Basic Character Knowledge Sheets help players connect with D&D settings

Innumerable Dungeons & Dragons campaigns take place in settings that amount to little more than versions of Medieval Europe, stretched across multiple continents. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this condition – “default” settings such as that wouldn’t be so common if they didn’t work – the result is often one campaign setting appearing much the same as the next.

Thus, the challenge before dungeon masters is to create believable settings to which all the players can relate, but which retains enough of their own respective identities that each can still be unique. One tool at the dungeon master’s disposal to accomplish that goal is  to draft “Common Character Knowledge Sheets,” brief listings of facts relevant to specific character classes or races that characters in your game world would probably know. By disributing a list of these sheets to players before a campagin begins, the group will simultaneously have access to common information that enables them to connect with your unique setting, in addition to having character-specific information that makes a character unique to her peers in that setting.

In past campaigns, this writer typically distributed the following sheets before play began:

  • A general knowledge sheet, describing local geography, nearby communities, prominent landmarks, and other commonly-known facts like the local baron’s name and coat-of-arms, well-known holidays, types of currency and local customs.
  • A recent history sheet, which provides a bare-bones chronology of facts describing what happened in the local area during the past 20 years. Interpretation of these events may vary from location to location, though; the player characters  may know that a battle took place near the border 10 years ago, but three different villages might claim to have produced the combat hero who saved the day for the baron’s forces.
  • A single-sheet overview for fighter-types, outlining names and places of residence for the best-known armorers and weaponsmiths, the best places to obtain warhorses, the military history of the region and heroes of its related battles, notes about where the best steel is being manufactured, and the names, deeds and relative reputations of non-player character (NPC) fighter-types in the area.
  • Another sheet to be distributed to cleric-type characters (paladin PCs typically recieve both the fighter and cleric sheets, due to their profession touching on both spheres of knowledge). This sheet details the general tenets and known goals of all major religions active in the area, known cult activities, the relative level of social need in the area (such as the presence of orphans, refugees, poverty, homelessness, or disease) and general awareness about the presence of evil temples operating in the area.
  • Wizards get their own sheets as well, which outline the history of magic use in the area, known magical academies and/or the names of wizards who train many apprentices, the presence of evil wizardly orders in the region, the names, locations and fields of knowledge for local sages and historians, where to find spell or ritual components, and famous wizards conducting research in the area.
  • Rogues receive some of the most interesting information on their sheets, which pertains to known thieves’ guilds and the identities of guildmasters when public, relative comparisons of how intensely different settlements punish legal transgressions, the location of larger roguish training centers, networks of safe houses if present, and the “calling cards” of the region’s most imfamous rogues.
  • Characters that take skill training or proficiency in history receive a much more complete historical outline, dating back to the game world’s most ancient periods.
  • Similarly, each demi-human race – elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. – has a corresponding sheet of racial history, outlining tensions between the D&D races, the respective geopolitical outlooks typically held by each race, and so forth. These histories are among the most enjoyable for the dungeon master to create, as each will reflect the unique views of each race and may not be consistent with each other. One of this writer’s most memorable in-game moments emerged when a PC elf and a PC dwarf had a very heated argument about who started a war several generations ago, because their respective character histories each blamed the other race for initiating hostilities.

Of course, every campaign may not require this level of preparation, and many will require other sheets not described here. One fact that holds true about using any number of these sheets, however: they all help players connect with their settings, without having to deviate far from the “standard” sword-and-sorcery game, to which most players can easily relate.

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16 comments on “Basic Character Knowledge Sheets help players connect with D&D settings

  1. Aaron says:

    I actually did something similar to this for my campaign, only I used TiddlyWiki to create a guide to the land. Most locations and histories are glossed over, but the benefit of having an electronic file means that I am constantly updating it to add more and more info as it is fleshed out!

    Aaron
    allgeektout.com

    • Alric says:

      A wiki is an outstanding idea; I hope site visitors are reading this discussion. Grognards like me need to embrace technology more…

  2. kaeosdad says:

    Hey the class specific sheets and the knowledge skill based sheets are great ideas! I’ve tried the common knowledge sheet idea but my players were kinda “meh” about it and didn’t really read it much. I kept everything brief and on two pages running down the most common things such as recent history, surrounding areas of note and present races, classes and their roles in the nearby settlements. My group for that campaign were not into reading about the setting so the next campaign I just made a list of 5 things you need to know about the campaign and just read it off a page during the first session, took less than a minute.

    However I think that players would be much more interested in learning more about the setting using class overviews and knowledge skill specific handouts as you suggested.

    Thanks for the tips!

  3. Nermal2097 says:

    This is a great idea. I am currently planning a new campaign that using a non-standard setting so something like this could really help players connect with the new world. My setting was inspired by reading 1421 by Gavin Menzies – Chinese Halfling Navy exploring the wide oceans!

    • Alric says:

      Hi again, Nermal.

      I can’t wait to hear how that one turns out – keep us updated on that most exotic idea.

  4. satyre says:

    Wow – that’s intensive prep.

    I’m also of the view you do a top five things; only variation is that I’d do it each level (for those systems who have them). I’d be a bit shy of putting it on a wiki until a week or so after the player has received the handout.

    The class-specific stuff is going to get yoinked though, I’ve done handouts before and they usually get read, filed and forgotten (usually because at least one player asks the wrong question)…

    • Alric says:

      Admittedly, it is a bit intensive to flesh all that out, but for me it was well worth the investment. I found that it was as beneficial to me for making the game world consitent and meaningful as it was for the players to use during the game.

      The abbreviated version you suggest would certainly work as well; I only described what worked for me as a baseline for discussion, and your point about creating “top five” lists may be just the suggestion that many DMs need. Thanks for your insight.

  5. mike says:

    Great idea i love it. My only point would be that Players hate to bog down their character with extra sheets, so i would just just cutting it down, then as your game grows and you get new ideas on the spot, just jot it down. and every month or level or so, update them with new copies of the sheet.

    in the past i’ve printed off a blank ‘journal entry’ page from DDI, has a nice look to it and separates the info well.

    • Alric says:

      Another excellent suggestion, Mike. I hadn’t considered starting with less info and then expanding over time. Good show.

  6. Ameron says:

    I really like the idea, but I think it requires a level of commitment from the DM that many of us are not willing or not able to adhere to. I agree that it will make any homebrew world more enjoyable and provide the PCs with color they wouldn’t otherwise have.

    The sheer scope of such an undertaking is a BIG reason that I like using the established worlds. My core group plays in Eberron and the DM leaves it up to us to do our own research. If we want to know about a place or its history we can look in the books. Of course the DM does throw in his own details to make it more personal, but for the most part we stick to the details as written.

    On the other hand, you could turn this around and ask the players to come up with their own one-sheet in which they describe their history, training and relevant tid-bits of knowledge that they know. It takes a lot of the pressure off the DM.

    • Alric says:

      A very useful suggestion, there, Ameron. As long as it isn’t critical to the story, there’s no reason why the players can’t have input in creating class-based or racial common knowledge sheets. I feel kind of dopey, now, for having done that all by myself when I could have made them do it. Doh!

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    This is a great idea for worlds with some changes. Some characters don’t want to read a whole book (let alone a series of them) to understand the world. That’s why so many worlds are tolkien ripoffs – everybody knows that elves hate dwarves.

    I like having players help with this – mostly because I like adding those details when I make a history.

  8. Alric says:

    Points well taken, Philo, and I completely agree. I would add that many worlds are Tolkein rip-offs (and it can even be argued that the D&D game is itself a Tolkein rip-off) because Tolkein produced some of the best fantasy ever written.

  9. [...] and why the battle happened. This task can be accomplished through referencing the site in a player handout detailing campaign setting, having a the battle play a role in a player character’s (PC’s) personal background, or [...]

  10. whyorick says:

    I’ve never thought to actually just hand out a sheet pertaining to the knowledge of a particular character due to their race, class, skills, and background.
    I’ve been working on my world, scrapping and re-making, for the past 5 years now. This will definitely help in that endeavor.
    Thanks!

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