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I started a new Eberron campaign last night, and I quickly ran into the problem of my players not knowing much of anything about the campaign setting.

  • What is the Mournland?
  • Where is the Eldeen Reaches?
  • Do goblins have a written language?
  • How long ago was The Last War?
  • Who were the Dhakaani?

Currently, I've just been stopping and explaining the answer off the top of my head. Is there a better way to help the players into the setting?

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10 Answers

up vote 45 down vote accepted

If you can get them to read novels in the setting, that's ideal. But it may take some time and I've never met a full group that would all read the same books, even when bribed with XP.

Here's more of a quick and dirty method. A few games ago I gave the players cheat sheets about the city they were in. I limited them to a page each because the more I give them to read, the less they retain. However, I made sure to give the group different cheat sheets. This let me distribute more than a single page of material to them and it let them look smart when they told the group about things their characters should know about. Oh and I made sure to include a few differences of opinion on similar items in the cheat sheet, just to get the players arguing.

That said, that particular game was isolated to a single city. A game with travel would probably need more than a single sheet. I think you could get away with this method if you gave out info as needed, rather than all at once. Your players won't want to read 10 pages of notes before the game even begins, but if you give them each a page whenever they enter a new country, they should be able to handle that.

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I Was thinking "yeah yeah yeah" until I got to "different cheat sheets." Brilliant! –  rjbs Jun 7 '11 at 23:07
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Also maybe seed the different cheat sheets based on pc background/skills so one pc might know and explain it to the others. –  mxyzplk Apr 16 '12 at 13:24
    
I'm totally going to start doing this in my games now. –  Kyle Willey Apr 16 '12 at 19:35
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Do some homework and generate a handout. Assuming that the characters were born & bred in the world in which they're adventuring (not the case for some games of course), think of all the stuff they absorbed in their ## years of existence... and yeah, that's impossible to lay out in a single document. But specify what's Common Knowledge about:

  • Languages & names (people places things)
  • Climate & weather
  • Daily events, concerns, concepts
  • Monsters & enemies (of a town, the realm, whatever)
  • Guild procedures and other adventuring details

...and whatever else is immediately relevant. Even tho the first draft will be incomplete, use it -- and then make notes when good questions arise and are answered. (Don't be afraid to 'wing it' but be careful, and willing to revise after-the-fact, 'cause some reasonable answers may bite you in the long run.) Then revise the draft once or thrice until it covers the bases.

Of course, don't give away too much up front; there should be a lot they discover along the way. The fun is in the trip, not the destination.

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Introduce concepts slowly during play.

I'm not familiar with Eberron, so here are some wild suggestions:

  • If they need to know about the war, introduce them to a veteran or run them past a war memorial or battle site.

  • Introduce other NPCs discussing or investigating questions of interest, and involve the PCs.

You can make handouts, start a wiki, or give them books to read, but it's not going to work for most players unless they're really into it. You can try to reward them in game for reading up on the material, but that's also hit-or-miss.

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Look for ways to introduce exposition into your flavor descriptions of scenes, and your mentions of characters and objects. Try not to restrict it to plot-relevant stuff for your game, but this can definitely become a way to put 'common-sense' information into your players' hands unobtrusively.

Consider:

"You are traveling down a road between Atowne and Beesville. You see a few seedy looking characters on the roadside, possibly in ambush."

Versus:

"You are traveling the primary trade lane between Atowne, part of the Nation of Generic and Beesville, a large textile hub in the Unoriginal Imperium. Up ahead are some humans dressed like Ye Olde Agitators - a faction whose land was annexed by both sides, and who has taken to pillaging trade whenever they can get away with it under the banner of fighting for freedom, liberty, and so on. Given your current composition and the fact that Party Member #3 is wearing the Amulet of Appearing to Have Chosen A Side, they're pretty likely to take umbrage with you."

This is not to say that your existing style is drab, but rather an intent to highlight the efficacy of mixing in relevant information to the narrative of the game. From this base you can entertain skill rolls to mine out more information and while this may reduce the velocity of the game, I have never felt that adding this information 'slowed the game down.' One is a measure of how many encounters/scenes you can get through in a session, the other is a measure of how much enjoyment people are deriving.

After a while, these new players will start to recognize characters, objects, and factions as well as geography, and you can lay off the exposition. :)

As with all gm-techniques, YMMV.

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+1 for funny imagery and insightful content. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jun 7 '11 at 21:22
    
So players should be taking extensive notes (and asking for spellings of course) during such a narrative, to the detriment of the atmosphere you're creating? –  ExTSR Jun 7 '11 at 21:27
    
Well, people can always read up the general info later on campaign notes, but this brings it naturally inside the session. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jun 7 '11 at 22:52
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@ExTSR - Not at all. People will just naturally pick up on the information after being exposed to it repeatedly. I see it as the DM's job to do all the heavy lifting re: setting information. If your players are engaged, though, they'll pick up on stuff without even trying. –  qoonpooka Jun 8 '11 at 13:16
    
I certainly agree with the concept, and have used it myself. ;> Just saying that for the info to stick -- and to be easily referenced on a regular basis -- I've had to use handouts. My players have complex lives, and we only play every 2 weeks. Play more and I'm sure your way works fine. :) –  ExTSR Jun 8 '11 at 13:50
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I prefer to give new players a base knowledge of the game and give them an origin of a distant land or sheltered village. Let the players explore and get the sense of wonder of the setting. Let them ask the questions in character and get various answers. I also like to have my NPC's have slightly off from true beliefs. This encourages the group to interact and fill in the truth. I also like to get the new players involved in the set up of the adventure. Give the player(s) the knowledge that the group needs. But my games tend spend much more time role playing than in combat.

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I'm currently DMing through Reavers of Harkenwold, and I've taken to post tidbits on our online group, with quotes from people all around Harkenwold about the current situation. I hope they at least spark some questions.

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I lived exactly this situations some months ago. Let me share what I tried, what worked and what didn't.

I have a group of six players, two girls and four guys, who never had heard about Eberron. Frankly, one of the girls, my wife, was also still learning to play D&D. I helped to create their characters and character sheets, set some key background elements for them, sent scenario descriptions by e-mail and readied our first adventure. It was a total disaster and I though we were Marked for Doom. Even the players who had read the descriptions I've sent often forgot something crucial or stated some weird connection like "Ohhh.... the Emerald Claw... the group of Goblins, right?".

For the second session I intensified my strategy. I started a lot of discussions through e-mail, trying to engage the players into asking and exploring the scenario. I also adopted a posture of "asking truly whatever you intelligently asks", which helped a lot. Unfortunately, that was still not enough and the players were still lost during the session. I pointed some references, but just one of the player's had time to read it (it was the Thorn series, btw).

I kept trying different methods of getting them used to the scenario and by the fifth session I believe I got it.

  1. Put the PCs in situation where they could clearly get advantages of knowing the scenario. Reward them every time the use an setting information to get advantage;

  2. State who the villain is and to which organization he belongs. Let the PCs investigate it, give the infos freely. I used a Emerald Claw knight as a villain and made the players get used to Karrnath, the Undead Armies, the Blood of Vol and a lot of clashes between Aundair and the karrns as they studied his background;

  3. When the PCs have time to spare, specially when you finish a session with the party taking a rest at some city, e-mail them what is going on in the place. Let them answer what they are doing, insert a bit of roleplaying in between the games. (That's specially useful for us because we play once a month)

  4. Reward good roleplaying with XP, punish them for stupid errors (like the gatekeeper druid who barbecued a Beholder). Let them know why they are gaining bonuses or taking penalties, tell them what they can do to get more XP. I usually send XP by e-mail, it's a report comprised of:

    • Combat
    • Roleplaying
    • Quests
    • You could get more XP if...
  5. Talk about the setting. Yes, just that. Take some concept that you the players like and explain how does it works in Eberron. For example, one of the girls does like thinking about dreams and stuff. So I told her the tales of the Giant wars agains the Quori, the Inspired and Taer Lian Doresh.

The most important point here is that while it's impossible to teach someone who doesn't want to learn, but it's incredibly to do easy when they are eager for information. So make them desire it and tell them all they want to know.

Edited: As a side effect from rewarding players for using setting information they also started to write a campaign log. Normally one of the players mail a first draft to our group and we complete/correct it.

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ouch, 1/month play (as I've experienced it) is not good for any kind of mastery. But good on you for maintaining interest via non-game commo. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 8 '11 at 4:50
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I actually learned this tactic from addictive games on facebook. I noted that they kept sending me notes and posting in my messages so I had a reason to remind of them every day. It worked flawlessly when ported to tabletop D&D. –  rafgoncalves Jun 8 '11 at 14:40
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I think it is always best to expect the players not to know anything about the background. Treat your adventure or campaign like a movie story. That is, don't assume the watchers know the back plot and show don't tell. For example if the time of the last war was important to the adventure have them meet someone in the inn drinking to an ancestor that died in the war that long ago. In fact, in my experience, players quite often can't remember what happen in the last session (myself included) and it is normally a good idea to do a recap at the start of every session of the important things. Just like in a tv drama.

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+1 for Show, Don't Tell –  F. Randall Farmer Apr 16 '12 at 23:22
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Supposing the game has knowledge-type skills: When players are curious about something or encounter something they might know, first tell them whatever immediately springs to mind about the subject and then have them roll the knowledge skill. They can ask one question per level of success (or in case of D&D, maybe one question per 5 or 10 points in the result or exceeding the DC or whatever). Answer the question if possible, and if not, let them ask another one in place of it.

This relies on setting a price to the knowledge, which makes it feel more valuable. (Compare: People are more likely to play a game they have bought or extensively searched for than one they happened to encounter for free on the internet.) Also, the players get to ask whatever they don't yet know and what they feel is important. Also, if they roll well and get many questions, then they are likely to want to use them all, which lets you communicate even more setting info.


For example: "What is Mournland?"

A: "It's this magical wasteland in Khorhaive where bodies don't rot."

Then the players get to ask questions, like maybe they wanted to know how far away it is, is there treasure there, does anyone live there or why would anyone go there.

Another example: Do goblins have a written language?

A: Well, off-hand you do know the goblins have a sovereign state (and whatever their reputation in Eberron happens to be).

Possible questions: So, do they have a written language? How many are literate? Do they all share a common language? Is it specific to goblins or do humans speak and write the same one?


With reasonable level D&D 3, I'd go with one question if the check is at least 5, 2 if the result is 10, 3 if it is 15, and so on. 3 questions is probably what you want skilled characters to often achieve, so adjust the numbers as necessary.

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@Sardathrion: Do you have the same criticism even after considering the examples I edited in? –  Thanuir Apr 16 '12 at 13:06
    
+1 Yup, that makes it a much better answer IMNSHO. –  Sardathrion Apr 16 '12 at 13:10
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I'm playing the "Very Late Answer" game again. But I run a very, very detailed old game. So this issue is one I am familiar with. And I am a believer in trying to create as immersed a game as possible, and this means having players be able to think 'in-character'...which they CANNOT do without having some level of in-game knowledge.

A lot of these are good answers. I also give out of roleplay experience, and tailor it around using 'in-game, immersed' knowledge. It is a good reinforcer.

But one of the most useful things I did is create a searchable wiki for the game and for pertinent data. It also includes the rules and such we use. And this is pretty easy these days. All my players have tablets or laptops, and this way, when a player or the Gm mentions the Dockside Area of Igbar or Chorm, the other players can look it up online quickly.

Wiki's also accumulate nicely over time, so if a GM puts in a little bit at a time, before you know it, you start to get a nice database for the players to use. Wiki's can also be set up so that players can elaborate or make their own pages, which means they spend even more time on the game wiki. Here is one from an online group I run.
Finally, Wikis are not just searchable, but linkable. So players can keep handy links of their spells or skills or important maps, etc. I often set up player-specific links based on skills or requests of better players so that the more inqisitive players actually have more knowledge.

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