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The Value of a Setting Bible and Its Contents

A book of arcane knowledge, open on an old, wooden, desktop reading easel. The pages are covered in symbols. A drawer is open. A key next to the book.
A book of arcane knowledge. By Belissa Minomi.
Do you have a Setting Bible? What’s in it? Do you even know what I’m talking about?

Regardless of how you take notes, I’d love to sell you on the value of creating a Setting Bible for your group’s campaign.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, a Setting Bible is used by novelists, screenwriters, RPG designers, world-builders and creative collaborators to record the various “truths” about a shared setting, or world, they are building.

It can…

  • Describe the people, places, organizations and things that populate the setting.
  • List facts and ideas about how the world operates.
  • Provide consistency and, by doing so, supports a greater sense of realism throughout the stories that are told.

A Setting Bible is not a play log – though it may at first seem like one.  It is also not a GM Notebook filled with spoilery notes and ideas to explore during prep. A Setting Bible is a great place to lay out the group’s expectations about the fiction of the setting, the mechanics that will be used and the social contract everyone agrees to enforce at the table. Hand it out to new players to bring them up to speed on the setting.

What do you put in your group’s Setting Bible? The short answer is: whatever you want. Your group’s Setting Bible is there to support the GM and the players as the game evolves. I started with the material my group created during our initial session using A Spark in Fate Core.  Since then, I’ve added an initial timeline and interesting facts and ideas I’ve had about the world in which the heroes move.  As I do my mission prep, anything of common knowledge to the heroes is potential fodder to be added to the Setting Bible.  Likewise, as players contribute ideas to the setting, into the Setting Bible they go.

At a high level, I’ve found it useful to include the following major sections in my Setting Bible:

  • Social Contract
  • About The World
  • About The Campaign
  • Game Mechanics
  • Appendices

I’ll cover each of these briefly.

Social Contract

Social Contracts. Defining, up front, how you handle inconvenience
Social Contracts. Defining, up front, how you handle mild inconvenience.

If you are not sure where else to start, start with a “Social Contract”.

Why Bother with a Social Contract?

In case you haven’t noticed, gamers are an increasingly diverse group. I’ve always considered it a strength of our community, that if you want to throw dice, we’ll pretty much accept anyone1. That doesn’t mean, however, that every gamer is going to want to play with every group.  I don’t know about you, but every time I sit down to throw dice with a new group, in the back of my head I wonder if my “style” of play is going to mesh with the style of play preferred by the rest of the group. By today’s standards, I’m a “storygamer” – l like low-prep, collaborative games that are more cinematic in style because I just don’t have time for anything more intensive.  If you like more traditional Gygaxian-style games with a strong, central GM, that’s cool; they’re both valid! I’d play your game but I most certainly wouldn’t GM one for you and knowing that up-front can save us both a lot of time.

A Social Contract is a good way to capture the important style and interpersonal stuff that matters to your group for playing this particular game or campaign2.  Yeah, it can seem a little silly to put it down on paper but it does serve to smooth out the rough boundaries.  The value of a Social Contract is in the discussion you have more so than in the contents on the page.

What Should I Put In My Contract?

If you don’t know what to include, try one or more of the following:

  • How often are you going to play? Do you have expectations regarding attendance?
  • Is your style more likely to be described as Narrativist, Gamist, or Simulationist?
  • What are your boundaries? Are there any topics that are off-the-table during play? (“Lines and Veils” or “Adds and Bans” from Microscope)
  • Is character death on the table? Under what conditions?
  • Can players contribute content to the setting?
  • What is your point-of-view on meta-gaming or other out-of-character discussion at the table?
  • Do you put any restrictions on the use of electronic devices at the table?
The value of a Social Contract is in the discussion you have more so than in the contents on the page
Not all of these topics are appropriate or necessary to be discussed for every group or at every table.  The point of the Social Contract is to help – in as few words as needed – the members of your group to avoid stepping on each other’s issues.  At a minimum, it seeks to ensure that you all are coming to the table with at least awareness of each other’s expectations.  When new players are invited to join the group, point them to a copy of the Social Contract so they know the group’s expectations for this particular game.  Importantly, if there is something in the contract that doesn’t jive with them, they can address it right up front and the group can either adjust the contract or everyone can agree that this particular game is not a good fit for this particular gamer3. I think that’s okay.

About The World

The meat of the Setting Bible for the current game I GM, after only a few sessions, is all About The World.  This is where I accumulate the “facts” that are widely known to the players about the setting in which their heroes exist.  It is a resource that I refer back to during my GM prep that reminds me what the heroes already know. Players can freely refer to it for ideas when creating new characters or playing their existing ones.

In my current campaign, an alien insect race, the Vore, have invaded and ravaged the earth, nearly wiping out mankind.  The human race was saved by the Joetur, an alien race that pursued the Vore to Earth.  After killing the Vore Queen, the Joetur left the decimated human race to clean up the remaining Vore.  They also left behind a lot of advanced technology. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to that technology and society has split in two: the cyberpunk-esque Collective and the steampunk-esque Free and Independent Arcologies (FIA).

About The World tries to provide a quick reference to this evolving setting.  In it, I provide:

A Timeline

Not everyone thinks this is important and, if your game is only going to last for a few sessions, it probably isn’t.  However, if you are interested in running a game for any significant length of time, at least consider creating a timeline.

A timeline is a great way to give your setting and your campaign a sense of depth. As you tell more and more stories within your setting, each story finds a place in the setting’s history, adds weight and contributes to a sense of consistency.  You know what? Matt Colville did an entire episode of Running The Game on this topic.  Rather than listen to me, listen to him.

If Matt doesn’t sell you on the value of a timeline, consider how a timeline can provide inspiration to players during character creation.

Important Places

Significant places created by the group at the beginning of the game, created by a player to fill out a character backstory or discovered during play should go into your Setting Bible.  They don’t have to be described in great detail – the Setting Bible isn’t an Adventure Module – but an overview of the location is probably in order along with a few details about any points of interest. If you are familiar at all with the idea of Hex Crawl, this should be easy.

An excerpt of a map of Middle Earth with handwritten annotations by J.R.R. Tolkien and Pauline Baynes.
A map of Middle-earth, annotated by JRR Tolkien and Pauline Baynes. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 2016.

With the basics out of the way, additional details could include references to adventures or missions where the location was featured.  Actual Plays or other Campaign Logs that reference the location might be valuable to future game prep. Interesting NPCs associated with the location or interesting discoveries made at the location may also be worth noting.

Depending on the scale of your game, some places are more likely to be revisited than others and, when they are, it can make a significant impact on your players if you are able to recall and build upon important details about those locations and the adventures they’ve already had there.

Important Faces

Significant non-player characters (“faces”) should go into the Faces section of your Setting Bible.  Put in as much or as little detail about them as you need to, but aim for the notes that reflect what the heroes know about the NPC and the details you need to consistently portray that character.  You don’t have to document every mook you decided to give a name to, but if you think a character is going to show up more than once or twice it might be worth throwing a couple of details down about where they were encountered and what resonated with the heroes.

How much do you reveal? That depends on the type of game you are playing.  In my current Fate game, I don’t mind revealing a lot of details to the players.  I’m assuming they are interested in exciting stories and can keep player knowledge separate from character knowledge.  I don’t reveal everything.  I also don’t guarantee that all information provided is set in stone. Unless a hero has personally experienced or confirmed a detail, any information provided is “common knowledge” or “rumor” and therefore subject to change.

From prior experience, don’t underestimate how valuable the growing stable of NPCs can be to both creating new characters and to running future sessions.

Important Factions

What are the organizations and factions that wield power and influence throughout your setting?  List and describe them here.  Just like Faces, you choose what details are important to list right now and how much to reveal to the players and to the heroes.  Just like Faces, if the heroes haven’t seen it, its only rumor and “common knowledge” (which is just another way of saying “rumor”).

As you document your factions, it may be valuable to include details about the Factions goals and objectives. List any important Faces that are associated with the Faction. How about opposing Factions? Or Allies?

If you don’t have the details right now, that’s okay. The Factions section of The Arcology Setting Bible is almost empty right now…but at least I know these are groups that the heroes are aware of and interested in and they may serve as a spark for future missions.

Only focus on what you know right now and let it grow as the heroes interact with the Setting.  As players express interest in different areas, you’ll know where you might spend some additional time during prep.

Technology (or Magic or Powers or…)

This section may not be appropriate for every setting (e.g. a modern setting). However, if the heroes are romping around in a world where the laws of physics are being broken via technology, magic, weird science or other means that defy explanation, you might want to at least spend a few words on what is currently known and understood about these topics and any limits or boundaries around them.

The Technology and Powers section can provide tremendous flavor and inspiration for your setting and as you discover with your players the limits of these topics within your setting, documenting them in your Setting Bible will help to provide consistency and a sense of realism.

About The Campaign

A page from "DM of the Rings", a parody of Peter Jackson's interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"
A Setting Bible might keep you on track when the players go off-track. Comic: “DM of the Rings” by Shamus Young.

Remember how I said that the Setting Bible is not a Campaign Log? Well…even though it isn’t, you still may want to keep a few notes about your campaign in your Setting Bible for easy reference.  This is not the place for detailed Actual Play Reports and, considering that the Setting Bible is available to everyone in the group, this is not the place for the GM to spew forth unfinished plot ideas or missed secrets.  But a few well-considered notes may help to keep everyone on the same page about the story that is emerging through the narrative – and that’s true whether you are a Story Gamer or an Old School Grognard.  Players always find a way to go awry of the best laid plans of mice and men.  Its in their blood.  They can’t help it. When that happens, it is probably worthwhile to take a few notes.

This is something I’m only just starting to do in my own game and already I’m wishing I had done it from the beginning. Even just knowing when I had introduced key NPCs and a few points about the emerging narrative would be really helpful.  As it stands, I have my prep notes from some of the sessions but there are definitely events that were planned for one session and ultimately landed in another.  If your life is busy like mine, don’t underestimate the value of keeping these kinds of notes.

A Season/Episode Guide

I’m organizing my Setting Bible campaign notes into seasons and episodes.  Keeping to that theme, I’m looking for an episode title, the date we played, a synopsis and some key events. I’ll watch for emerging themes and seek to close out a Season after 18-22 episodes, similar to how American television is arranged.

Title and “Air Date”

The name you give to your episode and the actual date you ran the game.  If you keep a game calendar, you might also record the in-game dates in case any of your episodes run out of order.  The fourth episode of my current game was a flashback to an investigation the team’s detective conducted earlier in the timeline and I already have plans for another flashback scene for the team’s engineer – so I’ll probably be adding Game Date to my details. Use what makes sense for you.

Episode Synopsis

Imagine you are writing the 3-5 sentences that will be used to pitch the Movie Trailer for your game – that’s what the Episode Synopsis contains.  You’re looking for the major highlights of the game – something you can jot down immediately after the session while it is fresh.  Trust me, if you wait; you’ll forget it.

Key Events

Key Events are the highlight reel you want to remember.  New NPCs introduced, major clues discovered, anything else of significance.  You can write as much or as little you’d like but, heading into my next session, I’m setting myself a goal of recording one event per Player Character, new NPCs introduced, new discoveries made and that’s it.  It’s not an Actual Play, right?

Game Mechanics

The Game Mechanics section of your Setting Bible should reference all of the various rule books, supplements, house rules and rulings that are appropriate to your game.

A panel from a comic. Three men and two women sitting around a table. On woman, who has found a loop-hole in the game rules, explains to the gamemaster that what she did was not against the rules.
Want to avoid this situation in the future? Record GM rulings in your Setting Bible to save your future sanity. Comic: “Wall of Ice”. Visit Direman Press for the full comic.

In particular, I like to provide character creation guidance.  This is particularly important if you are playing in a system that offers flexible approaches to character creation (e.g. D&D’s various “point buy” vs. “straight 3d6” vs. “4d6, drop the lowest, arrange as desired”, etc., etc.).

You know how House Rules get created? You make a judgment call in a game, everyone decides it was a great ruling and you keep making the same ruling from one game to the next.  Pretty soon, you always play it that way.  New players to your game may not know your rules. If you put them down in the Game Mechanics section of your Setting Bible, everyone has a common understanding of how things are supposed to work.

Nothing sucks for a player worse than building a character on the assumption that the game follows the system’s rules-as-written only later to find out that a key feature of your character doesn’t work the way you expected it to because of a House Rule.

Appendices

In the Appendices of your Setting Bible, you accumulate additional details that you think important to the group.  The Arcology Setting Bible includes regional maps I took from Google Maps, game mechanics I’m considering, and information on United States demographics.  I even included notes from the group’s setting creation session that I felt were important to maintain going forward.

Appendices are your catch-all.

Wiki, Google Doc, Notebook?

It doesn’t matter.

Me? I’m currently using a combination of voice recordings, notebooks, scraps of paper and a Google Doc.  During a game, I’ve started recording the session on my cell phone while I’m also taking hand-written notes (when I remember).  Outside of a game, I take notes on whatever I have available when inspiration strikes.  I then collate and organize all of my notes into a Google Doc.

I’d love to move from the current Google Doc to a wiki at some point in the future. Before I do that, though, I want to make sure the game’s got legs. Having used wikis in the past in a number of different scenarios (both professionally and as a hobbyist), I know a wiki requires a certain amount of administration and care to be really useful.

That’s just how I work. Use whatever works for you and your crew.

One Final Thought

Don’t feel obligated to fill out every detail about your setting. Leave lots of space to fill in later.  What’s important, is that you fill in the most important details of what you and the players know right now and that you continue to add to it during your between-session prep time as more of your world emerges during play. In my current Setting Bible, I have a number of sub-headings under each of these major topics that serve no purpose other than as place-holders and reminders of topics I want to expand upon as I go.

“The Arcology”, An Example Setting Bible

If you’d like, go ahead and take a look at a version of The Arcology Setting Bible – Player Edition. It isn’t intended to be fancy or to be any kind of masterpiece of writing.  It’s functional and full of a lot of gaps, but you can see the framework there. As the heroes of The Arcology grow, so will my Setting Bible.

So…what’s in your Setting Bible? I’d love to know.


  1. Yes, we still have lots of work to do 

  2. I really do think a Social Contract should be written or adjusted for each game, even with the same group.  Each setting and genre brings with it different potential issues for members of the group 

  3. That doesn’t mean this isn’t the group for you.  It may be that just this particular game includes elements that aren’t going to work for some members of the group 

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