I prefer to build a world/campaign focused on the player characters. Like characters on a TV show, the action of the story should revolve around them. I also want the world to feel fleshed out, so I include things that have nothing to do with the players. After all, in the real world there are lives and events going on all around you that have nothing to do with you. So I try to keep about a 70/30 split of character-focused versus unrelated plot.
At the start of a campaign I ask my players for some sort of background for their character. Many GMs ask for a straight-up written bio, and while I’m happy to take those not all players are comfortable writing what amounts to a short story about their character. So a few years ago I expanded my request for background info to include things like:
- character biography, written out or point form;
- map of your character’s home village, or farm, or city street;
- description of your mentor growing up. Could be a family member or the woman who taught you how to fight;
- a description of both your best friend and nemesis growing up;
- a sketch of family members, the home you grew up in, favourite pet et al
The point is, not every player engages with the campaign narratively. Giving your players other options can yield details about your campaign world you might not have developed on your own. And things like these are just begging to be included in your campaign! If a player draws for me a map of their home village, of course we’re going to have an adventure set there. How can I pass up a golden moment to engage that player and connect their character to the campaign?
Once the campaign is running, I encourage players to keep their ideas about the world around them coming. For instance, in a one Pathfinder campaign I’m GMing the party’s gnome sorcerer works in a theatre. So I asked her to give me a general layout of the theatre as well as some folks that might work there. Homework like this does two things. First, it gets the player more involved in the campaign world, and gives you a glimpse of how they see the campaign world versus how you see it. If parts of the world fit their vision better, it is easier for them to immerse themselves in the campaign. Second, it takes some of the writing and creation pressure off of you. I could just as easily have drawn up the theatre the character worked at myself. But I’d be taking time away from other session prep to do it. Letting my players help gives me a chance to kill two cockatrices with one stone; I get interesting bits of character related campaign info, and I can focus on creating and running exciting events and encounters for my players.
A key component of this player homework for me is rewards. I tell my players flat out at the start of a campaign, if you give me some sort of character background you will get a tangible, in-game reward. I could just give an experience point or build-point bonus for it, but I try to connect the reward to some aspect of the character’s background. The more connected and specific I can make the reward, the better. For example, in a recent campaign I rewarded a wizard character with 250gp worth of scrolls, written by her, because her background talked about her learning at the hands of itinerant wizards. I imagined her character quickly jotting down what notes she could in the hopes of expanding her spell repertoire, trading scroll scribing for lessons. Another player in the same campaign is playing a paladin of the goddess of beauty, and his background (and player actions in-game, so far) focused on his attempts to find peaceful solutions, using combat as a last resort. His reward was to start the game with a potion of eagle’s splendor (to aid in diplomacy) and a potion of cure light wounds (for when diplomacy breaks down).
Other rewards can include:
- one-time or continuing bonuses to skill checks or saving throws;
- a situational bonus to item creation;
- actual treasure in-game (though don’t get out of control with this one)
I’ve even hidden adventure hooks in seemingly over-generous rewards, like gifting the characters a castle or thriving merchant business. All sorts of interesting things can find you when you are tied to a castle or have to travel to keep your business running. You need to be careful with these types of rewards, however, and make sure they are something the player actually wants.
So don’t be afraid to include your players in the campaign building process. Engage them and reward them for engaging. You’ll find your campaign world starts taking on vibrancy and detail beyond what you expected.