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World Building 101: Campaign Bibles and Scope

posted Wednesday, December 16th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

World building is enjoyable and rewarding, but it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal of your campaign bible when you begin scribing the details of the campaign world. A campaign bible should be an almanac and an encyclopedia, but it’s important to keep the focus on the campaign as you are running it, and not on the world itself. The distinction between the two may seem blurry, but it’s a vital difference.

Including something in the campaign bible creates expectations in those who read it that the information has been included because it is important to the campaign. If your campaign bible includes a myth about a man who found a legendary spear that was used to slay a god-dragon, then your players will—consciously or otherwise—be on the lookout for that spear to appear in the game at some point. If you only included that to make the world feel deeper, though, then your players will be disappointed when it doesn’t appear.

The second important factor in writing your campaign bible is one that has already been discussed—keeping everything organized. We’ll look at the base categories I discussed last week, examining each in more depth.

People as a category should primarily include key NPCs or important figures in your setting. When you start writing your campaign bible, it’s a good idea to begin with the characters with the most immediate impact on the campaign, followed by important characters with less immediate impact, and so on. Important characters in the history of your campaign might also be included if their actions have had a direct impact on the story or setting that your players are exploring. Try to leave room for your players to provide some NPCs from their characters’ backgrounds, to be used for story hooks or expand on the player character’s history. In this case, it’s important to remember that the same caveat holds true about campaign bible contents—if a player details an NPC, it is most likely because they’re hoping to encounter that character in the game. While you are under no real obligation to include these characters, it’s a good idea to make every effort to do so.

Places is a fairly broad category that includes everywhere the players might go. Again, begin with the areas most immediate to your campaign, then branch out to include more information. You may want to focus in on a specific nation, detailing several cities, towns, and adventure sites within that country but leaving other, more distant countries as sketchy outlines. You may decide to detail everywhere evenly, or describe a major city down to the individual street names and businesses found on each. It’s important to note, though, that detailing every last area of your campaign world reduces or removes opportunities for your players to contribute their own regions or for you to improvise somewhere later on. It’s nice to leave some things open ended so that you can . Subcategories of places might include countries, cities, towns, adventure sites, or specific points of interest within any of the above.

Things, in comparison to people, covers a relatively narrow band of subjects. Generally this will cover important plot items, campaign specific artifacts, or original magic items you’ve designed for your game. It can also include legendary or historical items of power from the campaign world. Here especially it’s worth repeating that if you don’t intend something to appear in your campaign, don’t include it in your campaign bible; the hint of awesome magical power will lead your players to seek out any signs of powerful artifacts you include here, and they may become quite angry to learn that you never had any intention of letting them gain access to the items you’ve described.

History is a very broad area. You can use this to describe the myths and legends surrounding the creation of your world, the wars and ancient empires that once dominated it, or even the history of the little village where your campaign begins. This category can do the most to enhance the depth of your setting, but be careful not to turn things into a series of dates and battles to be memorized, or your players may lose interest. Limit what you include to avoid the sense of slogging through a history textbook. History is the category most likely to include cross-references to other areas of the campaign bible—you may need to ensure that all the links are documented, depending on your format.

Culture is where you will include details on specific races, cultural mores, beliefs, and festivals. Like history, this is an excellent place to add to setting depth, especially with interesting holidays, details on the cultures of specific races, etcetera. If your campaign’s elves behave differently from typical elves, here is where you would note it. You should feel free to be as inventive as you wish—but don’t punish players for not becoming intimately familiar with the details if they don’t want to. For example, if your campaign setting involves intricate rules for how to address strangers based on age and social position, roleplaying through it can be fun, but not if in-character punishments are doled out for the player failing to memorize the specific response called for in a given situation. The character can be expected to know how to behave properly, and should only be penalized for willfully ignoring the societal mores, not for the player having slipped up and leaving off an honorific.

Misc. A catch-all category for anything that you feel the need to include in the campaign bible that doesn’t fit into the above categories. This might be something like the fact that your campaign world revolves around binary suns, or that day and night last for decades each, or anything that is worth mentioning but doesn’t really fall into the other five categories.

By focusing on the essential details to your campaign, you ensure that your players and you will not have to shuffle through pages of largely useless data to find what you need; you ensure that the expectations for campaign content are consistent, and you ensure that you will not become overwhelmed by adding details to every little corner of the campaign world unnecessarily. Of course, if you enjoy that level of detail there’s nothing stopping you from maintaining a separate file for supplemental material where you do explore every nook and cranny—who knows, maybe your next campaign will be set in the same world, and you’ll be able to build further on the groundwork you’ve already laid out.

Next week we’ll discuss what types of games do and don’t benefit from campaign documents as explored so far, and why.

Comments

  1. Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-12-18

    December 19th, 2009

    [...] World Building 101: Campaign Bibles and Scope More links about campaign bibles. Why? Because I feel they are just that important. More details about what kinds of information you should be packing in your world bible. [...]

  2. Construção de Mundos 101: Bíblias de Campanha e Escopo

    January 5th, 2010

    [...] Este artigo foi escrito por Brandan Landgraff do d20 Source e foi publicado no dia 16 de dezembro de 2009 sob o título original World Building 101: Campaign Bibles and Scope. [...]

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