deal with long-term impacts or taking part in grand multi-part conflicts that require alliances and complex motives don't really need more than adventure skeletons.

It is even possible to design a setting that is deliberately nonsensical, like Planescape, and then you can just build discrete locations as adventure seeds and go crazy.

On the other hand, if you want a world that holds together when put under any significant level of storytelling stress, then you need a lot more detail, because you're designing a functional equilibrium system under whatever fantasy rules you're using.

2018-10-28, 03:32 AM
Hm. There's no right or wrong answer to this, at least unless talking about what exactly you're using the setting for.

For example, when playing a classic hex crawl, then the setting is the game itself and each hex should be mapped, numbered, include a description and come loaded with content. It takes a look at the 2005 Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set to see where even using bare-bones description can lead to.

When it comes to your regular adventure game, I actually agree with DU on this. In this case, the setting must only provide the backdrop and context, the information that's needed to play the game is located elsewhere, mostly in the module or dungeon description. Letīs take a look at Golarion: Without the overabundant and large artwork, you could basically reduce the ISWG from 320p. down to about 100p., as the core formula seems to be: 1p per race/ethnicity, 3p. per nation, 2p. per faction, 1p. for two gods and so on. Itīs a good format, because it can be expanded when needed. For example, when playing an AP, you'll get detailed maps and descriptions about all of the locations that will in the course of the AP.

Now the hardest thing to answer is an in-depth simulation. What is needed depends on the actual topic to such a degree, that the game would not be possible without including that aspect and other details become superfluous. For example, L5R tends to be a very people-centric game, so much so, that you don't need a map of a place, but rather an relationship map of the people living in that place. So, basically, I don't need to know how a specific court is laid out because physical exploration is not a thing here and the land of Rokugan is more or less known for a long time (no, not even Ninja have to go into a place blind and without a map), but I need to know every last detail about any person that is active in this court and a full write-up of their connections. Naishou Province is just a great example: Clocks in at around 96p. with 30 of them detailing a small campaign.

I think, one of the problems with RPG settings comes from trying to support any type of game that people will possibly want to play. The result is simply a lot of bloat of stuff and tidbits that might be interesting to read and nerd about, but which will not come up on the actual table. Forgotten Realms is just one good example for this, especially when you're more into the adventure game aspects: Too much to read and memorize, way too little gain, because complicated =/= complex.

2018-10-28, 04:35 AM
That's just the example I was thinking about. Forgotten Realms, and to a lesser extend Eberron, want to be too many things at once. The region of the North has much more content by itself than all the material for Dark Sun combined. And in theory it's only a twentieth or thirtieth of the continent, and one of the most remote and least populated.
They lack a clear focus and because of that you might potentially need information on anything to run your own campaign. The result is a bloat of material that is difficult to get a clear comprehensive picture for and that is really clunky to use in play. I am not surprised that during the 2000s, after the BioWare license and Drizzt made it popular, focus shifted almost entirely to the Sword Coast and away from everything else. And even just that fraction of the whole setting is still massive. And it still doesn't have a tight focus.

2018-10-28, 07:59 AM
None. I mean it might be hard to sell that particular setting book but I don't think there is a minimum. I play a system that does have a built in setting, more dramatic description aside everything we know about the setting amounts to A) there are monsters, B) they exist in a particular area and C) there is not much we can do about it. Now that is some information about the setting so maybe it is a bit more than none, but I wouldn't exactly call that detail.

OK, if we include that as detail, what do you need? You need something about the general conventions of the setting, say modern, fantasy (semi-historical and action are different) or steam-punk. Enough that you can get your way through the day-to-day life. Then you need to know enough to create a campaign premise in that setting. And I think that is it.

On the other hand, I think some of the overly developed settings are more grab-bags than actual settings. First off of just raw content, but also of more manageable settings. Sort of like how Spelljammer and PlaneScape are meta-settings, Forgotten Realms is actually a collection of smaller settings that exist under the same rules so you can use them together. Using stuff from more than 2 or 3 of them would probably get pretty overwhelming.

2018-10-28, 08:17 AM
It depends on if you go for breadth or depth.

For example, the setting I'm currently designing is planned to go on roughly 100 pages so far. I could use this to give high level information on every country that happens to be on the continent, but instead I'm really drilling down on a small area, detailing a border county of the main empire and the 'wildlands' next to it. 50 pages for each, detailing rough geography, customs and practices, religion and philosophy, and some of the important sites and people, with the rest of the world being very loose (for when I decide to detail them later). For some people this is too much information, they'd much rather have a lot of names and ideas they can attach specifics to. Others want even more details, wanting to know all the noble houses in the region, the various guild masters, and so on.

To me the most vital parts are name structure, cultural practices, religious beliefs, geography, organisations, and history, in roughly that order. I like lots of detail, I like to know if any religions have suffered schisms, what major holidays are celebrated, what ones aren't, what the imports and exports are, the political system, crime rates, if there's a local wizard's school, and so on.

2018-10-28, 08:22 AM
Today I read something that made the claim that a setting book should primarily provide interesting situations the players can run into.

And it does sound quite compelling. Making settlements, courts, and dungeons is pretty easy. But making it an exciting prospect for the players to get involved there is the really challenging part. A handful of NPCs with interesting motivations and conflicting goals only need very basic descriptions of their personalities to be worth gold. It's difficult because new GMs have it more difficult to have a good feel for the style of the setting and what kind of events the writers meant to set up when they designed the world.

2018-10-28, 12:03 PM
I can run a campaign off a paragraph of setting information - that's not to say that I'd ever purchase a setting book that's a paragraph long*, merely that it's enough for a campaign. My own notes lean more towards the 10 page range if I'm making something setting intensive, for setting-as-backdrop it usually works out more to 1 page. Part of this is that there's a lot more that I have memorized than I have written down in the latter case, which tends towards a map, names, and short mnemonics for the rest of the information. Extend that out, and I suspect you end up at 10 pages or so again.

That seems like enough information, in general, to run a campaign given my level of comfort with improvisation and the amount of structure I like. It's personal preference, and for someone like Voxrationis with a whole list of questions they want the setting to answer that I'd rather answer myself with the setting book giving me that breathing room it's clearly inadequate, even if it's significantly more efficiently written than larger setting books tend to be.

*Not that I've ever purchased a setting book at all, but there are books I bought for the mechanics that I like the settings in enough to consider running games in them, and to have blatantly stolen from.

2018-10-28, 12:35 PM
This is a question I wrestle with as I build my own setting. In practice, I come down on the other side of the question from @Knaight.

My setting currently has ~120 articles (not counting ones I've lost or campaign-specific notes), ranging from 1-2 paragraphs to 3-4 pages. A large part of this is that I run multiple campaigns both concurrently and in serial, all set in the same world (really alternate timelines that merge on completion like version control branches) so I need a broad view of what's going on in a large area. More importantly is that I never know what's going to be relevant to a particular campaign ahead of time because I don't plot things out. I present a starting "hook" with the state at T=0 and then let it evolve as the players poke things (or don't poke things). This usually ends up very different than my imagined end point, so...

2018-10-28, 12:59 PM
Since worldbuilding is one of the primary draws for me as a DM, I actually want a lot less of the macro stuff--themes, global politics, planar architecture etc. and much more small-bore stuff that helps me populate the world and improvise. For that reason the big settings like Forgotten Realms and Star Wars end up being more useful because there's a lot of stuff to mine and repurpose.

2018-10-30, 08:52 PM
If I was running the two example cultures on the fly, I would also find handy:

1. Example leader (one line of useful info - name/title, class/level if any, quirk, maybe theme/objective)
2. Tech level
3. Possibly an allies/enemies line?