...in a rich & consistent fantasy setting
or, avoid reinventing the wheel for your campaign. *

These are set of suggested steps if you find yourself with an interested group of players yet the daunting task of cobbling together a believable, consistent environment for them to explore. This can actually be achieved with some properly allotted preparation time (20~25 hrs for your initial set-up and first session).

  1. Seed concept : don’t work in isolation ~ truly ingenious constructs are born of conversation and collaboration. Talk with your peeps (players) before beginning in earnest - because you’re essentially their director and audience in this potential production. A performance of Antigone with an all Shakespearean troupe would be sadly awkward. Similarly, your elaborate desert campaign is just going to end up disappointing if all your players are serious Celtic enthusiasts.

    Informal brainstorming over coffee or drinks can produce some intriguing foundations ~ best done when most of your potential players are around. If you can evoke a specific parallel time & place, then much of your conceptual groundwork is already established.1

  2. Dense Core vs. Musical Spheres : one difficulty that arises at the outset is the question of where to start - the make up of constellations and moons and planets, or, the temperature and fauna around a local village. Some consistent and all-pervasive historical truths luckily come to your rescue here if you’re going for verisimilitude 2 :

    • first, the vast majority of the world's inhabitants were wicked-poor, illiterate peasants, primarily subsistence farmers or at best artisans, with little or no geographic or historical awareness.

    • This is particularly true of the Dark & early Middle Ages, when most kings and lords could barely read, and aristocrats rarely travelled outside their realm (as it was simply too dangerous & unprofitable to do so). Real travel for most of medieval Christendom didn’t begin until the rise of guilds & universities in the 11-12th c.

    • Those who did travel, pilgrims and merchant-traders, were the primary sources of rumour and current events. There was no paper, books were useless objects to most, or jealously guarded rarities.

    All that last point is a roundabout way of saying, don’t elaborately detail every continent and city in your world just so you can begin the game - most people in the Middle Ages were born, lived & died within a 50km radius, never read a single book, and that pretty much made up the borders of their worldly knowledge. Resist the temptation, in other words, to go big. Start Small.

  3. Tiny Steps: Ever seen a medieval map? Lines drawn from one circle to another that represent ‘you get to A by going to B’ - that was it. No scales, no compasses, no borders, no perspective - this held true until just before the Renaissance. So, make it easy on yourself & your players - map out the wider details as they occur to you.

    That isn’t to say ignore all the micro matters: you’ll need a local religion or two, some kind of rough calendar, names for a few planets & stars - but this & rough description of a 100km area around their starting point or hometown is really all the players should know about the wider world. Any other knowledge they have would more logically be professional skill or localized information.3

  4. Local Colour: Start with a map (and some strong coffee). Words on paper are good, but reality is spatial, not textual and if you want suspension of disbelief, there has to be a logical, geographically sound element to the surroundings. As mentioned above, if you can nail down the specifics of roughly 100km surrounding the players staring point, you’re in good shape for the first little while and the rest will flow from the game; after all, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as spending hours on an intricate map of a secluded forest where the players seem to be headed, only to have them change their mind and veer off in another direction.

    As far as mapping goes, best to draw first and name things after the features. Placenames are pretty transient after all, even fluid, but serious landforms are stable referents. What’s important in that first map?

    • Scale - otherwise travel times are going to be tough to calculate. If you take an 8.5 x 11 sheet, and make each inch 10 km you’re be working on roughly the scale mentioned above. 110km may not sound like a lot ~ but it’s a solid week of walking ~ so for the first little while it ought to do.

    • Major landforms - rolling hills, foothills, mountains, valleys, plains, marshes & forests, along with coastline and large islands (if any).

    • Major rivers & lakes - remember, lakes collect in basins, and rivers run away from high ground to where ever low ground is. Rivers start begin in many branched tributaries, then come together to form larger & larger currents. In other words, the aqua-system of most areas with varied landforms (assuming there's water) should still look like a tree, ending with a trunk river, lake or ocean.

    • Roads, trails & habitations: where there are sources of water, or waterways, in the Middle Ages, without deep wells or aqueduct expertise, this is where communities found it best to congregate - so villages & towns should probably go where you’ve drawn lakes or streams. The bigger the lake, river or harbour, usually the larger a city might conceivably grow. Roads were originally built to move armies first, their commercial value was considered secondary - the opposite holds true for water transport.

    • Local Details : delineate farmland, pastures, wood camps, mills, marshes, bridges, tolls, ruins, fishing ponds - all the little intricacies that make a locality feel like it has depth and history. Then pick the hometown & ratchet up the focus still more by laying down street names, pillories, markets, alleys, wharves, warehouses, guardhouses, taverns, inns, etc.

    • Nomenclature: this was always the worst part for me, banging my head against the wall for names that weren’t all Something-haven, Blank-wood or Thingy-anor. After your fiftieth placename you start to make some bad linguistic calls (same totally applied to people, and if you were tired enough, you ended up with a slew of He-Man names). Save yourself the anxiety & conserve your creative energies for your most important roles - description and surrounding events. If you have a rough geographic parallel in mind, naming is a breeze with all the medieval resources available online (or by a medieval atlas): goggling for map + medieval + 'region you’d like to model after' will give you hundreds of maps, each with dozens of regionally consistent and authentic sounding names for you to adapt. That way, each region’s place names have a consistent sound.4 An impressive resource for historical maps is at the University of Texas Library’s Perry-Castañeda Map Collection: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_europe.html.5

  5. Economics = Politics : Believe it or not, figuring out where the salt & spices come from, who catches the fish, how the metals get mined and hauled to market, who cuts the wood & other rudimentary economics like that will a) convey a realistic sense of life’s business in your setting, b) make it much easier to develop the characters of towns, c) help flesh out the politics, and d) make believable walk-on characters with intelligent motives a lot easier to improvise. A checklist of details to consider:

    • Imported materials - metals? spices? salt? textiles? horses?

    • Exported goods - fish? wood? grain?

    • Movement of goods: Trade routes, caravans, tolls, taxes?

    • Guilds - how many, how big, how competitive & how powerful?

    Answering these general questions (while looking suspiciously like homework) will aid immensely in maintaining some degree of sense to your world - particularly if you want to limit the availability of certain commodities, explain political intrigue or explain banditry/piracy/invasion.

    In terms of political systems themselves - there is a vast spectrum of possibilities -Anarchic, Aristocratic, Autarchic, Authoritarian, Autocratic, Bureaucratic, Capitalist, Collectivist, Colonialist, Commercialism, Communist, Confederates, Constitutional, Constitutional monarchy, Democracy, Despotism, Direct Democratic, Dynastic, Ecclesiastical, Ethnocentric, Expansionist, Fascist, Federalist, Fundamentalist, Gerontocratic, Imperialist, Internationalist, Interventionist, Isolationist, Matriarchy, Meritocracy, Monarchy, Orthodox, Parochialism, Paternalist, Patriarchy, Pluralist, Plutocracy, Police State, Protectionist, Regionalist, Republican, Separatist, Socialist, Theocratic, Totalitarian, Utilitarian, Utopian. Each system experiences different forms of intrigue. Feudalism and other aristocratic forms of governance tend to be subsumed by court intrigues revolving around legacies, dynasties, succession, etc. Republics, on the other hand, obsess over questions of law, rights and public resources. Finally, just as in the real world, a nation might call itself one thing, yet behave quite the opposite. Humans might be treated quite well, but minorities of other races (or the same race), might be subject to entirely different laws, slavery, forced exile, etc. (Thanks Cletus the Foetus for making me think about that).

  6. Wider Maps & Chronologies : A single time line chronology on a 8.5" x 14" will actually encapsulate most of the broad historical detail you should need to get going - unless you have some heavy weight scholar types amongst your players. The truth is, most of your gang probably just wants to PLAY, not receive a twenty minute lecture on the time-shrouded mythic history of...whatever. All you need to worry about in that time line are the broadest historical strokes for now, the major sea changes over maybe the last 500 years, such as:

    • Succession of rulers and/or changes in the form of government;

    • Invasions, movements of peoples, or dramatic mass migrations;

    • Disaster related to plague, fire, disease, famine, pestilence, etc.;

    • Victory in war, establishment or expansion of colonies, major changes in borders, etc.

    Similarly, the far-flung geography of a world means very little to a group of characters with barely a sack of silver between them. So suppress your urge to overboard ~ always focus on what they can see, feel, touch, hear and taste. Tactile description - that’s how to entertain and engage people. This is not to say you can dispense with a wider-scale map, which eventually you will require regardless. The 100km radius local map advocated above should be supplemented by a regional/provincial map detailing an area roughly ~1000 km North-South, with the area you’ve mapped in detail falling roughly in the centre. The most significant use of this regional overview will be allowing name-dropping, allusion and foreshadowing about ongoing events, news, and rumours leaking into the locality from the wider world; in painting, you need a horizon, similarly here your aim is to reveal some distant perspective, however blurry, to give the atmosphere of reality. 6

  7. Finishing Touches : a) soundtrack: nothing’s more important for setting atmosphere, esp. for particularly scenic or cinematic episodes. A list of excellent accompaniment would run a whole other node, i.e. soundtrack to The Mission or Gabriel’s Passion, Avro Part & Henryk Gorecki, Eno’s early ambient Music for Films or Ambient 4/On Land, any drone like Amp, Scorn, Windy and Carl or Lull (for fright scenes), or Dead Can Dance/Love Spirals Downwards/various ethereal stuff for mystical settings; b) battle mats & miniatures : a dry-erase marker & wipe-clean hex map, while expensive, really makes stage-setting & combat immensely more comprehendible, but miniatures are rarely worth the time and money you put into them (unless that’s an end in itself). Truth be told, chess pieces work just as well; c) lighting: lots of candles are the only way to go, and cheap as dirt, though if you want to be on the safe side, get tea candles & put them in dollar store lanterns; d) booze/drugs: you have to have your guests comfortable enough to get into their characters (most people who’ve never taken drama find this pretty challenging sober) and yet they have to be able to think. Moderation, on a full stomach, is usually a workable policy; e) laptops: will only slow things down or sidetrack things. Paper based, table-top gaming relies on improvisation and inter-relation, not a room of people staring at an 11'’ screen. Prep all you want using whatever tools you like, but once you sit down to play, things will flow much better without the puter.

* This is a geek-heavy document, incidentally, so read on at your peril. Also, it's about initial world-set up - not culture, or plotting, etc. which is frankly so hopelessly idiosyncratic its almost impossible to document.
1 Well-document histories on dynamic periods of flux are everywhere (the writings of Marc Bloch, Henri Pirenne & Arnold Toynbee all specialize is the study of disastrous epochs) - and these make excellent role-playing backdrops, if you can establish a particular setting & technological level. If players want to play the equivalent of Pict barbarians expelling imperial legions from their beloved island, you may want to look at the history of Roman Britain. Or maybe they’d rather belong to a crumbling empire (invasion of the Medieval Germanic Tribes in the 3rd-6th c.), or Hospitallers cris-crossing a ravaged land to aid survivors (the plagues and mini-ice age of the 7th-8th c.). There’s also the spread of the Viking incursions in the 8-9th c., the rise of heresy in the 9th-10th c., the Mohammedan conquest of Europe in the 8th-12th c., the early inquisitions and reconquests, etc.
2 If you’re into hack’n’slash, these make great set-ups as well. However, this methodology tend to work best for relatively ‘low magic’ settings/cultures/ecologies which are vaguely realistic. If you’re into multi-dimensional astral travel stuff or fireball-dispensing auto-cannons, most of this polemic is going to sound pretty lame.
3 Speaking of which - this HOWTO comes out of running games for Marvel Superheroes, Paranoia & Top Secret, as well as D&D Basic / Expert / Advanced / 2nd ed. between 84'-92' (crest of enthusiasm, followed by trough of exhaustion). Friends included band nerds and skate punks, art fags and drama kids. Back then though, they all loved a good 6hr game on an Sat. night (!) - which is a social oddity about the mid-80s most folks forget. All detractions aside, these sessions kept us a) at least vaguely sociable, b) interested in the political, economic, and scientific histories of numerous cultures, c) thinking creatively, and in simultaneous layers, about numerous problems *, and d) mostly from sprees of boredom-induced petty crime.
* Combat can be crazy-making complex, esp. outside, if three PCs fire missile weapons, two charge, two begin spell casting, others take cover, flank etc. This sort of multi-dimensional, conditional calculus got me through science math and physics, a breeze compared to working out first strike, fog modifiers and wayward arrow hits for combat between eight players and a fortified village of trolls.
4 Cletus the Foetus' tip on naming: Pick a language, and create names that are vaguely reminiscent of that language. Most fantasy names (like from Dragonlance) were modelled after Medieval Latin but there's nothing inherently "medieval" about it. For cultural reasons another Euro-Caucasian language could be chosen (IE, Finno-Urgic, Caucasian, Semitic) or something crazier (like Swahili), or mix two languages (Greco-Latin, Swahili-Latin).
5 Period & historical maps are mostly public domain, online & easily retrofitted in Photoshop - adding realism to a world while saving aeons of cartographic bother.
6 HM rightfully objected to my passing over this crucial step, the 'macro' world view, so this revision is added at his suggestion. That said, I still counsel against mapping on a continental scale at the outset. This invariably detracts from local detail - mood, political atmosphere, social climate, etc. - which are vital to establish in the first few sessions.