Methods of introducing your custom world to the players

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So you have a new world full of its own history and its own rules and players that aren't about to study an entire design document just to get familiar with it before game time.

Last time I did this, I found myself falling back on a tried and true sci-fi trope of having the audience follow an outsider to the world and thus learning about the world at the same time as the outsider.
In that last case, the outsiders were the PCs themselves, thus the players were learning about the world at the same time as the PCs.

While that worked well enough once, I'm a little reluctent about using it a second time.


Consider that my DMing style tends more towards telling a story than building a world. Not exactly railroading but rather just giving compelling hooks and motivations to "advance the plot".
 
So if you have any recommendations on how to get your players involved and invested in a completely new world, chime in.
So if you have any recommendations on how to get your players involved and invested in a completely new world, chime in.

Decide that everything they assume about the world is true, and build off of that. Encourage them to decide things about the world. If this contradicts what you had imagined but not yet stated, give up what you had imagined. If this contradicts what you or someone else had already stated, look for a way for the two ideas to be compatible, but let the first idea stand.

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

When I started my latest campaign, in my homebrew world, instead of developing a history of the entire world, I focused on the area/kingdom and city that the group was going to start in.  But, I only gave the players a 1.5 page document that detailed current events - the events that they find themselves surrounded by.  Even if they only skimmed it, they had the background information they "needed."

Beyond that, I said, "go."  Yes, I sent them on a mission/quest (I stuck a level 1 module into my world) to get them started, but after that it was the players who put the ideas into my head of how the campaign and "present history" evolved.

And that is something you need to seriously consider.  You said yourself that you provide "compelling plot hooks." You may have a plot and story in your head, but be aware that your players may not buy into that plot/story.  They will give you subtle and not so subtle hints as to how they would prefer the campaign to progress.  You need to be flexible enough to mold your plot to their wants, needs, and desires.  And this could mean throwing your plot out completely and building a new one.

 

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The cool thing is, you don't even NEED a reason to say yes.  Just stop looking for a reason to say no.
The way I do it is to build the world together with the players a little bit before we play - enough to get us going - and then continue to do so as we play. That's fun for me too since I get to explore the world just like they do.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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Have each player detail one of the gods. Eg. what are the holy days, what are the commandments, what do the clerics wear and why.
Have each player add 2 or 3 events to the common calendar.
Have each player add 2 or 3 details to the culture of a city or race.
Ask them to connect the lives of the gods, calendar and cities together based on what they just created.

Unless the "2nd age of the emperor Flan and the history of the goblin wars" is urgent current info, skip it. Ease the player and characters into the deeper background a bite at a time.
 
I normally start with character creation. When the players are designing their character, I drop hints. I ask them what kind of character they want to play, then I start telling them about which region of the world such characters hail from. Tell them the name of an NPC who has the same class, or a small piece (SMALL PIECE) of lore about that race or its relations. Have players learn the backstory in the game. When the players enter a city, drop a small mention of that cities lore. 

You wrote the past, they will write the present and future. You didn't JUST find the "Sword of Five Winds". You found the great sword that Orstafaer of Wynd once held. You didn't walk into the Capital of Targon. You enter the city founded by Targon 1, almost 1200 years ago where trade with foreign regions has brought in exotic goods at a high tax rate. You aren't just fighting a group of Kobolds. When battle starts, I will tell you how Kobolds are viewed "in the region" and let you make your own choices.

(Players who fell into a hole then found Ophidians while wandering the tunnels)

1. Ophidians were servants of Dragons in the ancient era. When the age waned, dragons entered a slumber. Ophidians, Yuan-Ti and Naga protect their lairs for the age when Dragons awaken again. These ophidians seem intelligent. How do you proceed?

(Players who encountered Kobolds in my game for the first time)

2. Kobolds of this region have an alliance with one another and while they live in small units, they consider themselves racially united. They invented the Arquebus, which keeps the Empire from issuing "Kobold Season" licenses. They often ransom or rob their fallen victims, fearing that upgrading their reputation from thieves to murderers will provoke the empire. What choice do you make?


(Players who entered an ancient ruin)

3. Over 2,300 years ago, the Empire of man was formed in revolution against the Titans. Dragons, Titans and Giants rose and fell, each leaving their own ruins to carry the memories. This seems to be the remnants of a city that once belonged to Titans. What do you do, brave adventurers?

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Point is, 3 sentences is powerful magic if used correctly. You can easily tell players what their characters should know in moments they should know it. Failing an intelligence check to know this is the titan capital isn't interesting, right? Therefore, there is no action; just tell them what people in the world know when they need to know it.

Everything players come across has a context. More importantly, I make it matter. If the players like an NPC nobleman, I will tell them "Oh, this is the son of..." and then weave the worlds history into that. I look for player interest. When the player becomes interested in something, I tell them its backstory and let them write the future with the present.

Now and then I take a page out of Centuari's book and "ask the players". I can promise there is great value in what he says because even if you don't play the total collaborative sandbox game; even if you have a predetermined world, with an ongoing story in the front or back, there is a proven psychology that the more someone engages and interacts with something, the more they remember it.

I don't do the "collaborative player-run gameplay" however the last 3 times I played, I gave the players more invisible power. One player thought elves should be getting mad at the empire for sponsoring safaris, so in the next game, elven vagabonds began attacking imperial lands. Another player thought dwarves should overturn their crooked master (but didn't want in on that storyline themselves), so instead I had a "revolution" occur, and the players helped a group of dwarves make an exodus accross the plains to a new homestead.

Even if you have a pre-designed world like I do, the lessons of Centuari, YagamiFire and Isareth are worth taking note of and practicing, even if in small doses.

In my recent college class, the teacher didn't lecture. He would start up an in-class discussion or debate, then throw in the materials and ideas and question people with the theories in the book. He took the information in the book, and had you grapple with it inside the context of something else you already understand. This was great fun for the classroom, and it works in D&D. Epictetus stated that the discourse itself is a source of wisdom, and he was right.

Within; Without.

I use obsidian portal and facebook to get some info out and have it available for reference.

I also write a montly newsletter about events around the world just to make it seem more alive, and to seed different developments for later use.

I'm not really sure how much they get out of all of this but I enjoy it, and if they have a question about something, they can check the wiki.

They are not as hands on or creative as some of the other groups people around here play with seem to be, and they want more structure from me and give less input themselves. If I were to describe them based on the "player types" from the DMG its like I have 4 Slayers, 1 Instigatior and 1 Watcher at the table, so the onus for giving context to the die rolling is mostly on me. Because of this I find giving them handouts and newsletters and a website helps get them a little bit more invested, hopefully if I build enough around them they'll start contributing more and more to how the world unfolds. /pipedream
I usually send around a short primer for the campaign.  I tell the group a little about the world and feel, just some basics.  Things like if magic is common or uncommon, what the general area is like.  I intetionally keep it small and only discuss where they are starting out.  Then I have them fill in more details of the game world during character creation.  

In my current campaign, I had the group start off in a small, seculded village along a trade route.  I gave them a brief rundown of the surrounding area and relations with anyone close enough to trade.  Then I had them give me a reason they were in the town and had them fill in NPCs that were important to them.  So they could have been born there and had family and friends.  Or players who like more mysterious characters could have been on the run.  I let them fill in a good chuck of the game world together and really make it their own.  I had them populate the town with people they know and love or hate and rival.  Then as the adventures start, they branch out from there and learn about the larger world.

This is a communal game, so I want everyone involved right from the start.  Everyone gets to contribute to the game world and everyone gets to know it together.  It's worked great.   

One of my previous DMs had all of our characters start out with amnesia and chained up in a dungeon.  We had to escape and figure out who we really were.  The adventures revolved around uncovering our past and how we came to be prisoners as well as why.  Since we had no recollection of anything beyond waking up in a dungeon, everything was new and strange to us.  The game would could be anything.  Turned out to be a very fun campaign.        
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