As a tabletop role playing gamer with decades of experience playing and running multiple games of multiple editions, I can say that I have experienced a few various settings for those games. I’ve had experience playing in published settings as well as those created entirely by a player, or what’s typically known as a homebrew setting. And over those years, I’ve had an appreciation for homebrew game settings rather than many published ones over time.
However, for anyone who intends to run a campaign for a tabletop game, I would advise building a fictional world of your own creation rather than using a published setting. There are several valid reasons to do so, and you will find the process somewhat fulfilling, as may your players (potentially).
1. There is no canon
First off, as mentioned in other posts, canon can be a bit of a concern when it comes to fictional works. This holds true for game settings just as it does for novels, films, comics, television shows, and any other media. While this can be a relaxing and reassuring thing, it can also develop into a point of contention for those around the table.
For example, for RPGs set in an existing setting, like the Galaxy Far, Far Away of Star Wars, Earth-616 of Marvel, Middle-Earth from the Lord of the Rings, and other such examples, familiarity with the setting and its canon may prove a hindrance to play and progression. In some instances, the players may argue about the order of events or depiction of a character, noting that it strays from a “canon” portrayal. This variance may be acceptable for you because you are creating an alternate version of that setting, but some players may not necessarily recall that.
In other instances, player knowledge of the setting may tempt them to act in a way that isn’t in-character or just outright disruptive. For example, say that the characters in a Middle-Earth game decide to ambush Frodo and Sam after the duo left the Fellowship of the Ring in order to claim the One Ring for themselves. Or, some conniving player decides to warn the Empire of the fatal flaw built into the first Death Star and that the Rebel base is on Yavin-4. Now, granted, there are creative ways to address and counter some of these behaviors in the game, but unless you plan or allow actions like those to occur, then such behavior can be significantly disruptive. It’s bad enough when a gamer treats a tabletop game session as a Grand Theft: Auto game when that’s not the game’s intent; it’s worse when they do that loaded up with specifics and knowledge that their fandom provides them, and are keen on interrupting game play to achieve their desires.
On the other hand, a new, unique creation has nothing beyond what you provide it, much less what is created during a play session. This can be a hindrance when the unexpected occurs and information or locations are requested that you haven’t prepared for, but those are also opportunities to further develop your creation.
2. It’s tailored to fit tastes
Everyone has preferences. Some people prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi Cola. Some people prefer the theatre over film and television. Gamers are not any different from any other type of fan.
However, a person’s tastes can vary easily. Perhaps you enjoy fantasy fiction, but science fantasy as well. Maybe you’d like to play in a game that’s as inspired by Masters of the Universe and Thundarr the Barbarian just as much as Lord of the Rings or Conan the Barbarian. Perhaps those games and their settings that are available on the market don’t meet the feel of the sort of game setting you’d like to have. Or, perhaps you want something more akin to a Georgian or Victorian era setting, but maybe not as steampunk as some versions may be, but a bit more magical. Then again, maybe you wish to have an alternate history Earth where mythical beings and supernatural powers are present, and perhaps even influenced the development of this variant Earth. The potential for variety is limitless.
Frankly, you can create it yourself. If you are familiar enough with how the game works, the resources available for it, or even have a sense of what would need to be implemented to build what you need and modify for your use, then you can easily create your own campaign setting in the style you desire. This can apply to any game and system, and not just D&D, though some games are a bit more integrated with their setting than others (such as the current Star Wars RPGs, the official Marvel & DC superhero RPGs, and so on). Though there are plenty of online utilities that can aid in this process, basic materials such as writing implements, paper, and a working brain are all that’s really needed for the creation process. And, on that note…
3. The original campaign settings are homebrew creations themselves
Roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons spawned from the imaginations of several creators. As noted earlier, notable creators such as Dave Arneson, E. Gary Gygax, and Ed Greenwood created Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and the Forgotten Realms, respectively. These were fictional realms created for the purpose of the game, and they included elements that the creators wished to include in them. These works drew inspiration from multiple sources, and are decorated with tributes and in-jokes by those creators and their fellow gamers: several spells in Dungeons & Dragons refer to the names of spellcasting characters from those early games, like Mordenkainen, Tenser, and Melf from Greyhawk. The magic system was originally inspired by the works of Jack Vance, while the original races included for player characters beyond human (dwarf, elf, hobbit) obviously derived from the popularity of Tolkien. The original map of Greyhawk and its surrounds was effectively an inverted map of the Great Lakes region. As noted often by Tim Kask, former head of TSR Publications, his creation of the iconic monster, the bulette, stemmed from the need to fill page space for a ruined ad negative before press, the codification of a monster called “the bullet” that rushed and knocked over adventurers in tunnels, the zeitgeist of French mockery in the U.S. at the time (leading to the French-sounding pronunciation and modified spelling of the monster’s name), the use of a cheap molded kaiju-like monster figure from Hong Kong, and the summer movie mania of Jaws and the Saturday Night Live skit that developed from it (*Knock* *Knock* *Knock* “Land shark.”).
If this doesn’t sound like a homebrew campaign, I can’t say for sure what is.
The glitz and format of formal published works can have an effect on some creators and consumers of media, but the dirty secret is that these works are all created by individuals who were influenced by the media they consumed, the times they lived in, and the ideas they had. It is rather well-known that westerns and samurai films contributed to the creation of Star Wars just as much as Flash Gordon did. Tolkien wanted a world for his constructed languages to live in, as well as create a mythology for that world, inspired by the legends and myths he relished.
4. There are many who have done it and have shared their process
As I advocate for creating your own fictional setting for an RPG, or even just for fiction writing or whatever else you desire, it helps to know that there are a lot of sources out there to help you with this process. There are a lot of different approaches to do it, as well. This can be overwhelming, but to be honest it’s something that can be achieved if you first determine what you want and what you like in such a creation. You can take inspiration from a variety of sources, add in extra things that you like from anywhere, leave out things that you dislike, and then edit and refine it into a cohesive, interactive, and living thing that will be what you want and need from it. I can assure you that this process is pretty much what was used in the creative endeavors of others who made fictional worlds or campaign settings for an RPG, much less RPGs themselves.Therefore, if you do attempt to create your own setting, it’d be relatively easy to do so. Research is important, however; there are several different approaches, and some methods may be a bit too involved or not involved enough for your needs and wants. If anything, review a bunch of different methods and then go with what works from each different source. As long as you’re honest with yourself about what you want from this work, you can achieve it.
0. You’re free to do what you want
As much as fanfiction appeals to some, one of the challenges I find with it is characters staying consistent in their characterization, much less the work maintaining the same tone as that of the original works. It’s one thing to put your own spin on stories or characters that are public domain, but for the intellectual property of another, it can be a bit of a challenge. Beyond fanfiction, there can be quite a furor over a writer or artist inaccurately or poorly depicting a character in a licensed work, or even if others believe that the depiction was off to them.
This can fall under the category of the No Canon point from before, but I want to emphasize that your creation can follow your rules, your depictions, your expectations, and your vision. Though D&D may have humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, goblins, and several other standards of fantasy, if you want your world to consist solely of alien species, or of sentient objects, or anything else along those lines, you’re free to have it be like that. For the sake of those who play the campaign, you will want to emphasize differences from “regular” D&D (or whatever system you’re using) so that they don’t act on those expectations.
So, for almost as long as I have been a gamer, I’ve created my own campaign settings. If I wasn’t running a game in a system linked to a setting (like a Star Wars RPG or Marvel RPG), I’d create a world that didn’t rely on the published setting.
As it is now, I have a setting that I’m constantly working on. It’s for a current edition D&D game, though it doesn’t embrace all of the default tropes of the game fully. I use some fantasy tropes in the work, but I’ve adapted them to fit the reality and logic of the fictional world I’m writing about; if you will, I’m using the familiar to make something new, potentially.
And beyond that, I have other projects (not fantasy) that I work on when the ideas spark. It’s all useful in one way or another, and it can help me directly or indirectly with my other creative endeavors. For example, I’ve thought of an alternate Earth that has superpowered beings. One variant of it has superpowered beings of my creation. However, I’ve conceived of another variant that has its own version of the Marvel Universe, yet another that has its own version of a DC Universe, a variant that is an Amalgam version of the aforementioned Marvel & DC Universes, and so on. While the Marvel & DC ideas may not be something that will be published by their respective companies, it does serve as a basis for any supers RPGs set in those variant worlds.