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.