I have this tendency to approach RPGs in a top down fashion. I generally decide on an aesthetic for a setting and then make lists of elements to include that match that setting, consider religion, cultures, ancient history, that sort of thing. Now I’m not talking about developing any of this things to any particular extent. I do not have for example reams of notes on any of this material but probably about enough to fit on the average blog post or sheet of A4 paper.
Then generally what happens is I will run games in this setting that do not really relate to any of the material I originally planned. For example if the woods are full of ruins from an ancient civilisation now overrun with beastmen of sorcerous origin and the players spend six sessions in the woods and over fifty in the city then they aren’t going to get the experience you had originally planned (and so I hang my head in a modicum of shame.)
|Being beastman positive can only help the setting|
I wholeheartedly accept that this is often a function of prep meets play, or no plan survives contact with the enemy... I mean players. However, for example if in my Grim North game there are ancient cultures that are the source of nearly all modern magical learning and I have magic user player characters that do not even know the names of these cultures then I have probably failed them in some way as a GM. Not to any great extent but nonetheless I at least should be doing better. After all, I don’t really expect that the players will be as interested in the nature of the GM’s carefully crafted basis for a game as they are in its gleeful destruction (I jest of course, I do not actually view the players in my games as the enemy, or as anarchic toddlers who only wish to destroy what I have painstakingly built.) However setting information can enrich play for those who are interested. If you want your players to be self motivated sand box protagonists, and this is to be encouraged (Dragonlance be damned,) then they need a flow of information on which to act.
|Just say No: Metaplot and railroad ahoy.|
That flow coming from rumours is good but the discovery of previously unknown setting elements provides hooks that tie the PCs closer to the game and allow them to interact better with what is out there. They need to know what’s on the table. Information dump is a poor way to communicate this. Show, don’t tell as the old RPG axiom dictates.
Therefore I should perhaps express my setting through the adventures that the players discover right from the off. Instead of the meta lists of setting elements to incorporate at a later date, these should immediately be turned into things the PCs can encounter. For example I like the idea of dinosaur men in the wilderness so I should write a big dinosaur men encounter. Maybe stick it in a prominent place on the encounter tables. Or have them be the antagonists in a dungeon or mystery or whatever adventure I’m planning for the next session. I should be getting my setting aesthetic front and centre through the challenges the PCs face. I mean I don’t want to beat them over the head with it but to hark back to my previous example, if they want to learn resurrection magic and they don’t know that the majority of necromantic wizardry originates with the ancient death magicians of accursed Xidia then they’re off to a bad start. However if they’ve bashed up a dungeon of Xidian origin and encounter all sorts of necromantic shenanigans then at least they know where to begin.
This way hopefully I’m better translating the feel I had for the setting to the players through their actual adventuring experiences than by just lecturing them about it in some GM soliloquy that sounds boring to me even before I’ve delivered it. Never mind having to sit through it as a player.
I guess the TL:DR version for me is, setting wise: top down creation, bottom up expression.