I'm a (quite) new GM who's going to start a Traveller campaign, where my players don't know anything about the setting (be it the canon one or a modified one).

I tried to sum the basic setting concepts (Imperium government description, major races, galactic directions, jump, law levels etc.) in few pages for them to read, so when they'll start they'll know something about it. I didn't liked to do it but I told them that would be the only thing they would have to read, so please read it (and that's true).

Problem is, of course they never read it, even if those were few pages. Since I'm new at this, I don't really know how to tell them about the basic setting facts without doing a boring introduction or making them read these things. Can you suggest me some ways to handle it?

I am referring to the general setting, not specific places (or people or things). My problem is more "How can I explain them the Star Wars universe?" (with this I mean a general overview like Rebels and Empire, Jedi, hyperspace etc) than "How can i tell them about Tatooine/Jedi/Darth Vader etc?".

One of my friends suggested me to prepare a short pre-quest for every one of my players in order to tell them a little of the setting each. It is a similar approach to the suggestion @GMJoe gave me in his comment and @Sardathrion's answer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, You may want to check Introducing an unorthodox setting the players know NOTHING about, Helping new players learn a setting on the go, and Techniques for communicating setting and campaign information to the PCs? They seem to cover quite similar ground to your question. \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I think this duplicates the second question @OpaCitiZen links. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 23:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This isn't enough for a full answer, but if there's particular bits of information you need your players to understand, try and design a short adventure around each one that should take place near the beginning of the campaign, so they have an opportunity to learn it. (e.g: smuggling a cargo between two worlds with differing law levels.) Then, when it comes up again later, they'll realise that keeping track of setting information is to their benefit, and will become interested in it of their own accord. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 4:04

6 Answers 6


One off game(s)

If the group is open to it, pre-gen some characters and run through a few simple one-session (3-4 hours long) games that detail a little of the background. In Travellers, an Out of Gas scenario can allow you (with judicious choice of pre-gen character) to introduce a lot of background: When you focus on the back story of one of the PC, the rest play NPCs thus getting a lot of exposure. This could even be your opening pilot episode for the game -- pre-gens are the PCs.

Edit after comment: I agree with CatLord in his comment below. However, I was not advocating anything more than a (short) paragraph of NPCs' descriptions/characterisation. After all, they will play those for 10/15 minutes maximum. There's not point in those NPCs being anything but card board cut outs. But I did not make that clear. Hopefully, it now is.

Second, if your players "do not know how to play", then you have another problem. I assume that the players are mature enough to know what role playing is and how to do it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ My only reservation about this answer is if you throw random NPCs at the players, and they don't know how to play, the game is going to break down a lot for reading and questions because they'll likely be playing a new role every scene and thus need to read. A good way to brush them if they don't mind the critical thinking but might confuse them. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ A friend of mine suggested me something similar: to prepare a pre-quest (about 1 hour) for each of my players focusing on some aspects of the setting. One of them will be focused on the monetary aspect (important on this setting), another on the different laws in different planets about weapons, and so on... I think I'll go on with this. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – FraNe91
    Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 9:12

From my experience, the best way to do this for the group (or, in most cases, individual players within a group) that refuses to read is to give the background in segments as required.

For example, during character creation, monitor carefully for things that don't jive with the setting. Something as simple as "the warriors of this tribe are known for their proficiency with spears and polearms; why do you have dual swords?" can guide the players to actually ask more questions on their own.

Then, as the game progresses, as players take their actions, you can halt them momentarily to give some setting information on how those would (or wouldn't make sense). "Your attempt to seduce the dignitary is probably a good move; the culture of his nation actually views hedonism as a virtue."

When you drop little snippets like this to players, they tend to ask more and more. Yes, it does slow down games a bit (especially at first), but for the players that don't like doing "homework," it's an engaging way to give them the information they need in more easily digestible chunks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is also my style. If I have a background document, it is always optional reading. The setting itself can usually be summed up in a couple of sentences. And be ready to drop nuggets at any point, even (or especially) during character creation. "Oh, you want to play a fighting man style character? He could be a mercenary from the Sword Worlds that just went through a 25 year civil war. Or maybe an ex-enforcer for the Black Mamba cartel?", "Yeah, the sword worlds civil war ended just two months ago when the emperor intervened." Be ready to fill every bit of rules with a bit of fluff. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rubberduck
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 10:13

I like to set up "quicksheets" - about as much info as can go onto a 2 page (single sheet, front and back) - one for the rules, one for the setting. It's short enough that people can read it before-hand, easily, or you can point to it during play and people can read it during play, no problem.

The rest I like to dish out through a combination of:

  1. Assumed specialized knowledge "Oh, you have Spaceship Mechanic at a high level, you totally know about these ships, they've got awesome engines but the computers are shoddy... it's typical of this alien species..." etc. This lets players feel rewarded for the skill/class choices they make - they're experts in their field.

  2. Flipping the question "You know that this planet has been going downhill since it had a civil war 15 years ago... as a mercenary, tell me what was that all about?" Use this as a chance to give the players reins to add to the setting and also show off their character's expertise and their own creativity.

Root Problem

That said, it sounds like really what it is, is that your players don't want to read. If you've got like 5 or less pages of setting and they don't want to read it, maybe they're not really interested in playing this particular game.

I understand not wanting to read a lot of setting, especially if you're very busy, but usually 5 pages or less means they're just showing you they're not really interested either in this setting, or as players, in setting focal games at all.

If you haven't already, you might want to ask what they want from this game in particular. It's tough because most gamers are not very good at openly articulating these things, and will often play or try out games without any concern or thought about whether they'll get what they want until it's already underway, which wastes everyone's time.

It might be that some of the players want an action-y space opera and really don't care what the setting is. Some of the players might just be showing up to hang out with friends and not really care about the game at all (in which case, just hanging out takes less energy and effort than prepping a game!).

I'd focus on getting that conversation, once you know what the players want and how they want to engage, then try the two techniques I mentioned above. Otherwise, it's like asking "How do I communicate better to people who aren't listening?"

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 That said, it sounds like really what it is, is that your players don't want to read. If you've got like 5 or less pages of setting and they don't want to read it, maybe they're not really interested in playing this particular game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 8:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion Before start planning things I made sure that they were well-interested in this game. Problem is they're really lazy people. But it is true that they may be not interested in the setting. I'll talk to them about it. \$\endgroup\$
    – FraNe91
    Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 9:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion I totally disagree with this. Many people are just busy, and it's very common for players not to be able to do any sort of "homework" between sessions. Sure maybe they would have those 15 spare minutes, but they can easily forget to do it without this implying they aren't interested in playing the weekly session. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 18:31

Deliver background information in situ or in media res. If some background is required prior to play, it should be succinct; one or two short paragraphs. Otherwise, give the information as needed during the occurrence. If they players don't use space travel until the Xth encounter, then perhaps briefly mention that it exists beforehand and get into the details during the Xth encounter. If your players are generating characters, they'll need to know some of the information to make informed choices. Again, rather than a lengthy oration, do a character building session and walk them through the details as they come up.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to deliver a long oration for any type of adventure. It's difficult for some of us to pay attention for extended periods and besides, we're here to have fun. Plus, the story is much more immersive when the details are learned through encounters. Most mysteries work like this; where a few details are learned to interest the players, but then the rest of the clues come through the encounters, leading to a discovery of the plot (and perhaps the ability to change it or prevent it).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do this all the time because I often run scenarios (3-4 sessions) to teach people new systems and settings. Especially when they're about to do something so I can commend the action or warn against it (and why) \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 17:47

1) Feelies

First, a definition of what a feelie is:

"Feelie" is a term first used by Infocom to refer to the extra content included with the boxed versions of their interactive fiction computer games. Feelies differed from game to game and were of the same theme as the game they came packaged with. For example, Wishbringer, a fantasy game with magic, came with a "Magick glowing stone." These extra objects and documents sometimes served as a form of copy protection, as several games were impossible to solve without information found in their feelies. Although the term was first used by Infocom, it can refer to similar content found in any company's games. — Feelie, Wikipedia

In the context of a pen and paper game, a feelie would be any physical object you create that draws the players into the world of the PCs. This could mean making physical keys, weapons, government paperwork forms, currency, etc. that mirrors the world the PCs inhabit. Feelies can be used to effectively communicate themes, subtext, or backstory through a direct, memorable object. That pilot's license application? Filled with obscure and unanswerable questions that make a real world tax application look simple, can communicate a lot about the government the players are interacting with through their PCs. Likewise, the signature weapon of a dead NPC ally bequeathed to a player, or pamphlets given to them as they walk through a space port can also used to communicate about the world (and insert plot hooks!).

2) In media res

In general, in media res simply means starting in the middle of the action. This is used all the time, and most often by action stories (particularly movies) to get the adrenaline pumping and set the stakes immediately. Beyond this application, in media res can also be used to put the characters immediately into the story in a situation that is both exciting and communicates a lot of what they need to know about the setting and the type of campaign they will be played in. For example, characters starting their adventure under-fire from gov't licensed space privateers while they deliver medical supplies to a backwater world (under the control of a different gov't) can communicate a lot. Likewise, how you, as the GM, present possible solutions (or let them create their own) will inform them about the world.

3) Reward good roleplay/world knowledge

Whenever Players have their PCs backup their approach/tactic/argument with actual setting appropriate knowledge give them a bonus toward success and/or a bigger reward.

My pitch

Create a great Opening action scene (which could even be a tense, trade negotiation, given its Traveler) highlighting 2 different factions, 1 key aspect of the world, and 1 or 2 themes of the story you will be creating. This will in no way tell them everything they need to know, but it just might pique their interest to actually read the materials you've provided for backstory. Create 1 or 2 appropriate feelies that can be passed around and looked at by players to further draw them in. After their initial introduction to the the world through their in media res starting adventure, take off the kid gloves and have their lack of world knowledge backfire on them (when appropriate). When they end up running from Johnny Law because they broke a well-known (and easy for them to find out, had they read up) major taboo of the society.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Most commercial adventures use a rumor table or such to get the "hook" delivered. Your "Opening action scene" is far more fun and effective and the way to go in my opinion! You also can bring them in to something they may otherwise ignore. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented Dec 3, 2013 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I've always felt random encounter tables felt like just that, random encounter tables, vs. actual random encounters or happenstance that they try to model. Its a disconnect between game design and storytelling that still exists. The best "random encounters" are those perfectly planed and orchestrated by a GM, but still feel like they are on the fly. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 19:39

Have a first micro adventure (2 - 3 sessions top) with this setup:

Bring a set of "here and now" characters (sometimes the players avatars themselves) "accidentally" to the setting and have them explore the world. They just don't know anything and learn everything through the eyes of their characters. (Have a look at Erfworld where that happens and is played straight, with stats and "rounds" and everything that confuses the hell out of the main character)

For the campaigns I run today that won't work anymore (as any "here and now" character would die on their first day of arrival) but for a setting thats not as hostile that works well.

Sceneries can include:

  • Deep frying. You know, like Fry from Futurama. Works well if they are to be transported in a "real world" future.
  • Teleportation gone wrong: "Captian there are Croniton particles in this atmosphere. The Teleporter brought us pepole from past!" - They land upon a friendly ship of explorers that explain to them the world while the engineers jury rig the teleporter to send them back. Have some space-opera adventure meanwhile.
  • Alien Device accidentally activated (see Magic)
  • Magic, if available in the world. Maybe the wizard that pulled them over botched his roll and instead of 6 slaves of the bare-skin kind he ends up with 6 PCs that are not amused. Maybe he runs / teleports away so they can't force him to send them back.

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