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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Avoiding Homework with Limited Handouts

In my post “No Homework for the Last-Minute Player”, Rob Schwarz disagreed with the idea of keeping the world’s backstory to a minimum.
I think giving the players history, pantheon, even maps of the kingdom (aka homework) works nicely as a handout. It means I don’t have to read/explain to them the basic stuff their characters would already know growing up in that environment and we can worry about things their characters don’t know.
I’m not totally against handouts, but would limit them to a single page (one side of a sheet of paper.) Two pages, if you want to add a crude sketch map of the starting area.

One reason: it’s easier on players to refer to things they already know rather than try to match the detail of a novel or series like The Lord of the Rings.

Another reason: It’s easier on the GM to start with a couple hexes on a map and brief notes on what’s far away in each direction, adding other details as needed.

Third reason: It’s also easier for players to learn as they play, even more so if they help create world details. If a player says “I want to be a viking-like barbarian. What are the names of some tribes I can choose?” my answer would be “What do you want your tribe to be called?”

I briefly mentioned restricting yourself to just three short sentences on any topic, what I call factoids. Your first topic is the world itself, which might only need one factoid. Any well-known person, place, or thing is also a topic worthy of factoids, including each race and class that’s different from the default.

Many D&D worlds can be summarized as “like fairy tale Europe crossed with Middle Earth and Hyboria”. A different world might be “Barsoom, but with Egyptians”. Analogies that include exceptions are the best factoids. Start at the top and drill down, focusing only on the topics you will need right away.

Only some of the factoids would be on a player handout. For example,
  1. Name of starting continent and broad geography (forests in north, arid plains in middle, desert in south.)
  2. Names of a handful of important distant kingdoms.
  3. Sub-regions and names of kingdoms in starting region.
  4. Names of a few mid-distance major cities.
  5. Names of nearby towns and cities in starting kingdom.
  6. Local landmarks and major personages.
  7. Summary of history, one bullet point for each major era (ancient history, cataclysm, post-cataclysm, recent conflict.)
A one-page map handout showing the starting area could cover 2-4, with a second page covering more general information.

If people are interested, I could walk through a demo of this world-building process for my own campaign in a series of posts, showing which information I’d put on a handout and which information I’d keep hidden until a player asks.

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  1. Interesting post. A series of examples of this principle in actual use would be interesting indeed.

  2. Yeah, I'd like to see examples, too!