In writing my post about Campaign Structure, I kept wanting to also talk about building the campaign world its self and the story that you intend to tell therein. It was initially not a very cohesive post, so I pulled all that out. But they’re useful thoughts and, I think, interesting. So let’s get into how you build a campaign world and the plot of your campaign or, at any rate, how I do it and, thus, think you should.
So the first step is to pick out your setting or campaign world or whatever you want to call it. This is, of course, assuming you’re not using a system that also dictates your setting. One of the things I like most about using GURPS is that it doesn’t get in the way of my making my own settings, so this step is really important to me. You can harvest inspiration for any number of sources.
The obvious are books, movies and TV shows you’ve enjoyed. There’s some risk, if you cleave too closely to the source material, that your players will see it coming a mile away. There’s also a debate for me: Do I want to run a campaign in the Firefly ‘verse or do I want to run a campaign that feels in many ways like Firefly? If you’re in a settingless system then the former will mean you can crib creatively from the source and trade on the players’ existing familiarity with the setting. On the other hand, you might have to fight with their interpretation of the source and there might be a hefty amount of conversion to do as far as stats go. If you go the other way, there’s a lot of analysis to be done about what makes the source feel like the source, etc. Without feeling so much like it that you create cognitive dissonance amongst the players with the things you change.
I have some unconventional ideas, too. For instance, the song “The Statue Got Me High” by They Might Be Giants always seemed to suggest an awesome plot for a sort of investigative horror campaign where people are vanishing out in the woods, etc. The PCs play the part of the “screaming fire engine sirens”, more or less. Similarly, this desktop of children fighting zombies on a playground had me musing about a campaign world where that would come about.
My point is, almost anything can inspire a campaign world, so keep your eyes open. I’ve sort of gotten to where I’m almost always shopping for good campaign ideas. Even ones I don’t use offer interesting trains of thought or ideas that can be harvested later. This way, too, my players don’t feel like they’re constantly playing variations on the same two movie franchises.
Inventing Your Plot
It’s clear, I should hope, that plotting out a movie and plotting out a campaign are quite different things. So what are the steps we go through when plotting out the actual story for a campaign? First, consider that there are three major stages or, rather, one major event that cuts your planning in two: you start working on the campaign, you and the players make the PCs, you finish fleshing the campaign out.
The next step, for me, is to figure out what about the setting is exciting to me. Or else poll the players and see what seems coolest to them (if I’m torn or whatever). If I can’t figure that out pretty quick, then it’s a sign I should consider another idea. The goal, here, is to figure out what you want to highlight about the setting. This should be treated like a core theme. Keep it in mind whenever you’re making decisions and see if you can figure out how to serve it as often as possible. It should be something along the lines of “all magic is evil” or “beating bad guys up with super powers” or “camaraderie on the battlefield” or “awesome spaceship battles”, for instance. Once I have this picked out, I generally reality-check this with the players. If they like zombies for a different reason than I do, that’s something I need to know before I get too far into things.
Once you’re that far, you want to figure out your main conflict. This involves, quite often, figuring out who the Big Bad will be, what they want, why they want it and how they think they’ll go about getting it. You’ll also probably end up inventing people who don’t want that to happen and people who do. At the least on a high level. Go ahead and give them names and what all, but you don’t want to get too tied down. Similarly, you could start thinking about geography and factions and governmental systems, etc. You want to get a pretty good picture of the parties involved in whatever the big What’s Really Going On thing is and probably a grasp on whether and how you’ll obscure that from the players (remember that Stewart and I assume that a sort of mystery or conspiracy is the default plot structure).
The Player Characters
Then, you’ll want to tell your players about the world and work with them to come up with their characters. This process deserves it’s own post, so I’m going to give it light treatment here: You want to have a good enough understanding of who the player expects his character to be and comfortable enough with the ideas in your setting that if you were suddenly forced to play that character in your own campaign, the player would be able to at least recognize your portrayal. This is so that, in the next step, you can accurately predict what will motivate that character or cause them to be in conflict with themselves, etc. Communication is paramount with this process and, of course, it’s impossible to get it perfect.
Gluing It All Together
The last phase is probably the longest (at least for me). You have all the pieces now, but everything needs polishing and filling out. Nail down your NPCs. Work on NPCs that are directly adjacent to your PCs. If they’re a member of a noble house, you’d better make their whole family and several key servants (or work with the player to make them). If they’re a member of a street gang, give them all names and a paragraph of personality. Really nail down world details and geography.
The real key is figuring out ways that What’s Really Going On will impinge on the goals or normal lives of your PCs. That, put simply, is the entire purpose of this phase of the campaign creation: weaving your PCs’ stories into What’s Really Going On. The easiest way to weave a character into that plot, to motivate them to care about it one way or the other, is to figure out what that character wants (protect their family, become CEO of the company they work for, feed their heroin addiction, etc.) and then figure out how the plot will stop them from being able to do that thing.
The other, also very important, purpose of this phase is to make the world as real as you can for the players, specifically with the creation and fleshing out of NPCs adjacent to their characters. They should provide a sort of layer between the NPCs you initially made up in the first phase and the PCs so that there are lines of contact (however circuitous) to those original NPCs. You might be able–depending on how your PCs fall out–to rework one of those original NPCs into someone who’s adjacent. That’s even better.
Let’s look at an example. In my current campaign I have a noble house named Paknejja. They were going to be embroiled in What’s Really Going On at the early stages and I’d made several NPCs within the House. Then, I had a Player Character, Lamario, who was a performer in some kind of entertaining troupe (he does juggling and knife-throwing). In order to tie them together, I invented Sihandu, owner/ring master of Sihandu’s Circus of Amazements, at which Lamario worked. I also made up several other performers within the Circus. And Sihandu belongs, more or less, to Paknejja. So we have at least a tenuous connection from Lamario to Paknejja via a new layer of NPCs. This is a relatively straight-forward example. Get as creative as you like.
There are a few other things that I like to do, but are really just icing. The first is something that I think Heinlein talked about, but I can’t find a reference. The idea is that you need to have more details and information than you show your readers (in our case, our players). This is something that makes Middle Earth, for example, feel very real and lived in; Tolkien was insane and had all this detail stacked in notes that never made it into the Trilogy, but you could sort of feel the weight of it, reading.
Contrast the Wheel of Time series. Jordan seems, in my opinion, to go out of his way to explain how and why everything in his world works. It takes out a lot of mystery and makes it all feel much more like a toy universe. So make up some things that are unlikely to ever matter or come up in the campaign. Have a legend with a special sword? Name it. What’s the name and culture of the next kingdom over? The next continent over? Why did the founders of this space colony name it this name? Who invented the FTL drive everyone uses? These kinds of things may never come up, but their presence contributes to the reality of the game world.
You might also consider a map or two. I’m not talking about battle maps, either. Not everyone can be like the veterans on The Cartographers’ Guild message boards, but you don’t have to be. I could probably do a whole post about maps, but for now, consider that if you get a bit creative, poor skills as an artist can play into your idea for a hand-drawn black-market map of the tunnels under the castle. If you’re gaming in an established setting, you could maybe buy a map.
Minutia that the players seem interested in is another place you can spend free brain cycles thinking up. If someone spent points in heraldry, make up colors and crests for all the major NPCs. I, myself, am a big language nerd, so I have been known to sketch out some phonetic or grammatical rules to the language of the game setting (mostly for use in proper nouns). Whatever strikes your fancy, however irrelevant to the plot, if it gets your creative juices flowing, make it True. Just make sure that, come game time, you don’t force it down your players’ throats; the way to make the world seem bigger than the map is to not show them all of it.
Where It Goes From There
So now that you’ve got all that, you’re ready to start playing. You’ve got your PCs who’re tied into an over-arching plot and a Big Bad who is trying to get something done. The story arc naturally becomes one where the PCs get hassled trying to live their lives, in trying to remove the hassle discover that it is part of some bigger event, discover the details of that event and then go about changing that event (stopping isn’t required, but is really common). This, also naturally, leads to a climax at a confrontation with the Big Bad and a satisfying ending. All the up-front work makes creating this structure during play fairly easy.
We’ve discussed how we structure campaigns before. In that post, I drew the analogy of a book, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. Actually, almost all fiction is like this. There’s a specific narrative arc with a climax and a denouement. This is a healthy shape for a story to have and, remember, our philosophy is that RPGs are about telling stories together (in addition to escapism, etc.). This is the shape that has arisen from people having told each other stories for the entire history of human communication. So Stewart and I see no reason not to plan for that shape.
The Way We Don’t Do Things
The antithesis of this shape is what we’ve experienced and heard about in other games: There’s a group of people who’re working together for more or less well explained reasons towards more or less well explained goals and they go about bumping into exciting situations and resolving them until people get bored. Each adventure is generally self-contained with the only things that seem to carry over from one adventure to the next is loot and characters (plus some experience points or whatever equivalent in the system in question). The power level creeps up over time and eventually, the story jumps the shark.
The reason behind this inevitable shark jumping is that the narrative arc wasn’t considered from the get-go. What I’m asserting, here, is basically that the Campaign be scaled down (from a theoretical infinite duration) and the adventure be scaled up such that the entire Campaign is one big adventure. Rather than a TV show with an episodic structure where each week’s installment has it’s own little arc, think of the campaign as an entire season of something highly serial like Lost or of a feature length movie. I’m not, by the way, ruling out the idea of sequels (or additional seasons), here. Stewart and I haven’t experimented with that idea, but we’ve discussed it and that’s another post.
Playing in Three Acts
Stewart and I also talk a lot in terms of three acts (I’ve heard screen writers talk in these terms, too). The first act is generally about the PCs reacting to events that’re happening to and around them. You might call it the Reactive phase. The players are still learning the campaign world and their character’s place in it. Thus, the characters aren’t taking a whole ton of initiative. You’ll know that you’re still in this phase if you keep having to plan for new things to happen to the PCs. By that metric, some campaigns never leave this phase, which is a symptom of campaigns that aren’t using the narrative arc.
The second act is about the PCs discovering details of What’s Really Going On. You might call this one the Discovery phase, even though that’s not an adjective. The players will start showing some initiative, but it’s mostly in investigation type tasks. Often, the players (or characters, depending on how you look at it) will want to know something or get something done, but not be sure how to get it done yet. There tends to be at least a little bit of player thrashing, which I don’t view as evil in small doses. Not only will you have to plan less things to happen to the PCs, you’ll be less able to plan ahead and that ability will diminish as you approach the third act.
The third act is where the PCs really get some solid handles on affecting events. This one’s the Active phase. They know who the major players are, know (mostly) what those people want and how it differs from what they, themselves want. That’s key: the PCs know enough to have set a pretty specific goal for themselves. This won’t be “Defeat Professor Squid.” It’ll be something like, “Steal Prof. Squid’s Freeze Ray (not an Ice Beam, that’s all “Johnny Snow”), find a way into his secret undersea lair and wait to use it on him until after he’s prepped the explosives on the moon so that we can secretly use them to threaten the President if he doesn’t change his anti-Supers policies.” This plan of theirs is basically what they spent the entire second act building up. This act includes, perhaps obviously, the climax and denouement.
The acts don’t have to be of equal length or even have clearly defined boundaries; they’re a planning tool for the GM before hand and a management tool while you’re running the campaign so you know how to adjust pacing and things. Don’t get too caught up in which events fit into which acts, but pay more attention to how the PCs are acting and what they need from you based on that.
What You Get With Your Purchase
I find it really helpful, personally, to have a finite scope. If I have some boundaries, it helps me figure out what all the coolest parts of the campaign world are and work them in. It ensures the highest density of rockmost. If you come up with a cool idea, you figure out where to put it, rather than maybe putting it off for later because you want to space out cool events.
Additionally, I like to play in different settings and switching settings after a satisfying ending is much better than just after the previous one kind of petered out. Knowing the ending is coming lets you know when to start planning the next one, and sets everyone up in the mindset that there’s new stuff coming. Players might have suggestions on this topic, etc.
Relatedly, if you’ve got this central conspiracy or plot the ending of which is tied to the end of the campaign, it creates a nice arc that can act as a framework for each of the characters to build their own arc off of. It encourages and allows–some might argue demands–character development. With an end in mind, you can aim to help one player tell their character’s Coming of Age story and another’s Learning to Trust story and the third’s Self Discovery story.
The reality is, your campaign will end. It just can’t go on forever. If you plan the ending and have it in mind as you go along, you can use it as a tool to make your campaign better.
The ability to control other people’s minds is a staple of science fiction and fantasy, right up there with throwing fireballs and levitating objects. As such, it’s very natural to want to include it in role-playing games. The problem is, mind control just doesn’t play well – or at least it’s very, very difficult to make it play well.
“These are not the droids you’re looking for…”
If your setting and/or rules system allows for it, it’s inevitable that one of your players will want to create a character with mind-control powers. It seems like a fun alternative to the classic archetypes of fighter, wizard, and thief. In most fiction, people with mind control powers tend to be clever, and use their powers in interesting ways to compensate for their lack of physical prowess. So it seems like it will be a unique challenge for a player who’s ready for something new.
In practice, however, mind control is something of a blunt instrument. In fiction, protagonists with mind control powers tend to only use them as a weapon of last resort. But in role-playing medium, there is little incentive to use any other ability. You need to get into the castle? Make one of the guards let you in. You need to win a fight? Turn the strongest opponent against his friends. You need to acquire a rare and precious item? Make a merchant give you all his money, then pay someone else to go get it. Instead of giving the player a tool that makes them come up with interesting solutions, it becomes a panacea for all problems. After about an hour, it completely loses its charm.
So if you’re the GM, and one of your PCs has mind control powers, you have to find ways to limit it. One of the ways to accomplish this is to say that it doesn’t work on certain key people. They have powers or artifacts or something that makes them immune (eg Magneto’s helmet). This way, your player doesn’t anticlimactically defeat the big bad guy by telling him to stab himself with his own sword. In rules systems where mind control is resistable, you give key NPCs a high resistance. As a result, you have a PC that has a cure-all against all low-level NPCs and is completely and utterly useless against anyone important. This is not fun.
“Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger!”
Okay, so mind control doesn’t work so well for the protagonists. What about the bad guys? After all, mind control is sort of an intrinsically evil power. Giving the ability to control others to the antagonists is more manageable, though has its own set of perils. The same basic problem applies – if the bad guy can control minds, there is little reason for them to use any other power. And, just like you don’t want to let a PC be able to defeat important enemies by mind controlling them, it’s not fun for a player to have to relinquish control of their character in crucial situations.
There are two solutions to this problem. Either you give the bad guy some sort of combat-related prowess in addition to their mind control powers, or you make the final fight consist of the PCs wading their way through mind-controlled masses to get to the bad guy. The latter solution can end up being anticlimactic, as dispatching the villain becomes something of an afterthought.
Hard, but not Impossible
For the reasons described in the previous two sections, using mind control in RPGs can be very difficult. I do, however, have two examples (both of which involving Ben, oddly enough) where it was used to good effect.
Wake up, Sheeple!
In the first instance, Ben was GMing a campaign where the players were FBI agents that investigated paranormal activities. They had been tracking a group of serial killers during the election campaign season, and were closing in on the big bad. The penultimate set piece of the campaign involved the PCs chasing one of the killers, who happened to be demon-worshipping cultists, through a crowd at a campaign rally. When the PCs were mid-way through the crowd, everyone stopped chanting slogans and turned on them, zombie-style. The mindless crowd didn’t strike the PCs, but rather attempted to grapple and smother them. This put the players in a difficult situation, as they were being attacked by innocent civilians.
Ben and I discussed this scene at length, and decided that we need a way for the players to “win” without opening fire on the crowd. So we decided that there would be some people in the crowd that weren’t being controlled, and they were the people that weren’t wearing campaign buttons. The scene ended up playing out perfectly – one of the PCs was in real danger of dying, and they almost started raining bullets into the mob before they found a way out. Then, after they got past everyone, the final boss started transforming into a Lovecraftian demon-god while they raced to kill him.
So why did this work? First of all, the mind control powers of the bad guy were scoped; they had to put a pin on someone to control them. Two, the bad guy had more going for him than just mind control, so the final battle could have its own rockmost moments. Third, the identity of the controlled parties mattered. The fact that they were innocent bystanders made the fact that they were being mind controlled make them more than just a legion of goons to be slaughtered.
The Old Lady in the Woods
The second example takes place in a campaign that I GMed set in the American Old West, but with fantasy races and magic. Dwarves were engineers and miners, elves were fancy aristocrates, goblins were tinkerers and traders, orcs were recently-freed slaves, and so on. It was set in New Mexico, and there were two Native American tribes in the region, the Apache and the Utes. I made the warlike Apache centaurs, and the peyote-smoking Utes into Wild Elves. The story of the campaign is largely irrelevant to this post, except to say that the Big Bad was a Wild Elf who lived outside of town and was known to be able to heal people.
Eventually, Ben’s PC, a half-elf named Tamlin, got seriously injured and needed to be healed in a hurry. So they took him out to the healer woman in the woods. She was a little odd, but willing to help. What they didn’t know was that the healer woman was an ancient evil mage, and that she could control minds and summon horrors from the deep. She heals Tamlin, but she also puts him under a spell where he has to do her bidding.* She tells him to go back into the world and act normally, but he’s not allowed to tell anyone what happened, nor may he harm her. Oh, and she raped him. You know, for fun.
So then she sends Tamlin back into the world, and he’s a bit shaken up. He runs into one of the other PCs, who can tell that something is wrong, but Tamlin won’t tell what happened. The other player just thinks that they’re trying to hide something. Ben comes up with the really clever solution of finding the receipt for the carriage service that they hired to take him out to the witchy woman and handing it to him. The other PC follows the clue to the carriage service, finds out that he went out the healer lady, and then metaphorically shrugs his shoulders and says “Huh. That’s weird.”
I had expected the PCs to go visit the Ute Indians, the mystical Wild Elves who lived in the mountains, at some point. They would take one look at Tamlin, see the horrible evil magic hanging over him, and dispel the mind control. Then the PCs would realize that the old lady in the woods was actually an evil sorceress, and go into the final battle prepared. But they never did. So when they got to the final battle sequence, Tamlin was still under the control of the ancient evil wizardess. She told him to kill his friends. Ben did something really cool here, in that he followed her instructions, but did so in the slowest way that he could, taking extra turns to aim and the like. In the end, however, the PCs were not able to prevail. They all died in the final battle, and in 1867 our whole world was overrun by hideous Chimeras from an aztec-like civilization.** It’s odd that nobody noticed.
Although the final result was a tad negative, I actually feel like this was a successful example of using mind control in a campaign, mostly because of what Ben managed to do with it. Tamlin, Ben’s PC, was defined by his eagerness to please and fit in. He was always the guy that would buy a round for the fellas, or go get things for people. After he was enslaved by the ancient shaman (I’m running out of synonyms), he snapped and stopped letting people boss him around. The other players could tell that something had happened, but they didn’t know what, and he wouldn’t/couldn’t tell them.
That was the other thing that was really fun. Ben knew who the real bad guy was, and the other player’s didn’t. And he couldn’t tell them. This is really a great example of where the Divide & Conquer approach shines. These were all really good players, so they probably would have made very similar decisions if they had known what happened. But since they didn’t, the reveals when they learned what was really going on had a lot more impact.
There were really two things that made this work. One, although the player was mind-controlled, I deliberately left some wiggle room in their instructions. They weren’t a mindless automaton. Second, the player was able to roll with it and make their loss of control into something positive. This was really a success because Ben made it one.
If it Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It
So yeah, mind control can be very, very difficult to use effectively. In many attempts to introduce it to the setting, I only have the previous two examples as instances where it really worked well, and that’s including the one where all the players died. I don’t want to discourage GMs from trying to use mind control in their own campaigns, but rather to cast more light on the pitfalls that it can introduce.
*Although the magic rules in GURPS would call for Ben’s PC to get a roll to resist the spell, I didn’t give him one. I felt like the dramatic tension would be hugely diminished if he succeeded in resisting, so I didn’t give him the opportunity. This was a classic example of the Rockmost philosophy, although before we’d heard the term. Should I give him a roll to resist the mind control? What would rock most?
**So yeah, TPK. That campaign ended on kind of a downer, and definitely made me second-guess my decision to use mind control the way I did. In the end, I still feel like it was worth it, as the decision of the players not to pursue certain clues should have negative consequences, and they almost triumphed in spite of their mistake. I feel another post coming on…
So you’ve bought into the benefits we described to having players out of the room whose characters are not in the scene being played. You’re open to giving it a try and you’ve figured out which room is “in” and which is “out”. But there’s another question to be answered: What do the “out” players do when they’re out there? Here are some ideas that Stewart and I have tried, what worked about them and what didn’t.
In general you want your “out” entertainment to fulfill at least most of these points:
- Fun for more than one person at once.
- Fun in short bursts.
- Fun even if dropped at a moment’s notice.
- Fun, but not more engaging than your campaign.
- Easily ignored in case a player brought their own “out” activity.
This can work… If you pick your game carefully. Final Fantasy is a bad call; it’s much too involved and it’s not multi-player. Halo (multi-player) or Tekken or something might be alright with the right player group. If they don’t mind stopping in the middle of a bout or pausing and trading off with the guy who’s coming out. Rock Band or Guitar Hero are a bit easier to stop at the drop of a hat, but you have to know whether your players will get too into it. I would only tentatively recommend this option.
Movies can be really good or really bad. Choosing an appropriate movie is much easier, though. It must be something all the players have seen or that is sufficiently campy that a player will be more interested in their own character’s story than the one on screen. A bonus is that you can theme the movie(s) with the campaign, maybe. Lord of the Rings or Conan for something fantasy, perhaps. While Stewart was running a campaign set in the old west, it happened that AMC kept airing middle-aged westerns while we were playing, so Young Bloods worked out well (they’d play the same movie over and over, so you’d see a majority of the film, but out of sequence). If you’re doing a Firefly, Star Trek or Star Wars game, I think the best choice of what to show is obvious. You’re aiming for a movie that your players can enjoy pretty much any randomly selected 10 or 15 minute slice of.
I tried this one at Stewart’s suggestion (which he stole from Dann) and it is, I think, my favorite. Put out a stack of your favorite comics (nothing priceless if you’re a collector) and let your players have at it. They’re lower investment than a novel, but higher investment than a cheesy movie and they can just drop a book mark in it when it’s their turn to play. For my Kjemmen campaign (a dark fantasy setting with some Lovecraft-ish stuff going on in the gods), I started out with a stack of Hellboy and Darkhorse’s recent run of Conan. It was a big hit.
Players will bring their own stuff, as well, in my experience: homework, the internet, a side project, a book… whatever. I’ve never seen something a player brings cause a too-highly-invested problem, so I wouldn’t even try to police that (I guess if they bring their PS3 or something and want to hook it up, you might use a guiding hand with it). There are, I’m sure, infinite possibilities of “out” activities. Just remember the guidelines above.
I think the sweet spot is Stewart’s description of how he felt about Dann’s comic book collection. He’d be out, reading, and be called in and think, “What?!? I’m in?!? But—the comic! What’s going to happen next?” But, knowing he would have fun, would go in and get involved in the role play and then, suddenly, “What?!? I’m out?!? But—the campaign! What’s going to happen nex—Oh hey! The comic!”
So here’s the set up: you spent months building this terrific setting for a game. You came up with an interesting and orginal story. You built countless NPCs. You really thought about each session, and what was supposed to happen. When confronted with decisions, you chose what would rockmost. But when you actually sat down to play the sessions, everything just fell flat. Why? Because your PCs stink.
This is not to say that your players themselves stink. I’m sure that they’re great. I find, however, that most people don’t really know what the characteristics of a good Player Character. There is a long and unproductive tradition in RPGs of saying “Okay, I’ve got the story figured out, you guys go make characters and we’ll play.” The approach that I would advocate instead is for each player to separately meet with the GM and make their character.
This process takes a lot more time than the classic method, but I find that it generates richer characters and makes for a significantly better overall experience. Uninteresting or ineffective characters make for bad stories. Conversely, a really interesting and fun PC can salvage flawed settings or plots. What are the characteristics of a good PC?
1. They Aren’t Overly Handicapped
It is deceptively easy to create Player Characters that are not actually fun to play. This is because a lot of really cool characters in fiction don’t make good PCs. Professor X is a kickass character. He makes a terrible PC. The idea of a crippled man with telepathy is intriguing. It might seem like an interesting challenge for someone to play. As might playing a mute character. Or a sentient animal. In practice, however, these things aren’t (usually) fun. Playing Professor X seems like a great idea until the first chase scene, and then it just becomes a drag. This is probably why he spends most of his time at the school telling other people to go out and do the things that move the story. Characters with strong disadvantages can be fun; characters that need assistance to do mundane tasks tend to get old fast.
Similarly, it’s often tempting to play the outcast character — the dark elf in a world of men, or the unusually articulate and sophisticated orc. Once again, cool idea. These types of characters even come with some intrinsic personality and conflict, which is good. These make terrific NPCs. The problem is that their whole story becomes about their unusual identity. Much like the wheelchair example above, this makes for cool and interesting moments occasionally, but usually just becomes a drag for both the GM and the player. In narrative fiction, the author can ensure that the moments where hiding or dealing with someone’s unusual identity come up at cool and interesting times. In collaborative fiction, things get messier. Either you just start ignoring or glossing over it (you go in the bar and everyone freaks out because you’re a martian and you patch it up and moving on now) or it becomes a constant problem that the player has to deal with. If your goal is to teach a racist friend how much it sucks to be a minority, this is a great way to do it. If your goal is to provide a fun experience for your players, I’d encourage them to move on to a different idea.
2. They are Good at Things
This is another common trap. The player wants to play a character with a dark and troubled past, or the guy who is down on his luck and looking for his big break. The problem is, that character can’t actually do anything. Every PC should have one thing that they are really, really good at. It’s their default answer to every problem. Legolas is a master marksman. He shoots his way out of problems. Han Solo is a pilot. He flies his way out. MacGuyver is a gadgeteer. He invents his way out. Every player should be able to answer the question “What is your character’s default answer to a problem?”
They should also have a backup plan for when their default answer doesn’t work. Han usually runs. If running doesn’t work, he tries to fast-talk his way through it. And if that doesn’t work, he can use a blaster. If building a bomb out of AAA batteries and a matchstick doesn’t work, MacGuyver can punch a guy. Legolas can do ridiculous agility tricks and state the obvious. The old adage “when the only tool that you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail” applies here. If your PCs’ only skills are combat skills, every encounter looks like a fight. This becomes unsatisfying after a while.
Your player wants to play a homeless alcoholic who has lost everything? No problem. What was he before that? What are his skills? What is his default solution to problems? Maybe he’s a war veteran and a crack shot. Maybe he’s a practiced pickpocket. Maybe he’s good at talking his way out of situations. Perhaps even all three.
The other thing to point out here is that it’s important that they are good at things that matter in the setting. A smuggler with quick wits and a winning smile is good at things. But when the story is Attack of the Killer Space Aliens, he may be a tad underequipped. If you know that the critical skills that your characters need are the ability to climb walls and defuse tense political situations, don’t let them build brainless tanks.
3. They Have Personalities
Your player just watched a bunch of John Woo movies, and now he wants to play an ambidextrous pistol-wielding assassin. That’s a fine place to start. So what is this assassin like? Are they a by-the-book, one shot, one kill type? Are they the leap into a room full of bad guys with guns blazing type? Do they take any job, or do they have standards? Are they jokey or grim? When done correctly, the character becomes much more than just the stats on the page. They develop their own identity, their own tendencies. The best characters are the ones that you refer to years later as if they were real people. “You remember that time when Blakthar spat in the Dwarf ambassador’s face because of that thing that he said about his beard? Man, that sucked. Classic Blakthar though.”
Back stories help. If the character took up assassination because their family was killed and they want revenge that tells you a lot about what they are probably like. If instead they got into the killing business because it’s fun and pays well, that also tells you a lot. But it doesn’t tell you everything. There’s a common misconception that a character’s backstory is their personality. If the character, for instance, is a knight who has failed in his vows and been expelled from his order, that tells you a fair amount about him. If you say that he is on a quest to redeem himself, that tells you even more. That’s still not a personality though. You could take that same story and play it a dozen different ways. Is he a humble warrior who succumbed to a moment of weakness? Is he an arrogant prick who looks down on other people? Is he a brutal and vicious man who was only restrained by his vows?
4. They Can Survive a Fight
If your setting and/or style is one where combat is not a part of your role-playing experience, feel free to skip this one. For most settings, however, combat is a common occurrence, and something that PCs should be able to deal with. Not every PC needs to be a tank, in fact it’s more fun if they’re not, but they do need some way to be able to defend themselves when needed. One reason for this is that killing players isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) fun for either the GM or the players. The other is that combat is a big time sink. If a player can’t participate in the fights in some capacity, that ends up being a lot of time watching other people make rolls. It’s okay if their involvement is simply evading blows while the other guys do the damage — that’s still exciting and engaging.
A few years ago I GMed a campaign that was set on a primitive polynesian-esque tropical island. There were strict social and religious rules that governed fighting and what weapons were allowed. In short, edged weapons were forbidden. One of my players wanted to play a bard. A fat bard. Who didn’t fight. So how then do we make him survive a combat? Well, in GURPS (my system of choice) 3rd Ed, there were rules that gave fat characters some advantages in melee combat, particularly if they charged their opponent. So we decided that he would avoid fights as much as possible, but if he couldn’t get out of it, he would run and throw himself at people, hoping to use his girth to knock them down. And then he would pull out his knife and stab them in close combat. I made him pay some points for being willing to break the social taboo, and we called it done.
He managed to avoid fighting for the duration of the campaign, until the final climactic battle with the undead priests. Then he unleashed his secret move and tackled one of the priests, stabbing him furiously when he was down. That was a Rockmost moment. It took the other players completely by surprise, it was both dramatic and kind of funny, and it made sure that the player wasn’t punished for trying to play an unorthodox character.
5. They are Playable by the Player
Not all players can play all characters. Some people are just naturally quiet and reserved. You can give them the PC that oozes charisma and charm, but just because it says it on the paper doesn’t mean that they can pull it off. Some people are naturally chaotic and unpredictable; don’t make them the sheriff that is supposed to enforce the law. You can’t make people play against their nature. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t try to stretch themselves from time to time. The problem is that it’s easy to fall in love with the idea of a character without thinking about what it would mean to inhabit them for extended periods.
One of the things that makes tabletop role-playing significantly different, and arguably more rewarding, than computer RPGs is that there is an acting component. The players are players in the Shakespearean sense, asked to play a part. And some people are better actors than others. This isn’t to say that someone has to be a particularly good actor to participate and positively contribute. It is to say that the skills and range of the player should be taken account when making their character.
When I’m working with players during the character creation process, I always encourage them to choose a character that has at least one strong personality trait in common with them, either something that they don’t usually get to exhibit that they want to exercise or something about themselves that they don’t like and wish to exorcise. If the super nice guy has a hidden mean streak and wants to air it out, that’s great. As long as he can understand the character and understand why they do what they do.
6. They Don’t Know Everything
Let’s look at Lord of the Rings. Who are the PCs? Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are definites. Boromir and Faramir are both terrific PCs, albeit ones with limited screentime. The hobbits are debatable. They are all extremely limited in their capabilities. You could even make the argument that the whole story is contrived to find a situation where Frodo could possibly be more effective than Aragorn or Gandalf. What about Gandalf? Is he a PC? He is certainly not handicapped, he has lots of things that he’s good at, he can survive a fight, and he has a definite personality (“Fool of a Took!”). But he doesn’t really resonate as a playable character. There are two reasons for this. One, his powers and capabilities aren’t clearly defined for the audience. We don’t actually know what Gangalf’s limits are, so it’s hard to imagine playing him. Secondly, he knows way more about what’s going on than anyone else. And this makes him an exceptionally poor Player Character.
The old and capable wise man types (Obi-Wan, Merlin, etc) all suffer from this. Part of the concept of the character is that they are extremely, perhaps even supremely, wise and knowledgeable. It’s possible for the GM to bring such a character into the story, as they, by definition, know all there is to know about the setting. It is just just as impossible for the player, who by definition cannot know everything that there is to know, to play such a character. You can create playable characters that know ancient lore and hidden secrets — but it’s a lot of work and requires close communication between the player and the GM, and there need to be places and things of which they are unaware.
Bad PCs Make Good NPCs
It can be difficult to come up with engaging character concepts that meet all of the above criteria. This is one place where setting-as-game systems have a definite advantage — they define the most reasonable set of skills and archetypes, and limit players to them. The good news is that characters that don’t meet the criteria for a PC often make great NPCs. The combat badass with a backstory but no real personality? Makes a fine nemesis or miniboss for the players. The old wise sage that walks with a limp and knows the way through the ancient tunnels? Bad PC, great NPC. The really awesome guy that you and your player came up with but they just don’t feel comfortable playing? Surely that character has a home in the setting somewhere.
One of the things that can happen to a player that is rockmost is when something their character does has a major effect on the campaign. This could mean they change the campaign world in some way or some idea they had is pivotal to the way the plot unfolds, for a pair of examples. The reason this is so fun is because it’s empowering.
I feel like it’s very easy, as a GM, to fall into the trap of having sketched out how things will unfold or the pace at which things will unfold and sticking to it. Sometimes your players will have a better idea. Or, actually, even if the idea of theirs is slightly less cool than your idea, it gets a significant rockmost bonus for having been their idea. Sometimes it will advance the plot faster than you expected. Sometimes it will push the plot development into a sphere of events you didn’t expect. You should roll with it. Treasure Tables has a post about saying yes. This is in that same spirit, but also don’t make it too hard on them just because it wasn’t your idea.
As an example from real life, in my Kjemmen campaign (dark fantasy taking place in an evil city), one of the PCs, Lamario, was being hunted in connection with the assassination of a nobleman. The murder happened in another noble’s palace. Because of some other plot details, he decided to break back into the palace. While he was there, he decided to leave a note that said, effectively, “Dear Lord Guy, I didn’t do it. I don’t know who did it. We can talk about it, if you want. Meet me at a certain market at midnight tonight. Lamario.”
Now, I had planned for him to go some time trying to figure out who the real killer was and avoiding the investigators (the other PCs, in this case) and then eventually probably getting caught, but offering a compelling explanation as to who really did it and helping find the guy and clear his name. However, his note sets up a really dramatic midnight meeting in the market. It puts all three PCs in the scene (though he doesn’t know it will) and has all sorts of possible outcomes. I couldn’t have scripted it better and, if I had scripted it, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as cool. So even though it speeds up the pace of this murder-investigation plot point, it’s much cooler now, so I’m excited to let his idea overrule some of the other ideas I had.
This kind of authorship on the players’ parts can make a bit more work for a GM (as in “Well, now I have to be more concrete about what’s next since we’re sort of a few weeks ahead of schedule.” etc.), but the rewards for the players can be massive. In fact, it plays into one of the unique aspects of role playing games as a medium: collaboratively building the story. So, don’t be afraid of throwing out work you did because your players had a better idea. If your world is robust enough, their cool idea will probably play into whatever you had going on in a really satisfying way, anyway.
In our introductory methodological post, I talked about the fact that we have players whose characters are not in a scene sit in another room until they’re back “on screen”. This is a pretty controversial play style but don’t let the title fool you (it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek): this is not about getting the players alone so they’re easier to screw over. This is about paying a bit of a price early for a big payout of rockmost later on. In this post, I intend to talk about it more in depth, first why and then how.
How is Kicking Your Players Out of the Room a Good Idea?
A lot of people feel compelled to include everyone at all times. This is a good instinct. You are, after all, basically hosting a dinner party. And if a player leaves the session and didn’t have fun, well, that’s the very definition of failure. A lot of people equate sitting in a separate room, not role playing with boredom and not having fun. These two ideas are highly intuitive and entirely valid criticisms. The trick, here, is realizing that the cost a player is paying by being out of the room should be an investment that gets repaid to them later.
In addition to this investment/payout thinking, we need to discuss in-character versus out-of-character knowledge. In my experience a lot of people talk about how “mature” players can know something that their character doesn’t and still act as if they don’t when deciding their character’s actions. That sounds really nice and I’ve seen it happen. Heck, I’ve done it. It is entirely possible for a player to do. This in/out thing isn’t something designed to combat folks who can’t handle IC/OOC information bleed. The question you have to ask is whether learning something early and pretending you don’t know it until later is as fun as not learning it early and then it being a surprise later on. I feel that the latter clearly rocks most.
The most visceral example of this payoff is with the control of information dissemination. If one character goes off and learns something on his own and the players of the other characters don’t know about it, then that first player can decide if and how much information to share with them. Maybe he changes the truth to keep a secret of his hidden. Maybe for another reason. Maybe he tells the whole story, but the other players suspect he isn’t. These are all interesting interactions between characters.
However, the bigger payoff comes when they’ve individually learned things that are related and important but, when seen only alone don’t look like pertinent clues. Eventually, all the characters will be in the same room together again and comparing notes. When one of them mentions, perhaps off hand, their clue, the others will feel something click in place and share their own clues. By adding their information (which seemed unrelated to their concerns) together, it suddenly makes sense in the context of the story. This is a much bigger payoff of rockmost than if they were all there from the get go. It’s cooler to see something unveiled suddenly from under a colorful handkerchief than erected as you watch (generally) and the players feel more like they figured it out than you showed it to them.
You can guess that this technique would work better with some reveals than others, but this is just one example, which I feel is particularly illustrative. If you’re trying to tell a story about characters who don’t trust each other or one with a lot of complex threads that are slowly woven into a cohesive plot, this kind of thing can take you miles.
So What Does It Actually Look Like?
Now that you agree perfectly with everything I asserted above (ha!), let’s talk about how this works more practically. Simply stated, a player is in until either their story hits some kind of logical stopping point or they’ve taken up too much time at which point you send them out and another player comes in. It’s identifying what those two things are that takes practice and skill.
Logical stopping points are the easiest to identify, in my opinion. Generally, as the architect of the campaign, you’re going to have an idea of what’s next and each scene will have a little story arc to its self. If you regularly consume almost any kind of fiction, this should be easy to identify. I like to use location changes as stopping points (“Okay, now I want to go to the manor house.”), which is also really common in television and film. Another good one is just after some major task has been completed (The safe is now cracked and about to be opened).
The too much time thing is really hard to explain to someone else because it varies on several things. Chief among them are how long your play sessions last, how many players you have, how much time they’re spending together vs. alone and the personalities of you and your players. A good starting point is to take your session length and divide it by the number of players to figure out how long, give or take, a player’s sittings should total. Then you can go about mapping that onto how long you think things they’re likely to do will take.
What you don’t want to do is realize suddenly that you’ve gone on way longer than you meant to and just stop in the middle of something. Identifying several logical stopping places throughout the action can allow you to change players more readily if your estimates about how long the player would spend doing things were wrong. In the safe-cracking example above, you might have expected them to open it quickly, grab the device inside and then scram, at which point you’d send them out. If it they’re taking a long time getting the safe open (or doing other things before opening it), you can plan to break right before they open the safe. If they decide to play with the device before leaving, then you could break before their daring escape. Planning this ahead of time is helpful and cultivating the ability to see these places as they come up in play is extremely valuable in maintaining smooth scene transitions.
There are some pitfalls to this technique that I think bear pointing out. If you plan for them and keep them in mind, they’re all entirely manageable.
Players Being Out Too Long
If you’re doing your job right, your players should all prefer to be in than out. We’ll write another post, later, about how to entertain your players who are out, so for now, let’s just talk about time spent out. How long “too long” is is mostly a factor of each player’s personality. Certainly, you want to be as equitable as possible, but that’s more about all your players feeling like they’re being dealt with fairly, not about all of them being mathematically equal. My biggest advice, especially when you’re new to this technique, or if a player is new to your table, is to just ask.
Remember you can’t observe them while they’re out, so unless they bring it up, you’re unlikely to know if they’re fine for 20 minutes and fading at 30 minutes and dying of boredom at 40 minutes. Some players will be so passive about it that they’d never bring it up, so you should. Ask not just whether they feel like they’re out too long, but whether they feel like they’re in too briefly, and why. The why is a big deal, here. If it’s “I can’t wait to meet the other PCs,” then you’re not running into this problem, you’ve just got an excited player. If it’s “There’s nothing to do,” then maybe you modify the entertainment out there.
Keeping Time in Synch
Primarily this is an issue only when players are in close physical proximity to each other. I’ve found that, in general, players will take up roughly the same amount of game time as their fellows over the same amount of real time, so making sure that everyone’s at “evening” at the same time isn’t so hard. In the end, you can always fudge it a bit; I rarely give people precise times, instead saying “late afternoon” or “after midnight”.
When players are close to each other, though, you have to be ready that their actions will cause them to bump into each other and, thus, both need to be in at the same time. You’ll have to decide how you want to go with the length of their sittings. I tend to do short sittings and switch between them frequently so that if they’re taking actions that will bring them together, it can happen naturally. This might mean I have player A in for 30ish minutes, then B and C alternating 10 minute sittings until they bump into each other at which point I’d bring A back in for a sitting and then continue on with B and C together. Stewart has a rule of thumb that if two PCs go to the same general location (The Market or The Manor House or The Fighter Repair Facility, etc.), they should probably run into each other. They are, after all, the main characters of this story. Now, if one of them is trying to hide, that’s another story.
The Passive Player
Sometimes, you have a player who isn’t feeling very active. Maybe it’s just this session, maybe they’re habitually this way. Either way, they’ll say things like, “Well, I’ll wait for X.” If the other PCs are still busy and X isn’t going to happen for a long time, they’re going to be gearing up to spend more time out than the other players and there’s really not a lot you can do about that.
If it becomes a problem (the player brings it up, for instance), you can talk about it together. Maybe figure out why they’re not biting at the other interesting plot points you’re dangling. Maybe figure out some plot points to dangle (if you aren’t dangling any for them). If you’re really desperate, you could throw some combat at them, but I’m not a big fan of that solution. It is entirely reasonable to introduce some meta-game considerations to the player in this case by explaining to them that if they are wanting to wait around a lot, that means their PC is spending time doing nothing while the other PCs are doing things, so they’ll be out.
One trick that I discovered recently was to use the rest of their allotted time in to discuss their plans. This is somewhat analogous to scenes in a book that are largely internal dialog of the main character. This serves a couple of benefits: It can help you keep tabs on this player’s goals and understanding of the world, and it can help them organize their own thoughts and options, which might spur them to take some more active course.
I know it’s controversial and in some circumstances I think the in/out method of player management is not ideal. However, I think it’s successful in a lot more circumstances than people use it in. The reasonings are counter intuitive, but the payoff can be great. It can rock. The most.
I wanted to give an example from a campaign, but I realized that the whole beauty of this device is that the reveals don’t seem that significant in themselves. It would take a lot of text to give enough context for an original example to be useful at all. In order to short-cut that, let’s talk about Star Wars.
You know the first time you heard, “I am your father!”? That was awesome, right? You had no idea it was coming. Neither did Luke’s player. Imagine, if you will, that the campaign was super-long-running and Obi-Wan’s player knew because, of course, he was there rescuing the twins and hiding them, etc. If Luke’s player had been sitting in the room learning who his father was (or, rather, had become, I guess), then the reveal moment in Empire would have been much less cool.
Similarly, consider the scenes where Luke and the audience know that Leia is his sister, but Leia and Han do not. Those scenes aren’t particularly great, but if you were Leia’s player who (because she had been out during the scenes where Luke’s player learned of the relation) didn’t know, the scene on the balcony of the Ewok village would have been awesome and tense for you. That’s the kind of rockmost we’re talking about creating between the players.