You’ve done it. You’ve built a world for your next campaign and you’re dying to show it off. Then things go sideways. The players aren’t asking the right questions. They aren’t engaging with your lore. Instead of following your world’s cultures and ideas, they’re defaulting to stereotypes, tropes, and so on from the base game. You put a lot of work into this, and there’s seemingly no payoff in the game. It’s time to talk about communicating your world.
Communication is often the part of world building where things fall down, largely because it’s not a part of being a GM that we talk about often. We, myself included, focus on the act of world building, and assume that the communication will “just happen”. Unfortunately, that’s a bad assumption. Communication also goes both ways and can fail at both ends when a game goes live.
The time to get communication started is in session zero. Why? Because this is the crucial point where players will conceptualize their characters and how they fit into the world, and you don’t provide them with details about that world, they’re going to default to known or baseline ideas. So right off the start, you need to push info to your players and be ready to answer their questions. At this stage, it’s important to not drown the players in information. Don’t drop a monster size binder on the table and tell them to get reading.
Depending on how you operate, a printed handout or a digital file is your first step towards this. It needs to be concise, easy to digest, and provide the players with the information they need to get started. Personally, I like to use a starter package that details everything from variations in character creation to basic rundowns on the cultures of the peoples in the starting area, and a map. I’ve found that it really helps to set the pace and get the players to engage with the world. It also gives the player something tangible that they can start engaging with outside the hectic conditions of session zero.
Don’t Hoard Info
There’s always an urge to withhold information from players in the hope that they’ll take the right actions and ask the right questions in play to let you bring it up. This isn’t a great practice, since it bleeds world building and adventure building together. And don’t mistake me here, I know there’s a link between the two, but if you want the players engaged, you need to offer more than just the baseline of information.
This is where I recommend using online assets. You could make your own webpage or wiki; this can be very effective but it’s also a lot of work on your end. Services like Obsidian Portal and World Anvil offer ways to present your world and have your players consume it on their own time. Having this set up before the game starts is important, and your info pack should direct the players to it.
Update the Players
As the players explore the world, create updates for the players to let them know what their characters know or think they know about an area and its peoples. Why? Because it helps keep the immersion and interest of the players. This also gives the feeling of an interlinked and living world. I like to do these verbally and then provide a (usually) one page document that summarizes it so they have something to reference later. Plus they’re handy for players who miss a session.
Set Yourself Up For Success
Being a GM can be work, but the more you set yourself up for success, the easier it’ll be. Have your info packages ready. Don’t be afraid to take notes about questions the players have that you don’t have immediate answers to. And above all, stick to your world building. Consistency in presentation and use of your lore will give it strength and promote it as the norm for your game as opposed to the baseline info and lore in the game you’re using.
Players Have A Role Too
As players, we need to be attentive to the game and the setting. We need to communicate our desires and ideas to the GM as much as they need to get their ideas and concepts over to us. So, we need to read. Or ask questions like “What are the elves like in this world, like the ones in the book, or something else?” One other thing is to not fight the GM. If the GM is doing some sketchy, not cool stuff? Yeah, push back. But otherwise? Enjoy the new experience, engage with the material. If it’s not your bag, communicate that too and see what you and the GM can do to make things meet both your needs.
Tabletop RPGs are a crucible for communication. It’s key to making it all work. There’s a lot on the GM to make it all work, but there’s also a player aspect. The main challenge is effectively communicating the world to the players for the GM, and then for the players to engage with it. It’s not easy and every table is going to find its own way to get it done. But personally? When I’m in the GM seat, I like to use online tools, player handouts, and verbal reinforcement in the game.