When we read a story, the characters in the story know a great deal about their world. They learn new things over the course of the story, but as a general statement, they know the basics of their world. When we game, we create a story, with the players writing their character’s actions and dialog, and the GM writing the rest and functioning as the editor. These stories are frequently derailed by players not knowing basic information about the world they are playing in. (Oh, you’re the prince of my country, the one we are in… Yes, Fool! Take him away… *scuffle ensues*) Would you enjoy a story where the author made stupid obvious mistakes? Of course not. Mistakes like this frequently ruin the atmosphere and feel of games, for the GM and the other players.
One of the problems with creating a unique game environment, especially a more exotic world, is that you can leave your players “out of the loop” because they do not know the culture and the world. You think the game is whizzing along while the players begin to look at you blankly because they don’t know why things are happening. Many standard fantasy worlds (stamped out of the Tolkein/ Western European mold) have elements that go far beyond the generic tropes; complex political situations, religious or mystical issues, or history that is detailed and applicable to the current story line. Sometimes GMs get too wrapped up in the creation of the world and campaign that they forget that they have to communicate their world to others.
Players need to know that is going on. If you don’t the results… for your campaign can be disastrous, as players will flounder and be frustrated, as the GM will be confused and not understand why the game is not going anywhere, as players will wonder what the heck the GM is talking about.
The best tool for communication is the World Pack. A world pack is a packet of information that explains the details of the campaign and the game setting. One section of the world pack should be dedicated to the game setting, including information that the players will need to know about their character’s world.
When the GM creates a packet for a given campaign, it will include game mechanics as well as setting materials. In many cases, a well crafted game environment may exceed the stated rules of the game being played. Modifications to classes/ templates for each species or group, gifts/ flaws only available to people from a certain region, attribute modifiers for each country, odd skills, and changes in the costs of certain skills, are all quick easy changes tied to the game environment. Always make sure to note in the packet any rule changes from the printed rules.
A good portion of the packet will be information explaining the campaign setting. This should all the information the troupe the players need about the game environment and the world it represents. This does not have to be in large, long, encyclopedia like sections. It can be a collection of important pieces of information, in simple short sections. GMs: Include as much as you are able, as it will save you having to explain things in the future.
One thing every world packet should include is Visceral Elements, concrete things about life in the world. Birth, Death, Eating, Sleeping, Family/ Marriage, and Work/ Leisure, are some of the most important visceral elements. Every world pack should include sections on these topics. Note: Short and brief sections are sometimes better than long, complete entries.
Another component of the pack should give advice on the style of game being presented and the type of scenarios the GM is planning to present. This way the players, if the GM hasn’t been communicating with them beforehand, know exactly what they are getting into.
World packs are not the only tool you have to communicate, just the primary one. Sometimes players don’t know something about the game world and the information is not in any world pack. (Sometimes, the information might be in the world pack, but you want to bring it to the player’s attention.) The GM can start the game with a Narrative Moment. This is a moment in the beginning of the game, when the GM can explain some aspect of the world. They can be little mini-lectures on some aspect of the game environment, or some cultural knowledge (myths, legends, history, etc) that the characters might need to know. GMs: If you make a habit of having narrative moments every game, then the players will not automatically know something is “special” or important when you mention it. Also note what you say in a narrative moment in your notes, so it can be added to the world pack in the future and you won’t contradict yourself in the future.
I personally create a world pack for every campaign I run. These campaigns run from four sessions to six years. The packs ranges from four to sixty four pages. Being of the game designer persuasion, my packets tend to be everything you will need to run the game from scratch (If not they quickly evolve into that as the campaign goes forward.) Overkill? A little. However my players know what the world is like, what is expected of them, what they should expect, and the style of play I am looking for. My games have few, if any, of the issues that most gms have in their games because my players know exactly what is in store for them. Most have made positive comments about this because there is no period of “trying to figure out what is going on”, they can take straight to the story.