I’ve said before, in the Old School we don’t tell stories. Story is what happens when the players pick up their dice and walk into your world. If you, as the GM, try to plan what the players will do, and create a railroad to lead them through the story from start to finish, what do you do when they go off the rails?
But… we do tell stories. Backstory. How did that tower get toppled? Who lived there before? A wealthy and powerful warlord? A great wizard, who might have left valuable magic laying around? It’s through those stories you tell, through the mouths of your NPCs, that you entice your players into your world.
I’m a proponent of the “fast and loose” method of campaign world development. The more you write down, the more you have created that the players will never see or appreciate. Look at the classics of Sword & Sorcery fiction… they use a variety of shortcuts to make the world seem real, or at least interesting, without actually providing deep background material.
Not exactly S&S, but here’s one of my favorite examples: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
You just read that, and now you can see it in your mind’s eye. I don’t know if the two men named (I’m 95% certain you imagined the gunslinger as a man) are on horseback in your imagination like they are in mine, but you can see the desert, and the man in black, and the gunslinger dressed in tan clothing rather like Marshal Dillon or Clint Eastwood. If you don’t imagine it exactly as I do, I bet you still have a vivid image.
If you don’t recognize it, that’s the first line of the first Dark Tower book by Steven King, titled “The Gunslinger.”
Or look up the lyrics to the song “Badge” by Cream. With just a few words, you begin to imagine the singer and the woman he is singing to. You get their past relationship, and you are led to wonder about the things the singer is telling her.
You don’t need a deep description of the world to make it seem real (and interesting) to the players. Don’t be afraid of stereotypes… they are the shorthand of the imagination. You can set a scene very quickly by using stereotypical words, then as the scene unfolds, the players begin to realize those were just their first impressions. Stereotypes are only bad, story-wise, when they trap you. When you let each and every character be only a stereotype, with no actual depth.
The same things that work with characters work with worlds. If an NPC swears “by the seven swords of Saviare” you know there’s a story there; it doesn’t have to be heavily detailed, but it can lead to an adventure if you play it right. (It worked for me.)
Many are the times I read through Gary Gygax’s great tome of collected wisdom and wondered about the people and places named therein. I wondered at the stories behind them, and the few times he told those stories, I was always entranced reading them.
The secret is not to show everything, or tell everything. Keeping some mystery in your storytelling is important. And if you’re going to do that, don’t bother writing down in detail 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 years of your campaign world’s history. You won’t remember it all, and if you do, you’ll never have an opportunity for your players to appreciate it. Keep it short, just notes to remind you of the main parts.
After all, people in the real world don’t really know history nearly as well as they’d like to think. Why should it be different in the campaign world? So you, in the guise of an NPC, tells the players about the defeat of the great clan of Senarius, and later another NPC tells a contradictory story. Even if it is, in fact, you who have remembered wrong or otherwise screwed up, why worry about it? Make it part of your world.