A good campaign setting has a rich history, with plenty of legends and stories of past heroes and epic deeds, gods, monsters, and powerful magics. These stories can add atmosphere, give color to the fireside conversations, provide story hooks or motivation, or even provide details of particular magic items and artifacts your players can encounter.
While there is value in creating legends and folklore for your campaign world, certainly, it is best to approach it with a certain amount of leeway. As with any other element of a campaign setting, though, too much detail both stifles player creativity and can lead to information overload. It’s better to create a few stories or outline some rough details, and allow your players to embellish and build on what you set down.
Legends and folklore can be used to establish details for a number of campaign elements:
- People — You may share tales of ancient heroes of yore, only to later introduce their descendants, reincarnations, or the immortal heroes themselves. Facing down a dragon may be exciting, but if it’s the spitting image of the legendary dragon slain by the ancient hero the characters were told stories of at bedtime, it makes the battle more exciting.
- Places — By relating the tales of the ancient archmage who built a dungeon and stocked it with bizarre horrors as guardians to his arcane legacy, you can provide story hooks and details about locations in your campaign world.
- Things — Magic items can be enhanced with a bit of history. After all, a Magic Longsword +3 is pretty dull, but if it’s the battle-worn longblade of Erlanthis the Orc-Slayer, hero of the Third Orc Wars, it becomes much less bland. When discussing artifacts, though, the details of the item’s history are anything but optional. Artifacts are almost by definition the most storied and famous of magical items in the world, and especially if you are introducing new artifacts unique to your campaign, creating and sharing the legends surrounding them is vital to establishing them as noteworthy and items to be sought out by the player characters.
There is then the issue of when and how to present these legends to your players. Front-loading the information—providing it in early campaign documents—may seem like a good idea, but unless it’s crucial to the immediate comprehension of the campaign, it’s best not to swamp your players with excessive information.
After ruling out campaign briefs, then, you might provide the information in a campaign bible that your players can read at their leisure. This suffers from a similar problem, though, in that you’re providing the information in a passive manner that may cause overload. A better way to provide the information is in-character, or at least at the table. Share it when they make a check to determine if they know about a story or a mural they encounter; provide details through songs or campfire tales from NPCs, or seed it through bluebooking sessions—any way that involves the character as well as the player is ideal. This way you ensure that it feels relevant and like they are actively discovering something in character, rather than passively reading about it outside of the game.
If your players are up to it, you might even invite them to embellish and elaborate on the legends themselves. Give them a framework, a rough outline, and ask them to retell the story to the other player characters with whatever additional details they please. You could even give each player slightly different outlines, and present their own versions of the tale—”That’s not how I heard it. Hulkgar didn’t use Blacktooth to defeat the Beast of Gnashing, he crafted it from one of its teeth after rending its jaws with his bare hands!” Give your players room to add their own mark to the stories, and permission to change the legends, and you may be surprised by their creativity and eagerness to contribute to the lore of the setting. You may even want to make mechanical changes based off their embellishments.
If your players aren’t too keen on this approach, for whatever reason, don’t force them into it. Shy players or those uncomfortable with improvised storytelling of that sort might be less than willing to be put on the spot, for example. You can still involve them in the process in less direct ways—discuss with them whether there are any treasures or artifacts that could be connected to their character backgrounds, work out with them what the stories surrounding them might be outside of the play session, and present the information through an NPC rather than asking players for improvised storytelling.
No matter which approach you decide to adopt, though, try to leave room for player-generated ideas and adapt for their suggestions and creativity. Building a world on your own is fun, but two heads are better than one—and there’s nothing quite like the excitement a player feels when they realize that the enemy they’re fighting or the magic item they just found was something they described themselves.
My last GM introduced a rival hero group (Stolic’s Hammer) that was seen as the true heroes of our town. It was cool that we had to constantly try to catch up to them, as well as deal with a little competition.
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