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:

  1. 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.
  • Be zippy. Make the elevator pitch for the setting, or the part of the setting you’ll be focused on in the campaign, right up front — and make it punchy. Don’t dither or frame it as the ramblings of a major NPC or dick around in getting to your point. Make me want to play there.
    • 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.
  • Include a map. If politics are important to your campaign, your guide should feature a map. It needn’t give away secrets (if you’re playing that sort of game) and it doesn’t have to be a work of art, but nothing grounds the group in a fictional place quite like a map.
    • 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.
  • Provide more hooks than a fishing store. What kinds of interesting characters inhabit this setting? Why might I want to play someone from here, or from there? What drives characters in this setting — and by extension this campaign — to adventure? You can’t really have too many hooks.
    • 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).
  • If you know your players, use that knowledge. Does Lisette love evocative descriptions that include sights, sounds, and smells? Write in that style. Does Germain love weird aliens? Make sure there are weird aliens. If you don’t know your players (new group, game store campaign, etc.), keep it general — and when in doubt, just put in what jazzes you about the setting and don’t stress out about it. Players will feed off of your energy and excitement.
    • 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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