World Building Part 8 – Kicking Off Your Homebrew Setting Campaign

Today I want to take a little bit of a break from talking about creating your world and shift a little bit towards the actual use of that campaign setting for gaming (that is why you are writing this remember… well, probably why you are making a game setting… you might have other reasons, but we will let those reasons remain between you and your setting; don’t really want to pry into that…).

So, let’s assume that you have some of your world done, maybe not all of it, and you also have a pretty good idea of the overriding theme and genre that the world is set in.  Now, I assume you have picked up a game system that you feel represents the setting well (you wouldn’t really want to play something like the Smallville RPG in a classic fantasy setting… duh), and have even managed to kidnap some gamers from your local FLGS, tied them to chairs, and forced them to game in your world (please don’t do that; rope can chafe, use duct tape instead its stronger and cheaper).

There are several ways that you can kick off a game set in your homebrew setting and I want to go over a few of those today.  Over at the RPG Table Talk forums, Wyatt Salazar recently made a post about developing a “primer” for his campaign world which he would give to players in order to explain in brief (5-8 pages) the gist of his world to his players.  If you haven’t had a chance to read a little bit about Spirits of Eden, you should go out and do that (I’ll wait…ok, you’re back).  I think it is a really good example of how you can develop your own homebrew world and share it with others.  I think the primer idea is a pretty good way to give your players a general idea of how the setting works and allow them something to hold on to and reference.  I remember playing a few convention games where, at registration for a particular event, they handed us a little stapled pamphlet explaining a few facts about the world and what you need to know before you start rocking out in it.  What you want to include in a primer like this can be a bit tricky though.  Try to keep things broad in scope and general in nature.  The really important thing to do here is to write down what your players need to know and what you think you, or your players, might forget to mention or remember when the time comes to actually play.  Also, with primers, you probably want to hand them out before character generation and preferably even before the first session gathering (which is usually to make character unless you do that at home before your game).  I know that I have been disappointed to come to a game with a character in hand only to find out that in that particular setting, things don’t work like I wish they would.  That can be pretty lame, especially when many hours were spent developing said character.  Sending the primer in an e-mail to your players in advance is a good way to make friends.

Another, very different way of kicking off a campaign set in your homebrew world is the dive-in method.  Instead of giving your players a lot of info about your setting up front, you just have them make their characters, do their own thing, and then throw those characters into your setting.  This method can work pretty well for vanilla settings where there isn’t a lot of extraordinarily odd or out of the ordinary things going on.  In my head, you wouldn’t want to try this method when your players might end up being crushed by the limitations that get thrown at them.  For example, you wouldn’t want one of your players having a Vampire in a world where the sun never goes down.  But, if all your players roll up generic fantasy characters and you are in a generic fantasy setting, they don’t really need to know all about your setting before they get started – in fact, a lot of the fun behind the dive-in method comes through Vanilla settings.  Instead of front-loading the game with lots of history and interesting campaign facts, you let your players explore the world and find out everything about it through play and role-play.  I could see introducing players who are familiar with D&D, but not with its settings, to places like the Forgotten Realms through this method.  FR, and maybe even Eberron, are close enough to the norm that you don’t need to do much, or any, explanation before starting your game (I might give a little info on Eberron, but not too much).

The other method, which tends to be what I do when I run my settings (since I’m really just too lazy to make a primer and my settings are usually kitchen-sink-level-RIFTS-esq.-insanity) is the Elevator Speech combined with a discussion.  Essentially, the Elevator Speech is less than a one minute intro speech in which you tell your players about your setting.  Jot down a bunch of notes and just read them off, telling your players the summed up general version of what you are working on.  If I had to write an Elevator speech for my current setting it would go something like this:

“This world is eastern in flavor, but not based around ancient Japan – think Meji Revolution meets Victorian Steampunk, but that’s not all.  The world is literally falling apart; massive storms ravage the planet while aliens from the void are subverting the powers that have been in control for the last 10,000 years – a point in history which will forever be remember because of the massive comet that destroying the cradle of civilization.  Oh… there are also giant robots, a litany of anthropomorphic bestial races, and a magical, psychic version of the internet.”

That speech would take me less than a minute to get through and would really give my players everything they need to know about the setting.  Use current examples to instantly make a connection and help your players understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish and get across with your setting (which is something I shy away from when writing primers).  The Elevator Speech also needs to give them a lot of interesting hooks to work with when they make their characters.  Like in business, the Elevator speech is all about selling the setting to your players; now, that might not work all the time (some of my setting proposals have been shot down by every group I propose them too… lots of them are just too far out there… ).  But, if your elevator speech is successful (which it probably will be since you have all your players duct taped to chairs around the table right now and nobody want to turn down a crazed DM who wields d20’s in one hand and a red-hot-white-erase-marker in the other) then you can move on to the discussion.  Let your players ask you questions and tell them freely whatever they want to know.  If they ask you something that is a secret, you might not want to give that away here, but then again, you might want to in order for your players to understand the world and make characters that better fit into that world’s theme.  Let them find enough info that they can make their characters interesting and fit in with your setting, but don’t give them so much that they would be overwhelmed.  You’ll probably end up at the discussion phase if you develop a primer as well, which is why I tend to skip the primers and just do an elevator pitch (but, for con games, or one-shots at a game store, the primer might actually be a nice little bit of advertising for your game setting, especially if you can get an artistic buddy of yours to throw some art into it, or if you can throw in a copy of the world map on the back).

Once you get your players immersed on the setting and you start playing.  Use them.  Get their help in developing the setting further through cooperative world building.  There are a lot of greats blog posts about this all over the net, so I won’t go into that here.  I’ll just say that using your players to develop your world is a really good idea and you shouldn’t try to tackle this all on your own (unless your players are too afraid of you to contribute effectively since you still have them duct taped to your dining room set… might want to let them have at least one arm free or they won’t be able to roll the dice).

As always, you can check out my blog – The Dump Stat or e-mail me at  I’m also on a bunch of different forums, twitter (@Shinobicow776), and MTG Online, so you will probably find me around the net if you look hard enough.  See you next week.