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Just a while back, there has been a question concerning GMing a setting the players know better than the GM. Now, let me ask you sort of an inverse of that question. I.e. how to introduce and integrate the players into a setting they have no clue about?

Let me be more specific here: the setting is pretty much otherworldly. There are no humans, no elves, no dwarves, no orcs, etc. Furthermore, there are no common trees, herbs, animals, etc. And let's not forget, no gods, no middle-age-ish inspired theme, but an original history, specific to this unique world. To rephrase that, it's an alien world on an alien planet with its own alien ecosystems, inhabited by both animal-ish and sentient aliens. The sentient aliens have their own, unique histories and cultures.

The thing I've noticed while GMing or playing in the generic fantasy settings is that these standard settings have certain "hooks", or stereotypes, if you will. Everyone knows that elves are unpractical snobs, gods grant magic powers, humans are all greedy merchants living in corrupt kingdoms and orcs are filthy, malicious beasts. This set of stereotypes is a "standard" the players expect; it is also usually enough of a starting point for the players to orientate themselves in the setting.

I could go on and on about how I despise these stereotypes (since I've heard them soooo many times before, since they're naive and unrealistic, etc.), but that's not a very productive stance on its own.

So I dislike the stereotypes and want to get rid of them by playing in a different, otherworldly setting. The idea seems fair enough, but the players would be stepping into the unknown and there would be no stereotypical "hooks" for them to hang onto. They'd get intimidated by the complexity of an unknown world ... and as a result, they wouldn't want to play in such a setting ... much.

There must be some successful, humane way of introducing the players to a setting they have no clue about. It's all about making that kind of translation a smooth and gentle.

I'm open to your suggestions.

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17 Answers 17

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I like to work like this: I give the basic information to the players. One single page of 8.5 x 11 with all the info they certainly know. I tell them everything that is outstanding. How many moons, color of the sky, name of the main constellations if they are relevant. Any info about the basic religion, main genesis myth everything relevant for the first adventure and their basic character creation. This page is info that even a farmer knows.

Then I let them create their characters and ask me all the questions they want. I keep note of my answers in a form of a Q&A by email (or my own private website for my group).

This method works for both Homebrew settings and really odd settings.

I make sure the first adventures are introductory to the tone of the setting and the campaign so they know what's going on. I once started a campaign by a paladin executing a child in public for stealing food from the Temple. I wanted the players to understand that in my setting, alignments are more complicated than they look.

My biggest piece of advice would be: Don't take all the job on your shoulders. This is obviously optional, but if you create the broad strokes for a game setting and you say something like: Elves are the dominant race in a world of floating islands, humans are haunted for their skins and orcs are invading the world from the moon with their army of jetpack wearing soldiers. That's all good. But leave it like that. When questions arise about the world, turn the question back to the players and use their answer. Build the world with them. When you know something and you're sure about your answer and how to portray the world, just do it. But in doubt, turn the question to the players. Their character will certainly know better.

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In my experience, even a single piece of paper may appear too scholarly and demanding for the lazy players. It is a suggestion I may need to think through. Weeeeeeeeeeel, perhaps the GM could prepare a paper with basic notes for themselves ... and then retell these notes to the players in his/her own words. Or use the mentor ... – Johnny Jul 23 '12 at 19:15
Seems like your players may be a mismatch for a situation like this, where they'll have to learn a lot in order to enjoy the setting. Ruthless GM that I am, I'd say they should be prepared to meet you halfway. If they can't be bothered to read even a page, will they expect everything to be spoon fed to them on demand? – Erik Schmidt Jul 23 '12 at 23:49
My take on this is they will know as much as they are interested to know. If a player plays a smart character and doesn't give a damn about the setting, then wrong character concept bro – MrJinPengyou Jul 24 '12 at 0:02
...or, to expand @MrJinPengyou's last comment, wrong setting, bro. If your players can't be bothered to keep and memorize etc a few notes about a totally unknown universe, the whole effort of making up such a nonstandard world seems rather futile. – OpaCitiZen Jul 24 '12 at 8:27
up vote 18 down vote

There is no smooth, gentle way to introduce players to a truly alien setting. You have three choices as a GM who wants to successfully run an alien setting:

  1. make the players aliens to the setting, and let them explore it. (gentle means of introduction)
  2. make them study up prior to play. (smooth play, but heavy handed)
  3. Play with people who already know the setting (beyond the scope of the question)

Anything else is going to be failing to be smooth or gentle, perhaps both.

Making them study can be shorthand, or it can be "here, read this book"... but getting players willing to do so can be a problem. Even some who are willing won't retain enough to make it happen.

There are some nifty games that try this - Skyrealms of Jorune, Mechanical Dream, and to a lesser extent, Rhand, FFG's 40K RPGs, and Chronicles of Talislanta.

Their very alienness makes Jorune and Mechanical Dream both hell to find players willing to do the homework and hard to run and play in. Neither is particularly amenable to extraplanetary aliens, either. Rhand, Dark Heresy, and Talislanta all have human cultures that can be latched onto, and the minimal alienness explained briefly. Better still, Dark Heresy has some cultures that are close enough to modern that PC's can be just mildly ignorant members of allowing for easy start. The more alien the setting, the harder it is on the players.

The easiest study option is to severely limit the PC knowledge base needed - usually by picking a single area and culture, and prepping the players for just that area. Then, as they explore and become familiar with that, and start to expand their play area, expand the cultural knowledge. This is, however, very slow, and for those wanting epic stories, not good.

I'll note further - even something as non-alien as Pendragon can be a major learning curve for players.

A non-smooth, but highly effective, means exists for only mildly alien settings: Implementing a system of belief structures with mechanics that provides a saving throw against bad (setting-wise) decisions. Sooner or later, players start to learn the setting-appropriate responses. Some will quit in frustration at the loss of agency in such games. The best example of this is Pendragon, tho' both Ars Magica and Fading Suns have similar mechanics.

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"Then, as they explore and become familiar with that, and start to expand their play area, expand the cultural knowledge. This is, however, very slow, and for those wanting epic stories, not good" why not good? Many epic stories are journeys where you discover the world and its cultures (while doing Important Stuff(tm)). – o0'. May 10 '14 at 19:24
@Lohoris - because slow is usually boring in RPGing. You're making an equivalence fallacy implying that epic stories in novels are the same as in RPGs, and they definitely are not. And it's boring because the in-play exploration is either really shallow, or detreacts from pursuit of the goals of the epic arche. – aramis May 10 '14 at 21:56
I wasn't comparing them to stories, I was actually talking of RPGs. There's no need for that to feel slow, nor for the depth to be shallow, I'm not sure why you think that? – o0'. May 10 '14 at 22:29
Because it almost always works out that way. I've tried running epic stories many times - and I've tried the travelogue mode - and the two are incompatible in their needs to be done well. one or the other suffers. – aramis May 10 '14 at 22:32

Have the players create the setting with you. Microscope can help with this. Once the setting is established you can play in it.

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"Have the players create the setting with you". Nope, please no (a scary idea appears in my mind). Already spent some five years trying to get this one setting right, in details. Another setting - another five years - would be too much to handle. – Johnny Jul 23 '12 at 21:16
+1 A DM who hasn't created the setting yet would find this a pretty useful approach. I'd use it. – doppelgreener Jul 23 '12 at 23:37
@Jonny: Having done this kind of player input in practice at the start of a campaign, I can say it was very rewarding and improved the game. You can still keep all your notes and ideas for your own purposes, and as GM you most likely still end up with 3/4 or more of the creative input. Being precious about your creations in a collaborative game is a subtle poison to the enjoyment of it for you and your players. – Neil Slater Nov 3 '13 at 9:12

I've played in games like this and often they go off the rails when the GM can't continue to keep up the burden of reflecting the oddness to the PCs. You can get away with jumpstarting understanding with short setting briefings, but for a completely alien world this has to be backed up with continual "and you know that means this" and description/explanation on an ongoing basis.

I remember one Savage Worlds campaign where the GM had created this world where there weren't humans at all (well, they were a fringe slave race). All the main races were weirder - flying demon-looking guys, frankenstein monster steal-your-parts-to-graft-them-on guys, shadowy their-touch-brings-pain-and-pleasure guys... We read the briefing, we got the general idea, we were ready to invest. But we kept getting poor descriptions on an ongoing basis. "Oh, there's four thugs in the warehouse." "Um, the kind that can fly? Or the kind that can make us poop ourselves with a touch? What kind of 'guys'?" He couldn't keep up the need for continuous depiction of the alien world himself, and so we got dissociated very quickly.

In the end it doesn't matter whether they read your couple page briefing or not - you have to be ready to relentlessly depict the world in every single description you give, every encounter, every place they visit because they can't rely on touchstones that you can normally shorthand as "four thugs" or "a standard alleyway" or "behind a tree." The startup phase of chargen is the simplest challenge. Maintaining that alien-world depiction with every single sentence you utter is hard. I've been reading Numenera and realize that this is going to be the single largest challenge to running that game and it can be off-putting, you definitely have to bring your A game to not have it devolve into something too familiar, "Oh it's Dark Sun with some Gamma World gizmos, done."

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I'm currently confronting this issue with Numenera. Giving the players a sense of what day-to-day life is like in the Ninth World takes some effort. While the core book provides a wealth of geographic and political information, there are really only a couple of pages that explicitly define the cultural framework. It's difficult to foster a sense of immersion when players are struggling to understand the basics of how people operate in the game world. – Erik Schmidt Dec 17 '13 at 22:21

There are a bunch of good answers here. Two more things I've seen done (addressing the general question, though I suspect neither one would work with your particular situation):

  1. A friend played a game in college in which all the players started out by reading a novel that the GM had written set in the game world. That required heavy commitment from the players (and the GM), so it's not appropriate for players who can't cope with even reading a page of notes; but it was very effective, in that it meant all the characters knew a lot about the world going into it.

  2. Kind of at the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine used to use famous real-world names for major NPCs that filled certain roles. For example, if there's a character named King Hitler, then the players will have some idea of what role that character fills in the game world. This isn't so great for immersion in the game world (so it's not a technique I would use myself), but it's a very handy shortcut for quick information-conveying.

I guess I would add one other thing: if the players and the GM have different ideas about what they're there for, it may be tough to have a cohesive game. If your goal is to present them with a world that doesn't rely on any standard genre conventions, and their goal is to kick back and relax with a comfortable and familiar setting, then it may not be possible to bridge that gap and keep everyone happy. Even the techniques that others have suggested may only make things a little less painful, rather than actually enjoyable. So before you go too much further in this direction, consider whether your players and your game world are a good match for each other.

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It really depends on what your goal with this is, I think.

As I understand it, the joy in playing a tabletop game is twofold. First, you get to be "anything you want to be". If you've always dreamed about being a Necromancer or a Super-Saiyan, you can explore that and pretend for a while that you are. But secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it is to explore universal human themes and be a part of a story that does so. I think the first question you need to ask yourself is, in what way is this completely alien world going to be fun for my players? After all, if we have any job as GMs, it's to ensure that our players are having a good time.

If they really want something so completely different that it doesn't even connect to their psychology, perhaps you can try doing a prologue for each of the characters which essentially glosses over their character's "childhood" (or whatever the equivalent of that would be for this particular organism). This would allow the player to learn about "the world" at the same time the character is -- thus, the learning process would actually occur in-game, and the character would start out just as ignorant as the player.

Think of the intro to Fallout 3 as an example, where you start as a baby and get led through a key series of events in order to familiarize yourself with the setting as well as your own character.

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To clear up some confusion, I, too, calculate with plots based on human drama. Story-wise, there's still greed, betrayal, pain, loyalty, etc. present in the game (reflecting the psyche of the main actors the same way as in, say, Shakespearean plays ... even though my in-game actors are aliens). There has to be a strong similarity in mental processing of the in-setting aliens and real world humans (otherwise, all the miss-communication would be guaranteed to be emerging on a very basic level). This note aside, I do appreciate the idea of starting up in kids years, exploring the surroundings. – Johnny Jul 23 '12 at 19:06

Always wanted to do this and never done it - mainly because it's a huge amount of work, and my GMing days are pretty much over. Random bits of advice:

  • Make sure the players are OK with this approach. It might end up being more talky than a typical adventure. You'' probably end up doing a lot of explaining.
  • Start the characters young, so they haven't learned much, and somewhere simple.
  • Give them someone who can answer questions. e.g. make their first mission to escort some wizened old guy to the Bard's Festival equivalent (or, since you hate stereotypes, a golden-haired muscular guy who happens to have really poor fighting skills but lots of knowledge)
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Right you are! Starting off easy and then gradually moving towards the more complex storylines is a good way to go. A note about stereotypes: _not all stereotypes are plain bad. There's nothing wrong with an old and frail wise guy (it makes sense!) Personally, I just hate the stupid ones - for example those pompous, lazy, over-intellectualized elves (who would build their dwellings, grow their food and tend to other kinds of dirty work? - it clearly doesn't add up here). – Johnny Jul 23 '12 at 19:22
@Johnny So it's not stereotypes you object to so much as stereotypes that make no sense? You might want to consider running a campaign in which it is clear that while stereotypes may have some basis, they're by no means accurate in all cases. Just like in real life. – GMJoe Jul 24 '12 at 5:07
-1 Sorry, but "I've never done it" means this answer is invalid given SE guidance on what makes good answers (having done it). – mxyzplk Nov 10 '13 at 16:59

Run a one- to three-session prequel session. In this session, use disposable characters and set them up as valid outsiders -- that could be crash-landing astronauts arriving on the alien world, or rural hicks arriving in the big city, or similar. The key is that the characters are very ignorant of their new environment, and the characters can ask the questions the players want to ask.

Once that intro has been done, the players now know about the game world, some places, some NPCs, etc, and should be able to play without too much culture shock.

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There must be some successful, humane way of introducing the players to a setting they have no clue about. It's all about making that kind of translation a smooth and gentle.

Take it in two parts.

1) The players need a rundown.

1a) .. of the things which local everyday people know about the region

1b) .. of the things which local everyday people know about the world at large, the recent past, the legends of the distant past, fables and other lore.

2) With the above information in hand, the players will be able to make characters reasonably suited to their play style/interests and their expectations of the world.

Once they have these basics done, you can ramp up the "otherworldlyness" of the world gently. As the characters continue on their adventure, (1a) is experienced first-hand. Thereafter, snippets of (1b) begin to be seen. The full adventure lies in exploring the truth/falsehood of the greater lore people had only heard of in story.

The thing I've noticed while GMing or playing in the generic fantasy settings is that these standard settings have certain "hooks", or stereotypes, if you will.

Perhaps the word you're looking for is tropes.

Unfortunately, you will not get rid of stereotypes. You'll be shuffling them around in interesting new ways though. There will always be the rich snobby types, the rough "get it done" types, etc. The players themselves will both be bringing these in their characters and pigeonholeing every npc just out of habit.

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Hi and welcome! This is a pretty good answer and tends towards the kinds of answers we're looking for here. – wax eagle Jul 23 '14 at 13:06

Another approach would be to have the characters be in the same boat as the players. They could be strangers or aliens to the campaign setting. Conceivably they could just have no memories for some reason.

This has significant consequences for the campaign so it often won't make sense, but it does make it much easier for the players to role play their characters.

Also, since you really don't like generic fantasy stereotypes, it might be fun to play with those once or twice. The characters see what appear to be classic fantasy high elves frolicking in a glade and talking to each other in a language with lots of "L"s in it, but when the greet them the "L'vs" curl up into spheres with teeth and begin rolling towards them, hunting as a pack. (You can probably come up with something a lot better).

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Let the players decide how much they want to know about the setting.

Broadly define major topics like culture, economics, religion, science, magic etc. Then let the player pick levels of expertise in each category ranging from 1 being complete layman to 10 being world expert. You can assign a maximum number of points each player can spend to limit one person being too familiar with everything and also stress that they don't need to be higher than level 1 on anything should they not want to be.

I could take myself as a real world example of this, I have a knowledge of science, academia, technology, Manchester, cocktails, these would be the topics I'm likely to put 5+ values in. I know very little about religions (excluding my own), art, Berlin, Lady Gaga, Macroeconomics, these are the categories I would spend barely any in (were they offered).

This approach achieves two things.

Firstly it quantifies the amount of preparation your players are looking for to get going. This prevents you writing up huge complicated legal and economic systems for players that really want to know about the magic and culture in incredible detail and are happy to just get by with law and economy.

Secondly it identifies which of the players are willing to invest the most in learning the setting. Those that choose to play simpletons, happy with only a basic knowledge of the world, will likely not put many points in any category. Those that want lots of detail are more likely to spend high. This then further allows you to tailor the setting to those players most invested and their likes/dislikes.

With this you then send out personal packs and allow their questions to guide the setting development further.

Character specific information can be given out for tailored, advanced knowledge of certain topics. For example although I would class my knowledge of religion limited, with regards to the religion I was raised as I clearly have a more developed knowledge of that one in particular. This means you can give snippets of higher knowledge levels to each character based on their story/choices, (this serves as a good teaser to get players to invest more too!).

Once that is done you should have a good overview of your world in varying levels of detail and the players should have just enough information to be comfortable relating to it. All that is left to do is ensure they all read the essential information and get going.

This system has worked for me many times and I'm quite fond of it, hope it can help some other people to.

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Like Brian S, I took your question to be about campaign design. On the surface, you’re asking for advice about helping players integrate into your highly unique campaign world, but your question reveals that your players are struggling. A good campaign world should not be difficult for players to understand. If it were working, your players would enthusiastically dive in. Something in the uniqueness itself seems to be creating problems.

For the record, I hate many of the same fantasy cliche’s you mentioned, but I’ve found that a balance must be struck between what is new and what is familiar. They both have their place.

I’ve been noodling on a campaign world myself and like you, its genesis was largely a response to fantasy cliche’. I hated the way that elves, dwarves, and orcs occupied every corner of the fantasy genre; as if these races were fantasy itself. Mostly, I hated how magic and monsters were utterly ordinary. Minotaurs operating butcher shops next to magic item stores. Every other NPC encountered being an exotic race, so that ultimately no race was exotic.

So I made a new world with a detailed background - a completely unique world. I wrote material for the players to review and waited for them to love it, but they didn’t. Mostly they ignored the material and by extension my new world, focusing instead on the familiar elements and gameplay itself.

Why did this happen?

The players just didn’t know what to make of all the new stuff. They didn’t get what it meant. After all, every new thing asks them to do a little homework - to commit the new thing to memory. Since it made their own life more difficult, they didn’t know why I bothered. Why did I change everything? Yes, I didn’t like cliche’, but did the things I changed, in fact mean anything? Or was everything just different?


I realized that good campaign worlds have a strong premise. A premise is a central idea or theme that fundamentally explains why the world is the way it is. Consider the Dragonlance campaign setting or the Earthdawn game. Both have a core idea that can be expressed in a few sentences, contains some dramatic idea (conflict), and suggests how the world will operate.

Earthdawn - In the ancient past, civilization released great Horrors; demons that largely destroyed the world. The various races went into hiding and are just beginning to reemerge. The Horrors are gone now or are they?

For the players, the premise performs the critical role of introducing the world. Every new element they encounter (races, rules, setting) will relate to the premise. For the world’s author, it provides the equally critical service of defining what elements NEED to change and which elements DON’T.

Here’s the premise I devised to revise my world.

In Agremare, priests rule and magic is forbidden. The Auran church hunts down magic mercilessly. Ordinary folk lead superstitious lives, fearing witches and their creations, the homunculi; monsters that prowl the shadows since ancient times. Lately, rumors speak of wizards returning to a world where magic remains heresy.

With this premise in hand, I knew what to remove: magical races. I knew what to change: religion, priests, wizards, and magic. And I knew what not to change: humans, fighters, thieves, and a basically medieval setting.

For your own campaign world, try to create a compact premise of a few sentences; something any player could understand and like. Then look at all your creative material and ask yourself honestly. How much of that creativity actually supports the premise? If you find the premise hard to write or difficult to keep short, it’s a sign that you really don’t understand what you’ve built. And if you don’t understand it, how can the players?

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You had really good answers and I agree with them all - it's difficult to add anything meaningful to them.

First of all, like every venture in life, you need to know (roughly) what your objectives are for setting this stage and you also need to know (or have a very educated guess) that the players are on board with you.

In general, whatever the scenario, I like starting the characters as young and inexperienced, possibly plain ignorant, and then let them learn from the story (maybe with the help of masters or mentors) rather than from written information, Q&A or similar kind of communication, that risks to quickly become a ready made book, rather than an invitation to explore the surprising world by trial and failure.

I also like to start from some situation that can be close to their experience and move from there to the weirdest possible immagination step by step, untill they outwit you. In this particular setting I'd consider, as first characters, to provide the players with young humans abducted by aliens, so that you can describe them the new "world" as it would look on their eyes if they were there, and then you can allow them to chose plain aliens when they'll start a second (third, fourth, etc.) character in your campaign setting (I always encouraged the players to have a number of characters for plenty of good reasons, and this is just one of them). This could be a more "gentle" welcome to your alien world.

Be prepared to "help" your players a lot in the beginning (i.e. prepare yourself really well and make your best effort to keep the game entertaining without dropping too much detailed information on them...), until your world starts to come together and enthuse them, because the first sessions will be difficult for your players to understand and enjoy properly if you don't put your best effort then.

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What I find to work, moreso for the lazy players but for others as well, is to simply tell them beforehand that it's an alien world, and then go from there. Treat is as though the characters know about it, and drop in the things one at a time, from time to time (ex: a younger person saying "don't the moons look lovely tonight?"). Playing as though their characters know about it helps the players to have a sense of comfort, even if they don't have a clue about what's going on, because they can pretend to.

As others have said, however, it can also help to have it where there is something for the players to grasp ahold of, like a creature that's like a chipmunk, for example.

Just remember: the little things matter.

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While this isn't very different from what others have proposed, it's still a noteworthy variation: the PCs are just born.

The game starts as "you become aware". This of course is only doable in a setting where exists a race which "can do stuff" as soon as it's born, but since this is a custom setting, you could arrange that.

Also consider that this is doable even if the PCs are robots: not very different from them being newborns.

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Tropes are a good thing, and you shouldn't make the mistake of tightly associating "trope" with "cliche".

Cliches can ruin any good story, although intentionally campy stories can sometimes get away with it. Disliking a cliche is unsurprising, and it's reasonable to want to avoid them.

A trope, on the other hand, is commonplace in nearly every single story you have ever read. The tropes help bring familiarity to the story for you, and while you may come to expect certain things from various tropes, that's not a bad thing.

Cliches are often tropes that have been overused to the point of losing their meaning, but not all tropes are cliches. Many of the trope you encounter regularly you may not even necessarily recognize as such: The Hero, Good vs. Evil, the Dark Lord, etc. You can lose yourself in, a wiki devoted to tropes (including those which have become cliche).

When we find commonalities between our stories, we can understand them better. By trying to drop your players into a 100% alien setting, you are -- at the core -- simply trying to confuse them. A confused player will not enjoy him- or herself, and a player that isn't having fun will reduce everyone else's fun in a downward spiral, until either the player leaves (or is forced to leave) the campaign group, or the campaign breaks up and the group plays something else.

Go ahead and create an alien world. Just don't get angry if your players (and even you!) start calling things "space elves," "space dwarves," and "space trees."

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I'm unclear how this answers the question. – mxyzplk Nov 8 '13 at 0:29
@mxyzplk, Johnny asked how to introduce players to a 100% alien setting, with no points of reference. The answer is: you don't. – Brian S Nov 8 '13 at 15:44
OK. You have to be careful when giving "don't do that" answers to questions to really have a compelling point. I don't think you do in this case. – mxyzplk Nov 8 '13 at 16:08
I don't think you're seeing Brian's point. He's saying that the problem of players not learning your new world is symptomatic of the real problem - a world so new, that it's difficult to learn. Familiarity is not always wrong and originality is not always right. Consider the success of the many cliched fantasy campaigns settings out there. If everybody universally hates cliche’, why does it sell? – Tom Nov 10 '13 at 19:16
I see his point, it's just not answering the question posed. – mxyzplk Nov 11 '13 at 3:01

I always work this way. And when I say always I mean ALWAYS. I never re-use a world for a new campaign.

Generally when you're working with a setting like this the first session will be devoted to discussing what the characters, who've grown up there, know about the world. Unlike traditional first sessions character creation will come late in the session after the players know what they need to know before they make a character for the setting.

It's not always fun to spend three or four hours talking about history and politics and such, but it makes for a much better campaign in my experience.

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