02 February 2018

World Building 101: Nobody Cares About Your World’s History

You know all those hours you spent detailing the Gods in your pantheon, and writing out the history of the God’s war, and detailing the lineage of the great noble houses in your campaign world, and all that other stuff? Well, I’m sorry, but your players don’t really care about any of that stuff – yet.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, but the sooner you accept it the sooner you can start working to change it. Because you can change it, you can absolutely get your players to buy-in to all that cool stuff about your campaign world, you just have to realize that it isn’t going to happen all at once, and it isn’t going to happen before your first game session. Which brings me to my first “don’t” when it comes to getting players to buy-in to your game world.

Don’t Assign Homework to Your Players
Look, I get it; you spent all this time working on all of these details about some Knightly Order, or the history of the war between two neighboring kingdoms or whatever, and you really want to tell your players all about it and you want them to think it’s as awesome as you think it is. And maybe it is really awesome stuff, but unfortunately your players aren’t going to share your passion about whatever it is you’ve created right out of the gate, and you aren’t going to be able to foist that passion upon them.  So don’t try to get them to learn everything there is to know about your game world before they even play by printing up history textbooks disguised as player handouts and instructing everyone to read them before making characters. Trust me: making sure your players know all that stuff up front isn’t as important as you think it is. If you absolutely must have a player handout, limit it to perhaps a page or so of information that is imminently relevant to what will be taking place in the game.  Anything more than this is probably overkill. Now let's move on to the second don’t.

Don’t Stifle Player Creativity
A big problem that happens when we game masters create our own worlds is that we tend to want to hold on to a lot of creative control. We have a very specific vision of how the elements of that world interact with one another, and we get frustrated when the players don’t “get it right.” If you find yourself constantly saying things like “Your character wouldn’t do that because…” or “An Elf wouldn’t say that because…” then you need to take a step back and realize that you are probably being too restrictive when it comes to player freedom. Don’t get me wrong; there may be times where it’s helpful to remind a player of something significant and unique to your world that could affect the way they react in a given situation, but this sort of thing shouldn’t come up constantly and should be phrased more like “remember, Guilder is the sworn enemy of Florence,” and not like “Your character wouldn’t do that because…” If you’ve created something really restrictive, like a detailed knightly or monastic order, and you absolutely just can’t let go of all of the things that you think are wrong about how a player is playing their character, maybe it isn’t the best idea to let players play that type of character. Perhaps they are best left as NPCs, and perhaps you should save those ideas about how you think your player should be playing his character and use them when you play your next character. Suggest instead that players belong to a different Knightly Order (or whatever it is), one that you aren’t so controlling of, and that allows them to exercise creative freedom over their character. If you find that you feel restrictive and controlling over most or all of the playable character types in your game world, consider writing a novel instead of running a roleplaying game, because a lot of the fun of being a player is adding character to your character and nobody wants to play in a game where this creativity is denied to them.  Of course, all of this talk about creativity leads me to my first “do.”

Let the Players Have Creative Control
I know it’s your world, but roleplaying games are about being creative, whether you’re a player or a GM, so give your players some creative license when it comes to the history and other aspects of your world.  This doesn’t mean that you have to give your players permission to create huge swaths of campaign-shaping history (although you could), but it does mean that they should be allowed to come up with some aspects of their family lineage, or perhaps the history of their monastic order or arcane tradition. Or, from the example above, if you can’t bear to let a player play a member of a specific knightly order or some such in their own way, maybe let them play as a member of a splinter faction within that organization, and let the player define the differences. Or instead of having a cleric worship a deity that you’ve spent lots of time fleshing out, maybe encourage the player to worship a deity that you have spent relatively little time on, and then allow that player to come up with some unique things about that religion. The more players can contribute, the more they will feel like they are a part of the world, and the more they will care about the parts that they didn’t create.
I realize that I started talking about more than just world history there, but you’ll notice I call myself the Rambling Roleplayer and not the Concise Roleplayer, so things like that are bound to happen. My apologies. I do have a few other things to say about world history though, and some ways you can get players to buy into it, but they don’t fit as neatly under bold headings as the stuff above did, so I'm abandoning that format moving forward. Geez, you’d think I’d spend more time drafting these things out or something. Anyway, here are some other things about campaign history.
Ironically, those same players who I was just saying don’t care about your world history will instantly become interested in the history of damn near everything in your campaign world if you let them put a skill like Ancient History on their character sheet. Then all the sudden that same guy who you couldn’t pay to read four paragraphs about The God’s War is asking you if he can make a proficiency roll to learn anything about the hallway he’s standing in. So use this to your advantage! If you want to reveal some things about the history of your world to your players then sprinkle in several opportunities for players to use “information giving” skills like Ancient History and Arcane Lore and Religion.  As always though, this information should mostly be relevant to current events. You may know the intricate details of the grain trade in the kingdom for four generations, but that doesn’t mean you should launch into a lecture on this subject because a player made a skill check to find clues at the tax assessor’s office.
Here are two final pieces of advice I have about getting players to buy-in to your world history: sprinkle interesting details in slowly over time, and show don’t tell. I mention these two together, because they are related. Don’t just tell your players that the capital city is old, describe it as such. Talk about how the walls have obviously been repaired numerous times; make mention of the different styles of architecture from different periods, and highlight the contrast between the “old city” and newer areas. Don’t overdo this – every trip to the blacksmith doesn’t need to be a block by block history lesson on architectural style – but do occasionally mention little details that highlight the elements of a city, region,  or a culture that make those things interesting and unique.  The key is to introduce these things organically over the course of several game sessions, rather than trying to cram a bunch of information in up front in the form of lectures or lengthy handouts. If all of those ideas you have really are interesting then as the campaign progresses - and you are able to disseminate more and more information about your world and its history - you'll begin to notice more and more player buy-in as the seeds you've sown take root.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy this related piece about Character Creation.

(This article was originally posted to my old Wordpress blog on 02/24/16. You can view the original here.)

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