How Should I Publish My Setting?

by Graham Walmsley

[Editor: Graham Walmsley created the award-winning Cthulhu Apocalypse setting for Trail of Cthulhu. His latest publication is Scott Dorward’s Fairlyland scenario for his game Cthulhu Dark.]

People often ask me: how can I publish my setting? What should I do? And, because I didn’t know the answer, I asked various successful publishers. Here is what they said.

1. First, consider not doing it

“First, I’d advise the person to consider not doing it, at least commercially. The fact you and your friends have enjoyed playing in a setting does not make it a setting other people will enjoy.” Simon Rogers, Pelgrane Press.

“Have a good, honest word with yourself about the authenticity of your setting. Yeah, it was awesome at the table and you had a lot of fun but … how many ideas, names, features and tropes were lifted, either direct or sideways, from other works?” Neil Gow, author of Duty and Honour.

You have picked the hardest job. You know that, right? There are many, many settings out there. What is so special about yours?

Think about settings that have been commercially successful, whether on a big or a small scale. I can’t think of many. Those I can think of (The Day After Ragnarok, Dark Sun and, on a smaller scale, Cthulhu Apocalypse) were tied to specific settings. Others (Diaspora) were written as games rather than simply settings.

You have picked the hardest job. Consider writing something else instead.

2. Next, work out what is special about your setting

“You need a twenty-five word pitch and a one page summary of the setting, emphasising what players do and what characters do in the game, and describing why this setting is different. “Richly detailed” is usually dangerous indicator. The pitch is needed to crystalise your ideas, and sell it to playtesters and potential customers.” Simon Rogers, Pelgrane Press

What makes your setting stand out? Write it down. Keep it short and honest.

3. Write your setting for the players, not for you.

“If their question is ‘How can I guarantee my product will stand out?’ the answer is ‘You can’t, but writing a good product with an easily graspable adventure hook is a good start.’.” Kenneth Hite, author of Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

Some authors don’t seem to think about the people who will play their game. They write pages of detailed history, but nothing makes you want to play.

When you are writing your setting, you must inspire GMs to write scenarios and players to play. Think about what the players will do. John Stavropoulos, an uber-GM, suggests thinking about the following questions:

  • Who do you play in this setting?
  • Why are they more interesting than modern real life?
  • What are your goals?
  • What problems exist in the setting?
  • How can you solve these problems?
  • What’s something that seemingly never changes?
  • What’s something that is changing right now?

Now, of course, your setting needn’t all be adventure hooks. But give people something to fire their imaginations and make them want to play. Think: how will they use this at the gaming table?

4. Make your setting into a game. Or tie your setting to an existing game.

“I recommend that they create a game to match their settings. Failing that, tie the setting to a popular system like D&D.” Luke Crane, publisher of Burning Wheel.

“Find a similarly active, positive-minded game audience (FATE is another good example) and to write up their setting as a sourcebook for that game. There are lots and lots of open or mostly-open systems out there: FATE, SW, d20, Trav, RQ, D&D clones, soon GUMSHOE, etc.” Kenneth Hite, author of everything.

Most successful settings are tied to a game system. Either write one yourself or adapt an existing one. Look at games like Diaspora, based in hard science fiction, which uses and extends the FATE engine to create an exciting and player-authored setting.

If you tie your setting to an existing game, you have a ready-made community, based around that game, who you can promote your setting to.

5. Get people involved in the design process.

“Start by giving up on notions of owning it fully, being the sole authority about it, all that stuff. That’s the sort of thing that creates a wall that the public needs to climb in order to get into the game and take personal ownership of what it can do.

Which is a preamble to this: Find ways to invite the public in and participate in the design process. Treat any potential customer as a potential peer designer and collaborator. Bring the best of them, the ones you have the most fruitful conversations with about the game, in on the team, explicitly, if you can.” Fred Hicks, Evi Hat Productions.

Don’t sit in your bedroom and write a game. Get people involved and collaborate with them.

Playtest your game. (And let’s talk about it, now, as a game rather than a setting). Take feedback from players and GMs. Change your game, often, until it works not just for you, but for GMs and players in general.

6. Get people playing your game.

“Hit cons. Run demos. Show off the art. Do this for many years. Inhabit internet forums. Ask questions. Answer questions. It’s really not hard to gain traction in the scene. All you have to do is be a consistent, reliable public face. Show up to a con two or three times in a row and suddenly you’re a feature.” Luke Crane, publisher of Burning Wheel.

People won’t just pick up your game from the Internet and play it. Get out there and play it with them.

7. Get good art and layout

“I’d advise budgeting several hundred dollars to get a good cover and professional layout. Nobody wants to read an ugly book.” Ken Hite, author of everything.

Your cover sells your game. If you get amateurish art for your cover, your game will look amateurish.

The same applies to the layout. It’s subtler, but people will tell, at a glance, whether your game looks professional or not.

You needn’t spend a fortune on this. But you should spend something. Take advice, find an artist you like, find a layout artist you like, take more advice. However you do it, get something good.

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