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What makes up the work that a referee does when preparing to run an RPG? Here is a taxonomy that I find useful for evaluating the utility of published products, and also for deciding how to spend my own limited time. I cover the categories from the general to the specific.
Atmosphere includes the kind of things that will define a setting at the highest level. Preparation at the this level is like basic scientific research. It is necessary if you don’t want stagnation, but is not very useful when the rubber meets the road in actual play. Luckily or unluckily, the vast majority of published RPG material is atmosphere. For example, most published tabletop RPG settings fit here. They are very far from being play-ready, though they might have some good ideas. Most game entities (the contents of “splatbooks”) also fit here, and include things like monsters, treasure, and spells. Even most modules are better situated here. Fun pleasure reading, interesting ideas, but often not so good at the table. I don’t want to denigrate atmosphere too much; you need to get your ideas from somewhere. But reading a module or game setting is often at the same level as watching a movie or reading a novel.
At some point, you need to start deciding where things exist in the campaign world. In the simplest case, you don’t need to do much work here; a town and a dungeon are enough for traditional D&D. Genre expectations (e.g.: generic Tolkienized medieval fantasy, Gotham City) can do much of the work for you, assuming that you don’t require your setting to be unique. The standard tradeoff here is approachability versus specialness (the same tradeoff exists for base rules and house rules). This level, for me, is no longer about general info (that would go above in the atmosphere category); the point of this is stuff that PCs might interact with at a macro level, both in spacial and relationship terms (e.g.: north of the kingdom are mountains, the guild of thieves seeks to steal the secrets from the council of magicians). There are few examples of published setting material under this definition. Most published “settings” are 90% atmosphere with 10% actionable setting info mixed within. I’m still not sure what the best way to store and reference setting info is, especially for use during the game. Character generation rules (or creation of pre-gens), selection of base system, and house rules all also fit here, practically speaking.