Stories with Meaning

There are a lot of sources of inspiration out there for DM’s. Knowing what makes for a fun adventure is often a matter of experience, but being able to create an adventure or campaign with a meaningful plot or message can often be difficult when there is the ever-present challenge of making a balanced and sufficiently challenging encounter. And in order to create a believable world, in which characters do more than simply hack and slash, some study and research will always be needed. In fact, to create the most effective game world possible, as much effort could be required as penning a novel.

Penning a novel, however, need not be done from scratch – authors do tend to have a “toolbox” of useful story elements handy to make their jobs easier. This toolbox can be filled with ideas from anywhere – the works of other authors, things the author saw in the news – anything can do, although generally, the best ideas are the ones people can relate to the most. And though recognizing a useful idea may require an act of intuition on the part of the author, its effectiveness can be immediately judged by the reactions of other people. Take, for example, the earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile recently. As a DM, you might introduce an earthquake to a populated city of Tolkien-inspired Dwarves, for example. Certainly a civilization that digs its homes into mountains would be heavily hit by an earthquake.

The key to making this event believable is to judge people’s reactions to the actual event – there will always be crime and disorder in the aftermath of such a disaster, but there will also be people willing to help, and authorities will be compelled to try and restore order. An event in your game world like this offers many options for the party – will they assist the authorities in trying to restore order? Will they provide assistance to the victims? Will they attempt to profit from the desperate survivors? Will they work to prevent the authorities from regaining control? A whole campaign can be created just on the options presented by these moral dilemmas. And by simulating the behavior of survivors of real natural disasters, your fictional survivors can lend the situation a much greater sense of urgency, and valuable opportunities for your characters to play their roles – a character who seeks to do good would be compelled to lend aid, and be horrified to learn of any profiteering. The most meaningful stories are ones that people can relate the most to, and providing an opportunity for a person who is naturally good to see real injustice (though simulated) and actively combat it will go a long way towards giving that person an attachment to his/her character and the game world as a whole.

Heavy moral decisions are a quick way to engage players and create immersion by forcing them to have their own emotional responses and interactions with one another, but it isn’t the only way to create immersion, and it may not be sufficient for a great experience. The morals and ethics of your players’ characters, is a huge part of the game, but they must have a connection to the world too. DM’s traditionally task the characters with quests, and offer rewards for their completion as an incentive. This scheme works for shallow worlds where the game mechanics are what takes center stage, but ultimately it is shallow all around, because the game mechanics exist to simulate reality, even if it is a heavily altered, magical reality. If the mechanics are all the players have to simulate reality with, then it stands to reason that these mechanics are the group’s primary, perhaps even the only, connection to this alternate reality. If you want the world outside of the battlefield to matter, then, the players should have some way of interacting with it that is simulated by different mechanics. By far the most common way this would occur is through the economy. This doesn’t mean that you should have to create a working economy, but it does require the illusion that there is one that they could interact with, if they had reason to.

One way to manage that illusion is to make them a part of it – they should have jobs! This makes sense from an immersion standpoint, and only makes more sense the more one critiques the idea of an “adventurer.” Though it makes sense to abstract their income and expenses (due to the tedium that would be involved), they should exist – players need clothes, food, water, and a roof over their heads at least, so why shouldn’t their characters? Although it does place more of a burden on the DM to manage these expenses versus the income from their jobs or “adventures,” it pays off not just in giving characters a stronger connection to the world, but allows characters to have real justifications for more real actions. After all, a character who needs money simply to stave off starvation can understand the extreme importance of money without coming off as greedy, and a shady character can seem much more human if he/she will need the money for more than just shiny new armor and weapons, or yet another ritual scroll.

Having a place (one that is not clichéd) in the order of your world, and giving players the opportunity to try out their characters’ moral compasses is almost everything you need. You don’t need to create an entire world to do this, either, as in both cases, cues can be taken from the real world as to the kinds of jobs that would subject characters to combat on a regular basis, and the kinds of events that would require players to decide their courses of action carefully. The finishing touches on your world must fill in the last remaining blanks – now that you’ve created a world that is both ordered and changing, you must populate it! This is another case where looking to the real world for cues is by far the best option. If you took the descriptions of “races” from a common player’s guide, you’d get the impression that all members of each of these races adhered to one set of personality traits and traditions, which is absurd. If you decide to keep your game world’s races or player species distinct, it had better be because they haven’t had any contact with one another. A look at world history is a look at the mixing and moving of people, and the ethnicity of a character should be second to the culture in which he/she was raised, which should itself be second to the player’s decisions regarding the character’s personality, ethics, and morals. Basically, character race, and perhaps even “class,” depending on what that word means in your setting, should be superficial. If you want to have race or ethnicity distinct for each civilization or entity, there are two mistakes not to make – don’t go with the clichéd stereotypes like the stout dwarves, floaty elves, savage orcs, or anything like that. Moreover, don’t give them stereotypes of any kind – instead give them cultures. A kingdom of dwarves might have a Russian sort of culture, but they could just as easily have an Arabic one – it may actually make more sense, given the popular connotations of repression of women, and the dearth of dwarven women in popular fantasy stories. What attaching a culture to a civilization is meant to do is not to make all the NPCs or player characters try to live up to the popular stereotype of that culture, but rather to allow the player to fill in the gaps of the world with his/her own ideas about what people in the culture do with their time – culture doesn’t describe people’s personalities as it does describe things like popular food, music, architecture, literature, philosophy, and politics. This is not a paradigm in which characters must fit, then, but a phenomenon to which characters can react during the time they are exposed to it.

That’s what it comes down to – the world doesn’t have to be realistic, as long as people in it can respond to the world realistically. That’s what makes a fantasy setting worth creating in the first place – if the people in it are simply caricatures, what is its relevance? It may be that you’re simply trying to have a fun time playing with the new mechanics of a game, and all this seems unnecessary to the experience. While that may be right, that isn’t a role-playing game, and a game consisting solely of mechanics is better handled by a computer. Good literature describes something about the human condition, whether it be fantasy, science fiction, or drama. There is no reason to expect that a campaign can’t be just as effective for the same reasons.

[tags]role playing games, rpg, literature, geek, world building[/tags]

One thought on “Stories with Meaning

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  1. I also love to write. Since childhood I have been interested in writing, and after teenagers, I learn more to pursue my interests and talents. I usually pour all my feelings into my writing. I get inspired to write from my surroundings and nature, because I think this inspiration is very real and everyone must ever experience it.


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