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.
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.
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.
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.
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.