When you start a new campaign in a custom-built setting, there’s always an adjustment period. Initially your players don’t know anything about the setting and they need to learn a lot just to interact with it. You’ll want to find the best way of introducing players to your world without overwhelming them.
Building Background Information
Before you even sit down for session zero, your players likely need a whole bunch of information just to build their characters. If you dish all this information out verbally, it might be too much for your players to take in. Instead, put together your information in relevant and digestible chunks.
Putting Together a World Wiki
One of the easiest ways to get your players the information they need is to build them a reference document. This can be something as simple as a Google doc that’s shared with the players, or as complicated as a world builder website where players can log in to see information about your world, like Obsidian Portal or World Anvil. In either case the idea is the same: you provide players with written information about your world that they are allowed to access as they need it.
There might be a huge amount of information that you have to share, but you need to break it up. Most players won’t read your entire 5000 page world history document, no matter how cool you think it is. It’s like asking someone to have an accurate knowledge of real world history. They likely only know some of what they were taught and forgot the parts that weren’t super relevant to them.
Your players are looking for small summaries of specific things. You will need to be concise. The information you provide should never come in long form essays, but instead be structured for easy digestion. This means short paragraphs with headers that explain what the paragraph is about.
If you’re using a website to manage this, they’ll likely have a hierarchy setup for you that will make this easier. But if you’re using a shared document, you can easily break things up by using proper header structures. A table of contents is automatically generated in Google docs when you use nesting headers .
When you write your world background you’re providing your players with general information that they’ll know about the world. You could provide this to them in any order you wanted. You drive the story. However, if you want them to remember it and find it functional, it’s best to give it a structure and order that makes sense for an outsiders perspective.
We recommend the top-down approach for breaking things up. This means starting with the big picture stuff for each category. Depending on the scale of your setting, you might start with a continent or kingdom and then work down to individual towns and points of interest.
Similarly, you would divide your content up into geographical, historical, and functional information. They may reference each other, but you shouldn’t try to cram disparate topics together when they can be broken up for easier reading.
Here’s an example of top-down organizational sections:
- Continent > Regions > Kingdoms > Cities, Towns, Points of interest.
- World History > Kingdom History > Location/Event Histories
- Magic in the World > Types of Magic > Spells and Properties
Each section working from the top down might have many parts. But since you’re nesting them, they become easy to find in your table of contents and players can look up what they need to build their characters.
In addition to the lore you write for your campaign, players will need to know a lot of rules-based information. Are there race and class restrictions? What starting locations are available? How does the world treat magic/are their different rules than the ones in The Player’s Handbook?
You should answer these questions in a separate section of your document. If you have a lot of additional information for your players, make sure that you have some step by step instructions to help get them started. For example, if you use a completely new magic system, you’ll need to guide your players through how that alters their character creation process.
Introducing Players to Your World
You can’t just dump all this information on your players and walk away, assuming that they will figure it out. When you give your players access to this you need to be available for questions, comments, and any guidance they need. We’ve used a group chat to help with this in our campaign, but you can just as easily do this in person in a session zero.
The key take away is that your players don’t have the world fixed in their minds yet and you are going to have to fill in gaps. No amount of preparation will cover everything. It’s your job as a DM to rise to these challenges and improvise as needed. Introducing players to your would should always be a gradual process. As they learn more, the world feels more alive.
A Good Primer is Worth Its Weight in Gold
It may seem daunting to write up all this information, but the best way to tackle it is head on. Some people start with an outline, while others organize as they go. But the more you sit down and write, the more information you’ll build over time. We’re not suggesting you do this all in one sitting, and we’re definitely not suggesting you do this in a single draft. Writing up a good background for your world takes time and thought; you don’t have to rush.
Even more than this, you don’t have to know everything about your world from the beginning. If you write a document, you can always add to it as the story progresses to keep the whole affair updated and relevant to your campaign.
Start now, don’t look back; you won’t regret the time you put into this material.