Nov 022011

You’re getting ready to run a game for your favorite gaming group. The setting you want to use is one of the richest published settings you’ve ever used (Star Wars, Eberron, Dresden Files, Warhammer 40k, etc.). You’ve got an idea for an epic story that is going to touch on many themes of the setting, and hopefully culminate into an “Oh, wow… that was incredible!!” moment for those that are familiar with the setting. You want to reward your long-time friends and fellow gamers, some of whom are also fans of this setting.

But what of your friends who have never read, seen or heard of any aspect of this setting? You know that until they have a much deeper understanding of this setting, they might not fully understand or appreciate the elements you’re using, and thus may respond inappropriately to the situations you’re roleplaying. At best, this may cause a disconnect between them and the story that your group is crafting, keeping players (who have much to contribute) from contributing as constructively as you know they can. At worst, this may cause irritation or a disruption of enjoyment for those at the table who are such fans of the setting.

In my experience there are several ways of tackling this bugbear (for me and some in my current DM’s group, it’s a bugbear; your group might only consider it a gnat, in which case this article should not apply – cheerfully ignore the rest!!). Choosing the method will depend heavily on the player(s) involved, how important the sanctity of the setting is to your group, and the level of immersion and verisimilitude your group is looking for. I’ve listed them in order from my least favorite to most favorite:

Exclude the player from this particular game. “If I don’t have to teach this setting from scratch, I can wrap it in 10 weeks or less.” You may justify this harsh choice with thoughts along these lines, and this may even be a valid choice depending on your group’s schedule, membership and other factors. We’ve made this choice in the past. Some players may even excuse themselves if they don’t like or want to learn this new setting. However, if you do exclude the player(s), you may be hurting feelings (duh), but as importantly, you are costing a friend the opportunity to become familiar with a setting that you love. This can also be a tough, if not impossible, choice for smaller groups to make.

Change your campaign approach to slowly familiarize the players with the important elements that you want to cover. This method seems to me to work the best for introducing players to the game from your point-of-view. The reason it ranks lower for me is because there is still a large lag time for players to get up to speed with understanding the setting well enough to make logical contributions that are consistent with the norms of the setting. Also, you are limiting them to your point of view, disallowing them the opportunity to make contrasting contributions that are still in keeping with the greater setting, enriching everyone’s experience. Finally, you are compromising the game and experience you want to deliver. You might be forced to expand the length of your campaign to the point where you or the players burn out before getting to the big finish.

Teach the setting beforehand. This method definitely has its pros and cons. Learning a bit about the setting beforehand allows players to decide if the setting is right for them. Spending too much time on this approach wastes the time of those who are ready (or think they’re ready) to dive in (which is usually everybody!!). Every minute at the table lecturing or seminaring is a minute that is not being spent gaming! Some groups may like this approach, but we tend to limit it to nights where we wrap earlier than expected, times when too many players can’t make it so we can start prepping for the next campaign.

Have the player manage this from his character’s point of view. You could suggest the player have some reason for his character not understanding the norms of the setting (amnesia, being a foreigner, being a man out of his era and unfamiliar with this new world, etc.). The understanding between you and the player might be that they become more familiar with the setting as their character becomes more familiar with the setting, or something similar. However, be wary that the player is not just being lazy to use this as an excuse for not learning the setting/system or worse, for justifying disruptive roleplaying choices and then whining about the consequences (“Why are you having my god take away my powers??” “What do you mean that’s against the law in this setting, that makes no sense?!?!”). This has had huge, game-disrupting ramifications for our group in the past that ultimately showcased how disruptive one player was, and resulted in him being ejected by our DM.

Task the player with familiarizing himself with the setting. This is my ideal choice and works best the more motivated the player is to learn the setting anyway. The player spends his time away from the table learning about the setting, giving him the frame of reference to minimize distractions at the table. However, not everyone has the same amount of free time. Family, school, work and hobbies all differ in importance from player to player. You can ease the burden on your players by preparing players’ aids emphasizing the aspects that will be important to this particular campaign. This can be especially helpful during character/party creation, especially if you are limiting the scope to certain elements of the game. For players who can’t or won’t use personal time to expand their knowledge away from the table, ask them to be mindful of the group’s experience, efforts, and desires, and endeavor to allocate a minimum amount of effort to identify with at least some small part of the setting. This can increase their understanding and everyone’s enjoyment.

Well, that’s my two cents. Just remember that this article does not apply to everyone. It does apply to the immersive roleplayer who wants to see everyone’s character come to life for a very memorable campaign. It applies to the player who wants to make meaningful choices that have impact that resonates because of a setting, not just in spite of it. It applies to those players who constantly bring their A-game and want the same consideration from their fellow players. In short, it applies to those seeking the experience we at the Shack refer to as Next Level Gaming.

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Colin Dowling

I’m an avid gamer who enjoys RPGs, board and video games (I’m currently replaying the Dawn of War games due to an overabundance of Warhammer 40K and Fantasy exposure). When I’m not hopelessly wasting time with these games or my wage-slave job, I’m moonlighting as a know-it-all for my chummers at the ’Shack. Peace, and watch out for street sams, they’re everywhere (just like chupacabras). Profile Page / Article Portfolio.

  4 Responses to ““Read This or Die!” Immersing Your Players in a Rich Campaign Setting”

  1. I can’t pin down the exact moment, but there was definitely a turning point of me just wanting to make a character to kill stuff and explore dungeons, and then making a character to fit into a specific setting. You know, sometimes I go back and forth.

  2. I hear you, Dillon! For me, it definitely depends on the setting, players and GM. I used to enjoy the occasional one-shot to grind through a quick story (horror, Pulp Nazis must die, etc.) or just do some beer-and-pretzels gaming.

    Nowadays my RPG time is so limited and precious, I prefer to spend it with immersive storytelling. If I can’t do that, I prefer to grab a board game with my friends.

  3. “Task the player with familiarizing himself with the setting”. I agree with you that this is the optimal choice. I have found the “player’s guides” that many company’s put out to be a great way of motivating the players. They are (relatively) cheap and serve the purpose well, giving the players access to setting material but not the GM section.

  4. I concur!

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