World Building 101: Keeping a Campaign Bible

Last week, I discussed how to write an effective campaign brief. While this is an important skill for any DM starting a new campaign, there’s more to world-building than the initial introduction of your players into the world you’re creating. A campaign brief is a tool designed as a starting point, but the moment you sit down and start describing the first scene in your first adventure, you’ve given the players more information on the setting than is in the scope of the campaign brief. It’s time to graduate up to a full-fledged campaign bible.

A campaign bible is an impressive enough sounding name, but what it really refers to are the notes and details of everything the players encounter. It’s really up to you how detailed to make it—some DMs work entirely on jotted notes, others spend hours or days detailing large swathes of their world. Either way, as you dole out more information on the campaign, it’s important to keep track of it somewhere for reference; thus, the campaign bible.

If you’re running your game in a setting with which the players are familiar, the campaign bible really only needs to contain a few notes on important NPCs and whatever locations or events you feel are most important. If you’re designing your own world, though, then you may want to use the campaign bible to store history, myths and legends, cultural notes, geography, and anything else besides. Anything and everything you would find in a published campaign setting fits into a campaign bible—up to and including content added in by further campaign supplements.

Read on for some things to consider when writing a campaign bible:

  • You will probably want to make the campaign bible available to your players in some form, so that they can better familiarize themselves with aspects of the setting they find interesting. You may keep a printed copy or copies in a binder, to be added to and expanded after each session, or host an electronic copy on the web. There are also plenty of sites that allow you to create a free private wiki, which works very well as the basis for a campaign bible for a variety of reasons including scalability, ease of locating information, and the ability for your players to add notes to it themselves.
  • When writing a campaign bible, it’s less vital to keep things short and to the point than it is with the campaign brief. Your players are already invested in the world of your game, and presumably if they are reading the campaign bible, it is in order to learn more about the world than was contained in the brief.
  • Keep it focused. While you can feel free to spend much more time and effort detailing the history of your campaign world, don’t go overboard. Inundating your players with too much at once can create information overload, especially if you’re including setting details that have not and will not come up in your campaign. It can be fun to create entries for an entire organization, complete with full biographies of the most influential or important members, but if they will never appear in your campaign, there’s little purpose in including them in the campaign bible and your players may be confused or frustrated if they spend time learning about the group and it never appears.
  • Include your players in the process. You may have a strong idea for how your campaign world works, but remember that it’s partly your players’ world as well. Give them the ability to write elements of the campaign bible. Perhaps they could write the history of their hometown, or the lineage of their family dating back to ancient heroes. Maybe they want to detail the distant culture from which they originated, or create some tales of clever tricksters stealing fire from the gods at the dawn of history. As long as it isn’t directly contradicting other information in your world or working against the tone or plot you’re creating, let them take some control—you may find inspiration in the material they provide. Letting them contribute themselves also has the added benefit that it may be easier to talk them into keeping some of the records for you—no need to write up a bio page for the innkeeper you improvised if one of your players was taking notes for the bible.
  • Keep it organized. Nothing is worse than having to shuffle through fifty pages of notes to find that one critical piece of information. By keeping an organized campaign bible you ensure that you (or your players) will be able to find the information you need, when you need it. This can be very difficult if your campaign bible is stored in a hard copy format, but with an electronic format it is extremely simple to maintain organization with a bit of effort.
  • Plan ahead. If you know you’re going to have an adventure or three focused on finding and exploring a ruined city of the lost empire, put some time into developing the lore surrounding it and let your players see it in the bible some time in advance. That way, you don’t need to spend time during the game relating to them what they know about the ancient empire—and you may actually find that your players will take the opportunity to discuss it in character, and the more knowledgeable characters will inform the rest about the legends of the treasure in the lost city without you needing to become involved at all!
  • Avoid spoilers. By the same token, however, it’s important to keep a separate set of notes for the DM’s eyes only, containing details on future developments or planned plot events. If the players already know that their employer is going to betray them because you’ve written it in the campaign bible and let them read it, the impact of the reveal will be completely lost. Keep a separate file for your own notes on the characters to avoid giving the players knowledge they shouldn’t have.

With a good campaign bible, your players will feel much more confident and comfortable with in-character discussion of the world their characters live in. They’ll be able to get a sense of what the world is like to live in beyond what you describe in the play session. If you give them a chance to add to it themselves, they may create plot hooks or adventure sites that you would never have come up with, and they can take some of the load off your shoulders, both for keeping notes for each session and by familiarizing themselves to reduce the amount of time you spend on telling them what they know. The only real downside to keeping a campaign bible is that it takes time—but if you’re having fun writing it, then that’s not a downside at all.

Next week, we’ll discuss some of the ways of organizing and delivering your campaign bible to your players, along with the pros and cons of each.

Comments (3)

Alex Schroeder (November 25th, 2009)

Hm, I never did the foreshadowing part using my campaign wiki. That might be an interesting element. Add rumors and notes to the wiki in the two or three weeks before it actually comes up in play. I think I’ll try that.

Keeping it short is an important element for me as a player. I’m in a game to play, not to read pages and pages of material. That’s why I try to keep things very short and limit myself to things that actually happened.

The Last Rogue (November 25th, 2009)

Just wanted to pop in and say I’m really enjoying this series. I am wrapping up one campaign and starting another, so your recent blogs have helped me stay on point.

Kevin (December 12th, 2009)

Great series. I am still reading all you past posts but this series is really hitting home. I have been working on a new campaign now for a while and this is giving me so many ideas I would have never thought of before.

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