Tips for Building Homebrew Settings vs. Established Settings in D&D/Roleplaying

In the past, I've written about roleplaying as a service to the player: how roleplaying is, essentially, a mechanism by which a DM or GM allows cool things to happen. The more complex, dynamic, interesting, and unique these things are, the more rewarding -- and the more solid the framework is, the more complex and dynamic it will be.

In recent years, I've noticed a decrease in shared setting games and an increase in homebrew games, as DMs become less interested in exploring a shared setting and more interested in telling their own stories. And this isn't a bad thing, but it comes with some complications that DMs should be aware of first. There are ways to make this work, but they have to be implemented from the very start.

Building a Shared World in Roleplaying

Roleplaying settings are designed to ground both the DM and the players in a world of implicit possibility. In the Forgotten Realms setting, it is possible for a player to know more than their DM; a player could be aware of some barely mentioned diety of "kitchen utensils" that they can call upon during their time of need. Even if the DM didn't consider this would be possible, it would still be a fair solution to any whisk-related disaster.

In a shared setting, there's a large amount of material for the player to draw upon -- knowledge that a player can build over decades of time and bring to a number of different tables. A player can study a shared setting in their off time and use that to build their own character knowledge, in a way that they just cannot do in a homebrew setting.

In a homebrew setting, players need to instead ask questions of their DM. What is the history of this world? What is the history of this town? What minor gods might be there? Not a bad thing, certainly, but what it often leads to -- which is a separate issue entirely -- is DMs preemptively closing off paths rather than exploring them. As players request more information, the DM becomes aware of what the player is trying to do; rather than incorporating it into their world (which could include building a tremendous amount of additional information), they cut the player off at the very beginning.

Look at the amount of work that goes into a book like Starfinder. That is the amount of information that you could expect a player to get through during a mid-length campaign, including the information about the races in the world, the planets, the culture, and the society. Comparatively, most DMs have 20 to 30 pages of notes on their homebrew setting, if that. The idea of straying off the established path becomes terrifying and burdensome, and leads to DMs continuously narrowing their player's possible paths.

And tht's fine as long as the player never realizes it. No one particularly cares if they run into an unscalable mountain in a video game. But everyone cares when they run into an invisible wall.

Confusing a Storyline with a Setting

One of the major reasons homebrew campaigns die is because new DMs confuse a storyline with a setting. A setting is a place in which things happen: people, locations, and history. A storyline is a linear sequence of events. These things must be kept very separate.

Rather than writing a setting many DMs actually have a novella-like structure. They know the big bad is going to do this and that and then this, but all of this relies upon the players doing that. Storylines quickly become muddled because they are centered around protagonists that you cannot control. Sometimes -- I've seen this frequently -- the storyline doesn't even involve the players. Instead, players are dropped into a book in which things are already happening, and they are allowed to witness, but not disrupt it.

setting offers infinite possibilities, as rather than describing events that will happen, you are describing a situation that exists. This situation can have any outcome you can imagine. Though it should be noted that the shorter your campaign, the more likely you are to get away with a storyline; a one-shot can easily follow a story, if you give it tight enough thematic constraints.

Interactive fiction or text adventure games -- like Zork and all those games everyone is way too young to remember -- had a way of dealing with this. They had rooms and in those rooms there were objects and people. They encoded ways that objects interacted with each other and verbs you could use to interact with things. This created an illusion -- sometimes a poor illusion, but still an illusion -- of player freedom, as players could still do things in virtually any sequence, but they still had those set things they needed to do to progress.

Creating the Illusion of Content

Unless you want to spend your time writing out the next Forgotten Realms, creating a homebrew setting means that you need to create the illusion that there is more content than there truly is. Often that means initially restricting your players to a smaller area of a larger world, such as a single small village on a hillside. If your players are peasants, they will be introduced to a world slowly; they may not know everything about the gods and arcana of the world, of the magic or of the political situation. In doing this, you create a vast, unknown world that still exists -- it's just beyond them.

This is, coincidentally, why many video games start out this way. It isn't just because they want to start you out weak and feeble, it's also because they need time to introduce you to a world. As a video game series progresses, they are able to build upon the knowledge of former "campaigns," progressively starting you out in contextually denser areas. 

You only know sheep -- but your knowledge of sheep will be great.

One of the most quickly destroyed homebrew campaigns I've ever been in immediately plunked the players into the largest city of the setting, in the middle of a feud between two separate nations. It immediately fell apart because there was too much the players had to learn about the political situation, and there were too many loose ends. 

We needed to understand the economic situation of cities that really had no actual economy in order to make any sort of sense of things; we needed to understand a political structure that didn't actually exist, and we had to understand the motivations of a list of 16 gods that we had no prior knowledge of. From the DM's side, he understood the story he wanted to tell -- but there just wasn't enough information for the players to draw the appropriate conclusions. 

Creating a sandbox game in which players can do everything and go anywhere -- a mercenary company in your own homebrew space setting -- is almost a surefire way to create a sequence of inconsistencies that eventually bog down the storytelling. As you tell more stories in your world, you can expand it, until you're confident and sure of your footing.

The Pact

What many DMs don't realize is that there is a pact between player and DM. Players are going to attempt to do cool things, and it's up to the DM to figure out whether they fail or succeed in a fair and interesting way. When players have no firm understanding of the setting, it's difficult for them to figure out how to manipulate the environment or the plot to their benefit. All they can do is dance like puppets to the story that the DM is interested in telling. And this isn't always immediatey obvious to the DM, because the DM knows what is going on.

I know one DM who enjoys doing cool things with his fights -- but though they're very cool, they're often unfair. Though a fight may occur in D&D 5e, they don't use any of the mechanics of a 5e fight; they don't roll to hit, they don't use AC, they don't use established damage types.

From his perspective, he's creating something new and interesting that he wants us to figure out and experience. From our perspective, it's often an exercise in frustration, because nothing we've done to prepare for this helps, and there's no real way for us to understand what the monster is going to do before we die. And again, this is just a mismatch in expectations: the DM wants to tell their cool story while the players want agency to be able to do their own cool things.

And this goes back to the unnecessarily antagonistic relationship that many DMs foster with their players. It's a culture that we need to break out of if we want to bring more people into the community and if we want to really grow as a mature hobby. This is no longer a case of well, I'm going to take my setting and go home with it! Unless you're running some kind of Elemental Doom gauntlet, there's no particular reason to torture the players, and there needs to be a firm understanding of what both DMs and players need in order to write a good story together.