Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Writing an effective campaign brief

One of the sad facts of being a homebrew gamemaster of a fantasy or other setting is that your players will never care about your lovingly crafted world as much as you do.  Yes, it's true.  Those same players may have read dozens of books on Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, or the "Dresdenverse" and can create characters that know more about the setting than you do, but for your homebrew, that will never be the case.

It's important, of course, to communicate some setting detail to the players--stuff that they need to know to make appropriate characters, and play an effective game--but it's easy to overdo it and start loading them up with details that they don't need.  And that's a great way to lose them, frankly.  If you make playing the game turn into actual work for them, then they won't do it. 

So for today, I'm going to discuss for a bit how to put together an effective campaign brief; a very small document that you can give to prospective players before the game and have a reasonable expectation that they'll read it, understand it, and come prepared and excited to play.

To be fair, I don't always prepare a "formal" campaign brief.  Several times in the last few years, I whipped up quick and dirty wikis, or sent a series of shorter emails.  The effect was, however, pretty much the same.  For this example, I'm going to write up a sample DARK•HERITAGE campaign brief as an actual document and attach a link at the bottom of this post so you can see one that's better organized and a bit more formalized, though.

Here's a few tips on how to make one that's effective:
  • Make it short.  Like I said, if it's actual work to figure your setting out, then the players won't do it.  3-4 pages is an absolute maximum in terms of size, I think, and 2 is better.  It needs to be sufficiently small as to not intimidate the players, and be inviting to read!
  • Make it relevent.  If your setting is--to use a familiar example--a fantasy version of medieval England, then it's not impossible that a character who is a samurai from feudal Japan could show up, but it sure as heck is unlikely.  Therefore, don't talk about Japan!  Talk about the region of medieval England where characters are likely to be from.  It's nice to give players some info on places where their characters might be from, but there's no point talking about things that they don't need to know.  In general, broad historical, economical, ethnological or political information is much less relevent to PCs--especially at the beginning of a campaign--as are more prosaic details like what are some local places and people that they will likely start out the game knowing.
  • Make it limited.  While this sounds counter-intuitive to many GMs, it's actually great advice, and a bit of a riff off of Ray Winninger's DungeonCraft advice.  Don't give the players all the options that you can potentially envision.  It's OK to say, "look, the campaign is going to take place in medieval England.  Your characters will be English."  Just don't mention the Japanese at all.  A good friend of mine once ran a D&D campaign where the starting characters could only choose from three classes and one race (human) with really only one culture that they knew of and could make characters from.  Is that really restrictive?  Yeah, maybe, but by the same token--it's OK too.  Don't go out of your way to make big lists of options.  Just keep it to relatively short, quick, well-organized highlights.
  • Make it flexible.  On the other hand, don't get too proscriptive.  Leave some wiggle room for your players to exercise some creativity on their own, and unless they're really off-track, let them have their way.  And if your campaign brief is effective, then they shouldn't be really off-track anyway.
  • Make it simple.  Don't start getting carried away throwing in esoteric terms from your campaign, names that the players won't recognize and other details that are only going to confuse your players without a setting specific glossary to consult.  You aren't writing an ethnologue, just a quick guide for players that should serve as a tool for them to engage with the setting.
Here's my conception of elements that a campaign brief should have.  There's some leeway in how much information to include here, of course, but most of these items should at least be addressed somewhat, even if it's only a sentence or two.
  • Theme and tone.  If your game is going to play more like a horror game than like a traditional fantasy game, as DARK•HERITAGE does, then it's important to include that right up front on your campaign brief.  Set the tone and establish what the games going to be like first off.  Highlight anything that may be different than what your players would otherwise expect, to make sure that there aren't any misunderstandings later down the line.
  • Character creation.  Many--maybe even most--of my D&D campaign setting books, start off by talking about setting specific rules and guidelines for creating characters.  This is, after all, the first thing that a player needs to know how to do, as well as one of the most important.  I agree with adding a section covering this facet of the game next, but with some cautions.  Most of those campaign settings start off very dry and dusty--a bunch of mechanics right off the bat does not make for good reading.  My suggestion is to include some prose discussion of what players need to know to make characters, and then refer to houserules, but keep them part of a separate document.  If you have custom races that they can select, don't include all the detail for them here--a quick three or four sentence summary of what the race is about is fine.  But have the houserules document with the custom race on it ready to go.  Include a link.  Let it be a pull type information exchange, not a push type.  If the players don't want to play that race, then they don't need to go read the mechanics for it.
  • House rules and systems.  Anything that will have a major impact on how the game plays should be mentioned here.  If your houserules are extensive and detailed, then you don't want to literally include them here, just refer to them, as I mentioned in the dot-point above.  Make sure that the fact that houserules exist and are important is front and center.
  • Religions and beliefs.  While in a non-D&D fantasy setting, there may not be clerics, or other types of characters that need to know about the divine, it's still a common enough and important enough factor in both fantasy worlds and the real world that making at least some mention of religions and divinity in the setting is probably important.  If you don't, your players will almost certainly ask about it.  Or at least wonder.
  • Local detail.  Really, probably the bulk of the document--at least half of it--should be made up of local detail.  Where does the game start?  What kind of community is it?  Who are important NPCs that they should know?  What are some important local points of interest?  How about organizations that they may interact with in the first few sessions?  Resist the impulse to turn this into a detailed guide, but put some info here.  This is the players' first chance to start engaging with the setting.  Make sure that this local detail is relevent.  A local farmer might be an important person to a village, but what does he offer to PCs?  Unless they plan on buying horses or vegetables from him, probaby not much.  A well traveled former courtesan who's retired to the countryside, on the other hand, could have important information to impart about the movers and shakers in the kingdom, or a crotchety old town drunk who, when plied with moonshine, can tell you secrets that the rest of the community wants to keep hidden has obvious use to the PCs.
And with that, here's my sample campaign brief for DARK•HERITAGE.


Trey said...

Very sensible guidelines. Of course, there's still no guarantee all the players will read it. ;)

Joshua said...

Sad, but true. You can lead a horse to water and all that.