In their defense, they are not wrong about either of their areas of expertise: video games and producing amusing images accompanied by whimsical words. What they are wrong about is roleplaying. This comic and these news posts (the first and third) are the material I’m referring to. Don’t get me wrong, the comic is funny and depicts what I would guess is a pretty common event in the campaign life cycle for some GMs. However, the news posts reflect Tycho and Gabe’s more considered thoughts on the matter of GM burn-out and that is where the trouble starts, really.
GMing is Not Playing
False. Tycho asserts that “adjudication isn’t play any more than cooking is eating.” He’s not wrong strictly speaking, but neither should GMing be simply adjudication, which is his implication. If all we wanted was adjudication, we’d be playing video games. GMing should, ideally, contain a hefty amount of sampling as you cook, as it were. The creativity of world building, of playing NPCs, of constructing events and shepherding the narrative is no less rewarding than all the little creative tasks a player does when playing a character.
I am not saying that GM burn-out is fictitious or that people should just suck it up and keep on. I’m saying that dungeon crawls and XP/loot-centric campaigns are going to be really low on all the stuff that makes GMing rewarding. If the village your players are in is really only a place to keep your quest and equipment vending machines, then administrating those machines can hardly be called “playing”. So avoid campaigns like that and you’ll stave off GM burn-out.
Designed to Take New Players to Level 7
Gabe only mentions this in passing, but this is a big pet peeve of mine that is pretty common. It bothers me that this is even a valid metric for discussing packaged adventures, let alone the fact that it is often treated as one of the most primary metrics (behind the sensible metrics of what-system-is-it-for and what-setting/time-period-is-it-set-in). This kind of thinking is destructive to character focused campaigns.
Gabe also laments, “The Characters are all about level 25 now and I only have a few levels left to wrap this thing up.” He’s let the mechanics of D&D’s leveling system dictate story pacing to him. He clearly feels like he must end his story right around whatever the level cap is (30?). I wouldn’t be surprised if, early on, he felt like he needed to make sure his story was long enough to get the PCs from level 1 to the cap.
My point is that this all sounds like statistics and increasing PC power are at the forefront of the decision-making process. This often means that the PCs are very two-dimensional. If the PCs are two-dimensional, sustaining a rich, interesting world is all the more draining and so it’s easy and tempting to slip into the situation I discussed above.
The Solution is to Take a Break
Breaks are all well and good, but the kind of break Gabe talks about would really worry me; especially so close to the end of a campaign. If you’ve got any sort of normally-shaped narrative going on, you’ll have built up a fair amount of momentum to events. Stopping right before the climax dissipates all that momentum and getting all of you back up to speed and into the same mental place you were before takes a lot of work.
On top of that, Gabe talks about playing another game in the interim. Taking some time off because someone’s on vacation (or has family in town or whatever) is one thing and probably not terrible. Even taking some weeks off and still getting together to play board games isn’t going to destroy your narrative, depending on how you frame it. What is highly disruptive is getting the players to assume new characters, introducing them to a new campaign world and getting them invested in a new story. It just… seems so obviously ruinous to telling a coherent story to me.
The Details Just Aren’t There
I think when Gabe says, “I’ve always had an idea about how I would end it but the details just aren’t there yet and I haven’t really felt inspired,” there are two things worth discussing. The first is that it seems that he, as with many GMs, has some seeds of the ideas that Stewart and I espouse and just hasn’t followed them down the path as far as we have. He’s talking here about planning an ending which, as we’ve said before, is of paramount importance in maintaining a recognizable shape to your story.
The other part, the problem part, is harder to point out. There’s a sort of implication that having an ending in mind is seen as uncommon and another implication that planning that ending is seen as less than important. Or, anyway, less important than I feel like it is. Realizing where your story is going is probably one of the more important details that exist in your campaign. I don’t mean you have to plan out the big epic battle at the end (that’s losing focus again), but how the plot ends, how all the narrative threads get tired up (or left intentionally loose), how each PC changes, or grows or achieves their goal, how you get to the point where everyone that’s marked for death dies.
The Inevitable Caveat
Because this is the internet, I want to close with some clarifications. I don’t, frankly, know what Gabe does at his table. Story is difficult to talk about to people outside your group. Maybe it’s just that he only talks about the crunchy stuff in his posts because of that and, really, the story is foremost in his mind. Additionally, it’s eminently clear that whatever he’s doing is working. Which is to say, he and his friends have been having fun on a regular schedule because of his machinations, which is the most important goal, here, right? Regardless of how much Gabe’s process resembles or doesn’t resemble my own, he’s certainly achieving that main goal.
I am a huge fan of Penny Arcade and I don’t want anyone to think I’m hating on them in some kind of holistic sense or, really, in any sense at all. Rather, I just want to contrast some of the stuff they talk about with the ideas Stewart and I are espousing. They represent what I feel like is the most common case (give or take a bit) which holds many ideas that are contrary to those Stewart and I hold. Even amidst that, though, there are some gems of wisdom. Tycho is right, “you’ve got [to] pace yourself, man.” And, I think, if you’re going to go all out, it’s better to lavish detail on your narrative, your world and the characters inhabiting it, rather than on models of “floating-ass orbs“.
If the server stats are to be believed, there are literally tens of you that are reading the site each week (tens!). To accommodate this influx of new readers, I thought that I’d write up a brief synopsis of the ways that Ben and I run role-playing campaigns, as they are quite different from the traditional method that most people assume as the default.
Firstly, we run campaigns with a distinct beginning and ending, and a clear story arc. After a campaign is completed, we start over in a new setting with new characters. With discrete campaigns, there is less emphasis placed on character improvement, and more emphasis placed on character development. Since developing the characters is a major component of the stories that we try to tell, we spend a lot of time and effort making sure that the player characters are complex and interesting. We try to build a story that fits the characters, rather than characters that fit the story. The goal is for each character to feel like they are the star of the story, and that their stories just happen to overlap. To that end, we allow and even encourage players to have parts of the story that they participate in separately, and if a player’s character is not in the scene, that player is not in the room.
I’m really interested in settings and characters, and most of my posts tend to lean in that direction. Ben is more interested in the craft and tools of GMing, and writes a lot of posts exploring that space. We both have a compulsive habit of thinking about how you would adapt movies and tv shows and books into role-playing campaigns. We usually put up new posts on Tuesday mornings. We’re enjoying writing for the site, and we hope that you’re enjoying reading it.
I’ve linked to most of the articles listed below in the text above, but for your convenience, here’s a handy list of what I think of as the “foundational” articles for the way we do things.
I subscribe to Drive-Thru RPG‘s weekly newsletter. Generally, it has been a way for them to showcase interesting and new products. Recently, they’ve started including some other content to do with roleplaying. Of interest to this post is a column they’re calling “A Better Game”. Because the newsletter is distributed via email, there’s not really a good link to point you at, so I pulled out the relevant article to this page, hosted here at MR for convenience’s sake. Go ahead and give it a read before you go on. They’ve also got this thread going on Facebook, if that’s your thing.
A lot of what Sean says in that post is good stuff, but I felt, as I read it, that there were some underlying assumptions in the post that were going unexamined. Basically, he outlines three problems with the idea of assigning experience points (or Character Points or whatever your system’s currency is for buying character ability) asymmetrically among your players:
- A player who missed a session because of some other commitment has a less capable character and thus less fun.
- A player whose character died restarts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and less fun.
- A new player starts at the same level as the initial character creation and so is less capable and has less fun.
These are all valid points. A character that is significantly underpowered compared to his peers can, except in very carefully controlled circumstances, often lead to a frustrated player. That’s not fun for anyone.
Sean also stresses the cooperative nature of roleplaying several times, saying that the players, “aren’t there to compete or win against each other; they are there to share in the world and story you are presenting for them.” This, too, is true. The most reasonable way to construe of imbalanced character rewards as fair or unfair is if you’re thinking that comparison between characters is framed as a competition.
Sean has the right idea on many fronts, but that last sentiment really illustrates something it seems like he’s missing that Stewart and I feel is of primary importance: a concern with fairness between players and the envisioning of character points or XP as a reward might indicate that you’re thinking about the game too much and not enough about the roleplaying. That might seem like an inflammatory statement to make, but bear with me for a moment, as I examine some of the underlying causes of the things that Sean is worried about.
How did your characters get big discrepancies in points, anyway?
I sort of feel like if your PCs get into a place where they’re at vastly different point totals even though they started at the same total, then there’s probably one of three things going wrong: Your campaign has been going on too long, you’re handing out too may points for incidental stuff or you’ve got a serious attendance problem. I’ll elaborate in reverse order.
If one of my players has something come up, or can’t make it for some reason, we don’t play. I know a lot of GMs just want to play and so they’ll settle for a quorum, but I think that’s destructive to the narrative. In a character-centric campaign, each character is important enough that having them be absent suddenly or uncharacteristically quiet is very disruptive. So we’ll plan to play a different day or, because we play every other week, we’ll push the schedule a week. This can be a bit of a pain, but it maintains consistency at the table.
Also wrapped up in this is the idea that just because we’re roleplaying doesn’t diminish the fact that the evening is a social engagement and you have a social commitment to show up if you said you would. If a player is having a really tough time making my bi-weekly sessions, then maybe my game isn’t for them. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever hang out, or anything. I hadn’t really thought of it until I read Sean’s article, but this also handily avoids the case where one player is missing out on the minimum you-showed-up-and-played point award.
Eliminating that discrepancy essentially leaves incidental rewards; for good roleplaying, for single-handedly doing something awesome, for coming up with the brilliant plan that the PCs execute to wonderful effect. If these kinds of things are quickly leading to some PCs outstripping others then you may be over-rewarding. It’s important to think about why these things earn points: Chiefly it’s because they’re behaviors you want to encourage. So if one of your players consistently gets the good roleplaying Oscar, you might dial it back a bit over time. They get it. Really, these kinds of things should be worth just enough to say, “I see what you did and it was good.” More than that can get you into trouble independent of PC power imbalance: it can quickly lead to PC power creep, which can lead to campaign scope creep. By the time your players can slay a god easily, your plot about saving their home town from goblin barbarians starts to look a little quaint.
The final way I can envision a big discrepancy coming about is if your appropriately little incidental point awards pile up over a long period of time. If you’re running into this problem, you’re probably well into campaign scope creep. It’s a red flag that you missed with your campaign’s narrative arc. It doesn’t mean your campaign is too long, but this is a symptom of long campaigns that has to be carefully managed around and seems like an easy trap to fall into. I don’t plan campaigns to be super long because there are a lot of things that get bent into funny shapes when you draw them out so much, not least of which is the narrative.
Another thing that bears mentioning, though it’s not in my list of three, is something Sean brought up which I hadn’t really considered. He mentions that you might have, “a new player entering an existing campaign, one where the other players have been playing and gaining experience before they arrived.” I read that and thought, “What?!?” I’m so used to thinking of finite-length campaigns that I’d forgotten people did this. I would be very wary of bringing in a player in the middle of an existing campaign. I feel like if you don’t have campaigns ending and beginning frequently enough to bring in new players, that’s another red flag on campaign length. If you’ve built the setting and plot around your existent PCs strongly enough, having PCs come or go for out-of-universe reasons should be really hard to accomplish with any finesse at all.
The system I use
So, you might ask, what is it that I do that’s so awesome it avoids all this? Let me give some context first. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, my system of choice is GURPS, which is a point-based, classless system. A character that is made from 300 points is pretty epic, but unlike most class-based systems, a straight comparison of points doesn’t tell you who’d win in a fight. Those 300 points could mostly be in research and gadget-inventing skills, with no combat skills to speak of. Also of importance is the fact that I hold a play session every other week for 3-4 hours in the evening. So every other session, I do character point awards. You get one for having showed up and played. Everyone gets one if some major plot point was passed. An individual can earn one for good roleplaying or being especially effective, etc. The latter two aren’t very commonly handed out. Over the course of the campaign, the discrepancy in point totals just can’t get that big.
One thing that makes this work is the point-based-ness of the system. It means that they’re spending their points every few reward cycles and the characters improve gradually, rather than all at once. I also require that they justify what they’re spending the points on. If they want to raise a skill, they have to have used it, tried it untrained or at least seen it used in the last few sessions. In a level-based game, where character improvement is much more stair-step, if someone is only a small number of XP ahead of everyone else, it’s entirely possible they’ll gain a level several sessions before the others and have a significant effectiveness advantage. That’s part of why I prefer GURPS, but other point-based systems have this feature, too. Notice, too, that I don’t assign CP for dispatching enemies. That really reinforces the game aspect and side-lines the story-telling aspect of roleplaying.
Intentionally metered growth
There’s an philosophy I have that has been an undercurrent throughout this whole post and it’s that character advancement is overrated. In his article, Sean says, “[improving their character’s stats] is, frankly, one of the most compelling aspects of RPGs for many players.” That may be, but that isn’t the way we do things. In my experience, the protagonists of most fiction don’t increase in power very much over the course of the story unless that’s a central aspect of the story its self. Captain Picard isn’t several levels higher in season seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation than in the pilot episode. Han hasn’t dumped points into his piloting skill between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Aragorn didn’t seem to get in any way more effective or pick up any skills or perks in The Lord of the Rings.
My point is that in most fiction, the characters have a more of less set level of effectiveness and character growth comes from personality shifts. In GURPS, you can switch out Advantages and Disadvantages for other ones to reflect this kind of character growth but you maintain the same point total. And, really, you don’t need a system to mediate this kind of growth if you don’t want (I just happen to find it helpful). So rather than starting your PCs at level 1 and working their way up to the really cool adventures, why not start them at level 12 and get straight to the awesome stuff? Admittedly, this is another thing that works better, I think, in a level-less system.
So where did Sean go wrong?
As I stated in the introduction, Sean isn’t really wrong. He has an admirable goal and the right idea: promote cooperativeness. This isn’t a competition. But the problems introduced by imbalanced PCs aren’t symptoms of giving out asymmetrical awards. They’re symptoms of not emphasizing the narrative structure of the campaign enough, of not focusing on the characters as central and basically of over-focusing on the game aspects of roleplaying. If you keep the story in mind as the primary concern and the PCs as of primary importance to the story, the actions that make most sense to serve that also dissipate the imbalanced PCs problem.
Before I let you go, I do want to say that Sean’s audience is probably very different from ours at MR. He’s not in the business of evangelizing a certain (less common) way of running a campaign; he’s trying to give advice that can be used by the most people. I don’t want it to seem like I’m hating on Sean at all. I just thought it was another great example of why Stewart and I think the way we do things is best.
Most packaged role-playing systems come with their own setting to play in. If you’re a GM that likes to use those sort of settings, this post isn’t aimed at you. But for those of us out there that enjoy building worlds from whole cloth, I’ve found, through trial and error, some criteria for what makes a good setting for an RPG. “Setting,” in this context, is a broadly inclusive word. I don’t just mean the place itself, but also the nations, cultures, laws, and notable personas that inhabit it.
The potential for good PCs
This is always my first litmus test. If I can’t come up with at least four playable PCs off the top of my head, then it’s a no-go. If, for instance, I was considering a campaign where the PCs were pirates off the Spanish main, what are the possible PCs? The captain, dashing and well-rounded. A first mate in the bruiser/enforcer mode. Um… a rich noble’s son who ran away and became a pirate. And… and… I dunno. A native? A freed slave? What makes those characters fun aside from their nationalities? What if nobody wants to play the native? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the pirate campaign.
The first question you have to ask yourself as a GM is how varied you want the abilities of the PCs to be. Most of the pre-built settings assume a wide variety of character archetypes in a single party. A thief, a cleric, a wizard, and a paladin. A street samurai, a hacker, and a shaman. Vampires of clan Ventrue, Malchavian, and Tremere. These archetypes are defined by their special characteristics and abilities and give the player a roadmap for their character.
There are, however, campaign settings where this is not the case. If you’re running a military special ops campaign, your PCs are all going to have the same core skills and abilities, with minor variations to set them apart. They all have skill with guns and tactics and hand-to-hand combat and so on, but one guy is the explosives expert, one’s the sniper, one’s the machine-gunner and so on. If you’re okay with having PCs with small differences in capabilities, you have a lot more leeway in terms of settings.
I really enjoy having parties where all of the PCs bring vastly different skills to the table, so I try to find settings where different flavors of adventurer are playable. The important thing here isn’t just that there are character options, but that there are fun character options that your players will want to play without feeling shoehorned.
Something that captures the players’ imaginations
What makes this setting interesting for the players? If it’s a campaign set in space, how is it different from the existing, established space settings? If it’s a fantasy setting, what makes it unique? Does it have some unusual magic system, or a strange geography, or unusual fantasy races and monsters? You want something that makes your players think “Yeah, that would be a cool world to inhabit for a while.” It’s important to keep in mind that whatever hooks you provide will be the ones that players gravitate towards when they make their characters.
I’ve touched on this setting before in a previous post, but it also serves well here. Bakad was a fantasy campaign set in a city by the same name. The setting had five sentient races, none of which were humans.* The races were the Niall, an artistic, nimble, monkey-like people; Goblins (in the GURPS model, which means smart, social, and sneaky); the Kzin, ferocious cat people stolen straight from Larry Niven; the Inari, a race of cerebral and emotionally detached flying reptiles (stolen from GURPS Aliens), and the Fantir, a peaceful race of minotaur-esque creatures that tended to be builders.
The other tidbits that I passed along to the PCs before they built their characters: the city borders on a giant jungle full of dangerous flora and fauna. It is ruled by a vampire (a Fantir), and he has two lieutentants (a Goblin and a Kzin). No other vampires are allowed in the city. There is a tower where most of the magi live and study. Assassination is legal, as long as the proper paperwork is filed and the proper practices observed. Some Kzin have extraordinary senses of smell that let them track people.
So what PCs did the players make? One was a Goblin who worked for the vampires who ruled the city, and wanted to become a vampire himself. One was an Inari mage who studied the wildlife in the jungle. One was a Niall assassin that treated murder as an art form. And the fourth PC was a Kzin bounty hunter who tracked people with his amazing sense of smell. Nobody chose to play one of the peaceful minotaur guys – they seemed boring. Instead, they latched on to all of the things that I had provided to give the setting flavor.
For a less positive example, Star Wars is pretty standard space fantasy, but with Jedi. When people engage in RPGs in the Star Wars universe, most of them want to play Jedi. As a distant second, they want to play a bounty hunter. And if they can’t do that, they want to be a smuggler who owns his own ship. Probably a Wookie. Why are these the only archetypes that people gravitate towards? Because those are the only interesting things about the setting. Jedis, Wookies, smugglers, and bounty hunters are cool. Nobody wants to play C3PO, or an Eewok. If, however, there were a new branch of the army consisting of Vader-style cyborgs with built-in weapons and enhanced strength, then somebody would probably try that (they’d probably still want to be a Wookie). Or you could introduce a clan of secret ninja assassins that knew how to make themselves invisible to the force, and used low-tech weapons instead of blasters. Anything that you add that seems new and cool will excite the players, and give them ideas for characters.
The setting for a campaign governs what is possible and/or desirable for the players to accomplish. When you’re making your own setting, it’s important to think about what sort of things you want to have happen, and particularly what things you don’t want to have happen.
For instance, the first real GURPS campaign that I GMed was set on a polynesian island. GURPS combat, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is pretty realistic, and consequently significantly more lethal than standard RPGs. I was really worried that one of my PCs was going to get into a fight and die, particularly in a setting with no armor. So I created rigid social rules about how combat was handled, and what weapons were allowed. The rules stipulated a list of weapons, but it just as easily could have read “nothing that cuts or impales.” Blunt weapons could still be quite damaging, but they weren’t likely to kill someone before they had the opportunity to surrender.
The standard RPG systems also have these sorts of constraints built in, but they tend to be subtler. The original D&D strove to be clean, classic high fantasy. One of the ways that they accomplished that was by constraining what weapons, armor, and abilities each class could use. Mages can’t use swords or axes, clerics can only use blunt weapons, fighters can’t climb walls, and so on. Vampire: the Masquerade wants its action to be shadowy and full of intrigue, instead of gun battles between vampires in the middle of crowded shopping malls. So they created the Masquerade, a feature of the setting that constrains PCs from doing things that would expose themselves as vampires.
So let’s say that you have a particularly bloodthirsty player in your group, and he’s ruining everybody’s fun. They all like him, and nobody wants to kick him out, but something has to change. You, as the GM, could force him to play some sort of pacifistic PC. But that’s just going to ruin his fun – making people play against their own nature never works. You could, instead, build some constraints into the setting that make it undesirable for him to act that way. If it’s a fantasy setting, the Gods are real, they are active, and they are watching closely. If you kill an innocent, they will sweep down from the heavens and dole out some harsh punishment. If it’s a sci-fi setting, perhaps everyone is wired with special chips that shock you when you commit a felony. As the GM, you have a lot of dials at your disposal to tune the players’ experience.
I’m fascinated by the apocalypse. I thought that it would really fun to play a campaign where the players were apocalypse survivors who were just beginning to rebuild, and then their home is destroyed, forcing them out into the world. I fleshed out the setting, worked with the players to build PCs, figured out what was going on in the world at large, and was all ready to start… when I realized that this thing was just too big. I had no idea where the players were going to go, or what they might choose to do. I wouldn’t have time to prepare for all of the possibilities, and while I’m good at improvising, it would begin to show quickly.
Also, I didn’t really know what was possible. If one of the PCs tried to rig a radio to work based on a ton of old car batteries, would it work? What if they went to a library and looked up how to make gunpowder? I didn’t want that. How was I going to stop it? Was I going to burn every library? What if they came up with a clever way to refine gasoline and get the cars running again? I don’t know anything about cars. Nothing ruins an experience for a player faster than being told “You can’t do that. Why? Umm… I don’t know. You just can’t.” I called off the campaign.
Similarly, I’ve always thought it would be cool to play in a setting where magic replaced technology. The world had modern-era levels of convenience, but using magic instead of science. So the elevators had built-in levitation spells, and everybody carried communicators that worked like cell phones and so on. Something about it captured my imagination. So then what makes that setting interesting? Why, the magic, of course. The players would be drawn to playing wizards that could tamper with the powers that drove all of the technology. Did I really want to have to figure out and then explain how the magic communicators worked in enough detail that they could manipulate them? Nope. Too big, too complicated (at least for me).
This seems really obvious, but it’s not. A lot of times the settings that capture the mind of a GM are not actually fun places for a character to inhabit. “Predator” is a kickass movie. The jungle terrain is interesting and cool. It’s main characters closely resemble a party of PCs in the special forces model described above. It has a lot of Rockmost moments. But at it’s heart, it’s a story about competent, skilled, well-armed soldiers getting stalked and killed by something better and stronger than them. Would that be fun for the players?
This is a common pitfall when people stray from the standard role-playing fare. The classic model of an eclectic group of talented individuals on a quest to kill a monster/save a princess/find a treasure works really well. When GMs get tired of that model, however, it’s common to go in the opposite direction – “you’re all peace corps workers in Liberia, trying to provide clean drinking water in spite of warlords and a corrupt government.” It sounds cool and different, but is it fun?
Ever since Ben introduced me to the idea of Rockmost, I’ve reworked my thinking on this a little bit. When I consider a setting, I think “what are the potential rockmost moments for this setting?” If the setting is a space station mining colony, what are the coolest, most rock awesome things that could happen there? They could shoot a hole through the hull and have to deal with sealing the breach. That’s kind of cool. They could have a battle outside the station in spacesuits. Also kind of cool. They could have space sleds that haul the ore back and forth from the asteroids, and have a fight on those. In spacesuits. Using laser drills as weapons. That sounds pretty sweet. But if that’s the best possible scene for the setting, it’s probably not good enough. You can either add some more things that make it more fun (Aliens-style power loaders, weird bio-enhancements for the miners, etc) or you can scratch that idea and come up with something else. Ultimately, the guideline for how to choose a setting is the same as everything else: “What would rock most?”
*I highly recommend trying a fantasy setting with no humans, as it puts the emphasis on the fantasy races and forces the races to more than just stereotypes. It is, however, more difficult for the GM, as every random NPC that they encounter can’t/shouldn’t just be some default race.
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.
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:
- Each Player Character should feel like the star of their own movie
- Rich and complicated PCs with deep back-stories
- A confined setting
- A conspiracy-based plot
- 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.
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.