Framing the Picture

Welcome back to the Front. In a one-shot adventure, the GM has a relatively self-contained story idea to explore — maybe the gaming group wants to try out a new system or maybe they want to just run through a module. The players don’t have a whole lot to go on other than some general comments about what they might expect. Often when I was a player it was “We are going to play {system X} today, roll up a character.” Given such a broad canvas to draw on, the players don’t really come up with backgrounds as much just generate a character and their personality.

In a campaign, the stakes are different. The GM and the players are in it for the long-haul. At this point, the GM wants the characters to fit the campaign’s narrative to help immersion and also make it easier to come up with various story threads. The players want to feel like their characters fit the story and that they are part of the world.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull Player's Guide (PFRPG) - PaizoBut how does a GM achieve that without tipping their hand as to the twists and turns that are lurking in a campaign? Various RPG-settings have included a “reference”, “inspired by”, and/or “recommended reading/viewing” sections. Fitz mentioned to me the other day, that this goes all the way back to AD&D 1st edition.  I recall it being in various White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness books, Paizo’s Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and Eclipse Phase rulebook (among others).

Paizo takes it a step further though … they are using free Player’s Guides for their Adventure Paths (module-driven campaigns) that introduce the players to some of the concepts and region that they will be adventuring in. They also offer some suggested custom character traits that give minor bonuses to the PCs and help tie their characters into what is going on in the area that the adventure takes place. The more important part to the trait is that it provides players a starting point for their character background that will make sense in the larger campaign.

Of course, none of that alone solves the problem for a home-brew campaign. So what’s a GM to do if they don’t want to tackle writing 10-20 pages of background material for the players?  My recommendation is, just do it in a few paragraphs. Describe the sort of the theme/mood you are going for in the setting. Summarize the world at large (in large brush-strokes so you don’t have to sweat the details) and the region you are focusing on. You want to include just enough information that if you are doing a dark fantasy (like Dragon Age or A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying that Green Ronin has put out) that someone doesn’t create a character that is going for light humor without thinking through what it is going to do to the tone of the campaign. Creating a character that doesn’t fit the campaign tone risks the player being unhappy when that very tone of the campaign/world pushes back and forces the character to make hard decisions between the lesser of two evils.

In the end the goal is the same as it always is, the GM wants to create a world to share with his players, and the players want to create characters that inspire the GM to tell stories around their characters. The better both sides set the stage, the easier it becomes to accomplish this. Hit the sweet spot and campaigns are effortless to keep on rolling along.

Until the next time, may you grab a group of your friends and get to the gaming goodness that we all enjoy.

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