Friday, June 11, 2010

Setting size

I was watching some travel videos on east Africa and Madagascar, and the narrator made an off-hand comment that Madgascar was the fourth largest island in the world, but had as much variety as a continent. That sparked a bizarre run of curiosity on my part, where I went and looked up the islands of the world, sorted by size. Let me give you the top 10.

  1. Greenland

  2. New Guinea

  3. Borneo

  4. Madagascar

  5. Baffin Island

  6. Sumatra

  7. Honshū

  8. Victoria Island

  9. Great Britain

  10. Ellesmere Island

Fascinating, huh? Not really? Well, here's what struck me about that list. Rounding a bit, Great Britain is about 80,000 square miles in size. Greenland is over ten times that size, over 800,000 square miles. Antarctica, a full continent, is almost exactly size times that of Greenland, about 5 million square miles.

And yet... Great Britain would make a much richer campaign setting than Greenland, or even Antarctica. There's lots of stuff going on Great Britain, no matter the time frame you set it in, whereas pretty much no matter when you set a campaign in Greenland or Antarctica, your options for interesting things to do are very limited. You've got miles and miles and miles of really boring ice sheet. There's little to do, there's hardly even any animals to interact with, much less people... Great Britain is just a much richer campaign setting in every sense.

And there's a lesson in that for campaign setting design. I think a lot of folks who run games feel intimidated by designing a campaign setting. In fact, I know that that's true, because I've seen them express exactly that feeling, in messageboard posts and elsewhere. I think, in many ways, this is because they're used to seeing settings like Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, which are entire continents-worth of geography (at least). But honestly, to run a game, you don't need anywhere near that much material. Great Britain; even a small portion of Great Britain, is more than enough material to run a great game. Why do you need to worry about what's going on in Central Asia, North Africa, or Central America if you're running a game in Great Britain? Of course you don't. The example of Great Britain being a much more interesting setting than Greenland, despite being only 10% of the size, should be an inspirational example for those who feel intimidated by setting design. In all likelihood, you don't have to design nearly as much as you think you do.

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