So I’m not sure if I should call myself a Silver Age DM anymore. I also adore the Dungeoneers Survival Guide, because I think it’s a perfect sourcebook; full of inspiration for when you’re planning your campaign or an adventure, but I never touch it when the game’s actually going on. Which means, in effect, I’m ignoring something like half the book. The moral of the story, I suppose, is watch how we play, not what we read.
There’s been some talk about getting players “plugged in” to the campaign. Most of it has focused on front-loading character involvement in the campaign. I’m going to respectfully disagree. While I certainly enjoy working with a well-detailed character history, my players will report that it’s more a toy for them to play with than for me these days. I’m much more about giving the players all the rope they need to hang their characters.
While a good character background (and “good” is not necessarily synonymous with “long”) gives you something to start with, it’s only a start. What players really care about are the things their characters do. This, to my mind, is the key difference between computer and pen-and-paper RPGing; computers can only react to things they are programmed to notice, but a good DM can react to any- and everything.
The players are going to need treasures and magic items identified, so they’ll naturally build a relationship with the local sage. They’ll want their loot fenced, so that means a relationship with local jewelers, collectors, and patrons of the arts. They’ll need wounds healed, curses removed, diseases cured, and a steady supply of holy water, so that means a relationship with at least one local temple. And, as they acquire skills, magic, and powerful weapons, they’ll become a force to be reckoned with, which means the local temporal powers will want some sort of relationship with them (even if it’s mostly the understanding that if they step out of line they’ll be squashed like bugs).
The classic West Marches campaign minimizes stuff happening in town, so a lot of this might be glossed over, but that’s fine as it’s weak sauce compared to what happens in the wilderness and dungeons. This is why the wilderness encounter tables are full of humans and beasties the PCs probably won’t be able to overcome easily. This is why the monsters in a dungeon are not necessarily going to attack the PCs on sight and why Gygax didn’t bother to name the residents of the Keep on the Borderlands, but did explain the relationships between the various humanoid tribes living in the Caves of Chaos.
The players should be putting down roots, especially if they’re exploring a megadungeon. Even if they eventually intend to turn on and betray the goblins they’ve allied with against the orcs, they have a stake in what happens to the goblin tribe. They should hate the troll sorcerer who charges them to cross his bridge, have a wary, arms-length relationship with the witch who lives in the woods and can be good for a few healing potions or cure poison when it’s desperately needed, but maybe asks them to perform actions of dubious morality in exchange. And possibly also a love-hate relationship with the fun-loving but emotionally rough-and-tumble satyrs who camp in the clearing halfway between town and the dungeon.
The point of simplicity is not to keep things simple, but to give the campaign room to grow. Your players will show you what they’re interested in and how they’re interested in playing with it by their actions and the questions they ask. Some may need some encouragement, but generally speaking, everyone wants to know they’re leaving their mark on your shared imaginary worlds. Show them how they can do that, find out how they want to do it, and you’ll know how to fill in those blank spots in the map. As Mr. Maliszewski says:
That's the real key to my current refereeing style: creative leeway. I don't fill in any more details than are needed about anything, whether it be the setting of the game or the rules that govern it. My feeling remains that, if there's no immediate need to establish a fact or make a ruling, it's always better to refrain from doing so. That may make it seem at times as if things are "incomplete," but I prefer to think of it as leaving "room for expansion." One of the real reasons I've come to detest most pre-fab campaign settings and bloated rules sets is precisely because they establish facts and rulings outside of the context of play, which, for me, is utterly backwards.
UPDATE: Mr. Conley goes into greater detail about how he helps his players create the backgrounds for their characters. It may result in stronger identification with that character than many OSR DMs want, but it certainly will get the players thinking and knowledgeable about your setting.
UPDATE 2: And Uncle Bear goes someplace similar. Combining what Uncle Bear says with what Mr. Maliszewski says, you remain aware of the questions, but you don't answer them until you need to, and you base your answers on the demonstrated interests of your players. If they want grand, epic battles, then you lean towards there being a major war brewing in the background. If they prefer stealth, skullduggery, and intrigue, maybe the goblin bandits are in the employ of a rival merchant guild or religious order set on harming a rival faction.
Art by Reinhold von Moeller, Eugene Pavy and John Frederick Lewis.