Of late I have been delving into the city of Marienburg, and as such have been reading lots of Marienburg: Sold Down the River. Reading through this material has kicked up my old thoughts on playing in an established setting, and I thought I would give my new musings a go...
Published Settings: Wading Through the Muck
Marienburg isn't the first published setting I've ever played in - but it is by far the most detailed. Usually, like with Praag or Into the Expanse, I find some way to bypass the majority of the information whilst still holding onto the mainstay themes - but something is different about Marienburg.
M:SDtR is such a comprehensive look at the otherwise unique city that I am finding myself both mystified by the wealth of knowledge and somewhat annoyed. I love that there are hundreds of ready made hooks for me, and I am adapting many of them, and shaping new ones from the information given, but I find something off about the process.
Whilst I am enjoying it, no doubt, I find the amount that is written is hard to wrap my head around. Unlike Praag, the setting isn't evolving naturally in my mind - it isn't built with broad strokes and then little bits are being added in. It is laid out in terms of districts, and then it goes through, important building by important building, with an important NPC accompanying each one. This is cool, because it gives me heaps of detail, but it is terrible because it references aspects that I can't find, or can't accurately remember because they were 3 chapters ago.
I'm finding that the whole thing should be written in a more concise manner, but then that asks the question, "How could it be done better?"
Principals of World Building
There are generally considered 2 methods of World Building, which are not mutually exclusive (in fact, almost every World Builder I've ever met has used both for the same world at different times). These are Top-Down and Bottom-Up
Top-Down World Building assumes that the World Builder is starting with the broadest strokes possible. They may create a planet, with its climate features, tectonic plates, etc, and will leave massive gaps. They will name a few countries, maybe, or even just continents.
In terms of Marienburg, this would be drawing the map, naming the districts (or Wards), and perhaps loosely outlining what each is: Tempelwijk is where the temples are, Suiddock is the main dock, Elftown is where the Elf Enclave is. Simple, and broad.
Once this first step has been done, the World Builder will go onto create the major trade centres, or cities, etc, in each country. They will probably name the government, and outline some basics about it. For Marienburg, they will talk about the Ten, and the Directorate, and the Guild We Haven't Heard Of.
They will keep going down a step when they have finished the previous level, filling in the gaps of people once they have outlined the roles and the whys.
This system is great, because it gives everything context, but is difficult because it presents to much work from the get-go. A World Builder working at this level has to think of a lot of things at the same time. So, many turn to Bottom-Up...
Bottom-Up is the inverse of Top-Down. The World Builder doesn't care about the world as a whole, but the individual. They will begin with a concept, like a guild, or a character, or even a system of magic. Suggest it begins with a Crime Lord. They will work him out, fill in his details, and then build his gang members, and then the Guild itself, then the location it is based in, then the city, country, continent, world from there.
In Marienburg terms, you'd start with the secret that St. Olovald isn't actually a saint, but a god in his own right. Then you'd make Sister Hilli to tend his shrine, then his history, etc.
This system is great because it allows more thorough creativity and individual cool ideas, as well as a much more manageable work load. It falls down, however, in that the World Builder often ends up with many small islands, barely connected to one another. Doesn't that Crime Lord need to interact with other organisations? Now you have to go back and edit!
What Does This Have To Do With Published Settings?
Everything. The way a published setting is written determines how it is read, and therefore, learnt. I suggest, like good World Builders, to create and write about a setting in a mixed way. Obviously one can't do both in book form without copying all the text twice and presenting it first by broad strokes, and then by individuals... But they could do that with a wiki...
Using a wiki program, or a wiki-capable program (like MyInfo, which I have now been using for a year) allows the World Builder/GM to slowly add to his work and manage it, whilst linking to other threads, and organising the entire thing into manageable chunks/folders/tags.
My Advice on Published Settings?
If I could say one thing about published settings it is that they will never be as good as your setting. You will always present your own setting better than a book ever can. This doesn't mean you should throw out your source books, but it means you have to make them your own.
Get a wiki together, and build it as you will use it. Don't include everything, otherwise you'll just be copying the book, but include enough that it makes sense, and allows you to access everything you'll need to, session to session. Keep it updated, and you'll manage that setting, and wade through that muck.