At the end of my last campaign, I had an idea to run a follow-up campaign with the party’s retired characters and see where they ended up many years later. I was really excited for it, but I also wanted to give my friends the option to try something new. To help explain the differences between these two competing campaigns, I created two single-page documents that quickly laid out my ideas. My hope was that both documents would explain why my friends would enjoy or not enjoy each campaign, and then I could ask the group which campaign seemed more interesting to them.
Years later, I’ve gotten to the point where I always start a new campaign with this kind of document, using them as explanatory guides for my players about the game we’re about to play. But as it turns out, this is actually a common practice! There are a few different names for them, but I’ve settled on “campaign brief.” Campaign briefs are valuable tools to set expectations and answer important questions about the game, and since I just wrote a new campaign brief for the Out of the Abyss game I’m going to run this summer, I felt that I should share it and outline my process in writing one.
Each group is going to have different questions they need answered, based on your groups norms and experience level. But for me, I typically break down a brief into three sections that explain what a player needs to know before playing, the world that the players are going to experience, and how their characters might fit into that world.
Section 1: Knowledge Necessary to Play
I always start with the nitty-gritty stuff. Players differ in how much they care about the actual game world, but all my players need to know how I want them to put a character together. So I start with information like ability score generation and how long the campaign will last. I also try to start with some fluff to give them a feel the campaign as a whole.
A Note on Campaign Length
Some good advice for pitching any long-term commitment is to be upfront with how much time it’s going to take. My group is used to having weekly sessions, but for Out of the Abyss I only want to do the first part of the book over the summer, so I make that clear here.
Doing this will make sure your players know what kind of commitment they’re getting into, which is important for something that takes up many hours of their week!
Setting Campaign Tone
I like writing, so I always try to explain the tone of the campaign through prose, but that doesn’t always work. I plan on running Out of the Abyss like it was straight out of Alice in Wonderland (the designers mention it as an inspiration in the notes!), but in the brief I made it sound like I was running a super-gritty prison escape campaign. I don’t allude to the strangeness of the Underdark at all. This was a mistake on my part that I had to send out a second email to communicate.
Sometimes prose can express tone very well for a campaign, but I would recommend also explaining in plain english what you expect the campaign to feel like. Straightforward communication will beat elaborate descriptions any day of the week!
Section 2: The World
When I began to run D&D for groups other than my hometown friends, I was opened up to a variety of different views on how organized make-believe can happen. The hardest view for me to incorporate into my DMing style was the idea that my players might actually want more information about the world itself. You know, so they can fit in.
This blew my mind, since at that point in my life I had only ever played games where my friends would come to the table with ridiculous, larger-than-life characters that weren’t meant to fit in. But some players enjoy feeling like their characters could exist in the world, and the only way they can do that is by talking with the DM about what the world is like!
My campaign briefs now have a section that explains the world at a high-level, what its inhabitants fear, and what they might desire. I have a few players that really appreciate this information, but the act of writing it out also helps me understand what themes I should be tying into the campaign again and again. It sets expectations for what the players will see over the course of our game, so they tend to have a better idea of how their characters will feel about it when it emerges.
Section 3: Character Origins
On a similar note, I often get players who don’t understand what a class does. Sure, you can be a wizard, but what does a wizard actually do? Are they just a bunch of bookish dandies who live in far-flung towers? Or are they a revered and elevated social class that only one percent of the world has the capacity to join? These questions are important for players and DMs to build a mutual understanding of what draws a wizard, or a rogue, or a bard, to an adventuring party.
Additionally, not everybody has the talent to come up with fleshed out characters from nothing! I’ve found that most of my players appreciate having some framework so they know why their character goes off on extremely dangerous quests. To help with this, I add a character origins section that explains where a character might come from, and how they could have fallen into their character class.
I never view these origins as the Correct Answer. I view these origins as prompts that players can use to find a character that is fun for them. If a player doesn’t like the origins I have listed, I try to be very open to their ideas. Maybe they want to come from a locale they came up with, or maybe they want to be a very different kind of wizard than what I have written down! These can be great ideas, and I try to work with my players to make sure that they get to play the character they want to play.
Write a Brief!
I think campaign briefs are super-valuable, and I’d never begin a campaign without one. They provide good information to help players understand how the game will be played, and to help them create a character they’ll (hopefully) enjoy for many sessions.
Even if you don’t send a campaign brief out to your players, I recommend writing one for yourself! Having a high-level understanding of your game world is extremely helpful, and can help you suggest ideas to your players if they get stuck in character creation or during game time.
You’re not limited to these sections either. I’ve written competing campaign briefs with different “Why Is This Campaign Fun?” sections, allowing my players to choose which campaign they’d rather play. I’ve also seen campaign briefs contain house rules and special backgrounds. The role of a campaign brief is to give the players information they need to play, and DMs a way to communicate their ideas. So long as you achieve those two objectives, you can do whatever you want with the brief!