I’ve realized over time that I can appreciate, and want to design, games where the player has a very good idea what they should be doing. Other things may emerge during play, but this one thing is what drives the game. Players get it quickly, a very important consideration nowadays since available time for gaming is getting shorter for most players.
Classic D&D gets this very well: it’s about raiding dungeons for loot. So did the first run of the Star Wars RPG, by WEG: it was about opposing the Empire. I think Pendragon got it too, but its core concept just doesn’t appeal to enough people: Pendragon was about exploring the ideal of chivalry.
The setting details provided, the character creation rules, and game mechanics should all dovetail with this desired core activity or story. This specially applies to world-building, as it’s too easy to get into a spree of adding more elements for their own sake, or because you’re trying to make sure suspension of disbelief will hold. This is my own personal bugbear, so it’s something I always have to be watchful of. Gotta remember that players and GMs as a rule are pretty creative folks, so they really don’t need that much info; just enough to get started, and after that it’s their own game.
The world info I provide, however, must do two things: it must give players and GMs ideas for what to do in the game, and it must have enough flavor or urgency of appeal that makes it appealing to engage. Villain? Has to matter to the player characters, and something that makes the players want to oppose him. Whacking orcs because they’re orcs can get stale pretty quickly. But whacking orcs because they’re destroying your hometown – that’s something else.
Which brings me to my insight for the day: I want my game settings to be worlds in crisis. Star Wars is the perfect icon for this – you want the Empire to fall (or the Rebel scum to be crushed, if you’re feeling Sith-y). Nobody gets to stay neutral in the end. This is also the reason why playing a Jedi in Star Wars, using the Rebellion-era setting, is so appealing to me: the character starts out under pressure right out of the box, which makes me want to do things.
Now this gives me an idea: what if the player characters are survivors of Atlantis, their civilization destroyed, and they are now forced to make their way in the savage lands of Post-Diluvial Earth? Hmmm ….