World Building 101: When Are Campaign Documents Needed?

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time discussing ways to create and use campaign documents. One topic I haven’t really covered is where to use campaign documents and where not to do so. There are probably as many styles of campaign as there are DMs, and not every game has the same needs in terms of setting details and tracking. Here are a few campaign-styles to consider, along with discussion of the relative need for campaign documents in each.

The One-Shot

Running a one-shot adventure frequently requires little to no cohesive world-building to be enjoyable. The characters are only rarely given deeper backgrounds than required to direct them into the plot of the adventure, and frequently retired after the game finishes. For a single adventure, it is often not necessary to put together a campaign brief.

However, it can still be useful to create guidelines for one-shot adventures, whether to provide some direction for a specific plot hook you want to try, because you want to use the one-shot as a part of a larger campaign setting later, or simply to ensure that everyone makes a coherent group. On the other hand, campaign bibles, unless you’re running every one of your one-shots in the same setting, are probably not required.

The Mini-Campaign

For a short series of three or four adventures it can definitely be worth the effort, for almost all the same reasons you would want to use one for a full campaign. There should be enough room in a mini-campaign to explore character backgrounds to some degree, and the details of the world will therefore matter more than for a typical one-shot. In most cases you won’t need to provide quite as much detail, but otherwise campaign briefs are important. Campaign bibles, while more useful here than in a one-shot, are still largely more trouble than they’re worth. There is little reason to spend a lot of time on in-depth details for a campaign that will likely conclude by the time you’ve had a chance to compile everything, after all.

The Shared World

Some groups enjoy a play style in which DMing duties are passed around between several members. This lets everyone get a chance to play once in awhile. For this kind of game, a campaign brief and campaign bible can take on even more importance than normal, as it’s vital to maintaining an internally consistent setting and keeping track of plot threads from each DM. When beginning a campaign of this sort it’s vital to have everyone who intends to DM sit down together and hash out the details of the campaign setting, ground rules to prevent any one DM from breaking the plots of the others, and so on. This should be included in the campaign brief, which all DMs involved should help create and sign off on. Running a shared world campaign without campaign documents can be a real chore.

The Dungeon Delve

As a delve may represent anything from a single one-shot to a full-blown campaign, the usefulness of campaign documents can vary widely. A short crawl may require nothing more than a capsule description of the environs and a set of guidelines to describe the kinds of hazards the players might expect to face; a full-blown dungeon campaign would require a more in depth document discussing the history and cultures of the complex. While it may seem that PC backgrounds are less likely to come into play in this style of campaign, there are still numerous ways a DM could involve them—a long-lost father or childhood friend were last seen going into the same dungeon, a quest for a lost heirloom, and so on. Should you opt to do so, then a campaign bible would be well worth the effort.

The Published Campaign

Of all the campaign types mentioned here—barring one-shot adventures—this may seem like the style that least requires the types of campaign documents we’ve been discussing. After all, the point of the published campaign is that the heavy lifting of world-building has already been done, and the setting is ready-made. However, campaign briefs are still essential for the published campaign, because they narrow the scope of the campaign to a managable level by specifying what elements you intend to focus on; if your players are less than familiar with the campaign setting then this can be a game-saving effort, as otherwise they will not know how much of the (typically lengthy) published setting details they need to read to understand the game. Campaign bibles, similarly, can still be used to store your campaign-specific locations and NPCs, as usual. The main benefit is that most of the rest of the campaign world details have already been created for you to draw on, but that should never be taken as an invitation to neglect your bookkeeping.

The Homebrew World

More than any other campaign style, maintaining clear documentation is critical to the homebrew world. Most of what I’ve discussed so far has been directly in relation to this kind of campaign. Campaign briefs give your players their first taste of the world, guidelines to the sorts of characters that are appropriate, and campaign bibles give them a sense of the meat of the setting without overwhelming them. It’s also worth noting that it may be worth a third type of document, which we will call a setting bible. A setting bible is related to and builds on the campaign bible, for the purposes of codifying all the information you have as a DM that is either not directly related to your campaign or that is not intended as player knowledge. To date we have focused on campaign briefs and campaign bibles, specifically, since they are the most directly useful documents for running and documenting a game. For now all that needs to be said about the setting bible is that it is typically NOT a player document, and should not include anything that the players need to know; the campaign bible, by contrast, should include only things the players need to know. Between setting and campaign bibles and the campaign brief, this type of campaign is easily the heaviest in terms of bookkeeping but can also be some of the most rewarding games you will ever run.

These represent only a smattering of play styles, but hopefully it’s more clear the kinds of considerations that go into choosing what kinds of documents to keep for your game. Next week we’ll begin more closely examining some of the choices that a world-builder faces in regards to what to include or exclude from your campaign world.

Comments (2)

Anarkeith (December 23rd, 2009)

Great series, Brandan. Based on your input, I think I need to separate out campaign and setting bibles from my documentation. My players are a little overwhelmed by the setting it seems. Any suggestions beyond what you’ve written here. I’ve been using the structure over at Obsidian Portal as a rough divisional guide for my info.

Jeff Smith (December 28th, 2009)

Great post! Been a bit of a lurker for awhile, so take this as a job well done in general. But this post was especially nice.

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