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


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


    • 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. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      I'd differentiate between an elevator pitch - a quick, short sell to hook people into the idea of the setting, and what a DM needs to run that setting with consistency.

      You need both. But they serve different goals. If I had just six words, I wouldn't describe the mundane, but what makes it different. Some of @lewpuls examples are really good at that - evocative and makes you want to play there. (And the ones that aren't are more a limitation of trying to be more inclusive in the description that it waters down the sell, but since he was going for the full description that's not a weakness, just a different goal with six words.)
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      "Kill the monsters, grab the loot"
      Virtually every D&D game ever.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      It is a great exercise, getting your ideas down to just a simple sentence. It really does force you to think about what is important.

      Example: Ashes of Blade & Bone (MW world setting I am working on)

      Magical rivalry endangering world after apocalypse.
    1. Bill Winski's Avatar
      Bill Winski -
      Conan and Cthulhu; low magic; Dark!
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Some of my homebrews:

      1) Rising from ashes post-apocalyptic fantasy

      2) Magic: the Gathering using Fantasy HERO

      3) Wellsian/Vernian Superheroes in early 1900s
    1. lowkey13's Avatar
      lowkey13 -
      No paladins, no gnomes, no rapiers.
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
      "Kill the monsters, grab the loot"
      Virtually every D&D game ever.
      Kill monsters. Grab loot. Level up.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      Eberron: What if magic was a business?
    1. Draegn's Avatar
      Draegn -
      My game table can be described as:

      Damn heroes, ruining a villain's day.
    1. Bluenose -
      You can die in character creation.

      Traveller, obviously.

      King Arthur's knights go off questing.

      Pendragon - for Paladin replace Arthur with Charlemagne.

      Baboon and duck agree, goatfolk bad!

      Runequest, in Glorantha.
    1. Beleriphon's Avatar
      Beleriphon -
      Sorta Saxon England; but with elves
      My personal setting.
    1. murquhart72's Avatar
      murquhart72 -
      Quick correction:
      Original D&D/Greyhawk - "Sword and sorcery exploratory adventure gaming."
      You're welcome
    1. TwoSix -
      My campaign worlds can generally be summed up by: Looks like the DM's drunk again.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      A standard D&D version of The Odyssey: O Bugbear, Where Art Thou?
    1. jedijon's Avatar
      jedijon -
      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.

      Or a little critical jibe—Maximum gratuitousness, loses focus over time.
    1. jedijon's Avatar
      jedijon -
      I mean, you have to put SOME poetry in there or it’s just;

      5 long books, more coming maybe.

      Westeros, and some other places too.

      Dragons return unexpectedly, goes down.

      Lions vs wolves vs other people.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      16th century fantasy pirates, sailing, sandbox


      The monster's CR is what now?!
    1. Olgar Shiverstone's Avatar
      Olgar Shiverstone -
      Murder hobos run rampant without consequences.
    1. ClaytonStine's Avatar
      ClaytonStine -
      Gonzo fantasy nightmare (and the Welsh). -- Silent Titans
      "Hey, we heard you like Waterdeep." -- Dragon Heist
      Eventually, inevitably Monty Python -- Pendragon
    1. Eirikrautha's Avatar
      Eirikrautha -
      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."
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