Creating Compelling Content
Ideas for developing original settings and game concepts
Floating chunks of stone drift in the sky over the heads of horned men, godless shepherds and keepers of the Valley of Thirst, it’s yellow, sallowed grass tall to their knees and yearning to be quenched in rains that never come.
Setting design can be challenging. Coming up with ideas for locations, setting up epic storylines that are ripe with opportunities for adventure...it can be a daunting task to take on. I’m not going to solve that problem for you in this blog entry, but I’m going to talk about my approach and introduce some of my techniques, and hopefully you gain something from what I have to offer here.
Smash two things together
This is advice I borrowed from Stephen King. In his book On Writing, King discusses one of the methods he uses to come up with a new story: he takes two elements and mashes them together to create something new.
Here’s a personal example, and let’s make it interesting. Let’s write up two random lists, roll on them, and see what we get and what we come up with when we combine them.
LIST ONE: MONSTERS
LIST TWO: SUBSTANCE
My results: Elemental  and Children’s Dreams 
Okay, how about this:
A massive storm has settled over the lands of Areyna, thick and roiling clouds of purple and crimson filling the sky, choking out sunlight. Flashes of black lightning strike between the clouds and the earth, leaving a smell like sulfur filling the air.
Areyna is cursed. Everywhere, from the shores of Usuria in the east to the Valley of Thirst to the west, children are succumbing to a strange illness, slipping into comas from which they cannot be stirred. Now, strange beasts stalk the landscape -- half formed monsters and slithering oozes, and gelatinous reptilian things that fly, and other oddities.
The worst of them are massive entities formed of shimmering energy, through which one can see glimpses of bizarre places, twisted faces, and other obscure details: these are Elementals, forged from the dreams of the comatose children.
And they must be stopped. Destroying an elemental frees a group of children bound to it, waking them from the prison of their sleep. But the elementals are everywhere. The player characters have answered a calling to rescue Areyna and free it from its curse...and to save the children.
Overall, the key is, as with anything, practice. My techniques for creating settings aren’t original or even revolutionary, it’s just taking chances with bits of things that pop into my head, inspired by what I read, what I watch on TV, video games and tabletop RPGs, and art and music I find online. Inspiration can come from anywhere. One setting concept I had was inspired by someone talking about their character background in a live stream for an actual play session of someone’s game. Just something they mentioned as their character’s motivation for entering a dungeon was enough to spark an idea for me to create an entire game setting.
Here’s a sample setting, which I just call Death Planet X. You might call it something else.
What’s the origin of the world? Is the planet a Thu-in prison world? One of the rare, stellar jewels of the Collector? Could this be the long lost homeworld of the ancient Usurpers?
Regardless of how this planet came to be, one thing is certain: it's a death trap.
Outwardly, the planet's surface is a scarred, inhospitable landscape, marred by layers of discordant technology from an endless list of long dead civilizations. There are mercury lakes surrounding spires of gargantuan bone, which border metallic jungles, beyond which lie vast stretches of machine dust deserts, where obsidian-hued obelisks rise up and gaze across the horizon, watching the edges of the world shift and flow like fabric.
Giant, translucent glass spheres float through the air, their purpose unknown.
Wild storms of dust and electricity form and dissipate with no warning.
Crystalline warriors stalk the land, patrolling the surface and destroying anything they encounter.
This is a harsh world.
So let’s see how it came to be:
The Usurpers called this planet 'home', but they were not the first inhabitants.
This isn't a planet; it's a dormant Renjin battle platform. The "surface" has built up from meteor collisions and other debris over a million years, hiding the awful weapon.
It's really planet Earth, sent back from the future to avoid destruction when Sol expands.
The Thu-in only discovered the planet within the last century, and banished their worst criminals here, all of whom have undoubtedly perished.
This was once a part of the Collector's galactic museum, but it was stolen and moved to its current location. The Collector continues to look for it...
The entire planet is an illusion, projected by a cabal of mindlinked Thought Wizards from inside one of their prism ships positioned at the 'core'.
The planet is a nexus point for all of creation; it is the only known place in the universe where all realities, dimensions, timelines, universes, etc. converge.
The planet is the legendary 'Eden', the failed genesis seed world of the Progenitors before their successful terraforming of Earth.
It's a rogue dimensional world from an alternate universe. Somewhere, there's an evil empire of goatee-shaved pirates looking for their homeworld...
It's the legendary Ixian Manifestor, whose purpose is itself a mystery. One rumor about the manifestor is that it creates a new universe, ripping apart the current one.
The planet is a sentient being that feeds on the sense of discovery experienced by new explorers.
The planet is actually the exit point of a dimensional portal, through which a hyper-advanced society disposes all of its technological and biological waste.