Showing intricate histories without shoving them down the PC’s throat

I’ve found that many players love rich histories within campaigns.  My current campaign is a world building one and over the six or so months since it’s started I’ve been trying to find good ways to solve the age old problem of subtly showing a depth of history in the campaign without bashing people over the head with it.  On the other hand many campaigns I’ve played in, and sometimes even ones I’ve GMed, have the problem that there is an detailed history but the players never actually get a good feeling for it.  For all intents and purposes they are just playing in a generic fantasy world with the occasional explanation from the GM about some historical fact.  So what are some easy ways I’ve found to keep players within the campaign setting without boring them with long history lessons?

I try to keep the party in the setting by having detailed explanations written up for why, historically, various cultures act the way they do.  It’s important to make sure cultures are never cliched.  It’s easy to pretend all Dwarves are gruff miners, but the truth is that though in that culture that could be the norm, in the real world there would be at least a few that play against type.  I try to figure out why they act the way they do, why politics in that region work the way they do, and why some of their members might rebel against the norms.

I also try to make everything the party does have some history behind it.  They recently were attacked by Orcs while escorting a cities taxes to the countries capital.  The Orcs were inhabiting an old Dwarven bunker in a hill that was built as a safe house during a major barbarian invasion 400 years prior.  This didn’t take long to describe to my players, but when you say that the party is surrounded by old mining relics and destroyed family heirlooms it gives a very good visual and reinforces a sense of a place in time.

Another thing I do is use artifacts and art objects instead of more traditional monetary rewards.  For instance, in that Dwarven bunker the party found a pick axe with the family name engraved on it along with what a short phrase about what their god wanted them to be.  I wrote up a little card with the history and worth of the axe on it and then I handed it to the characters and let them read it at their leisure.  The history goes into a bit of what culturally caused the creation of the artifact and reinforces the world they are in.  Sometimes they’ve even decided not to sell the artifacts, instead keeping them as decorations or donating them to an NPC they know who would appreciate it a lot.  I try to have 1-3 artifacts per session and try to vary up the types quite a bit.

Having every place the party goes and every character the party meets be set clearly in the lore of the area and having many artifacts with clear historical contexts has helped my party get to the point where they don’t usually need to ask what the historical significance of something is, they are familiar enough with the lore that they already know.  The fact that these things make it so you never have to spend more than a minute at a time talking about the history keeps the gameplay moving and keeps the party member’s interest that much more.

[Tags]Role Playing Games, Dungeons and Dragons, World Building[/tags]

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