So you’ve got a great setting to run: homebrewed or published. You’ve crafted pages of material or pored over every supplement. You know every detail. You can GM the hell out of this world. Now how do you show the players this place?
I’ve tried all kinds of approaches to setting presentation: gazetteers, hyperlinked web sites, key lists, collaborative design. Recently in L5R I used a trick to explicate spycraft and give a player ownership. That got me thinking about those many different ways I’ve gone about doing painting the backdrop. That’s changed over time for me and I've shifted techniques to fit the needs of particular campaigns. Like most GMs I love discovery through play, but know I have to balance that with set up.
I used to spend days and weeks writing & developing campaign background. And when players didn’t engage with the material I got irritated. In some cases they didn’t read the handouts. In others they couldn’t absorb the mass of vomited info. Over time I saw where I wasted effort, producing work which never actually hit the table. I comforted myself with the thought that it added depth or could be repurposed later. But it rarely turned out that way. Eventually I moved to doing less. Yet I suspect even my more minimal approaches look overelaborate to some.
Many published settings overwhlem as well; especially long-running gamelines or one based on other properties. For example, I dig the Iron Kingdoms setting, but it’s massive and sprawling. If you include Hordes material, it becomes even more complex. If I wanted to run that, I’d first have to consider how to condense and explain the peoples, kingdoms, and nature of magic & tech. I dig other settings presenting similar difficulties: Legend of the Five Rings, Kerberos Club, Fading Suns, Exalted. It isn’t true for all published worlds. For example most GUMSHOE settings build on strong and easily pitched concepts: Mutant City Blues (cops with powers controlling supers), Night’s Black Agents (spies vs. vampires), Ashen Stars (mercenary space problem-solvers). Their atmosphere works with a logline and a little backstory.
To figure out gamemaster “Best Practices” for setting presentation I’ve create a list of approaches. Some overlap, some offer small variations, some skip the setting, some skip the GM. I’m certain this isn’t complete. So I’m curious about your techniques. What have I missed? When do you use particular techniques and why? Do you have specific tools that have served you well? Any and all feedback’s appreciated.
Player Booklets: The classic. The GM prepares a lengthy synopsis of the setting. This might include a timeline, history, details of the peoples, etc. In our recent podcast episode show- casing Sam's campaign, he describes creating a substantial player reference book. Several of the D&D Gazetteers provide these as well: a distinct player supplement, usually with history and mechanical options. Part of the trick here is figuring out what the players need to know and avoiding info dump.
Cut to the Core Book: For published settings, the GM may allow/request/require players to read the rulebook and the background presented there. They might limit that to certain chapters or broaden it to assorted secondary materials and splat books. This gets everyone on the same page. Of course, this brings up the perennial question of "meta-information." How much do the players know versus their character? I've had problems with this in the past. I ran a Changeling the Lost campaign with PCs fresh from the Hedge and new to their existence. One player had studied the core book and assumed he knew everything there. He and I clashed a couple of times on that. In retrospect I should have been clearer about the ground rules regarding that info.
Licensed Source Material: A variation on the above, the GM of a licensed game uses the original books, comics, or films to convey the setting. It’s easier to do this with a narrower setting, for example based on a single book or TV series. It’s more problematic when the material exists in several mediums. If you’re running The One Ring is it enough to have seen the movies? Or do the players need to know the lore and have read the trilogy? The Silmarillion? Or closer to home, what about Star Wars? Which parts are canon? In my campaign I flatly stated only the original trilogy definitely happened.
Sliced Setting: The GM has written material but cuts it down to one narrow segment of the setting. That narrow perspective's used as a starting point to see the world. Chris Handley recently did this for Iron Kingdoms, using an all-Trollkin group to focus presentation. I can imagine an all-Hobbit game for LoTR or an all Cop game for Cyberpunk.
Wikis and Online: A player-booklet variation which uses blogs, wikis, and portal sites to increase accessibility. Information can be added to or modified easily. An encyclopedia approach with hyperlinks lets players roam through the material. A couple of times I’ve combined this with a “Weekly Teaser.” Once we’ve established I’m going to run, I’ll post entries and articles in the run-up to the campaign. For my Exalted campaign, this allowed me to make a rich setting without overwhelming players. Alternately, if a game has an existing independent wiki, the GM can direct them to that. However this isn’t a great solution since that info’s often chaotic and potentially filled with spoilers.
One-Sheet Summaries: The GM reduces everything they think the player needs to know to a single page. This could be a single global summary or a set of sheets tailored to each character. This seems like a good idea for conventions, but it does eat up time. Players will always go through these sheets at the table and lose focus on what you’re saying. The alternative is to wait and sit in silence while discovering the different reading speeds of your group.
What My Father Told Me: A specific form of one-sheet created for Glorantha. It focuses on a single culture, clan, or peoples. It’s a great tool because it nicely covers a character's typical upbringing. Their experience may differ, but they at least know the baseline. I’ve used this in a couple of ways. On the one hand, I’ve presented it as a set of choices for players. That does make for a chunk of material for players to skim before play begins. On the other hand in the Last Fleet campaign, players selected their characters' origins and then I had them write up a WMFTM sheet for that. That gave them expertise and control.
Player-Facing Materials: A variation on some of these approaches, in particular player booklets. This provides information fully from the character's point of view: documents, letters, overheard conversations. The WMFTM above takes this approach. City of Lies remains my favorite example of this. It provides a document describing the city of Ryoko Owari for incoming Magistrates. Many characters aren’t named which offers a mystery; some of the information’s noted as outdated; and references come from several sources- including a couple of uncertain reliability. Beyond that the set contains a completely separate journal which serves as a plot-moving discovery.
Player-Facing Materials “Meta”: Another kind of player-facing material combines setting explanation and player control. Plot and story choices merge with description. For example, the Kaiin Player’s Guide for DERPG describes the neighborhoods as well as events happening there. Players, rather than the GM, can choose what to engage with and make the session's story. Cairn does a similar thing, built around the notable NPCs of the setting. I emulated that with my L5R Spymaster write-up. Rumor sheets, as used in Geanavue: The Stones of Peace, also use this. This approach assumes the characters have deeper knowledge than their players. It works to make the feel they have that mastery.
Unimportant to the Play: The setting/backstory’s unimportant to play. A one shot might focus purely on the interaction of the players. You could be simply dungeon-crawling. Or perhaps you operate in a setting with established common details, like a 1920’s Call of Cthulhu game where the players interact with a generic “society.”
Puzzle Piece: A little bit like the above, but there’s a setting and it may have impact on choices. For example a Hex-Crawl where the players discover facts as they move from section to section. This might be pre-defined or rolled randomly by the GM. The actual background and what it means emerges through play. In a sense the setting’s unimportant during character creation, but becomes a factor through exploration.
You Already Know: They players have played in the setting before. They earned their knowledge through previous play. Alternately could apply to games set in a shared real world city.
Aspects: Instead of defining specifics of a place or setting, you define it via catchphrases or short descriptors. Fate leans heavily on this. Cities, peoples, neighborhoods could all be defined in this way. “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” “Sense of Hopelessness,” “Heavily Patrolled” for example set up a tone. For an even more short-hand approach, areas might be defined numerically. Ratings in different aspects provide the players baseline info.
Q&A: Each session, the GM assigns one or more players to choose a topic they want to hear more about. The GM then prepares that information for the next session. This can be used to flesh out plot points, clarify backgrounds, and connect to current or future plot points. The GM can tune the number of responses to their schedule (everyone gets a request, the petitioner varies from session to session).
Collaborative Creation: Players and GM work together to build the setting. Microscope can be used for this, and Questlandia and Fate include this as a key mechanic. Participants shape the world to their interests. It generates new ideas as they bounce concepts around. Importantly all players begin with the same level of knowledge about the setting. Rather than passively reading or being read to, the players actively participate and invest in the setting. It promotes expertise and mastery. This process has a couple of drawbacks. For example, how to handle a collaboratively created campaign where new players join later? It also requires a GM who is willing to build and play with material they didn’t generate.
Collaborative Authority: Rather than or in addition to pre-game development, the GM asks players to define ideas during play. For example, if someone wants to encounter a non-human, the GM asks the player(s) what kind there are in the world. Questlandia uses a variation of this. It has the group collaboratively define the setting. But important locations, issues, and aspects developed are then parceled out to the players. They gain the final say on those points. When a related question comes up, the group turns to that authority.
Structured Collaboration: The setting’s fleshed out collaboratively, but based on an existing structure. For example Kingdom comes with some set frames. These spell out the general picture, but then the group walks through and makes selections from a menu about the details and problems facing them. DramaSystem takes a similar but looser approach where players have a pitch and then work through questions to flesh it out.
Mediated Collaboration: In this version, the setting and information indirectly comes from the player choices. Players create their characters and fill in details. The GM uses this on-the-fly to create the backdrop. This ties elements the players have selected to the game at hand. Spelling out the setting and communicating that to the players still rests in the GM’s hands. Dungeon World, for example, takes this approach.
Again, what’s missing? When do you use a specific technique and how does that serve the game? What devices have you used for this? What's your experience with the relative strengths or weaknesses of these?