Do you want your very own campaign world?
Somewhere deep inside, most role-players do. It's part of the creative itch that we scratch by playing our games. It's part of the delight we take in alternate realities populated by imaginary people who become all to real to us, their creators. As players, we want to create a character who is 'real' within the shared alternate reality he inhabits with the rest of the party; and as GMs we want to creat a rich alternate reality in which all those characters exist. There are plenty good campaign settings out there, and not all of us has the time to create a whole new one from scratch, but that sneaking desire to create is there deep within us.
If you feel that way, this book is well worth a read. In it. the author has mused over a vast range of things that need to be considered if you are going to design your own campaign setting. It's not the gospel how-to, he's the first to admit that he doesn't know everything and indeed that he doesn't always heed his own advice... but it is designed to get you thinking about the right sort of things, considering stuff that will have to be addressed as your development progresses.
Progression is logical. It starts by helping you consider how you want to design: top-up, bottom-down, centre-out or collaboratively. There isn't a 'right' way of course. It depends on how your mind works, what you are trying to do, what the spark or underlying concept is that has made you decide to settle down and do some worldbuilding in the first place. And here is introduced a neat trick: once a particular concept or topic to consider has been discussed, there's an example in an ongoing world design that runs throughout the entire book.
OK, that decided the next thing to look at is what the author calls The Hook. You might like to think of it as a Unique Selling Point - the reason why it's THIS world rather than any other one. It might, if you think cinematically, be the trailer to your campaign - "In a world where..." Well, where what? That's your Hook, the thing you hang the entire setting upon. Here's another neat thing: as well as discussing each point in the abstract the author refers to well-known published worlds, indicating how they have met that particular challenge. Mostly game worlds, but others from fiction and movies pop up as well, to illustrate what is being said.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of designing proper, there are a few variables to consider. Is fantasy or realism more important? Is magic widely available or are there but a few beings capable of wielding its power? How much more powerful than ordinary people are player-characters? And is this from the outset or do they just have the potential to become world-striding potentates after many years of development? Questions like this need to be sorted out, and then you can begin... once you have answered one last pivotal question: what drives conflict? What is the polarising factor that causes tension and, at least at times, outright warfare?
Only once these fundamental issues have been addressed can we settle down to what most folks consider to be world-building: geography, races, classes, nations, cultures, wilderness areas, religion, cities, factions, history and economics. Each topic is considered in reasonable depth, providing a wealth of ideas to chew upon rather than any answers. That's the joy of this book, it sets the wheels turning to the extent that I'm wondering why I'm still writing this review instead of starting in on a new campaign world!
So, once you have worked through what at the outset seems a bewildering whirl of things to take into account, where will your game actually start? It's easy when worldbuilding to almost lose sight of the purpose (and let's face it, worldbuilding is a fun occupation in its own right), but ultimately you will unleash your brand-new campaign world on some player-characters (or is that the other way around?) It will need to be detailed, because the party will be spending time there, and it needs to have scope for adventure, because otherwise why would they want to be there in the first place. You'll need a goodly cast of NPCs for them to interact with too. This might become the party's home and base, or they might decide to move on, but to start with, treat it as if it were their home.
After discussing a few other ideas, the concept of a Player's Guide is introduced. Unless you bring adult player-characters smack-bang into a completely new location (probably by means of very powerful magic) you will always have the problem of CHARACTERS knowing more about their surroundings than their PLAYERS do. Creating some kind of guide, and getting the players to read it, is one way of getting around this issue... and so advice is presented about how to set about providing one that will be effective.
The work wraps up with some further reading and comprehensive listings of everything that's been mentioned in the text... about all that it doesn't do is hand you a blank notebook to get going on your next world! If you've wanted to try your hand at worldbuilding, this is a very accessible starting point; if you've been at it for ages it still has plenty to make you think.