History has a surprisingly high Intimidate score.
Really, it’s the size of it. History is like astrophysics in the 4th dimension, the sheer scale is mindblowing and can scare off even brave souls from trying to delve into the field.
So it should be no surprise that the same is true for many game settings. For years, I avoided running anything but homegrown settings, borrowing only the flavor of properties like D&D and The World of Darkness so that I wouldn’t have to dive headlong into what felt like acres of lore.
I know now, of course, that in any given game, only a small fraction of that lore actually comes to bear at the table, but I still didn’t know enough to know which parts were relevant and which weren’t.
I am sadly a notoriously slow reader, which only compounds the issue. So far, Eclipse Phase, my favorite setting, is still more than half a mystery to me in terms of the particulars. I’ve heard folks rave about The Ninth World and Planescape, but everytime I try to get a first-hand understanding, I choke on the great whale of a library behind either setting.
So how do you get passed it? As a GM hoping to run a game that at least passingky honors the core setting, how do you chew through the source material, filter out what’s unnecessary, and get what you need with turning the entire ordeal into the eqivalent of a dissertation?
Start a mile wide and an inch deep. Get the elevator-pitch summary of the setting, the quick-and-dirty 2-3 paragraph synopsis that tells you the general genre you’re dealing with. Search for major themes, antagonists, and what sort of people the PCs generally are.
Most of the time you know this before you ever agree to run a game, but if your understanding of Eclipse Phase is still at the “I heard it has space whales” level, at least get the high-level summary before you proceed further. Wikis are fantastic for this, or even just the back of the core book in a lot of cases. If you’re lucky, the core book includes a setting summary that’s only a few pages, but if not, the internet is your friend.
Once you have the overall sketch, it’s time to go an inch wide and a mile deep. Focus your attention on a very tiny portion of the setting – a single city, habitat, planet or plane (depending on the scale of the setting as a whole). Ignore the lore that doesn’t deal with that region, focus all your attention on the details of that locale to make it feel rich and real, and prevent players who know the broader setting from banking on facets not native to the immediate region.
Additionally, if you can, stick to the fringe of the setting, where there isn’t as much history or player familiarity to contend with. In EP, you don’t need to know who the Jovians are if you’re running a Gatecrashing game with no Jovian PCs. Just pick an exoplanet to read up on and rely on the short descriptions in the Backgrounds your players choose to ferry you through.
In a setting like Planescape, just staying out of Sigil can save you copious hours reading up on factions, neighborhoods, and the infamous Lady. Ribcage, by contrast, gives you a more digestible start and more room to fill in the gaps as needed.
In fact, most settings have a hub that is both the best known and the most overstuffed with lore. In Shadowrun, it’s Seattle. In Forgotten Realms, it’s Waterdeep or Neverwinter. You can often find a setting’s hub with a little Google hunting. Searching for “alternatives to…” with the name of the hub often pulls up the second-tier regions you might be better off starting from.
In games where travel is part of the flavor (again, Planescape, EP Gatecrashing, etc.), make sure you have a reason to keep the PCs limited to your starting region for long enough to give yourself time to research the next destination they’ll be hopping to. Research each micro-setting as you get to it, rather than trying to digest the entire thing in a sitting.
For settings where locations and history aren’t the lore issue, but things like factions are, limiting the factions your players can pick from (and your NPCs hail from) can help bring things into much more digestible ranges. In the World of Darkness, that means first limiting to the sub-slice of the setting (Werewolf, Mage, etc.) and fighting the urge to throw in elements of the larger conflict between groups in favor of much more immediate inter-faction interactions.
Additionally you can limit the particular choices of factions to keep your attention narrow. Give your players the list of potential choices (traditions in Mage, clans in Werewolf, factions in EP or Planescape, etc.) and make sure you limit your NPCs to the same choices. Not only will that save you time researching, but it’ll make sure your players don’t mistake what you’re doing for “keeping the best toys for yourself.”
Before you widen your view to include additional factions, give the players advance notice and, where possible, allow them to invest in possibly changing factions before bringing in a mess of NPCs from an unfamiliar group they otherwise would’ve had access to from the start.
In either case, keeping your focus narrow will allow you to give players a legitimate sense of the setting that’s true to the source material but doesn’t overwhelm you (or them) and risk the game never getting off the ground in the first place because you’re too busy doing a thesis defense on the larger cultural implications of the Solarian caste system.