Interesting Times – The Campaign Newsletter

Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.

Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.

As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.

And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.

My Campaign Newsletter: Interesting Times
I called the original newsletter for the campaign “Interesting Times” in the manner of a joke. But the title grew on me so I’ve kept it in play over the years. It’s catchy enough and corny enough without really requiring any thought on the part of the players to be identifiable, so that’s my suggestion – Simple, Catchy, even Corny is okay (don’t take it too far).

I’ve done similar one-sheets for horror games in the past with titles like, “The Raven Review” and “The Connecticut Occult Dispatch.” Nothing overly fancy or original here – just simple and easy to connect with.
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What it contains
Before offering too much in the way of insight or suggestions, I thought I’d just lay out the sections of my current newsletter and their specific content and then explain my thinking and how it might be modified to be useful to others.

What Came Before…
This shaded sidebar is not positioned as the first thing you’d read but it is always the first section I write. After game each week, I always take a moment to put this together while the details are still fresh and my notes are right in front of me. This section is a very spare narrative account of what happened in the most recent game session.

Spotlight On…
I use this section to highlight a place, culture, or bit of history that might be important to the party either immediately or in response to ideas they suggest to me about what they’d like to do next. A short write up about the town they are in, the culture they are meeting, the history of the tomb they are delving… that kind of stuff.

Religion
I use this section to highlight deities and pantheons. One paragraph about a deity, a few lines about a whole pantheon, I try to tie it to something immediately relevant. If they’ve just stumbled into a tomb of Zardin worshipers then I’ll write up what they’ve learned about Zardin.

Rumors from the Road…
I use this section to present or reiterate rumors to the PCs. Possible adventure hooks, interesting tidbits dropped by merchants or innkeepers and that kind of stuff go here. I’ve talked to my players and let them know that nothing in this section is “vital” but rather, it is designed to represent all the little things they might overhear when they tell me, “We spend the night in the common room drinking and then get ready to leave in the morning” and we skip ahead to the next day.

Closing Quote
This section always contains something historical or cultural presented in the tone or words of the world rather than the GM. A bit of Har Darig poetry, a religious passage, an explanation of a dwarven phrase… It’s just meant to provide a little life and window dressing.

Why do I do this and what do I hope to accomplish?
I’ll touch on the second part first. What I want to accomplish is to give the players bite-size, easy to digest world information which situates them in my fairly well-developed game world without stifling their creativity. This is all about getting them to have a few small hooks to connect to a place or thing and giving it a sense of belonging without shoving 14 years of world creation down their throat. Irona is a living, evolving world that always has room for a new suggestion or idea from the players.

That sort of touched on the first question as well but it’s also because my players seem to like it. I’ve been told that they enjoy receiving this, it keeps them thinking about the game outside of game time, and it provides just enough world detail to let them think about how they want to move forward and make it feel real-ish.

How I distribute it
Originally, I printed a copy of this for each player to add to their campaign notes and gave it to them at game. Over time, I came to realize that this was not really producing the result I wanted so I promised them that I would email it to them by Friday each week (game is on Sunday). I still print one copy and put it in the party notebook – which also contains maps, location keys, and other stuff immediately useful to the players. This way they have a copy they can access at the game table and hold in their hands.

Specific Suggestions and Practical Concerns
1. Don’t go over a page. You will be tempted to add stuff. You will be tempted to be verbose. Resist these impulses. A few paragraphs on a few topics and a very bare write-up of last session is all you need. You can indulge your descriptive juices in play. Here the focus is conveying information in a straightforward but still engaging manner. Also, the constraint of a page has the added benefits that your players don’t get TL;DR syndrome and you have to think about what is really important as you present information.

2. Don’t spend more than thirty minutes a week on it. Once you’ve set up your original template and established your sections you should not need to spend a ton of time on this each week. Time which can be better spent doing other things. Don’t over analyze what you tell the players, just make it as relevant as possible to their characters or their current situation and they’ll get something out of it. It’s not your campaign world, it’s not a finely crafted setting book… it’s a weekly newsletter. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take pride in it and work to make it fun for the players – just don’t make it a chore for yourself that you’ll give up on because it’s just “work.” Make it fun for you too.

3. In a similar vein; don’t shoot a bazooka at a housefly. I have all kinds of fancy programs on my computer. I have map making software, the Adobe Creative Suite, and a million online applications I can use to make fancy print items. I used MS Word. Why? Because this is a very straightforward production. I could have gone much fancier but I believe in focusing on outcomes. I get a good, clean-looking product each week that I don’t have to tinker with. I just pop in new text and almost anyone can open it if I send them the original file (and edit it too). I’ll say it again. Don’t kill flies with bazookas. Use the tool you feel most comfortable with and don’t make this a chore.

4. Riffing off of #3, think about what your goals are for the newsletter. I have specific goals for mine. I want to provide the specific pieces of information outlined in the sections above and I want a bare-bones campaign log the players can refer back to. You might have different goals and things you want to share with players that don’t make sense to me but are perfect and important for your campaign. Do that and be consistent. Focus on what is important to convey to your group and don’t get sidetracked.

5. Keep it fun. I don’t think I need to say too much more about this one so I’ll keep it simple. Despite all my advice above, don’t feel constrained. I do a “Special Edition” when the players attend a big Tournament, I’m thinking about ways to let players create sections for the future… It’s good and fun to mix it up sometimes – just don’t lose sight of why you make the thing in the first place.

In closing, the important take away here is that I love doing this and I create this each week as much for myself as for my players. It’s a great way for me to “talk about my world” without forcing too much on to players or stifling their ability to contribute. It provokes questions. It provides a touchstone players can refer back to. Most importantly, it builds a set of lore and knowledge around THIS campaign, focusing on what is significant to this group of players telling this story through their characters. And that, by itself, is pretty powerful.

So, I’m sure I’m not the only one doing this. I’m always excited to hear what other people are doing, what works, what pitfalls they’ve encountered… Let me know. And, as always, thanks for reading.

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4 responses

  1. I tried to do this online by encouraging players themselves to keep an online journal in-character. It failed. Your mileage may vary because, unlike you, I was playing with a group of total strangers from around the world and invariably we always had (at least) one guy who cared more about the system than the game: he knows how the builds should be; he knows how the canon should be; he knows how the game should be run; how the group should play; and the group of people actually seated at the table in the flesh is secondary to the characters living in the imagination of the published rules he knows. So, aside from all the other headaches such a person contributes, the idea of keeping an immersive journal is lower in his priority than all the rulebooks he can find time to religiously study. Moreover, he is the first to convince a group that something that might be fun is a chore, aside from the necessary chore of everyone learning the rules to optimize and play the game better/right. Actually, the idea of journaling was not mine but another player’s who set up the blog and started to write but then was systematically discouraged by such a player with the proper know-how.

    I do not wish to play with gamers any longer, after 4 long years’ of such experience. And a newsletter, whether an After Action Report or what-have-you, does not get read by such busy gamers I have met abroad who have traveled with their rulebooks in a briefcase like a sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe such gamers are different than the ones who do not carry around rulebooks like condoms, which is why I mention them. When I return home, I will check out gamers one last time…

    All that said I very much like your idea of the printed and eMailed newsletter or simple broadsheet – especially as it is an in-game prop for the GM. I am curious how you handle it with traveling characters? For example, would “Interesting Times” in the country of Celene adopt another name in The Viscounty of Verbobonc as players’ characters travel? Would characters in a fantasy setting be able to have a traveling subscription to their local newspaper delivered into their scroll case every day at a set time provided a few coins of material component were inside the case, for example?

    The bones inside in my ears flutter like a valve under pressure as I can just hear the gamers of recent acquaintance start telling me how the last idea should be executed according to the rules, and invigilate me on what spell I would be using to make the delivery. [Normal people shouldn’t do that.]

    As always, your blog is a worthwhile informative read. Thanks for doing it. And my apologies for bringing up my traumatic baggage.

  2. I’ve sorta struggled with how to reply to this. You just seem a little burnt out with gaming and I hope that you can find a way to make it fun for you again. I understand – some – as I went through a year or two fairly recently where I didn’t seem to be able to hold a group together, couldn’t really find a critical mass of like-minded people, etc.

    Overall, I am one of those folks who will choose No Game over Bad Game just to be in one or run one. This has frustrated my friends at times. But it came around again. I have a great group right now, all get along, we joke, we treat it light but we also really play and it’s working.

    Take a break if you have to. I always appreciate your comments and I think you seem like a good dude who’d be fun to play with so I hope you can get a group together that really enjoys the game again.

    Okay – sympathizing part over. To answer the question about traveling… I sort of have two answers.

    1. I don’t really frame my Interesting Times as existing “in-world” but more as a thing that exists in the null-space of the 4th wall.

    2. That said, I do make subtle changes when the party travels or when they do something special – A really good example would be the way I changed it when they went to the Big Tourney. I totally shaped those around the idea that they were tourney broadsheets being handed out by the heralds.

    Ultimately, I follow my own rule of just not thinking too hard about it. I just want it to be a fun and practical bit of information for my players to refer back to. Across the length of a game it builds the world up for them but requires very little investment on either side of the GM screen. Win and Win.

    1. Hi Mike,

      I appreciate the condolence but it’s not all bad. While I have lost my casual hobby, I have not lost myself within it. I have more time to devote to more pleasurable pursuits after having shed it. In 4-years of reality, the social group I tried to create through games of role-playing would never have materialized in a situation wherein I was considered to be an outsider; a “casual” unable or unwilling to argue minutia as if it were the cure for cancer. My frustration comes from the fact that such a competitive adversarial environment of geeks, players no more “a group” than are riders of a bus brought together only by a rulebook, repel the temperament of people I had hoped to attract into a healthy social network. So, while I accept that I will not ultimately accomplish what I wanted to accomplish (i.e. a social network) I am no longer Sisyphus enthralled to push a boulder uphill either.

      And, on topic, I had never thought about the newsletter as a tool out of character – specifically aimed at the players as apart and separate from their characters. This now addresses the questions I had had about implementing such a newsletter. Thanks for the insight, yet again. I certainly appreciate your blog.

      1. I just read this article (link below) and it seems to support the facts of my recent tabletop RPGs experience – not that I am a woman or that I am a journalist but it addresses the very idea of what behaviours are being exemplified from my recent experience with “gamers” – and I am glad to be “out” from my own #GamerGate

        http://www.sheknows.com/living/articles/1054967/felicia-day-speaks-candidly-about-gamergate-immediately-gets-attacked

        I stumbled onto the article, now, in the context of a discussion on Bioware’s forum on topic of female walking postures: how everything from a Human to an Alien female created by predominantly male game developers depict sexualized hip swaying. And the only answer to it is for the willfully blind to say the depiction is “realistic.”

        I know I mentioned the part about realistic depictions of female behaviour but did I mention the part about female Aliens?

        I am not a crusader for “special interest publics” so I do tend to see things like bullying on a broader canvass than relegated to a niche group. If it is bad behaviour towards women, for example, chances are good it is absolutely bad behaviour period.

        It would make an interesting blog post. Sadly, I get the strongest impression that such journaling would draw unnecessary controversy and further fragment RPG hobbyists, like an edition wars, rather than unify them. So, I am glad (proud) I am outside the hobby niche and amongst the mainstream.

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