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The World

Preparing to GM

Game Objective & System

How to organize thoughts about a game before getting started.​

The World

How the heck do you world?​

Playing to Lose

The art of being a GM when you know the players are going to destroy everything you love.​


So, we're meeting at... my place?​​

Old World Map
Planning Travels

   In my system, I don't use the term Game Master for a couple of reasons. In my opinion, no one is master if it is truly collaborative. In many ways my players/characters have more control over the game than I do. I consider the person running the game to be the World Runner. It is the job of the world runner to play the character of the world. This is, perhaps, a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. To run the world is to treat the world as a living, changing thing. As you can guess, I'm not a bit fan of modules and things that are static and have predetermined outcomes. There is much more to be had from a game than simply "winning" or "losing." To really enjoy a game, I need to see the characters, and the world, grow and change for better and worse as a result of the game play. Anyway, however you take the role of the GM, your handling of the world is important. When I say "world" I am encompassing many ideas: setting (history, geography, politics, culture, etc), pantheon (when applicable), NPCs (ranging from peasants to kings and arch enemies).


There are three basic approaches:

A - Use an existing world and adapt it to your needs

B - Make up your own world

C - None of the Above

A - Use an existing world and adapt it to your needs



  • You don't have to make up a lot, but can explore settings you are interested in already

  • Your players may have knowledge of the world already, which will cut down on exposition

  • Conflicts and themes are already established, so you just expand on them


  • You have to decide what is and isn't cannon

  • Player knowledge might interfere with the changes you make and meta-gaming can occur

  • There are expectations....

   If I run a game in the Star Wars universe, I have saved myself a shit ton of time. I don't have to create anything more than what I want to. I could run a whole damn campaign on Tatooine if I wanted. Massive organizations already exist. Galactic conflicts already exist. Hell, I have a whole cast of NPCs if I want them! The trouble comes when you realize that your players also have access to the knowledge and information you do. And if players know more than you do about the world you're running in.... It can get complicated. Perhaps you love researching Star Wars stuff and have books and lists and maps and stuff. Then, awesome! But then maybe you want to add a planet, or create a new villain.... Just make sure your players know that this world is yours now, and it's going to be different from the novels they read and movies they've seen.

   Often GM's describe their method as "a parallel universe" or "alternate timeline." For example, when I ran my first campaign I used the Buffy the Vampire Slayer setting, but with the understanding that the second time Buffy died another new slayer was called. I also added my own demons and bad guys and things, so stuff was different, but we did adhere generally to the major plot lines. For example, our game was set in the 90's, and when the Watcher's Council fell in the Buffy timeline, it fell in ours. That sort of thing added to the complexity and interest of the world, especially for the players who knew Buffy.

   Modules are another way to run a game using someone else' world. The author of the module creates the relevant world elements, and you just have to read and respond. In general the module takes care of the world building, though you should expect to go off book from time to time.


B - Make up your own world



  • You have total control

  • Your players will discover the world as the characters do

  • Characters can really impact the world


  • You have total responsibility

  • There are no preexisting books/notes/instructions, so you have to do the worldbuilding and exposition yourself

  • It's a lot of work.


   So... yeah. This is what I have done. Cascadon is my world, and it is stupidly complex. I have binders upon binders of notes, maps, and half finished ideas. I've forgotten more about Cascadon than I care to think about, and my friend Kylene has become my personal wikipedia for my own world because she has a better memory. I have over 500 years of history for 8 of my 9 kingdoms and a whole creation myth for my 21 deities, who are all characters in my mind that react to the actions of players in different ways. Is all this necessary? No. But I REALLY LIKE WORLD BUILDING.

   This approach is not for everyone, but it does offer a lot of advantages. While it is arguably the most work, it means you have control over exactly how much the characters/players know about any given subject. And since it is your own world, you are accountable to no one when it comes to cannon and continuity. I love this method because I get to play the world, rather than jamming plots into an existing world.


C - None of the Above



  • The least amount of prep work necessary

  • No preexisting constraints


  • Continuity is hard to maintain

  • You have to do a lot of improvising


   Maybe the world doesn't matter to your campaign. You can totally run a game in "Generic Fantasy World 6." If you have them go to a town and say, "There are orcs raiding the town every full moon," the players know what that means, and maybe they don't care beyond that. A group that is interested in rolling dice and ganking mobs probably won't be invested in the deep rooted hatred between the orcs and the town, and how the townspeople stole the orc homelands and desecrated their holy sites, blah blah. I see this a lot with GMs who put time and energy into creating elaborate backstories, only to find that their players/characters just want the phat lewts. So if you're running a game that's more focused on rolling dice, maybe you don't need a world at all!

   If you don't have a world plan, sometimes the players will push beyond that you have planned without meaning to. Say someone asks, "Well, can I roll diplomacy to talk to the orc warlord and see if there's a peaceful solution?" At that point you have to make a decision as a GM, either make up some stuff real quick, or just let them roll and tell them they failed to beat the DC. (Too much of that though, and you may need to start building world stuff.)

   In the end, there is no one, perfect solution. What you and your group wants will change as you play. Groups grow and evolve, and you must grow as a GM too! One of the most exciting developments from a workshop LoC ran at Gen Con was a GM deciding to build a world with their gaming group. Together! How cool! Maybe more collaborative world building will result in a more collaborative game? Maybe the GM will get to explore things they wouldn't have thought up on their own? Who knows! The moral of my story about choosing a world is to make sure it's something you and your players are passionate about.

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