I'm involved in a very interesting conversation with a gamer friend of mine, and we're comparing GMing notes, so to speak.
He tells me that he, unfortunately, doesn't have time anymore to develop a complete and detailed setting on his own, so he's started using the standard published D&D setting (in his case, it's the Sword Coast of Faerun).
He likes how using all that information allows him to leverage player knowledge, backstory information, and details of history, NPCs, and so forth. Makes sense, right?
In my experience, however, that's never panned out. Players aren't interested in reading a setting book and then bringing it into their play; what matters to them (or us, if I'm playing) is the material we're dealing with in the game - not random encyclopedic information about the larger setting. I've very rarely seen a player sit down and consume and remember such background information absent being really in love with a particular story. It just becomes extra for the GM which is rarely rewarded by anything meaningful in the game.
However, I can imagine a group leveraging this kind of information and getting something out of it... I've just never really seen it in action. For instance, the hypothetical group of giant Lord of the Rings/Tolkien mythopoeia nerds, who create a completely internally consistent roleplaying game within Tolkien's Middle-Earth, and use their absurdly vast knowledge of Middle Earth trivia for good rather than evil.
My own experience has been that I've gotten more mileage out of a more "story game" approach to background and setting information:
* Create what you need to provide context for the characters and the story which is taking place.
This means that you're only creating the setting detail which augments your play, and (usually) only *when you need it*, so it's as close to 100% effective as possible. There's no chance of it being "wasted", and little chance of it not supporting the themes, stories, or characters you've got going on.
* "Show, don't tell" - define and deepen the setting by bringing out elements in play, not listing them in an encyclopedic tome. (Basically, like a good film or book does it - try to keep the exposition short, and *show* what you want the audience to understand through dramatic scenes and character action.)
This means that all (or almost all) of your time spent on the game is play time; exploration time, or creative discovery time, instead of some of it being "homework".
* Get the players to participate in the creation of the Setting and Situation, so they have a vested interest in those details, backgrounds, or details. For instance, the player of a religious character might be given the liberty to define the tenets of the religion (likely satisfying the two criteria above).
This means that everything which is created is, at some level, shared, and always relevant to play. No one is "forced" to learn information which may turn out to be irrelevant to your play; instead, we all do it together and, if we do end up with a deep and encyclopedic knowledge of a setting, we do so after a long period of play and have all bought into it together (because we were all equally interested in it, not because one player was trying to push it on the others).
This is an interesting conundrum. On one hand, I love setting detail and getting people on the same page, learning about an imaginary world, and so forth. On the other hand, when I recently joined a D&D game with this friend and he sent me a copy of the "Sword Coast: Adventurer's Guide" book... I don't find I have any real motivation to read it.
What have your experiences been like? What do you recommend in terms of practical techniques and play?
Feel free to take a strong position on any side of this question, or simply discuss your roleplaying experience when it comes to background setting detail.