We’ve all been there before. A player creates her character, the game starts, and she finds that her character doesn’t fit the game or the party at all. Or she’s trying to work on a plot, but she has no idea where around town she can go or who she can talk to. One solution to this is a Players’ Bulletin. In brief, a game master (GM) looks at the material on the location the game takes place in (or starts out in) and writes up a set of “crib notes” for players. These notes might include information on a few noteworthy locations everyone knows about, or a couple of groups or people everyone’s heard of.
This can be useful in the character creation process; it allows players to integrate their characters into the game-world. A player might make the proprietress of the Blue Snake Bar one of her character’s friends, or a part of her network of contacts. If a player fashions his character as a member of a street-gang, then the bulletin might give a brief summary of the three gangs active in the area, allowing him the chance to choose one that suits him best. As a caveat to this, if non-player characters (NPCs) appear in the bulletin but are not available for use as network contacts or as friends, this should be specified.
If nothing else, the bulletin can give players a feel for the atmosphere of the region they’re playing in. This is a more tenuous thing, but it can be invaluable. That way you don’t have one player creating a character appropriate to a high-society murder mystery, while someone else designs something more appropriate for a gritty police drama. A bulletin might well start off with a brief paragraph that explains what kind of game this is expected to be. Is it going to be dangerous, with high character turnover? Is it going to be high-epic, with the characters hob-nobbing with all sorts of important people? Is it going to be a dark, urban street-oriented game? Some of this is specified simply by the choice of game to be played, but that can still leave a wide range of possibilities up in the air. If you have a chance to meet with your players before character creation then you might not have to work this information into a bulletin — you can talk to them directly about it. It might not hurt to have the set of notes anyway, though, just as a reminder.
Keep in mind that different people learn in different ways. For instance, some people learn better by hearing things, while others learn better by seeing things. It’s a matter of how our brains are wired. Handing out a bulletin to someone who learns primarily by hearing things, or explaining everything verbally to someone who learns visually, isn’t going to work all that well. Try to figure out the learning styles of your players and give them what they need rather than force-fitting them into your preferred style. If possible, provide the information in multiple ways–such as through verbal explanations, written material, and in-game experience — so that players with different learning styles all get what they need.
Keep in mind that while reading reams of material may be fun for you, it won’t necessarily be fun for your players. Some people simply have trouble with it, and disorders such as ADD (attention deficit disorder) or learning disorders can physically interfere with someone’s ability to sit and absorb large amounts of written information. So again, talk to your players and figure out what will work best for them. At the end of this article you’ll also find some additional suggestions for working with players who don’t want to read a lot of background.
What to specify?
If your players go into a game with a clear idea of what it’s going to be like, they’re less likely to be dissatisfied with it. After all, when people who expect a movie to be a drama discover it’s really a comedy, they tend to be disappointed even when it’s a good comedy. Some of the things you could specify ahead of time include:
Epic level: Should the players expect to save the world, Seattle, or the grocery store where they worked every summer during high school? This helps to shape players’ expectations of how powerful their characters should be, which can strongly affect their character concepts.
Danger level/anticipated death rate: Will you do everything you can to keep the characters alive; should players have a couple of back-up characters ready; or do you expect to walk a line between these extremes? This helps your players to know how attached to their characters they should get, and how thoroughly they should detail their characters’ backgrounds.
Ratio of personal plot to party plot: Should the players come in with personal back-plots for you to play with, or are party plots the focus of the game? Again, this helps your players to know how much detail to put into their characters, and of what type.
Level of society the party may expect to engage: Can they expect homeless people and street gangs, university students and professors, spies and criminals, high society parties, or some mix of the above? This has a strong effect on character concept and skill choice.
Mood: Is this a dark and angstful game, a game of wonder and redemption, or a comedy? If you don’t want to give away your themes, you can simply specify “serious” or “light-hearted” or some similar vague adjective. This helps to prevent those situations where some characters are acting as though they’re in a comedy while others are trying to engage in serious character development–this is often a recipe for dissatisfaction on both sides.
Geographic area: It makes a big difference whether the game is taking place in the Florida Everglades, the snows of Alaska, or Indonesia. It affects character background, concept, personal plots and skills.
Culture: What country does the game take place in? What’s the dominant religion, if any? What odd cultural quirks are prevalent? Obviously if you’re playing close to home you can probably just say so and leave it at that. If the city you’re playing in is close to reality, you might tell your players which one it is simply so they can pick up a tour guide or a map and get familiarized with the area. If you have a preference, you can also specify whether the characters should be natives of the area or visitors. [TIP: if you know your players hate doing background reading and research, have them create characters who are visitors to the game region. This way you can use the game itself to teach them about the region.]
Bulletins during game
Bulletins can also be useful during game. People and locations are resources in games, and if the characters don’t know they exist then they may get stymied. Simply having a list of interesting establishments with a sentence or two about their purpose and the people associated with them can convince your players to get out there and get involved. Not every location in town need go into the bulletin, of course. You’ll probably want to keep a few secrets for characters to discover as the game progresses.
Bulletins are even useful as sources of rumor, hearsay, and misinformation. It’s perfectly reasonable that a starting character would only know that the Blue Snake Bar is rumored to be a drug house; he doesn’t have to know that this is a lie spread by the competition. You may choose to hand out updates as characters become familiar with new segments of society, or as time passes and things change. If you keep things up-to-date enough, then you might hide clues to plots within the bulletin.
All in all, players’ bulletins are a useful way to help players, characters, and the world mesh well with each other. They take time to put together, but make up for that time in the frustration they save later on.
Players that don’t want to read
The one problem with this, of course, is that some players don’t like to read large packets of information. You should try to get some idea of their tolerances (ask them directly), and tailor the length of the packet accordingly.
For the people who really don’t like to read large amounts of information, you might do a simple sheet explaining what the run will be like, and a quick, no-frills list of interesting people and locations. The material on the game in general can be done in a paragraph or two.
If you’re sold on putting in the reference material but you know your players don’t want to do a lot of pre-game reading, then do it reference-style. Give a good table of contents or index and some well-organized and well-differentiated material. That way people can look things up as they become relevant, and read only a paragraph or two at a time.
Of course, there’s that earlier tip about starting your players out with characters that are visitors to the game location. Some people simply learn things better by experiencing them than by reading them.
And then there’s also that earlier tip about giving information verbally or experientially (through their game experiences) to people who don’t learn well visually.
It’s important to realize that not everyone learns information in the same way, and that an unwillingness to read your background material doesn’t mean your players are lazy. There are plenty of ways to adapt your material to your players’ learning styles. Hand out bulletins to the people who like to read, and work information in verbally or experientially for others. Even if none of your players like to get information by reading, the bulletin can still be helpful in reminding you of the information you need to get across.