For far too many games, as both player and GM, I have found myself in one of two dreadful scenarios. Most often a game is so tightly bound to a plot line that any deviation is brushed under the table to make way for The Plot to push and shove me along into the next scene. In the other possibility I find myself in a world so grand and so wide that I am left to explore and find my own plot hooks but the GM fails to spin these into believable or dramatic adventures.
My hope is to see more games (and run more games!) that can better blend the two. Is it too much to ask for freedom and a great story? I intend this article, and perhaps others to follow, to help me realize what aspects of my games have accomplished this, and I can pass those realizations to others.
The Truth is Only an Illusion
The truth is that no matter how much I want to run a game allowing my players to do anything they’d like to while at the same time advancing the story I want to tell, this is hardly realistic. I think the trick is to lead by the hand, not by the earlobe. Players need to feel like the choices are decided by them, not for them. Every NPC ally, every mission, and every monster killed should not be thrust upon the party, but instead should be a choice the players are allowed to make. Odds are unlikely that the players are going to turn down the wealthy landowner’s plea to save his daughter. The simple act of letting even one player give voice to accepting the mission can mean a lot. Now it is a charge he has chosen for himself, and that is going to be important as the journey stretches on and fatigue may set in for player and character alike.
The obvious question becomes, how can you pull this off? Certainly not a simple answer, the reality is that every GM, player, and character that player may have, is going to need to be drawn in a different way. For the purposes of this article, I think it’s more fruitful to consider the fantasy game party dynamic as an example. I’ve played and even run sessions in several games where the adventure begins with something along the lines of, “You are travelling North from Startington, where Lord Nobodycares sent you on a mission to investigate Mountainmine, a place where his workers have been mysteriously disappearing!” Not only is this poor use of cliché, which is something I’d like to write on later, but the players are given neither hook, nor emotional investment to rope them in. Instead, the first step as GM should be to establish the characters as part of this world. Nobody is born as a 20 year old adventurer with silver armor and a claymore, but for some reason games always begin at that point. Why not step it back just a half-step to weave them into the story?
Perhaps you have a Dwarven warrior who has spent special points to make sure his character is the best stonesmith he can be at level 1; I say reward that. Let’s have him contracted from the start of the game to build foundations for the homes in Startington. He depends on the stone from those mines to get his work done, and has noticed in the last couple of weeks that supply has been thin. The party’s Half-Elf mage might be visiting her human heritage brother, who happens to work in the mines, and suddenly he has gone missing. From here you can start playing with your level of depth on the hook. The aforementioned Lord Nobodycares might put out a call for heroes, or for a less cliché aproach, you can drop the hint that the townsfolk have grown very concerned and a town hall meeting has been called. At the meeting an irate citizen demands that someone step up and put an end to the town’s suffering, and what good heroes (with a little something personal at stake) wouldn’t offer to help?
This same technique can be carried on into other adventures, now with the added benefit of actually role playing the character investment. You can bring in recurring NPCs met on previous adventures that later get into a bit of trouble, merchants whom the characters have formed good relationships with might spread rumors of treasure troves, or perhaps the mine flourishes, once more opening caravan routes to new cities where adventures can bloom with a realistic connection.
The point of it all is that the players took it on themselves to step into the fray. You haven’t just told them they need to fight evil and save the day, you made them heroes, but in truth you knew they would be all along. Choice is an illusion, and it can go far deeper than the example listed above. Hopefully this is a good starter to get you going.
I’d like to do more articles on this greater concept; the task of building a believable world and telling a story within it. I think there is a great deal to be said about Tone, Theme, Continuity, NPC Relationships, Equipment, Time Use, and the benefit of Subtle Cliché. It is important to note that not one sentence of what was said above or below will apply to every game or gamer. Blogs cannot tell you what experience can, but my goal is to shed some light on what may otherwise be missed. A little freedom goes a long way in keeping players interested.
Lastly, I’d like to leave you with some DOs and DON’Ts on the matter:
DO allow players to say no to your plot.
DON’T let your plot end just because players turned it down. Let them feel the weight of the choice and all its consequences.
DO give a little personality to NPCs, even if they have nothing to do with the plot.
DON’T write-off potential player interactions with lesser NPCs because you are too excited or distracted by the “important characters” in your own story.
DO let players explore characters and places beyond your story.
DON’T let players waste time if there really is nothing to be found.
DO go against the mold sometimes, even if the above is your norm. Maybe one adventure in a campaign should find the players forced into a choice they wouldn’t necessarily make for themselves, just to make them appreciate the times they do get to choose.
[tags]Game Mastering, rpg, role playing, games[/tags]