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So You Want to Play an RPG?: Building Player Investment

June 4, 2013

Hello new Gamemasters and people reading this because they’re bored!

So already I’ve touched upon some of the more important parts of playing tabletop roleplaying game. Last time, I reflected on the concept of settings, and the many complexities that go into them. Rather than begin a long series on how to build a believable geography or construct cultures from the ground up, I’d like to talk about something a bit more applicable to building a good campaign that will be fun for your players.

Since I’ve spent a lot of times talking in false generalities and dichotomies, I want to talk about the two more common campaign types that you can run. In many ways a campaign can be categorized not by its genre or the characters but by how far the player-characters will be traveling. Look at a book series like Lord of the Rings, in it we travel from the Shire to Mordor and many locations in between with other detours based upon the expanding narrative threads. In that book series we see a lot of Tolkien’s Middle Earth largely because he wanted to show us how awesome he was at building a believable world. The story of those books is constructed to showcase that world. Contrast this with say, the Dresden Files, which while making the occasional foray into other places (particularly in later books) mostly remains centered around the magical goings on in the American city of Chicago. Everything in the books ties back to Chicagoland and explores the nooks and crannies of the city, its suburbs, and the rare bits of nature nearby.

From these two book series we see our two type of general campaigns. On one hand, we have what is occasionally referred to as ‘the Grand Campaign,’ in which the party must traverse all sorts of lands and peoples in search of some sort of overarching goal. On the other is the local game, where the PCs deal with ever growing threats in a specific city or region. They both offer their benefits and drawbacks.

One can easily argue that the Grand Campaign is simply grand. It presents threats that could very well change the face of the world, and the players are the only one who can stop it. The Grand Campaign is certainly never boring, because you’re never in one place for particularly long. A story arc here or there, and episodic adventures in other exotic places. You’re like Indiana Jones riding the red line to awesome locales and thrilling escapeds.

However, by not being in one place, you may lose any sense of grounding. How long will your players really care about some note on their character sheet about all the people they love in their home village if they’re never near their home village?

A campaign based in one region allows the players to build bonds with NPCs, and get a real lay of their land. When things happen or don’t happen, they can immediately notice the effects because they live there. As they grow in power, they can literally become pillars of their community and make decisions that affect people they know (because they’ve taken the time to know them). Every threat can make it feel like there’s just a little more on the line, because what if their favorite blacksmith or brewer dies in this Orc attack?

I don’t bring this up because I’m saying you should run one type of game over the other, but because the local campaign teaches a very important lesson about how to make your campaign have a little more oomph. Your player’s characters, like any non-sociopathic person, need social situations to thrive and in some ways lend credence to what they’re doing. Giving your players a sense of place will give them more opportunities to roleplay and invest more meaning into the campaign. A place where they can rest and interact with other characters who might have opinions on the state of the world, the PC’s adventures, or anything else, will give the party a chance to explore their characters, the world those characters inhabit, and the way people interact in that world.

One of the best examples I can think of for providing a sense of place during a game that requires a lot of travel is Dragon Age: Origins. Say what you will of the game itself, or its sequel, but there was a very neat idea in the concept of the camp. The camp allowed you, the only player character, to interact with the other characters with more depth and occasionally see them interact with each other. In addition, there would be a few NPCs you could talk to, that also offered insights into the world. Was there ever anything as intriguing about a world as the dwarf Sandal who followed your camp in Dragon Age: Origins?

Obviously, this mechanic was just an extension of exploring the Ebon Hawk in Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel. We see a similar mechanic at play in the Mass Effect series as well. All three of these games were about exploring a setting while still providing you with a place where you could unwind, and learn about the world without having to worry about being ambushed by your enemies.

In my own Fantasy Pirate game, which I’ve talked about in To Be A Young Necromancer In Love, I provided a sense of place in two ways. First, the players had their ship, which was essentially their floating home. It was filled with NPCs who took part in the players’ adventures, even if it was just by making sure no one stole the ship while they were away. At least one of these characters became so important to the party, that when he was kidnapped they set off to save him at the first opportunity. Second, while the PCs spent the majority of the game without flying the flag of a particular nation, they generally considered their home port to be the city of Freven, a large haven for criminals and opportunists. When they came to Freven, there were a couple of known NPCs that they could interact with.

This sense of place, and their sense of ownership regarding their ship in particular, gave them a greater stake in what was happening to them. At the same time, this sense of place also allowed them to travel. Traveling let me dedicate whole sessions to world building, by having them visit other cultures and countries. The underground canals of the Dwarves that were filled with the echoing sounds of rowing songs, and the complex honor duels held in stone halls lit by bioluminescent fungi will long be remembered by the party as a cool adventure.

Of course, just because you’re not running a traveling campaign doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly build a world that the party cares about, because if you notice the important thing here isn’t so much the place, as it is the people. You can build models of your world, and make matte paintings that would be the envy of professional set builders, and still have a game that your players have no investment in. What matters isn’t so much the depth of your world, but the depth of the people that inhabit it.

A deep world is merely the well for your player’s characters and the non-player characters to draw from. When you sit down to make an NPC that you want your players to care about, you need to stop and ask yourself what these people care about, what do they believe in, and why? Does someone pray to Pelor because something happened to them that made them believe in that God’s causes, or because that’s simply how they were raised? Do they have national, regional, or racial pride?

Even an Average Joe has hopes and dreams. Or perhaps they had hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled. Imagine for a moment, a Luke Skywalker that never encountered R2D2. He might grow into a lonely mechanic or farmer who had dreams of going out into the world but always chose the responsible path of staying on one more season. How might he react to a group of adventurers showing up on his doorstep or causing trouble in his neck of the woods?

Not every person might believe in something strongly or fervently, and while they might not have a specific reason for everything they do, they generally have a justification for it. I couldn’t do this, because something happened. I was able to do this because of some reason. I hold these values because of these life experiences.

A simple quirk might make a shopkeeper someone the PC’s remember from session to session, but if you want a shopkeeper the PCs will be talking about for campaigns to come, he needs to have more than just quirks. It’s not as if he has to have some hidden life, but he should have a life. Maybe he has a cousin who lives a couple of towns over. If and when the PCs’ visit that town, make sure to have them encounter that cousin. Little things like that can go a long way.

As a closing note, it really doesn’t matter how far your player’s characters are from where they started at the end of a campaign. What matters is that they were able to find a place to call home between where they started and where they finished. It is the connections that will make your world, and your campaign memorable.

Well, that and some kickass adventures.

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