Next on Master Plan: RPG Setting Design with Robin D. Laws

Future Episode Announcement |

On Tuesday, January 20th, 2015, I’ll chat with tabletop luminary Robin D. Laws about the craft of creating compelling roleplaying game settings for publication. He’s forged numerous RPG settings, including his compelling GUMSHOE games (The Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars), his DramaSystem settings (Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow), and the recently crowdfunded Feng Shui 2.

This will be a live G+ Hangouts on the Air interview, with the audio-only version on the podcast feed later that day.

Time: Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 — 1pm Eastern, 10am Pacific — 1 hour

G+ Hangout Event:

We’ll talk about what a setting designer needs to think about when bringing a setting concept forward into a book for others around the world to enjoy. What are the dos and don’ts of setting design? What common pitfalls are there, and how do we get around them? What tips and tricks does Robin use?

Part of why I want to talk with Robin about this is because with Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow, Robin sheparded a number of writers (including yours truly) into making gameable settings in a short format. I’m excited for this interview, for him to share his insights with you and me.

If you have questions, please comment on this post or use the Q&A feature during the Hangout. I’ll take your questions in the latter third of the interview.

– Ryan



  1. Bill Templeton says:

    What are the essential elements of a publishable RPG setting? What makes a setting memorable and particular?

  2. How do you balance the need to intertwine your characters with the setting with the need to let the players determine who the characters are, and what place they play in the setting?

    The typical way I’ve seen books do intertwining is to just lay out a lot of plot hooks in sidebars and asides, and hope one of them snares a player, and some of the best character arcs I’ve seen in play have begun that way. But a lot of newer games make world-building a group activity done alongside character creation, where the table collectively determines what the focus and scope of the game is going to be. Those games always feel tighter, like the characters are the protagonists in a book about them, and not just one tiny thread floating on a huge sea of a world. Trying to get the best of both approaches is hard; 13th Age’s “half-built world” does a pretty good job, but (intentionally) you’re playing the second-tier people in that game, always looking up to the Icons. I’d appreciate knowing if this is something you struggle with, or if you lean toward one side or the other, or if your various games have various approaches, and why.

  3. At what point do you say “we’ve got enough [items/spells/whatever] that they merit a section of their own instead of being used as sidebars throughout the copy”? Is there a magic ratio for this sort of thing or is it a matter of how you want to articulate the importance of that given aspect or what?

    Looking forward to the podcast!

  4. Ryan Macklin says:

    From Bill Templeton on Twitter:
    “What are the essential elements of a publishable RPG setting? What makes a setting memorable and particular?”

  5. Burgonet says:

    “Do you believe that creating a popular RPG setting comes primarily from a uniqueness of idea application, adherence to popular subcultural norms and archetypes or from the presentation of the idea on the page and in prose?”

    So are ideas, cultural association/genre or presentation the most important in being creative?
    (Genuine question as I’m still musing over this one myself in a writing context).

  6. At what point in a book do you say “there is enough of [type of content] to merit a dedicated section of it”?

    Specifically, I’m talking about items that include crunch (equipment/spells/etc) that would otherwise get sidebars.

  7. Gerald Cameron says:

    What is the strangest setting presentation you’ve seen that worked? Why did it work when it was that far out?

    Bonus question: limit your answer to the genre of D&D fantasy (use your own judgement for what qualifies)

  8. Ryan Macklin says:

    From Jeromy French on Twitter:
    “What are the key topics you have to develop to run a game? What should you not develop?”

  9. Ryan Macklin says:

    Brent Newhall on G+:
    “How do you communicate what’s unique about a setting as quickly as possible?

    How do you design a setting for play?”

  10. Ryan Macklin says:

    Mark Richardson: “What are elements to avoid in setting design? Proven bad apples so to speak.”

  11. Ryan Macklin says:

    John Willson: “How do you balance giving lots of inspiring hooks and creating depth, while avoiding writing a boring encyclopedia?”