[This post is aimed at role playing games, but could just as easily apply to any kind of storytelling effort — books, TV, movies, whatever… SCR]

There’s a kind of GM that I tend to be wary of, and that’s the guy that — when you decide to join up with his/her game — that, during character creation, slaps down the campaign bible for you to read. It’s rarely concise, I’ve found. The worst case was the 80 page tome that we were assaulted with in a D&D game in the early ’80s. (This same game saw the GM give the sole female character a female cleric who was also mute…you can make a lot of assumptions about his personality from this, and you would be correct.) There are plenty of other examples of this that readers could comment on (especially if they’re amusing anecdotes — please do!)

In some ways, the background chapters of a game’s rulebook serve this purpose. Some of them are a few pages; some of them are 80 pages of material…hopefully split between some appropriate rules to give you a break from the faux history lesson. And there in lies the rub — how much about your game world do you need to know from the get-go? Say you are playing D&D and your characters are 1st level whatevers meeting to slay a [monster] that is harassing the town of [town.] Do you need to know that much about the politics and history of the place? Or can this be revealed as needed? Or if you are running a cyberpunk/dystopian future set in some nameless (or not) American city, do you need to know about the politics and companies of deepest Russia..? Probably not.

As with everything, especially when starting out, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Don’t overdo the exposition, or even the setting depth until you have an idea of what will interest them. (An exception to this rule might be the city-building rules in the Dresden Files RPG, in which the players and GM collaborate to make their setting.)

Here’s a good example of creating an interesting setting without too much exposition — better known as “show, don’t tell” — Blade Runner. Why does it rain all the time? The assumption of viewers is some kind of climactic event. Reality: Ridley Scott thought rain and steamy street grates was romantic and noir, and allowed them to hide subtle redresses of the street set. Why are so many animals artificial? Again — seems to suggest some kind of issue of climate or ecological collapse. Develop the setting through description, not “in the year XXXX, something happened which created…”

Now, with the setting established, it’s time for characters. Again, do only what you need. If you’ve ever seen a series bible for a TV show, it’s usually somewhere between six to 12 pages and identifies the important elements and characters of a show for that first few episodes or first season. Basic stuff like Steve Brannon [Lead] is a 30s something adventurer from New York City who has been all around the world. World weary, he is quick with his sharp wit and his fists, but he tries to eschew the gun. He is a war veteran who doesn’t talk much about his experiences, but it is obvious that they wear on him…

That’s a quick, simple thumbnail that gives the actor his initial “in” to the character. War vet, smart and witty, but maybe with a bitter edge. His propensity for punching out bad guys and assholes means he’s tough guy, but his reticence to use a gun means he’s suffering from guilt over his action in the war(?) You have enough to know how to play him (in an RPG, this is the player), and the writers have enough to flesh out (in an RPG, this is a collaboration between the GM and player as the game goes on.)

In our games, we usually like enough of an established backstory to give the players hooks and ideas of how they got where they are. This act like a series bible entry and can be as simple as the above, or this example of a character background from one of our pulp games:

Born 23 May, 1904 in Hoboken, New Jersey to the curator of the New York Museum of Natural History, Thomas Drake, and schoolteacher Margaret (nee Singer) Drake, Hannibal is the oldest of two boys.  He was raised in suburban New Jersey, with a view of Manhattan from their family home.  He would frequently travel into the city with his father to the museum, or to see shows.  He was an athletic child, with a fantastic ear for accents and languages — he quickly picked up some of the local languages from the immigrant families in the neighbor, and was fluent in Italian by his teen years.

The museum trips and his fascination with dime novels and comics books as a lad, honed a sense of adventure in the young Hannibal, and he was eager to get out into the world and make his mark as an explorer.  As a teen, he took an interest in motorcycles — cheap transportation that didn’t require him to ride the train or bus.  He helped Mr. Pritchard, the local mechanic with his motorcycle shop, eventually buying himself a 1921 Indian Scout that he only recently replaced with a 1930 Indian 101 Scout.

He attended Columbia University — his father’s alma mater as a legacy admission and studied foreign languages, where earned a doctorate in languages, and while pursuing that degree, took a course in archeology that led him to take a second degree in that field, as well (the two have many of the same course requirements, allowing him to finish faster.)  He is a specialist in ancient Central Asia — ancient Chinese, Aryan, and Turkic civilizations.  His graduate advisor was Dr. Sydney Lowell — himself an expert in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures and histories.

His father lost quite a bit of money in the stock market in 1929, leaving the family fortunes — slim as they were — destroyed.  Hannibal had to finish his doctoral work by getting positions as a graduate assistant on digs in Egypt and in China until his graduation, and along the way picked up a few friends in the antiquities market.  He made extra money selling valuable trinkets to these people, enough to finish school and gain a reputation with some of the archeological community as a grave robber and scoundrel.  Dr. Lowell — himself old school when it came to having some of his finds make their way to museum and personal collections by shady avenues — stood by the young man. In 1934, Dr. Drake started traveling extensively on a grant from his new home as an adjunct professor of archeology at Columbia, a position he wouldn’t have gotten without the aid of Dr. Lowell.

His father is now dead of emphysema, and his mother is working away as a school teacher in Hoboken.

Just shy of 500 words — about a page of background in the right 10 point font. (And almost a third of this article…) In this case, the backstory is probably a bit too much, but this was the “lead” in a pulp campaign, and the player wanted him fairly fleshed out. How much of it came to light in play..? Only that he’s a bit disreputable, is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and that he mom is still around. In play, we saw his love of motorcycles, and his dodgy connections in the antiquities markets.

A good rule of thumb is, if some bit of background hasn’t been revealed, change it as needed to fit the way the character and story is developing. Maybe his parents never came up and the GM forgot the father was dead…if the player is amenable, he’s not. Run with it. (I’m also a fan of letting the players adjust their charaters’ stats after the first adventure or two, to reflect how they are played, kind of like how characters or TV shows change from pilot to first season.)

As with everything, keeping it as simple as needed to run quick and clean is an excellent rule of thumb.