In building the best possible game, we have examined how important it is for DMs and players to come to a group consensus about what they will play and how they will play it. The setting and parameters of the game established by you, the DM, help frame the players' expectations and their ability to set and achieve satisfying goals within the game. The essential art of running the game is simultaneously offering enough variety that the game does not become monotonous, while at the same time providing enough world stability and reliability that players can make meaningful assumptions about it. This delicate balance between variety and predictability is our topic in this article.
At its core, any world needs a sense of structure and an idea of what constitutes the ordinary and the everyday. The beauty of creating a fantasy world is that this ordinary, everyday context can be virtually anything, and it can vary a great deal from place to place, but characters need to have some sense of what is "normal." A common fallacy of the "normal" is that it is boring or uninteresting by its very nature. I am not suggesting that we all start playing Farmer: The Roleplaying Game and count out turnip seed by the bushel. What I mean by this is that you can make the ordinary vital and real by learning the art of rich and evocative description. When the players enter a city, you should spend a minute or two describing the sights and sounds and smells that they encounter. Have a list of food and drink they can buy in the local inn. Talk a bit about the weather, especially when they are traveling cross-country. The people they meet should be more than just stat blocks, and the places they go should have more detail than just terrain modifiers and encounter matrices.
However, evocative descriptions are not simply a matter of delivering information. In many ways, presentation is just as important as content, because all the description in the world won't do you a bit of good if the presentation is not memorable. One of the quickest routes to boredom is information overload; once they reach the saturation point, your players will start tuning out the flavor text. A gamer--even the most devoted gamer--can dedicate only so much mental energy to the mythical reality of the game world. Dumping pages of background information and descriptive text is in some ways a seductive trap -- a fool's gold promise -- that may seem to give the players a ton of context for making the game come alive but which often causes players to ignore the "fluff" and become impatient for a resolution or summation. In presenting descriptions, background, and contextual flavor about your world, be selective; feel free to fill out the surroundings and give enough description to give a flavor for where they are and who they are dealing with, but try to emphasize the points that are relevant to the adventurers and what they are doing. Not everything needs to deal with the PCs and their present situation; indeed, legends and rumors can provide an excellent opportunity for foreshadowing future adventure opportunities and give the players a sense that the world exists even when they are 'off-stage' (that is, when the PCs are not involved). In short, you must simply be judicious in the use of descriptions and information so as not to swamp the players with information overload.
While presenting descriptions and information, leaven your descriptions with cues, which may be illustrations or visual aids (drawings, photographs, maps, and so on), vocal inflections or accents, common game-world sayings or habits (or even personal quirks of particular NPCs), or even props of any kind that are appropriate to the adventure. These may be things of your own creation, they might be included within a published adventure or supplement (or you may appropriate a picture or two to use even if you're not using that adventure or supplement), or they may be from some nongaming source. You can find some great illustrations and pictures in books or on Internet sites that deal with travel, art, history, architecture, or myths and legends. Providing sensory cues other than just listening to you talk presents a mental association for players that can help them ground their recollections and bring them to mind more easily and with greater effect.
One facet of making your world coherent and comprehensible is defining exactly what PCs should know. This is partly a matter of you making up your own mind about how things work in the world and partly a matter of defining what is known and not known about the world by the general populace. What is generally "known" in common knowledge may or may not actually be true, but the fact is that everyone knows (or thinks they know) x-and-such about the world, and that includes the players and their characters. What do PCs know about the geography and politics of the world? Do they know that the dwarven kingdom of Krongg exists or that it mines purest adamantine in its deepest mines? Have they even heard of Gildur, the country across the sea, and its rapacious thieves' guilds? If the PCs are very provincial, every adventure they take may well be as much an exploration as a journey, where everything is new. If they are somewhat more cosmopolitan, with a certain basic understanding of what is where in the world, then their travels may be more like simply going from point A to point B within their own backyard. It is a difference of feel more than anything else, but it can change the fundamental motivations and the range of choices that players may feel for their characters. If they don't know something exists, they have no basis to pursue knowledge of it unless you put it in their path; you, the DM, must ultimately choose the palette of choices available to players in the world.
Framing the world and what is known about it is not merely a question of style, but it also becomes a game mechanic issue: What character races and classes exist in this game? Prestige classes? Spells? Feats? Skills? Magic items? Are players limited to what's in the Player's Handbook, or perhaps even less than that? If players don't know about certain things, does that mean that they don't exist or just that they haven't yet learned about them? Perhaps the Elemental Savant prestige class from Tome and Blood exists in the world, but PCs have no knowledge of it at the beginning of the campaign and discover it only if they unearth an ancient tome of magic. Maybe the divine feats from Defenders of the Faith are taught only within certain priesthoods and are unknown in others. While adopting this technique of progressive revelation can be an interesting way to go, it has consequences for gameplay in that it may hamstring PCs in their choice of prestige classes or feats with specific prerequisites. If you elect to begin with characters in partial or total ignorance, you must make some provision for the availability of what will be revealed later on, either by modifying the prerequisites of published feats, prestige classes, or whatever it may be, or by allowing players the option of revising their characters at the time new information becomes available. One of the comparative strengths of D&D vs. earlier versions of the game is that choices are much more open for a character's pattern of advancement. Whereas the choice of race, class, and skill set was a once-and-done choice made at creation and virtually impossible to change thereafter in AD&D, in D&D you can select from an array of options each time you gain a level. If you constrain choices at the beginning and then introduce new options later on, players may feel frustrated at lacking the opportunity to tailor their characters to take advantage of those options. The new choices you offer may end up being no choice at all if you take a hard line, so if taking a hard line is important to you as a DM, set the options at the beginning of the campaign and then leave them alone.
Whether you add game mechanic options in midstream or not, you should have in mind what kinds of rare or unusual knowledge or secrets PCs can learn during the course of their careers. As noted above, this might include new game mechanic options or experiences gained through travel and exploration. These new experiences might inform them about other lands and peoples or even allow them to see their own homeland and people as others perceive them. It might include uncovering secret evil plots of a hundred varieties, or it might include knowledge of or access to secret societies or organizations, which may or may not have associated skills, classes, feats, spells, or whatever. It could even lead to specialized training opportunities if such are required in your campaign.
However you choose to structure common knowledge vs. uncommon knowledge or normal vs. abnormal, the simple act of establishing a baseline understanding of the world for the players and their characters is crucial. Making this baseline clear enables you to make differences be really different; it provides a foundation from which variety can depart. With no baseline, variety ceases to be a meaningful concept, because you effectively make everything into a formless and ultimately bland mélange of flavors wherein nothing really stands out as meaningful. If you want players to engage the fantasy world of the game, you need to give them a conceptual framework for making sense of the world. When they know the characteristics and common traits of people, cultures, nations, and creature types and the physical world in which they exist, they can make associations about how they all fit together and apply their knowledge and experience in how they want to make their way in that world. When they know what they usually expect, they can then make useful judgments about things that happen that are unexpected or unusual and that perhaps require the attention and specialized skills of a group of adventurers. At that point, real adventuring can begin!
WORDS TO THE WISE:
1. Establish a Baseline: You need some foundation for judgment of what constitutes variety, or else you just end up with a lot of formless nothing.
2. Make Your Descriptions Rich: Don't agonize over every detail, but emphasize the points that are relevant and that ought to be memorable. Present them in a variety of ways.
3. Decide What Is Common Knowledge: What does everyone (or at least the PCs) know about the world, or at least what they think they "know."
4. Decide How to Handle New Discoveries: What knowledge or secrets can the PCs learn in their adventures? How can they make use of it?
5. Make Differences Different: Defining the usual and expected makes the unusual and unexpected stand out, which causes both to be distinctive and memorable.
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!