Gnome Stew reader Max sent us this article request, and it piqued my interest (thanks, Max!):
Hi there. I’ve been an avid Gnome Stew reader for some time now. You guys have a lot of excellent advice and suggestions that have been infinity useful in my gaming.
Anyway, my question/suggestion is thus; do you have any advice on writing a world bible or players guide for a homebrew setting? Just general advice on editing, how much fluff is too much or too little, format suggestions, or simply whether or not players really care that much.
A bit of a vague query, I know. But I’ve been working on one for a little while now and I wanted to see if the gnomes had any suggestions.
When I read Max’s suggestion, I immediately thought of two products: A Player’s Guide to Ptolus, for Monte Cook’s D&D 3.x setting of the same name, and the Birthright Conspectus, a promotional item TSR put out as a free intro to Cerilia back in the days of AD&D 2e.
If you don’t own or aren’t familiar with these products, you can check out the Guide to Ptolus for free on DTRPG, and the folks at Birthright.net typed up the text of the Conspectus.
My own attempts, as a GM, to write player-oriented “settings introductions” haven’t turned out very well. I’ve always tended to go overboard, which is the wrong approach. And in more recent years I’ve run games in licensed settings — well-defined worlds with lots of intro material available — or run games with limited/no assumed setting, where the group creates the setting as you play. So from the GM’s side of the screen, this isn’t my wheelhouse.
But as a player, I’ve been handed/sent my share of setting intros over the years, I know what I like, and I’ve watched closely to see how other players react to this sort of thing. And a lot of what I like, and what folks I’ve gamed with over the years seem to like, is front and center in the Guide to Ptolus and the Conspectus, so I’ll refer to them as examples below.
Five Keys to a Great Setting Intro
For my money, a good players’ guide to your homebrewed campaign world should have these features:
- Be as short as possible while being effective. No one likes homework, and setting guides can easily slip into homework territory. “You have to read this [drops heavy book on table] before you can create a character” is a surefire way to make me politely decline to play in your game.
- The meat of the Ptolus guide runs 24 pages, which is pretty long for this sort of thing. But you could read just the first couple of pages, and maybe skim a couple more pages, and have a pretty good feel for the setting. If you liked that taste, reading the rest doesn’t represent a huge undertaking.
- The Conspectus is a double-sided eight-fold poster. There’s maybe two pages of text on the whole thing, but those two pages are packed with information. This is perfect.
- The Guide to Ptolus nails this in the first couple of pages.
- …as does the Conspectus. The back of the Conspectus wins here just because it’s a gorgeous full-color map; the map alone makes me want to play in Cerilia.
- Ptolus offers up a two-page city map and a regional map, just the right amount of information.
- As noted above, the Conspectus is 50% awesome map, and — unlike in some settings — the PCs in Birthright all start out as rulers, and their characters would almost certainly have access to a map this accurate.
- The Guide to Ptolus excels in this area. There’s a sidebar about arriving in the titular city, which I love, plus descriptions of factions, regional quirks, what life in Ptolus is like, and so much more. The color is great, and it’s hard not to picture characters while reading it.
- The Conspectus isn’t as great at this; it could stand to double the amount of text it offers up. But what’s here is really good: a half-dozen paragraphs, each written from the point of view of several key realms’ leaders (“I am Robert Duerlin, vassal to…”), makes perfect sense for a game where the PCs are those leaders (or others).
- The Ptolus guide is well-tuned to its target audience: D&D 3.x players who like the idea of a rich, detailed setting that fills an 800-page book.
- Ditto the Conspectus, which is aimed at AD&D 2e players who likely aren’t used to starting games with domain play (normally something you work up to).
Your setting, your group, or both might demand a different approach — more detail in some areas, less in others; another key element that reflects your particular world; etc. But by and large, if you can do those five things — keep it brief, zippy, and full of hooks, include a map, and know your audience — your guide is going to turn out great.
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Hooks, hooks, hooks, hooks, hooks. I think you mentioned that. Paizo does campaign guides for their APs, which are available for free downloads, if any GMs are looking for another approach to model after. But I think the best one they did was pre-Pathfinder, the guide for the Savage Tide AP.
I’ll have to peek at one of these; I’ve never checked out an AP. Good tip!
I follow you guys for about 3 years, but this is the first time that I had something to say. I really liked this article. I have a hard time organizing the material for my campaigns and settings, and I never have thought before of providing a short pÄºayer guide. This is awesome! You can bet that I’ll try it next time. Thanks!!
We hear that a lot, actually! I’m glad you liked the article, and I’d love to hear about your guide once you’ve created it.
One other point that I want to make is, in addition to hooks, nail the flavor of your races, factions, etc. as fast and hard as possible. Especially if you have “just like elves but…” elements. As a GM, you can end up really frustrated when you make your halflings into noble savages with a druidic temperament and reputation for blood sacrifice and cannibalism, and your player decides to treat them like killer smurfs.
Also, I strongly advise making your setting bible into a wiki. Obsidian Portal is the go-to place for this, but there are others, or you can bake your own. Wikis allow you to offer a huge amount of depth to your world, without needing a foot thick stack of paper to intimidate people. The guy who wants to play a wizard can read up on all the guilds and their history, but the guy playing a fighter doesn’t even have to know all that exists. It is the perfect way to balance the GM’s need to lovingly chronicle their world and the players’ desire to only read the important bits.
Amen to wikis. I’ve used a wiki for my last couple of campaigns, and even if my players weren’t using it (in general or otherwise), I used it all the time. Many benefits, few downsides.
Both the GMs and Players setting guides to the Kaidan setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG) is still under development with several writers involved in the project. Some of what you suggest is how we’re developing it, some not.
One of the issues is that much of the setting knowledge is secret with the truth told in the GMs guide, but a partial truth and a believable fabrication is what consists of the Players guide.
1. The Players Guide will be 150 pages long (with a hard cover printed option), though the bulk of that is player options like traits, feats, class archetypes, new classes, equipment, and spells. In many ways this serves as an Oriental Adventures conversion to Pathfinder, and not just a setting guide for Kaidan itself. The non-player options of background information, plot hooks, overview of the setting, and some descriptive short stories comprise less than 50 pages.
2. Almost every Rite Publishing product (Kaidan is published as an imprint under Rite Publishing) has an in-character description for the introduction, though it isn’t ramblings but jumps straight into every topic.
3. I’m a cartographer, so of course there is a map of the full archipelago. (The GMs guide has a breakdown by area of the larger map, as well as the larger map.)
4. A section with detailed plot hooks are included.
5. Of course, my Player’s setting guide is for publication, so it cannot offer specific options for individual players.
The GMs Guide to Kaidan is 250 pages, with a gazetteer comprising 2/3rds of that – also will be available as a hard cover book. Both were funded by the Kaidan Kickstarter.
“partial truth and a believable fabrication”
Coupled with an understanding by the group that it’s that kind of game, this sort of thing is fabulous.
This is great advice. In fact this article has about the right length, organization, and “zippyness” I expect from a good campaign handout. It’s meta!
Some minor details that I think are helpful:
* Structured text: Don’t feel like you need to use paragraphs and sentences and prose when a bulleted list may be easier to read
* Leverage the familiar: Lugh’s example of “just like elves but…” is a great way to convey a lot of information quickly
* Plenty of room: Players who like to create stuff should feel like there are a lot of “blank spots” on your map where their own creations could live (e.g. PC backstory elements)
* Tip of the iceberg: Players who like rich worlds to explore should feel like there’s a lot more details that you are not mentioning
* Obvious options: Kind of the opposite of the above point; some players just want to jump right in and play without needing to learn much setting info, so be sure some of the PC options are familiar and easy to grasp
These are all good tips, but leaving room and offering explicit options are fantastic. That covers a huge swath of potential player “types.”
When people read guides they distil everything down into “just like elves but…”
By taking the initiative and giving them that thought-byte nicely packaged in the frame you select, you can mitigate the depth to which your noble halfling druids become killer smurfs.
* Give them an easy digestible description and they are far less likely to re-package it.
I use Power Point presentations and it works well. A few pictures can easily convey basic facts about a setting as well as mood. Add a few bullet points to round out the details. I find that one page for a few locations, NPCs and each race is generally enough to give them an idea of what kind of character to create. Best of all, gamers are far more likely to look at pictures than read pages of text.
I’ve never bumped into a PP setting guide, but it sounds like a perfect approach!
Ive been using Realmworks by lone wolf and it has allowed me to create and sort info for the players to read easily. I just hook up my TV to my laptop and they can see everything i want them to. I can’t wait till they can access it off the table but for now its my prep and players guide in one.
Martin~I love the postâ€¦minus one detail: what if you don’t have the sources that you cite? Having been in the position to describe campaign settings on several occasions, what is it specifically that you like about Ptolus or Conspectus that you likeâ€”what is it that they do right? Can you write up some examples?
The Player’s Guide to Ptolus is free: http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/11959/Ptolus-A-Players-Guide-to-Ptolus
As is the Conspectus: http://www.birthright.net/forums/showwiki.php?title=Birthright_Conspectus
I’ll note that in the article. Thanks for bringing it up!
Heh. I’m currently running Last Sons, a Deadlands:Reloaded campaign that has a player manual that everyone assumed was just a load of new edges and hindrances and stuff to up the awesome for American Indian characters.
Last week one of the players (who has years of running Deadlands in a bunch of different iterations I might add) was moved to read the dozen or so newspaper pages that start the chewy goodness.
Five minutes of deep study had him crying out “Hey! There’s *important* stuff in here, like clues and stuff!”
Made me almost glad I burned a box of paper at the start of the campaign printing a copy of the bloody thing for every player (all but one of whom promptly used it for wrapping fish or something).
Between Martin’s tips and the various comments there’s a lot of information here to make your world accessible to your players right off the bat.
Having a ‘thumb drive’ Guide allows you to update player knowledge as you go. A player keeps a log of what they discover to be real and false from mine. The ‘here there be Monsters’ area is now mapped out and trade is beginning with small race of limited shapeshifters (Eberron), The ‘magic’ section has a number of corrections and a warning about casting fire spells in a volcano. The ‘forbidden road’ has been de-mystified and a bridge rebuilt. Ogres are cursed ‘Ancients’ that ticked off somebody. Who?
These are just the most recent ‘corrections. The players get to SEE what they have done to push back ignorance. This allows me to introduce new quirks, threads and elements to keep the players on their toes. I am not above stealing a good idea from a player and incorporating it into the Guide. The Ogre bit is a result of a player explanation of a bad die roll, the bit was too good to lose.