Worlds of Design: RPGs in Just Six Words
  • Worlds of Design: RPGs in Just Six Words


    How much detail do you need to know to run a particular setting in FRPG? Some settings have about the detail level of comic books, some are more detailed such as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels or Lord of the Rings (LOTR), some have settings as detailed as the Game of Thrones show. Can you explain your RPG setting in just six words?


    Many D&D settings are detailed enough for a large book, tens of thousands of words long. The Game of Thrones books (Song of Fire and Ice) will top two million words. LOTR has spawned three movies over 12 hours altogether (extended versions). Yet other settings are relatively sparse.

    On the other hand, Jeffro Johnson (author of the "Appendix N" book about D&D's sources), says that you only need to know six things about your setting to run an adventure. He tends to rely much more on GM invention and much less on written material than most.

    Jeffro never put any categories, it was just six things. I'd think of categories:

    • Transportation and communication would be one.
    • Lethality (how many die/get killed prematurely in the world) might be another.
    • Rarity of magic; how powerful is magic; stage of magic (see "Four Stages of Magic"); is it people or magic items that are powerful?
    • What forms of government exist (empires, monarchies, oligarchies, etc.).

    This brings to mind another "minimalist" route. Ernest Hemingway once answered a challenge to write a six word story thus: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn". Since then, others have written such minimalist stories. (Why six rather than, say, seven? No idea.)

    I've asked readers of my Gamastura (video site) blog to offer six word statements for various topics, with interesting results. Limiting yourself to a few words can help creativity. Here's the challenge:

    Can you explain your RPG setting in just six words?

    I've tried a few examples for existing settings below (admittedly, some of the most detailed settings around). Anytime you try to describe something complex in six words, it can only be a hint, but might be enough to interest players. Another way to approach minimalism is the "elevator pitch," well known in video game design, about as many words as you say during an elevator trip. Two or three sentences, say 25 words?

    Original D&D - Greyhawk

    • Medieval fantasy, cooperation, magic is dominant
    • Medieval monsters, tactical combat, magic everywhere

    Game of Thrones

    • Betrayal, lust, greed, swords; magic rare
    • Winter is coming, war and rebellion
    • Devastation, fire-breathing dragons, Ice Walkers cometh

    Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom

    • Forever young, constantly at war, Mars
    • Desiccated Mars, pseudo-science, swords, guns, flyers
    • Aerial battle fleets, individual heroism, Mars

    Middle-Earth

    • One Ring, evil reawakened, orcs, besieged
    • Orcs dominant, magic rare, medieval technology
    • World in decline, monsters reawakened, Doom (Double-entendre there.)

    Spelljammer

    • Fantasy space-travel; Neogi, Beholder, Illithid ships!
    • Fast fantasy spaceships, low gunpowder technology

    Arabian Nights

    • Arabian nights, desert survival, desert "spirits"
    • Desert survival, princesses, thieves, "genies," spirits

    I suppose you could call this un-rhymed free-form poetry. Some of the above describe a story more than the setting. Perhaps that's easier. Can you do better describing these settings? Or how about describing your own campaign? If six words is just too few, try the "elevator pitch" (25 word) description.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
    Comments 34 Comments
    1. Jraynack's Avatar
      Jraynack -
      Feudal Lords Campaign Setting: “Sieze throne, forge kingdoms, beware inquisitors.”
    1. Olgar Shiverstone's Avatar
      Olgar Shiverstone -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eirikrautha View Post
      We should do it for all of the editions of D&D:

      OD&D- Let's add dragons to the wargame.
      Basic- Elves are classes, not races, dummy!
      AD&D- What the hell does THAC0 mean?
      2e D&D- Everybody gets their own splatbook!
      3e D&D- Everything you do should have stats.
      3.5 D&D- O.K., let's try that again, guys...
      4e D&D- What if D&D was a videogame?
      Pathfinder- If only combat could take forever!
      5e D&D- Live by "Keep it simple, stupid."
      And 6E "Profits falling: time for a reboot."
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Thanks, folks. My wife and I enjoyed many of the amusing attempts.
    1. LordEntrails's Avatar
      LordEntrails -
      Why would you want to? Using only six words is no more than painting with just a few labels, labels that are going to have drastically different meaning and connotations to not just those of us in the community that do share many common understandings, but on the fringes or outside such labels are going to prove deceptive at best.

      As for referencing Jeffro Johnson, six categories is nothing like 6 words.
    1. Arvok's Avatar
      Arvok -
      Role-playing over roll-playing, low-magic, grand heroes

      I know I cheated a bit by hyphenating, but there you have my attempt.
    1. Maxperson's Avatar
      Maxperson -
      Mine can usually be summed up as, The campaign is yours, adventure away.
    1. Elfcrusher's Avatar
      Elfcrusher -
      Quote Originally Posted by Eirikrautha View Post
      We should do it for all of the editions of D&D:

      OD&D- Let's add dragons to the wargame.
      Basic- Elves are classes, not races, dummy!
      AD&D- What the hell does THAC0 mean?
      2e D&D- Everybody gets their own splatbook!
      3e D&D- Everything you do should have stats.
      3.5 D&D- O.K., let's try that again, guys...
      4e D&D- What if D&D was a videogame?
      Pathfinder- If only combat could take forever!
      5e D&D- Live by "Keep it simple, stupid."
      This is brilliant. And funny.

      A lot of the OPs attempts were largely just lists of nouns. This is better.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      On the other hand, Jeffro Johnson (author of the "Appendix N" book about D&D's sources), says that you only need to know six things about your setting to run an adventure. He tends to rely much more on GM invention and much less on written material than most.
      What six essential things you need to know about your setting to run an adventure seems like a more useful prompt than describing your setting in six words.

      Though thinking about some of these setting taglines, I would also be more interested in describing settings using Fate aspects: e.g., High Concept, Trouble, and (axillary) Aspects. In Fate the core character concept in play will be driven by the High Concept and the Trouble.

      So with Eberron you may have...
      High Concept: Pulp Noir and Swashbuckling Action with Magitech
      Trouble: Scars Linger in an Uneasy Post-War "Peace"
      Aspect: Unraveling a Myterious Draconic Prophecy
      Aspect: Dynastic Magical Dragonmarked Houses Control Trade
      Aspect: Everyone has Plans within Plans
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      I suspect Jeffro thinks of it as six things you need to put together an adventure, not six categories or six essential aspects of the setting.

      Yes, six words is a versatile way to think of things, because there are so many ways to use it. I was trying to narrow it down to description.
    1. Aldarc's Avatar
      Aldarc -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      I suspect Jeffro thinks of it as six things you need to put together an adventure, not six categories or six essential aspects of the setting.

      Yes, six words is a versatile way to think of things, because there are so many ways to use it. I was trying to narrow it down to description.
      Of course. My post featured two separate thoughts: 1) preferring a thread that considered six essential things for a campaign, and 2) using Fate-like aspects for conveying the setting's sales pitch rather than six words.
    1. Samloyal23 -
      The campaign I am working on is city-states of refugees from sunken mythic lands in a cold war over control of the last chunk of land left from the ruined continent. I focused on a small piece of territory with diverse, barely related cultures, and non-standard races like Aarakocra, Centaurs, Sidhe, and Bullywugs. Lots of mythological and historical tie-ins, but a tech level set to the early 1600s in Europe.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Cowboys (Minotaurs) and Indians (Sikhs)
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Modos RPG:
      Free, modular, open-source. Anything goes.

      Skyrim campaign:
      Dragons and Nords. FUS RO DAH!

      Quote Originally Posted by LordEntrails View Post
      Why would you want to?
      Because, poetry? Or because Weird Al tried it once:

    1. Tony9876's Avatar
      Tony9876 -
      Those are kind of dry...

      Game of Thrones;

      Be ready to applaud evil people

      Who’s good? It gets pretty complicated...

      Choose your death, zombies or Cersei. dqfanfeedback

      Or a little critical jibe—Maximum gratuitousness, loses focus over time.
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