Have you ever been reading or watching a story and enjoyed the setting so much that you wanted to experience it for yourself? Thanks to roleplaying games, you can! Using an established setting for your campaign is a time-honored tradition; it lets the players experience a setting they love and saves worldbuilding time. Some stories even have officially licensed systems for just this purpose! But there are plenty of great settings out there that don’t have their own system yet, and that’s what we’re talking about today. Some of these examples have fantastic plots to go with their settings, some do not, but they all have a world that’s excellent for roleplaying. Let’s get started!
Written by Fonda Lee, this action-packed series currently has one book out with another slated for 2019. The first novel is set on the island of Kekon, primarily in the capital city of Janloon. It’s a high fantasy setting* with technology equivalent to the 1960s and heavy inspiration drawn from post-WWII Korea. That’s a reason to use it right there: it’s refreshingly different. I can count on one hand the number of high fantasy settings that feature technology more advanced than a flintlock musket.
Beyond the tech level, Kekon has two major factors going for it. The first is conflict – more conflict than you know what to do with. You see, the island is ruled by a bunch of feuding clans that are somewhere between mafia families and de facto governments. The official government is little more than a ceremonial foreign affairs office. That gives you endless possibilities to generate problems for the PCs. They could be warriors of one clan fighting another, civilians trying to escape the crossfire, or even government officials trying to restore peace to the island. Whatever scenario you pick, there’s no authority the PCs can turn to for help; they’ve got to take care of the problem themselves.
The second major factor is magic. The Green Bone Saga has some of the coolest magic I’ve seen. Specially trained warriors draw power from the magical jade they wear to perform amazing feats of kung fu: everything from super speed to energy blasts to healing. These warriors are aptly referred to as green bones. More jade means more power, but also more danger. The pull of jade is intoxicating, and people often lose themselves in it, so green bones have to strike a balance. This dynamic can be used to generate even more conflict because when two green bones fight, the winner is expected to take and wear the jade of their fallen enemy. This can quickly put a green bone into the danger zone.
This magic system is great for RPGs because it has built-in limitations. Not only do PCs need to go out and acquire jade in order to become more powerful, but there’s an upper limit to how much jade they can wear without self-destructing. That helps keep the PCs’ power levels manageable, while still letting them do lots of cool stuff.
The main problem with this setting is that it’s all about kung fu fighting, but it also has advanced firearm technology. In the book, there’s no explanation for why green bones don’t use guns. They just don’t. That won’t fly with most players. To remedy this, I’d recommend including lore about how jade energy causes advanced technology to fail. It’s arbitrary, but it’s the fastest way to get the gun issue out of the picture.
What System to Use
If you want to emphasize the struggle for power among feuding clans, I recommend Blades in the Dark. It’s already tailor made for simulating a criminal gang’s rise to power, and Janloon is an ideal spot for such a story. The classes and abilities will need some house ruling, but nothing too extensive. The downside is that Blades in the Dark has a very abstract combat system, so you won’t get the most out of jade magic kung fu.
If your group hungers for some robust combat, then Anima Prime is the best system for this setting. I know, I recommend Anima Prime for any combat-heavy game, but that’s only because it has the best combat system on the market and is specifically designed for magical martial arts.
2. Area X
This pocket-sized trilogy is written by Jeff VanderMeer, and it’s creepy to the max. It’s set in a United States that’s very much like our own, except that a sizeable chunk of the Florida panhandle has been cordoned off because of “environmental contamination.” That’s the official story, anyway. In reality, Area X is sealed by a completely alien force, with only a small doorway connected to the outside world. Within the barrier, strange things happen. Time flows at variable rates, animals mutate into bizarre forms, and all signs of human habitation rot away. A single government agency, the Southern Reach, is tasked with investigating the phenomenon, but they’re as baffled as anyone else.
When adapting this setting for an RPG, your players will likely take on the roles of Southern Reach agents. If all you need is a one-shot or short campaign, then a single expedition into Area X is your best bet. The characters can discover all manner of creepy things, from fungus spores that form words to the gruesome remains of previous expeditions. They might even discover what created Area X in the first place, and either emerge victorious or be slowly absorbed into the pristine wilderness, depending on how thick you want to lay on the cosmic horror.
If you’re looking for a longer game, then your agents can spend their time investigating small flare-ups of Area X in other parts of the country. This phenomenon is glossed over in the books, but it’s a great source of content for weekly sessions. Area X is capable of a great many things, so one week your group might investigate mysterious plant growth in the remote cascades while the next week they look into the three days that no one in a single LA neighborhood can remember.
You can also throw some human conflict into the mix since various government agencies are divided over what to do about Area X. The PCs might discover one group that experiments on unwilling subjects by tossing them into Area X or another group that’s trying to replicate the phenomena for military purposes. There might even be enemies within the Southern Reach itself!
All of this can build up to an expedition into Area X as the campaign’s finale, or the PCs might venture within the barrier several times, finding something different on each trip. Your campaign might be about finding a way to destroy Area X, or a way to communicate with it, or both! So long as you describe creepy fungi and paranoid agents, the sky’s the limit.
What System to Use
For this setting, you have your pick of the various Call of Cthulhu-inspired games. Delta Green is the obvious choice, as it’s already about government agents investigating paranormal phenomena, but you could also use Laundry Files, Unknown Armies, or CoC itself.
If you’re not a fan of the percentile system,* Chronicles of Darkness is another option. It’s reasonably horror friendly, and the rules are a bit easier to understand. Conspiracy X is another genre favorite, though I haven’t played that one. You could even try something like Spycraft, if you want a more action-game feel.
Written by Mark Gladstone, these novels take place in a high magic, high technology world where most of the gods have been cast down by powerful sorcerers. I’ve only read the first and second books,* but both of them go into great detail about the industrialization of magic and the nature of power. They’re also just good books, and I recommend them with enthusiasm.
This setting is the perfect opportunity for groups that like diving deep into the relationship between magic and technology. Not only do you get to describe really cool stuff like a city where the sky-trams are powered by a sleeping fire god, but your players can also explore all their favorite magitech ideas. They can play as engineers trying to build the next great sorcerous project or scientists working to create a unified theory of magic. If you want to create a more social game, your players can be magician-lawyers brought in to resolve contract disputes between monarchs and gods.
If your group is more into traditional epic adventure, The Craft Sequence has your back. The players can roll up warrior-mages on a quest to cast down the dark gods that hold the world in servitude. This quest allows for all kinds of great deeds, but it also has the potential for poignant moral dilemmas as the PCs start to look more and more like the gods they’ve defeated. You can also flip the script and cast the PCs as the gods’ chosen faithful. They must defend their beloved deities from these usurping sorcerers. The PCs could even be gods themselves, if you’re prepared to get really cosmological.
On the other hand, if all of that sounds like a bigger scale than you want to operate at, The Craft Sequence is also friendly to more personal stories. Your PCs can be a team of detectives struggling to make ends meet in a changing world or students at a magical law school who need to do well in both conjuration and civil procedure. In this kind of game, the epic magitech is mostly background flavor, and the story takes on a distinctly cyberpunk-noir flavor, complete with towering cities that care little for the people who live within them.
What System to Use
Admittedly, this is a tricky setting to find a system for. Mage is always a possibility since it’s intentionally designed with open-ended magic in mind, but the clunky 90s-era mechanics may be a turnoff for many groups. Fate is another option, as it can simulate a vast number of different powers without breaking game balance. Granted, those powers won’t be simulated in a lot of detail, but it’s still a solid option.
A third possible system is Mythender, recommended by the author himself. Mythender seems best suited for the god-killing-type game, though I’ve never played it, so I can’t confirm that through experience. The PDF is available for free though, so the risk is low.
Moving away from epic techno-fantasy, it’s time to look at a setting that’s perfect for gritty, small-scale storytelling. That world is the Western Shore, crafted by Ursula K. Le Guin for her YA series of the same name. It is a land divided into an endless number of tiny fiefdoms, each one struggling to get by on the limited resources of a harsh land. And did I mention the ruling families of these fiefdoms each have a single magic power? That’s sure to spice things up.
The Western Shore is a world where small conflicts matter a lot. If a dozen warriors meet in battle, it’ll be talked about for years. If one fiefdom steals another fiefdom’s two best cows, it can be financially ruinous. It’s likely that the PCs will know everyone in their fiefdom by name, and quite a few people from the surrounding lands as well.
This gives you the chance to build some intense investment in the setting. In larger-scale settings, individual elements often blur together, but not in a land like the Western Shore. Here, every house is owned by someone the PCs know, every harvest means avoiding starvation, and every snowstorm is a potential disaster. It’s quite reasonable for you to create a list or chart of all the NPCs in your fiefdom and then list how they are connected to the players. When Klara the blacksmith falls ill, the PCs will care because she’s the one who shoes their horses! If they can afford to feed the horses. You never know, what with the poor rainfall last year.
Then you add magical powers into the mix. These abilities run the gambit from animal communication to death-ray vision. They’re fairly arbitrary, but that allows you to craft as many variants as you like to keep things fresh. Because a person can only have one power,* you don’t have to worry as much about game balance. Individual powers can still be over- or underpowered, of course, but PCs can’t combine them to create unstoppable chain reactions. Unfortunately, the books do include description about how women are incapable of using certain powers,* but it’s easy to ignore those sexist restrictions.
A campaign in the Western Shore can focus on pure survival, but it can also include plenty of politics and action. This is a cattle-raiding society, which means each fiefdom maintains a fragile web of alliances and treaties. You can also build drama around who will marry whom if you like, especially since the magic powers are passed along bloodlines.
What System to Use
For this setting, a gritty fantasy system will serve you well. Torchbearer is a good option, though you probably won’t make much use of the dungeon-crawling mechanics. Torchbearer’s conditions are particularly well suited to this system, as it’s always a big deal when someone gets sick or injured on the Western Shore. Burning Wheel is another option if you’re willing to deal with much more complex rules. You could also dust off some of the old-school fantasy RPGs like RuneQuest or go with one of the many d20 options if you want to decrease the realism a bit.
5. Teen Wolf
What’s this, a TV show? That’s right: I’ve broken with tradition, and no one can stop me! Teen Wolf is an urban fantasy show set in the sleepy California town of Beacon Hills. As the name suggests, the characters are mostly teenagers, though only some of them are werewolves. The season storylines focus on discovering a new supernatural enemy, investigating that enemy, battling that enemy, and finally adding that enemy to the team. I’m serious about that last part. For some reason, Teen Wolf just cannot let its villains die, or stay dead on the occasion when they do die. There’s also plenty of character development, angst, romance, and characters angsting over their developing romance.
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to urban fantasy TV shows, so what makes Teen Wolf in particular worthy of inclusion? For one thing, it’s surprisingly well themed. When I started watching, I figured it was only a matter of time until the writers caved and brought in vampires to fight the werewolves, but they never did. The show has a heavy focus on various shapeshifters, be they werewolves, werecoyotes, or werefoxes. This focus allows the show to dig deep into how shifter powers work, establishing a set of rules that stayed mostly consistent throughout the show. The writers also add to the universe in a way that feels natural, like when the characters realize that they’ve formed a pack despite only some of them being werewolves.
Teen Wolf does feature some non-shifter creatures, especially in the later seasons, but it still does a fairly good job keeping them consistent and interesting. Instead of going for the old favorites like fairies and succubi, Teen Wolf brings out less well-known creatures like chimeras and ghost-riders.
While the creature types are cool, what really makes Teen Wolf excellent for roleplaying is the political dynamics. The show also features hunter families: humans whose job it is to protect other humans from supernatural monsters. But because most of the monsters are intelligent and social, the conflicts are much more political than the kill-on-sight policy found in most human-versus-monster stories.
This gives lots of opportunities for fun plots. Your players might be young teenagers just learning their powers, only to find they’ve been thrust into a world with laws they don’t understand. That’s the show’s starting premise, so you’d have plenty of inspiration. Alternatively, your group could take on the role of more seasoned characters, the ones who set policy for the magical world. The show never quite got to that point because they’d have needed to change the title to Early-Twenties Wolf, but the idea was strongly hinted at. Your PCs would be the leaders of werewolf packs and hunter families, the people charged with making sure the supernatural world stays peaceful.
The main problem with Teen Wolf as a setting is that, like many other urban fantasy TV shows, its masquerade is practically nonexistent. Regular people don’t know about the supernatural because… they just don’t, okay? So if you’re going to use this setting, you’ll either need to come up with a good explanation or plead with your players not to ask questions.
What System to Use
While the obvious system for Teen Wolf is either Werewolf: The Apocalypse or Werewolf: The Forsaken, I’d advise caution on both of those. Teen Wolf is a fairly low-powered setting as urban fantasy goes, and that’s part of its appeal. Characters have to come up with new and innovative ways to use their powers, because they only have a few. Meanwhile, the Werewolf games feature so many magical powers it can be hard to keep track. If you want an authentic Teen Wolf experience using Werewolf, you’ll at least need to tone down the abilities.
This is another instance where Fate could prove very useful. Fate’s focus on character traits is a good match for the character-focused plots of Teen Wolf, and the system is flexible enough to create any of the powers seen on screen, just not in a lot of detail. If you want to lean heavily on the teen drama and romance, Monsterhearts is another possibility. It’s heavily inspired by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and can be adapted to Teen Wolf with a bit of house-ruling.
Each of these settings has unique elements, but they all have one thing in common: lots of conflict potential. That’s easily the most important element for an RPG setting to have; otherwise, there’s nothing for the PCs to do. Once you have that conflict potential, it’s just a matter of finding a setting with aesthetics that match your plot ideas and then a system to run it in. If you can’t find the right system for your setting, you can always fall back on Primetime Adventures. It’s abstract and rules light, but it’s great for a game where you just want to have some fun roleplaying and not worry about the mechanics.