[While these tips and thoughts are oriented toward Dungeons & Dragons, at present, they are just as useful for other settings. SCR]
So, you’re building a new campaign for your group. There are a couple of things to think about, right off the bat. There are several canned settings for Dungeons & Dragons — Forgotten Realms is the Wizards of the Coast “official” setting, but there’s Eberron, Dark Suns, Al-Qadim (an “Arabized” version of Forgotten Realms, if I remember correctly…), Blackmoor, Dragonlance, etc. etc… Or you could build your own high fantasy setting, building off of various influences. (And let’s face it…the big one is Tolkein.)
The first thing you have to realize is how much time do you have to put into this. For the high school kid, the college kid studying alternative Feminist Dance Theory, or the dude sitting doing security at a remote site, this could be “a whole lot.” For the rest of the world, there’s work, kids (bah! kids! little time sinks!), college, errands, etc. It can be at a premium, especially if you lack good time management skills.
Published settings like Forgotten Realms can be very handy for the newbie dungeon master, or one that is pressed for preparation time. Having a “world in a can” allows you to get right to plotting a story in a ready-made framework, or to use published adventures to kickstart your game, or even run it without doing much work outside of reading the modules. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, particularly if the players haven’t run through any of the materials you are going to use.
One problem I’ve seen to these prepared settings, especially in some of the science fiction RPGs is the use of metaplots: there are large scale events going on, described in the books, and the idea is that your characters can or will be somehow involved in these world/solar system/galaxy shaping moments, but often these metaplots feel like they are being played out in the background, affecting your characters, but rarely vice-versa. Two games I’ve always wanted to run, but just couldn’t quite find a hook are Jovian Chronicles and Eclipse Phase — and both have this metaplot thing going on. Every supplement moves the publishers’ stories along, but where do you fit in? do you shove your characters into the interstices of these big plots? Do they simply exist, keeping their heads down, while empires rise and fall, or do you want them in the thick of it…where they will inevitably take you off script. (And a good thing, I’d say…)
Another option is the Chinese Buffet Method® where you pick the stuff you want, and leave the rest that doesn’t work behind. For the game I’m working up, I’m keeping the pantheon of gods from Forgotten Realms, but I’m ditching most of the rest of the setting — creating my own map and political structures on the fly. (There’s a reason for this not connected to time management…well, partly connected to time management…) I wanted something that felt familiar to any of the players who had played D&D, but I wanted my particular stamp on it.
Connected to this — don’t feel you have to use every creature in the Monster Manual. In fact, it’s a good idea to chuck quite a bit of it. There are all sorts of variants of critters presented, and a lot of them are really cool…but not everything needs to be jammed into your dungeon or castle or whatever (unless you have a reason for it.) Read the descriptions, figure out what works best for the story, maybe look for some consistency in which critters would live where.
The most work is to create your own home brew setting. Even if you offload some of this on the players — “Hey, why don’t you tell me what Zaybo the Barbarian’s culture looks like?” — you’ll be carrying a heavy load in preparation. This also can be the most rewarding, if the campaign catches everyone’s imagination.
My suggestions, even for the experienced DM are: 1) Start small. Do a short adventure that introduces elements of the world, but leaves it open for you to expand. Even with an established world, you could fit a small town or ruin in without wrecking things. 2) Steal from all over. You want the Norse gods in your setting? Go for it! You want Isengard and Saruman? Cool! 3) Let the players help you out. As they build their characters’ backstories, you might consider letting them tell you about where they are from — the place, the people, the beliefs. Give them a chunk of the worldbuilding, to lighten your load.
I did some of this with my Battlestar Galactica game, where one of the more motivated players would throw out quips about former presidents, places, or things that I would then weave into the background of the Colonies. Wondering aloud about certain things lead me to either use their thoughts as red herrings, or actual plot elements. I would advise against the “too many cooks in the kitchen” approach of modern indie games, especially if you have a very specific story arc to work with, but I’m also a crotchety old guy who’s been running games for three plus decades…so I’m biased.