Writing a Player’s Guide

I’m currently writing a player’s guide for my next campaign.

The Dungeon Master of one of my current home games is moving to Australia for work leaving my 3.5e game without a DM. So I’m probably taking over in the big chair.

I’m using it as an opportunity to run an adventure path and campaign world I’ve always wanted to run: Dragonlance.

A Player’s Guide?!

One of the advantages of having a DM calling it quits 3 1/2 months in advance is ample prep time. I’ll have plastic minis ordered, metal minis of key NPCs painted, maps drawn, and stats updated when needed.

I can also spend some time writing a needlessly detailed Player’s Guide.

But, what exactly is a Player’s Guide? It’s a term used for a book on the campaign world with information for the players, including details on the land, history, important figures, and occasionally new world-specific mechanics. It should have all the information a player needs to make a PC that is truly a part of that world. This helps a player feel like they know the world and not need to continually ask the DM questions about how the world works.

A solid Player’s Guide will let a player create a PC that was born in an established town, with aspirations of joining a particular organization, dreams of meeting a famous figure, hopes of visiting a famous place, and enough history for revelations or solved mysteries to have impact. Instead of being a generic PC thrust into a different world and feeling like the proverbial fish out of water, the player can make a character that fits the tone and theme of the world.

What Should a Guide Have?

A good guide should sell the world to the players. It should tell them equally how the world works and what makes it cool. It should get them excited to play in that world.

Is a good starting point is the campaign or world’s catch or hook: what sets the world apart or how it differs from the default setting. If the world is generic fantasy with no surprises the PHB handles much, but a Player’s Guide is still a good place to add history and nations and organizations.

Racial fluff is always a good idea. Tell your players how the various races act and interact in your world. Which races are common and which are rare? How do they feel about each other? Include any rule changes or variations, such as dwarves that are Intelligent instead of wise, or feral elves that are both strong and agile.

A word of caution; the 4e GSL does not allow any alteration of racial fluff. It’s a little vague how the GSL works with fan sites and homebrew content hosted online. According to the Fans Site Licence you’re supposed to follow the rules established in the GSL. But WotC isn’t likely to shut your website down if you reflavour gnomes. However, if you’re even considering releasing a PDF or making money off your world then you cannot alter the established races.

For my guide I added the standard races and the many sub-races found in the setting; it’s just not Dragonlance without the different families of elf. And gnomes needed a complete rewrite. Thankfully, the Advanced Player’s Guide has some nice alternate racial options, including something for tinkerer gnomes.

Classes are a little trickier. A Player’s Guide should include descriptions of how classes fit into the world. Due to balance, modification of classes should be done very carefully. It’s simply easier to limit changes to class to fluff and their history in the world. For 4e it’s also a good idea to discuss power sources and their role in the world, how people feel about arcane magic or primal magic.

Dragonlance doesn’t change the core classes much. Much of its fluff was a justification for the quirkiness of First Edition rules. Much of my Guide’s class description ends-up being justifications for including classes that weren’t around in 1e, like sorcerers.

And, of course, a good Player’s Guide should describe the world. This can be a little tricky because there is a very small “sweet spot” between too little information and too much information. Most DMs are writers at heart but a lengthy history of the rise and fall of empires or long list of varied political factions will bore your players. It becomes a history book. I buy and read campaign settings for fun, devouring the 1e-3e Forgotten Realms guide and even Ptolus but even I couldn’t get through the 3e Greyhawk Gazetteer. It was drier than textbooks I’ve read.

Gods are another good addition to a Player’s Guide. Even you’re using the default pantheon they might (should) be different, some slight variation on followers and dogma, or at least details on the actual churches and how they interact with the world. It should describe where Pelor is popular and where Bahamut is most commonly worshipped.

Most importantly, a Player’s Guide should include the common knowledge of inhabitants of the world. If every Sunday magic stops working for forty-five minutes while the gods reboot the divine power source the characters and players should know that fact.

In my Guide the big information is the requisite description of the Cataclysm and the departure of the gods. Small facts, such as how dragons are considered a myth, are also a big part of the Guide. Most of the players will correctly assume that a campaign known as “dragon-lance” in a game known as “Dungeons and Dragons” will prominently feature dragons, but the character’s shouldn’t know this.

Another must-have addition to a Player’s Guide is house rules. It really help to codify changes you are making and additions to the core rules. It not only lets players know ahead of time, but is also a handy source if argument ensues to show it isn’t a spontaneous decision.

Drawing the Line

Writing a Player’s Guide does have some hurdles. You want to provide enough information that your players will recognise nations by name and know the basic information behind an empire (“oh, that’s the Grigoran Imperium, they use tieflings as slaves” ) but not so much information it becomes a chore to read. As a DM you might need to know imports and exports or demographics, but players only need the basic information, cultural stereotypes, and rough history. Often just getting your players to read a guide is a lot of work. Many players will skim or just read the parts that interest them.

The Guide should be just that, a guide. A starting point for your players. They shouldn’t act as a full Campaign Setting. You can always write more later or add more details.

So edit, edit, edit and remove text whenever possible. Keep it simple and short.

I could include a lengthy timeline, description of fallen empires and the creation of the world, but this would have no bearing on the campaign. I’m not describing the nations beyond the immediate starting area, neither the players nor the characters need to know the political details of Silvanost or the goings on around the Blood Sea.

Because I have so much time to work on my Guide I have the opportunity to add a little extra content, such as equipment and languages. Dragonlance has a metric tonne of languages, so a quick primer is rather handy. And becausePathfinder still uses the 3.5 OGL I can legally add complete game rules for the races, and embed links to reference websites so content – like classes and spells – is a click away. But this is going above and beyond.

Sample Guides

There are a number of varied Player’s Guides one can look to for inspiration. Personally, I favour smaller book with only essential new crunch, focusing on providing setting details & the common knowledge of inhabitants, while keeping the world’s secrets for the DM’s eyes in their own campaign book.

WotC has been releasing twin Player and GM books for their campaign worlds for 4e, and Player’s Guides a few editions now. The 4e Player’s Guides have been fairly crunch heavy – like most of the 4e player books – with far more mechanics than world information. They do have excellent introductions with a bullet-point list of what every inhabitant knows.

A good (and free) example comes from Monte Cooke’s Ptolus where the introduction and first chapter of the book double as the Player’s Guide. A good Player’s Guide and a good introduction share much in common.