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Custom Settings: How much reading is too much?


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Whenever I homebrew a setting, I usually approach it as if I'm going to someday publish it and I'll write as much as 20 pages (posssibly even more) on background that's player targeted. That said, I don't require my players to read 1 line of that background text. Instead, I only expect them to read the equivalent of a 30-60 second elevator pitch. I want my players to discover the setting through exploration, adventuring, interaction and narrative they encounter along the way. I almost always write my setting background as narrative spoken by some character/host, because for one it ends up sounding far less encyclopedic. More importantly though, writing it that way makes it easy for me as GM to lift out specific background text and communicate it in-game. I have a few settings that are way-out there in terms of genre and geography, but I've haven't found my approach to be confusing to my players.

More effort is required if players are going to be building their own PCs as opposed to running pregens. I usually encourage players to start with pregens then alter them to their hearts content or roll up a PC at the conclusion of the 1st scenario. For those players keen on building their own PC from the get-go, I typically have an archetype document (page or 2) that's an extrapolation of those parts of my setting background that's pertinent to cultures and characters.

Knight of Ravens

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I think for me it's something like...

Pitch your game and its setting to me in a few concise sentences or a short paragraph.

Introduce your game and its setting to me in two or three paragraphs, something like half a page to two-thirds of a page.

Beyond that, write as many words as you feel are necessary to explain your setting in as much depth and detail as you like. Use multiple pages on a Wiki or multiple documents in a folder or otherwise divide it into sections with useful titles that can be assembled into a contents page, list of headings, or series of bullet points. Allow me to browse it at my leisure, and make sure your headings and titles guide me to the sections that are most relevant to me; for example, if I'm playing a cleric in your D&D campaign with a custom pantheon, make sure you're clear about where you've put the information on your setting's deities.


Nature's critical miss
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Just echoing what's been said, but unfortunately "Fuck all" seems to be the generally expected amount. Which can make running different or dense settings, homebrewed or published, a bit of a bear. Especially when the setting is very different, even possibly in the way physics work e.g. Ars Magica, Mechanical Dream, etc. or very dense e.g. Degenesis, Glorantha, Talislanta.

Lord Xcapobl

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Over the years I have noticed that elaborate setting info is often too much for most players, or even GMs. Like others have mentioned, have a short introduction that provides a major defining part of the setting, something that is immediately obvious to all who live in the setting. Stuff that distinguishes your setting from all others. Is it a specific race? A certain belief? An environmental issue (like Athas, the world under the Dark Sun)?

If we are going to play Forgotten Realms, however, and I never plan on guiding the campaign into Mulhorand, why would I require the players to know about Mulhorand? Its line of pharaos? Its (egyptian-inspired) pantheon? Its relationships with Thay and Unther? That would only (even if slightly so) be relevant if a player wants to play a character from that area, an outcast that went into the West. If even then.

Of course, if you have a setting (custom or not) and it grew over the years, there's no holding you back in making a wiki, or writing the campaign guide, or whatever. When starting a new game in your elaborate world, you might guide people to specific parts of your campaign during any session 0, when they start character building and get interested in certains nations, cultures, races, and what not.

A good measure for this would be the question: "What does my character know about this?"
If everybody in the campaign ought to know something about New York, tell them a bit about it. Or have a paragraph or two ready. If it will never be visited in the campaign, don't bother about Bria in the Centraal Afrikaanse Republiek, even if you do think its church is beautiful.


Social Justice Witch
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I have found that the best way to get players into a dense new world is with pre-gens that are filled with interesting hooks and connections.

Mike McCall

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I happen to love both world-building and delving into the background of a world. Even so, I prefer to keep it lean to begin with. Once things are moving, I'll discover the areas I want to delve more deeply into.

My general approach would be to start with a paragraph (3-4 sentences) of pitch. Let the players know what the campaign will be about, where it's centered and what kind of protagonists the PCs are. Then, as needed:

  • A paragraph detailing any recent history that is relevant to the campaign or campaign area, so that people can tie into it if they want.
  • A sentence apiece describing any unusual character options (race, spellcasting, special abilities, etc.), or any options that are innately tied to setting (ie. all "barbarians" are part of a quasi-religious order of berserkers).


Active member
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I prefer the Star Wars approach. The PLAYERS only need to know the back-cover blurb. That doesn't mean you can't have detail like the Clone War and the Senate being dissolved, but that's stuff you can flesh out as it becomes relevant.

Worldbuilding can be a lot of fun and add so much dept to your game session, but time you're explaining the setting or have the players reading is time you're not spending at the table swigning on chandeliers and bantering with your crew.


Veteran of 100k psychic wars
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As somebody who wrote 26 pages of background of my last game only to have a single player even skim it... follow the advice here to keep it short. Most players will never care as much about the setting as the GM.


Registered User
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You can get away with it at the start in RQ, because low level characters, even though they're technically involved involved in their society and religion, its at a level where most decisions are trivial. But at some point, unless the GM is limiting their options enough so it doesn't matter, you need to understand how cults work and how the various ones interact, or you're going to likely make decisions you'll regret.
We grew into that knowledge along with our characters. By the time we got our hands on "Cuts of Prax" most of us were itching to know more.
If the players do not become hooked enough by the setting through game play to want to delve into it further it is probably not worth making a campaign that demands in depth setting knowledge for that player group. My current group would care about Cults in RQ only as far as the list of cool magic they could learn from them. As a result I don't run anything with real depth for them.

I have had players who wanted to know every tiny detail of culture, the joys of playing with Anthropology majors. They grok culture games and setting detail.


Twin Son of the Bright Prince
Validated User
Start out with enough information that you can recite as an elevator pitch—something snappy that gives the players a good idea of what they’re in for. The Star Wars opening crawl is actually a really good example to follow because it gives the audience the gist of what’s happening, talks wistfully about restoring freedom to the galaxy and then gets on with the show.

Then, flesh out the setting as you go. When a person, place or event is relevant to the plot, describe it. If it isn’t, don’t. Brevity, soul, wit.
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