The Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding have been floating around over the weekend. Coincidentally, a friend asked me for advice on his campaign intro document. Those two together got me thinking about the following.
If you’re the sole GM for your group, and whatever you want to run is what gets played, then this advice may not be tremendously useful to you (though it’s still recommended for getting your players totally on board). It’s meant mostly for groups like mine, where several of your players also like to GM, everyone has limited time to game, and they have to be choosey about what campaigns they commit to playing.
If your players have been bugging you to run a particular game, this is the easy part. “You guys want to play X, right?” you will say, “Well that’s what I’m running.” Most of the time these will be games with an existing setting; your players already have visions of the kind of characters they’d want to play and things they want to do in the world. Even if they weren’t specifically asking to play, using a game with a defined setting that your players already understand makes it much easier to get them on board (or convince them that this isn’t the game for them).
But what if you’re trying to sell them on something you’ve invented? This is most common for fantasy games, but of course fits any sci-fi, modern, historical, etc. games where you’re doing most of the heavy lifting of setting design to match your own vision. This can also include existing games that your players are unfamiliar with; you have to explain to them why you like the setting enough to run it.
Your first step is the high concept. This is your classic Hollywood pithy summary of the game idea, ideally in one sentence. You can go the reference route, using non-game media (“It’s like Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings!”) or existing games (“It’s like Vampire: the Masquerade meets Birthright!”). If nothing you can think to reference that your players would know seems close enough, you can expand the ideas into a short form (e.g., “You’re an elite cadre of Doppleganger-hunters within a kingdom at war; anyone could be a shapeshifter, even your party members!” or “You’re Dukes that have just broken free of a mad king and turned to the Vampire Lords for aid in the civil war.”).
You’re looking for the “…go on” moment, where you’ve piqued their interest enough that they’re ready to hear more.
That’s when you give them the elevator pitch: a couple of paragraphs of information about the game. You’re still in concept phase; you should be pointing out the things about the game that you love the most and anything you know your players are also particularly interested in. What are your players going to get to do in the game? What are they going to get out of it that they haven’t out of every other game they’ve played? Act like your players are your busy boss and you have one minute to sell them on your dream.
You’re looking for the “tell me more about…” moment. Then, and only then, do you whip out the twenty page player document you wrote up or start going on at length.
What you’re trying to create is a spark of interest that will carry them through the lead up into the game and have them bursting with ideas during chargen. Sure, they’re your friends and might feel obligated to play whatever you put out there. But if they’re anything like my players, they’re busy people that are only going to get around to reading what you’ve written about your setting quickly if you give them a good reason. Working from a high concept to an elevator pitch to a background document also ensures they know what you really want to focus on, and what themes they should be looking for in the grander document.
Ultimately, though, you don’t want to feel like your players are in your game because yours is the only game in town, even if it’s true. If you treat them like you know you’re competing for their free time with other hobbies, games, and leisure-time activities, you’ll have a lot more inertia at the start of your campaign. And, if nothing else, early investment in the concept leads to player characters better tuned towards what you want them to do, which should keep you from having to throw plots at the wall early on hoping one will stick.
The Player Document
So now that you’ve gotten buy in, you have to actually give the players enough information to begin interfacing with your campaign setting.
Not all players like to read big documents. Even your most interested readers can get overwhelmed with too much minutia. The biggest trick to player information is that less is more; the shorter you can get your document, the more likely it is that all of it will get read all the way through. Thus, the trick is to keep it as short as possible while telling the players everything they need to know to make characters. Three pages is great. More than a dozen is pushing it.
You’re not trying to hit everything a new character would need to know, just what’s important for players to know when they’re making characters. They can always ask you more questions about specifics (and, ideally, you have enough space in your design for them to suggest ideas they think are cool that you then work in). Instead, you need your document to be three things:
- Succinct: Break everything down into bite-sized nuggets. Here is a kingdom, here is a group players can belong to, here are some bad guys, etc. There’s a reason why White Wolf got so far on the splat model; every part of your setting that can have its own high concept makes it easier for your players to each focus on elements of interest. One guy sees that there are druids fighting against desert-creating mages and is all on board. One girl wants to be a pirate that fights the undead plague. Again, it’s better to let your players ask you for more information than to bury them under too much up front.
- Cool: Everything you put in your document needs to burn with why the players should care. Why did you put this in here? What does it do that’s unusual and interesting? Why did you need to make your own setting instead of using an off the shelf one with tweaks? Your introductory document needs to show why you’re excited to run this campaign; your enthusiasm is hopefully infectious. If you put something in your document that you don’t have a reasonable expectation that your players will look at and say “that’s cool,” take it out or change it until it is cool.
- Aspirational: Players, bless their hearts, are easily won over with the shiny. It’s a big win to let them start play as something awesome. It’s an even bigger win to suggest how they’ll become even more awesome if they’re in for the long haul. Special groups, vacant leadership positions, and long-lost abilities and items are great things to suggest in your document. If you’re planning a long campaign, you want your players to have long-term plans from the first session; these plans might change, but being able to make them is an excellent channel for creativity in character creation.
If you’ve created a document focused on the awesome of your setting, your players are already bursting with character ideas that fit directly into the kind of game you want to run. This is the point where you start to figure out exactly what you’re doing and making sure the player ideas will all mesh into a harmonious party (or not so harmonious if you expect a little PvP). If someone’s idea doesn’t really fit, you have to delicately shift him or her onto a concept that fits better with the others. Letting the player stick with something that doesn’t really fit can lead to problems that may be much harder to solve once you’re playing the game. But being too up front about “that concept doesn’t work, pick another one” might be touching the butterfly wings of the player’s interest in the setting. You know your setting better than anyone else, so can figure out what might work better while changing as little as possible about the concept.
You can also use group character creation. It really seems like the coming thing, and it’s starting to confuse me when new games don’t include mechanics to ensure that there’s a good reason to make a group of player characters that are already strongly hooked together and ready to cooperate.
As mentioned last week, you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let players create things that will appear in game. There’s no easier source of investment than a player’s idea becoming important to the whole campaign. Even beyond NPCs, look for opportunities to engage your players in creation of things in the world; leave vague spots in your campaign notes and let players associated with them pull them into focus with new ideas. As long as it doesn’t seem like it will make a player too powerful or break something the players aren’t aware of beyond fixing, it’s a total win. The player gets creative input and you get to not bother detailing something until you know the players are interested in it.
Character creation for a campaign is a little like tending a bonsai tree; you have to be delicate about it, but if you correctly channel the players you wind up with perfectly molded PCs that can hit the ground running on the plots you want to run rather than naturally grown PCs that don’t really fit into the game. Even if you’re trying to make a total sandbox, it’s important to guide the players into making characters with the right tools to play in the sand. If you’re running a more scripted game, you’ll save yourself a ton of stress if the PCs roll off the assembly line with easy hooks into the plot and temperaments suited to active pursuit.