Tell Them About the CampaignUnless you are intentionally going for a hodgepodge, anything-goes campaign, you need to tell them that you're running a post-apocalyptic world of mutations and magic, or whatever. The key factors that players want to know:
Setting -- they need the gist of the world at first; later they'll need the "common knowledge" bits about the world, the assumed background information that any self-respecting PC would know from the get-go. I use the "STAMPIERE" model, addressing the Social, Technological/Magic, Administrative, Military, Political, Industrial, Economic, Religious, and External factors relative to the starting game-region. This is a tremendously helpful tool to communicate meaningful bits about about your setting.
Power/Magic Level -- if, for instance, you are running a low fantasy world for players accustomed to Faerun, they need to know to adjust their expectations.
Character Generation Rules -- you need to tell them how to generate stats for your game, available races, classes, etc. They need to know what is possible and your overall parameters. What races, classes, spells, and other character elements are allowed? If you have new elements of your own creation, you need to communicate that.
Tone -- Players really want to know the sort of campaign you are going to be running. Dungeon crawling? Story-based? Humorous? Exploration? All of the above? Basically many of them will want to know how their character fits in with YOUR expectations of the game.
Tone covers a lot of ground, including:
- "sandbox" do-what-you-want vs. plotline
- "points of light"/exploration vs. "known world"
- importance of combat
- importance of roleplaying and interaction
- importance of the rules overall
- heroic vs. antiheroic/netural vs. evil campaign
- static vs. dynamic content
- quantity of wilderness content
Lastly, you need to tell the players what you want them to tell you about their characters. If you don't ask for their adventure motivations, family backgrounds, etc., don't be surprised if you don't get them.
The First DraftYou will then get the first drafts from players. Some of them will be wonderful, evocative, creative characters needing little if any polishing; they are ready for insertion into your game-world as is and you congratulate yourself for having such a wonderful player.
The remainder will either lack a connection to your game world, have no identifiably interesting traits, need further translation to and application of the game rules, abuse the letter or spirit of your previously-set parameters, or all of the above. Viewing the characters collectively, you may run into the additional probem that the characters appear to lack cohesion from a story or party-balance perspective, which, depending on your campaign, may be a big deal or a non-issue.
Your challenge is to address the character's unfinished aspects without (a) taking over the character or (b) offending the player. Ask the player to flesh out the character and offer to help. Some players are just not good at the game rules, making characters come to life, or connecting their characters to the game-world. Help them.
Pre-Campaign Communications and PlanningAs the PCs are coming together, communicate regularly with the group (email is great for this) to let them know how the roster is shaking up. While a balanced group is not required, one of the nice things about a relatively balanced group is that everyone has a chance to shine. Some players may want to change concepts after seeing what others are playing. That's ok.
Once the roster is set, if you are running any kind of roleplaying or story-based campaign, you will need to develop a short background for each character anchoring them to the game world, the NPCs, and (possibly) the other PCs. This is tremendously helpful not only for verisimilitude but also to help you coherently develop a feasible campaign opening to actually launch the campaign.
On that note, I find the easiest way to come up with a campaign opening (unless it is already preset in your campaign concept -- if everyone starts as a shipwrecked castaway, your opening is set) is to write down all of the PCs in a circle and draw connecting lines to each PC with a preexisting relationship. Then add key NPCs and do the same. You will start to see patterns emerge, a visual commonality/degree of separation. That will help you link the players to each other and the NPCs that relate to your first session.
Even in the most "sandboxy" open games, you may find it useful to have the very first session be somewhat planned to at least set some campaign story hooks, introduce key NPCs in-game, and give the PCs some ideas on what to do next.
Next time, I'll get into campaign and NPC planning issues, for use in both story- and non-story campaigns.