World Building 101: Effective Campaign Briefs

One of the great joys of being a DM is creating a world for your players to experience through their characters. While there are some very high quality campaign settings available, especially if you’re willing to adapt from older editions, if you’re at all like me then nothing can possibly match the enjoyment of building your own world for your game.

Of course, all that intricate detail is of no use if you can’t communicate it to your players. Handing most players a campaign bible the size of an average university history textbook is a surefire way to ensure they won’t read through any of it. One obvious reason for this is that the sheer volume of the detail is intimidating, especially if you expect them to become intimately familiar with it before you play, but that’s not the only one. There are several factors to consider for effectively building a campaign world and communicating the details to your players.

The first introduction to your campaign that your players will have is typically a campaign brief. This is usually a document presenting them with the vital information about the setting that they need to understand in order to create suitable characters. Here are some tips to help write an effective campaign brief.

  • Keep it short. Most players are more likely to read a campaign brief of 3 pages than a detailed campaign bible of 30 or more. This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have more details in mind than can be contained in those three pages, but especially for the initial communication, shorter is better. Try to consider 3-5 pages as the absolute maximum length for an introductory campaign brief.
  • Keep it to the point. If your campaign world has a history rich with lost empires and great battles, that’s wonderful, but if your player characters are beginning as adventurers based out of a small town in the hinterlands, none of that is going to be directly affecting them.
  • Keep it clear. Try to avoid using terms specific to your campaign without defining them. Make an effort to ensure that names are consistent and that your writing style is clear at all times on who is doing what to whom. If your players aren’t able to understand part of the campaign brief, it may as well not have been included at all, and that’s something you do not want.
  • Consider formatting. Use bold or italics to emphasize important details. Keep the formatting consistent throughout the document—the idea is to make it as easy to read and understand as possible.
  • Keep it open-ended. This is a critical point that’s often forgotten or left out by novice world-designers. Always remember that you’re creating a shared world with your players—the lion’s share of the effort in designing a world is the DM’s responsibility, but try to leave room for the creativity of your players. As an example, one game I ran began as a fairly standard fantasy setting in my mind, but one of the players decided to play his tiefling ranger as a cowboy. Rather than telling him that wouldn’t work, I ran with it, and the campaign setting became much richer as a result.
  • Keep it organized. With only three to five pages it may not seem super-important to keep every bit of detail cleanly organized, but it’s actually quite vital to do so. Not only does it improve readability , it makes it that much easier to add to it as your campaign continues to grow.
  • Avoid fiction. There may be some temptation to lay out your campaign setting using an in-character document. This can be an excellent exercise to get into the right mindset for both you and your players, but it’s not always especially clear, concise, or easy to refer back to for specific details. The campaign brief should be presented to the players first, so they have time to digest the information, before you bring them further into the world with in-character writing.

Once you have the basic campaign brief laid out and your players have become familiar with the material you provided initially, expect more details to come out. Check out next week’s article for a more in-depth discussion of keeping up with the details!

Comments (5)

Cooperflood (November 18th, 2009)

It would be interestng to see an example of one of your campaign briefs.

Brandan Landgraff (November 18th, 2009)

Sadly I don’t have one handy right now. I’ll see about putting something together as an example if time permits.

Buccaneers Guild (November 18th, 2009)

I too would like to see an example.

Our last campaign we did differently, I let the players help build the world. There was then no brief needed.

Just wrote about it today on my blog.

Tyson J. Hayes (November 18th, 2009)

I would also like to see an example of this.

And a point on formatting, this post could really use some bold for your points in order to draw attention to it. It’s readable but I think you’d draw more attention to your points if they were bolded.

Brandan Landgraff (November 19th, 2009)

In point of fact, I had done just that when I sent the piece in. Not sure at what point the formatting there got lost, but they were bolded when I wrote it.

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