Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 05, 2015
How much lore do you need?

I am between campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons, having finished the Favorites of Selune campaign and not yet started the Zeitgeist campaign. So I am busy preparing the new campaign, understanding the campaign world, and getting everything together we will need to create characters and start playing. Doing that I quickly ended up with a very specific question: How much lore do I need to tell to my players before character creation and playing?

Now it is perfectly possible to start a campaign with absolutely no lore whatsoever. A generic dwarven warrior, a generic elven ranger, a generic halfling thief, and a generic human cleric meet in a generic tavern in a generic fantasy world. Go! The problem with that approach is that not every player is a creative genius and master of improvisation. Given a generic fantasy world as background, a typical group of average players is going to end up with a history that reads like a bunch of World of Warcraft quest texts: Fun adventures battling more or less random monsters for not much of a good reason except for gaining treasure and experience. Hey, it works for World of Warcraft!

But imagine you want to play a campaign in the world of Game of Thrones, and you want your campaign and the stories being told interactively between the DM and the players to somewhat resemble a Game of Thrones story. Creating random characters and meeting in a tavern is probably not going to do the job. You would need to tell the players about the various houses, about the wall, about the different meaning of "winter" in that game world, about old and new faith, and about some other things. And then you might not want to give them total freedom in choosing their character background, because running that campaign with player characters loyal to different houses would be rather awkward.

It is basically the old question of high fantasy vs low fantasy all over again. A low fantasy campaign works well with little lore and lots of improvisation, because players only need to rely on their experience and knowledge of typical fantasy to tell a typical low fantasy story. For a high fantasy campaign in which the players are saving the world by throwing the one ring into Mount Doom, the players better know a bit about the world. Like where is Mount Doom, what is the difficulty in getting there, what are the consequences of failing to throw the ring in, and why didn't anybody offer them 100 gold pieces as reward for that quest?

Having said that, there is certainly a danger of presenting too much lore to the players. The Silmarillion is too much knowledge, even for a Middle-Earth campaign. Lots of DMs who created fantasy worlds went way overboard with creating extensive history and lore for that world which ultimately isn't all relevant for the campaign.

Thus the idea for my Zeitgeist campaign is giving an overview of the history of the world, the lore, the power struggles, and to which group in the world the players belong and are presumed to at least initially have loyalty. But only to an extent which is necessary for intelligent character creation and playing the first adventure or so, during which then of course more lore can pop up in play. The reason I want to explain lore before rolling characters is that I want to use the campaign specific background themes, and it is hard to expect somebody to play a "docker" or a "skyseer" without explaining what those are and how they fit into the world. I just need to work out how much lore is "enough".


When I start a new campaign I work up a short campaign introduction (usually about 20-40 pages) which includes just enough detail to answer most of the common questions my players pose: local politics, a bit of regional and world history, who rules what in the areas that are relevant, a list of deities and overview of how this world's religion(s) are different (or not). Demihuman relations....and then for myself a list of "five plot items that could be long term story drivers." Then again I do a lot of free-form open world sandbox games so this format works for me, but even with a defined plot and campaign I've found this works well as a "backdrop."

All that aside, you're description of everyone making generic heroes and dropping them in an undefined generic fantasy land sounds intriguingly fun....I may have to try that. I don't think I've actually done something like that since I started gaming in 1981. It seems like the advantage of that approach would be a lot of potential emergent world building driven entirely by the depth to which the players want to pursue it, but you'd have to be doing a ton of improv and note taking along the way.
Dont forget that at lv 1, the character usually dont know much about the world. In my game, i let my players choose their race and according to each races, i gave them basic knowledge of their race/region/religion and cities.

Each of them had different information. They all had a different reason to go to the same city, where friends of friends got them to meet and the campaign started.

Everyone not having the same knowledge gave a twist to the game that i REALLY liked as a DM.

The Dwarf fighter was part of a caravan exporting ore to the city and he was going there for the first time. The Half-elf Wizard knew a lot about politics and power struggle in the realm and was going to the city as a diplomatic assistant.

So when a quest sent them to the Bloodbog Marsh only the Deva Avenger of Melora had an idea of where it was. Which gave her roleplaying time telling all the others where it was an how to get there without needing to search for an npc.

It was really great. Until they reached higher level and travelled a LOT.
Knowing my players helped me answer this question. I certainly learned that putting a lot of effort into the lore, the background information and so on... well if the players are not really interested... is not really much use!

Know your players... what you have to work with... and don't spend valuable time doing stuff that no one is going to appreciate!
One concept might be to have an initial campaign designed to introduce the player characters and make sense of them being in a party. For example they are travelling in a caravan to City X for their own reasons and join together to beat off a bandit attack. When they get to the city, the rich merchant who was the bandits' target gives them some reward and stands them a meal in the local tavern, and can give a second quest, introduce them to someone who will, or just provide some exposition as necessary.
For background, you could give a quick brief of the themes to all the players (a sentence or two for each theme), and then give them more information for the theme they select. I think the more they know about their own theme, the better - especially so that you and the player agree on the specifics. That way they won't get caught out in play expecting their theme to be one thing while you expect another thing. Maybe the docker creates an introverted dock worker, while "docker" means more of a rabble-rouser in the setting.

If somebody wants to hide their theme (Vekeshi Mystics?) you've got more of a balancing act, because it's then important how much the other characters know about the Vekeshi.

If you run with the default of the PCs being officers of the RHC you'd want to give them background on that organization.

Or not. I had one campaign where the players played the RHC as stereotypical Secret Police, and another closer to how it's described (sorta like the FBI). Gave each campaign a distinct flavor.
I preferred to start from the small and work outwards to the large.

Detail only the basic area the players start off in, and the basic things they need to know. For the world, maybe just sketch the gods and some guiding principles.

Then as the adventure continues, you color in more and more of the world, and the world takes shape as you need it too.
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