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The Character-Focused Campaign

Author’s Note: I’ve attempted to tackle this topic before, but I feel like the approach that I took was ineffective. I’m trying again because I feel like it’s an important, foundational piece of the way Ben and I approach role-playing, and also is full of win. Hopefully this will be a more successful endeavor.

There are three components to role-playing campaigns: story, setting, and characters. Most of the medium is dominated by setting-based role-playing. The GM and the players agree on what system they want to run, and that system comes with a pre-built setting. That setting then suggests what sort of characters and stories should result. Traditional D&D is a high fantasy setting laden with monsters and treasure-rich dungeons. The characters will therefore be adventurers, and (most) of the adventures will consist of slaying said monsters and exploring said dungeons. Shadowrun is a cyberpunk setting with magic and hackers where giant corporations run things. The characters will therefore be shadowrunners who work for/against these corporations for money. Star Wars, In Nomine, Vampire the Masquerade, etc all follow this pattern. They provide an interesting world to play in with some obvious built-in role-playing scenarios, and then leave the rest to the players.

A lot of the new Indie games are trying to change this model, focusing less on setting and more on story. The products suggest new and interesting guidelines for how to build and tell the stories, with an emphasis on collaborative storytelling. In both of these structures, however, the characters are kind of an afterthought. That’s not because people don’t like characters, it’s because it’s much more difficult to make the characters the primary emphasis.

I have a friend named Dann, and he was able to come up with a template for campaigns that successfully put the focus on the characters, and allows them to drive the story(consequently, we will often refer to this as a Dann Campaign). This template relies heavily on some of the techniques from The Way We Do Things, particularly the ideas of people being out of the room when their player isn’t present, and campaigns with definitive story arcs and endings.

Making the Characters

In a character-focused campaign, each Player Character should feel like the star of their own movie. The story should be about things that happen to them, and how they respond to it. This is qualitatively different from the traditional, party-based, mission-based approach. The traditional approach is to say “You’re a party of archaeologists on a quest to find the true tomb of Tutankhamen. Go make characters.” The character-based approach is to say “You all live in ancient Babylon. Let’s meet to make characters.”

But wait, you might say, didn’t you just start with the setting? Nothing gets past you, savvy reader. For reasons that will be explained as we go, a character-focused campaign requires a confined setting. One of the goals of this approach is to allow the players as much freedom as possible in what sort of character they wish to play, but some structure is required. Depending on the campaign, the setting may be as specific as a particular pirate ship, or as vague as “the modern world.” After the GM has informed the players of the setting, s/he meets with each of them individually to create their PC. Since the whole story is going to be built around the characters, good PCs are a must, and the PCs must be rich and complicated characters with deep back-stories.

Building the Story

After the PCs have been created, the GM goes and figures out how to work them into the plot. In most cases, the GM already has some sort of vague story in mind, and it’s a matter of figuring out how the events of that story would effect the PCs and draw them in. In other cases, new branches or elements need to be added to involve them.

Example: Bakad

I GMed a campaign set in a somewhat traditional fantasy setting, set in a walled city called Bakad*, that happened to be governed by a vampire named Toruf Tar. The city was near a massive, Roman-style empire, but had up to this point remained independent. The empire had tried to seize it many times, but could not. Bakad was unusual in that it was located on the edge of a vast untamed jungle, and had complicated rules surrounding legal assassinations.

The back-story of the setting (which the PCs did not know) was that long ago Toruf Tar and a gifted doctor competed for the affections of the same woman. The woman chose Toruf Tar, and the doctor decided that he lost because he could not offer eternal life. He devoted his life to this quest, and created two rings that made the wearer cease aging. He gave one of them to the woman who spurned him, but she never wore it (nor did she choose to become a vampire). The other key factoid was that Toruf Tar had two trusted lieutenants, the only other vampires allowed in Bakad, and one of them tried to turn on him a long time ago. They fought, the lieutenant lost, and was thought dead. After many years of hiding, he’s made contact with the emperor and struck a deal – he’ll give the emperor the ring (and eternal life) if the emperor makes him the new ruler of Bakad.

There were four PCs: a bounty hunter with a kid to feed and a job with the mob, a spy who worked for Toruf Tar and was obsessed with becoming a vampire, an assassin who considered killing his art, and a scholastic wizard who specialized in plants and animals.

So how to tie these PCs into the same story? The spy was easy – since he worked for the government of Bakad, he could be sent to investigate things. With the assassin, I used an old favorite; I framed him for murder (in this case, killing without a contract). He inadvertantly killed one of Toruf Tar’s spies in the city, so the spy PC was sent to track him down. Their investigation led them to a wealthy merchant inside the city who was collaborating with the Emperor to overthrow the city.

Tying the mage in was far more difficult. As a scholarly character, he was reclusive by nature, so he didn’t really care what was going on in the city. I started his story by having him learn that his mentor had been brutally murdered, and that he was the inheritor of his possessions. One of the things that he inherited was a key, which was supposed to open a trunk. The trunk, however, was missing. Then I had the bounty hunter go to collect on a debt for the mob that lead him on a quest for the same trunk. As he followed the chain of ownership, every person who had owned it had been murdered in the last week. This lead him to the mage, and eventually led the both of them to the renegade vampire hiding under the city. Eventually, the two pairs of PCs encounter one another and figure out that their stories are related.

The reason that I used this example is the trunk. The trunk, of course, contained the ring, as well as several other possessions of Toruf Tar’s long-dead wife. Though the trunk was just a plot device to obfuscate the ring, it became an object of importance in it’s own right, and the scene where the PCs managed to sneak in and open it was heavy with rockmost. I filled it with several magic items as red herrings to disguise the nature and value of the ring, and the items became cool things for the players to use later (when there’s no plunder or dungeons to raid, any magic item becomes A Big Deal).

When this comes together smoothly, it feels very natural for the players. Their character feels like a well-developed person with their own life, friends, and goals. Something happens to threaten one of those three things, and they are forced to respond. Along the way, they meet some other remarkable people dealing with problems that seem to be related, and they work together to discover the root cause and deal with it. Then, once the problem is solved, they go on their separate ways, hopefully changed by the experience.

Since the various PCs start off singly, and then slowly come together as the story leads them, you need a story structure where various seemingly unrelated things all end up having a common cause. The easiest way to accomplish this is a conspiracy-based plot. That allows the GM to create branches of the larger conspiracy that will reach into the realms that the players inhabit.

Aside: I’m a big fan of mystery-based plots, mostly for the reason that they are hard for players to short-circuit. In quest-based campaigns (retrieve the sword, kill the guy, destroy the ring, save the kingdom, etc), the goal is immediately obvious, but seemingly very difficult. Clever players, however, can come up with solutions that the GM didn’t think of that effectively ruin the campaign (“Why don’t we just have the eagles fly to Mordor and drop the ring in Mt. Doom?”). If, however, they don’t know what’s going on, they are forced to tackle intermediate goals before they can take on the final bad guy.

Since the players will be doing a lot of solo time at the beginning (Ben has written a couple of posts on this topic), and the GM has to create individual stories for each player, it’s important that there be a small number of players. The most that I would attempt is four, and three is really optimal, as it makes for shifting dynamics between the PCs. I would sooner try two (a buddy cop story, for instance) than five.

Putting it All Together

So based on the above, we’ve got the formula for a Character-focused Campaign:

  1. Each Player Character should feel like the star of their own movie
  2. Rich and complicated PCs with deep back-stories
  3. A confined setting
  4. A conspiracy-based plot
  5. A small number of players

This is not to say that this is the only way to execute a character-focused campaign – it’s just the only one that I know of that works. I really like criteria 1, 2, and 5. I feel limited by numbers 3 and 4. The problem is those pieces are deceptively important. Quest-based stories, by their very nature, take a lot of the focus off of the PCs. They become interchangeable cogs in a larger story. Even if your players create really great, interesting characters, most of the decisions being made by the players are the ones necessary to accomplish the quest. Ben and I have talked a lot about trying to tell stories that are neither mystery-based nor quest-based, but they frequently run into the Circular 4th Wall problem.

Similarly, the confined setting is deceptively important. It’s very difficult to tell a story with multiple locations and still allow the PCs to each have their own story. One of the incidental benefits of quest-based role-playing campaigns is that it’s easy to send the PCs from one place to the next. If the PCs don’t start out together, and the characters are making the decisions that drive the story, getting them to go to the next location all at the same time often requires railroading them, or giving them extremely unsubtle hints. One of the real virtues of this campaign structure is that it gives the players a high degree of authorship in the campaign, and any sort of railroading undermines that.


There aren’t very many examples of stories told in other media using this sort of structure, but there are a few. Most of William Gibson’s novels follow this sort of structure, where the story follows three or four seemingly unrelated people who’s stories turn out to be related. In Gibson’s books, the characters don’t usually come together until near the end, whereas the ideal structure for a campaign of this type has the players meeting around the end of Act I (more on campaign structure here).

Another example of a story using this structure is the first season of Heroes. The characters don’t know one another, and are all dealing with their own problems caused by their powers while solving a larger mystery/conspiracy. The big difference, of course, being that the characters are not confined to one geographic location. You can see, however, the devices that the writers use to overcome that limitation. Prophecies, time travel, serendipitous coincidences. It might have been simpler just to start all of the characters in New York City and then have them meet through more organic means.

The third, final, and best example of this structure is LA Confidential. Three cops, with completely different personalities and goals, all pursuing different cases that turn out to be related through a conspiracy. The characters are proactive, taking actions that actively move the story, instead of just reacting to the bad guys. And at the end, each of the characters has been transformed by the experience.

*Ben, our resident linguist, informs me that I should spelled it Bakhad since the accent is on the second syllable.

Categories: The Dann Campaign

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