Unless you are running single session, one-off adventures, you probably have three layers of narratives in your Shadow World campaign: your immediate adventure plot, the regional politics and power and then the world overview/timeline. If you enjoy world building, or are using a comprehensive setting like Shadow World, you want your group to discover the details of the setting. But much of the disclosure has a longer-term payoff when the PCs reach higher levels of power. Coordinating these narrative layers is like building a house—you lay the “foundation” and then erect the structure, brick by brick, floor by floor.
- Building the foundation. Starting your players with a basic world background provides a reference point that will tie the rest of the campaign together. Many GMs do this through comprehensive player backgrounds; perhaps giving each player a unique slice of information that will prove important later in the game. For settings like Shadow World there is a “Players Guide” that provides a broad world overview of the setting.
- Layer 1. Local plots & adventures. The simplest narratives are the short backgrounds or primers that start an adventure. Whether it’s looting a tomb, rescuing a princess or defeating marauding monster the players are given the basics to justify group motivations. Because they are simple plots, the players aren’t required to remember too much detail, relationships, politics—just a mission direction. However, this is an excellent layer to “seed” future plot devices. Maybe the GM introduces a group nemesis, establishes a rich, but anonymous, patron for the group or places a seemingly random object or place in the adventure that becomes important later. Perhaps a goal will be to plant 10-12 narrative elements in adventures as your party goes from 1st to 5th Write them down with ideas on how they might be used. You probably won’t use them all, but you’ll be glad for them later.
- Layer 2. Local and regional narratives. As the players expand their travels and world awareness, their adventures may take on more importance, they will encounter key NPCs and may influence geo-political events. Layer 2 can be the densest and perhaps the most challenging to manage in terms of the sheer volume of information or relationships that can be introduced to the group. Shadow World has an expansive timeline of local events that adds flavor and intrigue to the setting, but gamers that are juggling their hobby with real life, or only play intermittently, are going to have a very hard time remembering the nuances and intricacies of fleshed-out world settings. Throw in complicated place and people names and the carefully constructed setting can just become overwhelming. One strategy is to organize your adventures into chapters that are more easily digestible and maintain familiar reference points (common NPCs or places). This is the layer where carefully planted seeds from low level adventures should be re-introduced. To the players, it will seem familiar, and impress upon them the inter-relationships of your game world. This is also the layer you should seed with a half-dozen elements for higher level adventures. Rather than providing familiarity for the players, these seeds are tied to world events. In SW, this might be hints regarding the Secret Circle, the Northern Eye, or even the “East”.
- Layer 3. The World. Once the players become powerful and perhaps “renowned”, they’ll be dealing with higher level NPC’s and epic quests. In many ways, this layer can feel as personal and . intimate as Level 1—as the sand box gets larger, the framework around the group actions is more defined. Whether it’s considered “high fantasy”, you probably won’t bother with incidental encounters or low fantasy granularity. The world neighborhood is populated by fewer, more powerful people and creatures. The hints planted in Layer 2 become the starting point for these epic adventures.
A few other suggestions or thoughts.
- When using a detailed world like SW or Forgotten Realms, it’s understandable to want to embrace the complexity. Think of it as a “firehose” of information that you’ll need to throttle and control. Start small and simple, if your group can assimilate new/more information introduce it into the game. Don’t start with a massive data dump—it’s cool but can be an anchor on the narrative. 1st level characters aren’t going to know a lot—why should the players. It’s always better to start small and then go big then it is the reverse.
- Controlling information. Nowadays, a player can download free PDFs of almost any gaming product, how can a GM keep crucial information hidden until the right time in the campaign? Matt’s Nomikos library tried to control access through a GM code, but that project is gone. Terry’s Shadow World novel was full of high level spoilers (sorry Terry but it’s true! While it was a great addition to the SW ecosystem it gave out too much information!!!) Most players in SW will probably know about Andraax, details of the Gods and stats for most PCs—that takes a lot of the mystery out of the game! My advice is to work in the “tertiary”: use less known or newly created NPCs, agents or creatures so the group isn’t automatically informed about the challenge or encounter. You can also turn tropes upside down—change known elements, stats or abilities to confuse the player and teach them not to rely on meta-gaming.
- Memory as a game mechanic. Ultimately, your players might forget a crucial clue or piece of information that is needed for the campaign to prosper. In these cases, have the PC make a memory role so you can remind the player or re-introduce the information to the group.
In the end: focus on fewer, more manageable, plot seeds. Less information is better than more. Maintain a sense of the unknown and mystery. Counter meta-gamers with a change-up.