Imagine the following scenario, with you as the GM:

You’re sitting at the table, giving the intro to the adventure. You’re into it, doing voices, reading dramatically, and pausing for effect. (You think you did a particularly good job on the Scottish accent, which you mean to pull out later in the adventure.) You end with a particularly lovely flourish, sit back in your chair and wait for your players’ reactions.

They sit silently.

Okay, you think. They’re thinking about what to do. That’s good.

But then the silence goes on a bit too long, and finally you say, “Okay, so…?”

They look confusedly at each other, and finally the bravest says, “Um…what were we supposed to do again?”

Oh. They weren’t listening. Do you reread the whole intro, wasting play time? Cut it down and focus their attention only on the most important bits, doing the hard work for them? Flip the table? And what about your awesome Scottish accent? (Let’s face it–that moment has passed.)

My own players aren’t too bad about this, but they’ve been guilty of it from time to time, and so have I when I’ve been a player. One group with which I frequently play is notoriously bad about it. Eventually I got to thinking, You know when you have people’s undivided attention? When they’re surfing the internet at work instead of working!

Delivering background content through the internet lets you grab players when they have free time to read, think, and consider. It lets them talk up an adventure with each other before they get to your house. It lets you deliver more historical detail and NPC description than you might in a normal introduction without the info getting overwhelming.

I’ve found that giving a bit every few days for a week ahead of the adventure works best. If you provide bite-sized pieces, your most diligent players (or the ones with the most relaxed internet policies at work) will revisit your web page several times, allowing them to remember more fictional details to use in their roleplay than they might if given a verbal introduction.

One last compelling reason for delivering background info ahead of time is that it can allow you to start the session with the spotlight on your players rather than on you, especially if you’re using something like Burning Wheel’s Beliefs/Goals/Instincts. Often it takes players awhile to write and share these, especially if you’re starting a new section of the campaign; if they already have some sense of what they’ll be doing at the next session, they can mull their character’s thoughts about it ahead of time and write more interesting B/G/I for the session (or at least write them more quickly.) You can begin your play session with writing and sharing, actively getting the PCs involved as soon as possible.

Here are some things I’ve found useful about how to deliver background info via website:

  • Keep your focus narrow. Introduce one good element (friendly NPC, welcoming place, exciting event) and one problematic element (upcoming attack, prominent rival, hostile wildlife.)
  • Describe well. Intersperse the key things your PCs need to know about each element with some fluffy background info. Of course you’ll need to give that major NPC’s title and explain his stake in the events at hand, but you might also want to talk about how everyone always laughs at him because his notoriously sloppy eating leaves him with food on his shirt. Fluffy details let your PCs think about how to interact with their environment ahead of time.
  • Consider voice. How are your PCs getting this info? Are they overhearing rumors in a bar? Seeing signs on a street corner post? Researching it in the library? Receiving it in a letter? Give them a sense of how they’ve received the information, especially if the messenger might not be all that reliable. Don’t forget that visual elements can help you shape that voice. If they’re getting a letter, make your web page look like a letter. If they’re seeing a bulletin board, make one.
  • Think about reception. Do you want your PCs to get the correct information, or are you going to misdirect them? Where do you want them to focus their attention? If you want them to think more about one topic than another, add more fluff to it, include pictures, or repeat it several times in different ways from different sources. If you’d like them to know something but not mull it over, weave it in between more interesting tidbits or have the authoritative voices question it.
  • Include pictures. A few choice pictures can set the scene quickly; a website might even be the best way to give the PCs a map handout and let them consider it ahead of time.
  • Know your group. If it drives you crazy when your group spends hours planning their moves on the field of battle, you might want to steer clear of giving them a clear sense of the terrain where they’ll be fighting, or they’ll bring even more info to the table and spend even more time planning. On the other hand, they might speed up their planning if they’ve had time to consider everything ahead of time. If you know what sort of thing grabs their attention, use it to focus them on what you most want them to see (or keep them away from details you want them to have but not overthink.)
  • Update a few times. If you’re like we are and you don’t play that often, a few short updates to your site can give keep your players interested in and excited about the upcoming game. (Website updates also give you the chance to check in with everyone.)

With the right website, you can cut your players’ work productivity significantly and have them thinking about your game in no time! Of course, you might have to forgo the Scottish accent, but that’s probably best for everyone, anyway.