Five Things Everybody Knows about Campaign Details
- A detailed campaign is filled with millions of little things your players don’t know, but which would be well known to their characters
- You want your players to understand the world in which their characters move; the geography, history, and societies that shape the campaign’s events
- It would be nice to have a mechanism for slipping in adventure-relevant details in a subtle manner
- Prep time is always at a premium, and if interesting details can’t be dealt with efficiently they’re sometimes overlooked
- Your players simply aren’t going to read a 100-page campaign manifesto, and you’re no Ed Greenwood anyway
It’s new campaign time. You’ve lavished your love and creativity on an entire world, detailing whole societies, structuring massive cities, envisioning factions and nations and allies and foes, and breathing life into a veritable army of NPCs. It’s going to be your magnum opus, the realm in which your imagination dwells for hundreds of game sessions to come. The scene of sweeping adventure and epic plots!
Or maybe you haven’t put so much work into it; maybe most of these elements are vague ideas that you will bring to life as your campaign finds its feet and the details require themselves.
Or, heck, maybe you aren’t making it up at all. Maybe you’ve just pulled an old copy of Planescape off the shelves, and you’re hankering to give it another whirl.
Either way, you face a challenge: Transfer the details and life and color and drama and atmosphere of your new setting from your imagination (or old boxed set that none of your friends own) to that of your players. Give them the depth of vision necessary to inform their character concepts and backgrounds and develop a necessary understanding of your world’s makeup and history. Not to mention slip in the odd adventure seed or vital insight or clue.
You could do this by writing out an entire campaign sourcebook—your own personal Eberron Campaign Setting. But you’re not Keith Baker, and even if you were, the truth is half of your players would never bother to read it anyway.
So here’s a different way to go about it. (This method, incidentally, owes something to Eberron; I was inspired to it by, I think, the Eberron Player’s Guide. Or perhaps Five Nations. Sorry I can’t confirm the exact title; my game collection is currently somewhere on the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.) As you prep for a game session, pick a topic. Perhaps something immediately relevant—a town or event or NPC that’s figuring significantly in the current adventure (or even session). Or perhaps something broader. Perhaps even something utterly unrelated, just an element of color for the setting.
Then come up with five bullet points. Something like this:
Five Things Everybody Knows about Hunting:
- Only the lord of the land has the right to hunt it; other than small game and birds, commoners only hunt if they’re the lord’s huntsmen or (sometimes) archers in need of practice when the lord needs more meat than he chooses to hunt
- Hunting requires hounds—to sniff out prey, pursue it, bring it to bay, and sometimes bring it down; rich hunters have different dogs for each task
- The pike (and sometimes sword) are used for the kill; bows are peasant weapons
- Hunting is often a social pastime; women even take part on occasion
- Bears, boars, and even stags can kill (as can accidents and, well, “accidents”), and hunting has taken many lives
When I used this one in my campaign, a hunting trip was in the cards for that game session. It was mostly color, but there were a few elements that were relevant to how events might unfold. But this technique is great for filling the players in on important campaign drivers (factions, locations, events, etc.). It’s particularly good for breathing life into NPCs:
Five Things Everyone Knows about Céléstine:
- Céléstine is around 15, slight of build with tumbling reddish-auburn locks that she is sometimes lax at keeping covered
- Céléstine has a lovely singing voice, and often sings to herself while working
- It’s no surprise that Céléstine attracts the attention of the boys; they have recently started to come to her attention and there’s a rumor of a boyfriend back at Triamore
- Céléstine has no family at Triamore
- Céléstine can be quite the chatter, but she’s actually somewhat quiet around new people
I bet that paints a pretty good picture for you; compare it to most NPC descriptions. Not bad for 86 words!
Anyway, read your five things to your players at the beginning of the session.
By sticking to bullet points you will force yourself to focus on the most relevant or interesting bits of information. Even more to the point, you won’t bore your players by reading out a long passage of exposition (bullet points encourage you to speak to your players, instead of read at them).
The process takes maybe ten minutes of prep time and five minutes at the beginning of the session. And it really enriches the campaign: One topic doesn’t seem like much, but ten sessions into the campaign you’ve hit on ten topics, and thirty session in you’ve hit on thirty. And the details will really stick with your players!
And it beats the hell out of writing a 100-page treatise. That nobody will ever read.
Give it a try, and let me know what you think!