Photo source: Pigs With Crayons
What’s the most common thing you see in an adventurer’s background? Killed parents? Lived off the land until they decided to adventure? Refugee from a fallen city? Players are incredibly good at giving their characters nothing to latch onto. Perhaps that’s something that they do intentionally, leaving an open road for the GM to put sign posts on. Then again, there’s always the possibility of creative shyness or lack of motivation when creating a character. Giving a character stuff to care about can be rather difficult, especially if the player didn’t lay the foundation of who their character is and what they care about. It becomes even more difficult when you try to string together four or five of these characters to create a campaign.
Of course, to circumvent all of these problems, a session zero seems like a no-brainer. Not everybody does those though, and that’s okay. Session zero is a helpful thing, allowing players to collaboratively create characters and organically string things together. It makes the first role play together way less awkward, taking away the need to probe with random in-character questions to learn about one another. For those people who don’t use a session zero, though, have no fear! A fantastic campaign can be born out of your seemingly random characters, you just have to coax them out of their comfort zones. My home game had started in the same way; I had decided that I wanted to GM and I came up with some silly adventure, telling my friends to make characters and play it with me. It exploded into a campaign that we’re still not done with and has had an intense amount of emotional involvement. For more about session zero, Tribality has written a fantastic article, probably better than I could.
For starters, combat usually doesn’t lead to character development. I use combat as a way for a character to blow off some steam, or at least the unimportant ones. If your game is combat laden and your players have a rather groundless backstory, the game quickly becomes a hack-and-slashfest. Some players like this, but if you’re reading this, then chances are you’re a GM who wants more out of a game. With this, you have two options to make the combats potentially draw out some role play from your group. Start by giving the combat consequences. If you can fight anything and anyone with nobody to answer to afterwards, many players tend to get fearless and destructive just for the sake of it. It’s completely acceptable to say to your players, “This NPC scolding you right now appears to be way out of your league,” to convey that fighting this one isn’t the best idea. A lot of the time, this will sound like a challenge to them, so have some insane stats ready just in case. Make sure your characters can run away once they realize their mistake, and more importantly, make that option readily apparent to them. Hinting at it isn’t always enough, be transparent when things start going far south. Squashing characters for feeling out your world can be a downer for a long term game, though there is something to be said for that kind of play style. Letting them describe their getaway could be a fun role playing experience, or turning it into a skill challenge can force characters to collaborate. At the end of it all, don’t forget that this little squabble has consequences!
Photo Source: Pigs With Crayons
The other type of combat as a way to plant characters’ feet in the world is to make the place/time of it important. This one forces combat to occur infrequently, as you have to lay the foundation with an hour or two of role playing and characters interacting with the world to give the bad guy some weight. If you give them problems that they can’t solve with fire and sword, it’ll force them to start thinking together and finding the strengths/weaknesses of each other’s characters. Those problems work best if they’re political or economical, and give the bad guy some armor, so to speak. The bad guy should be difficult to get to without making a huge fuss out of it. It gives that later combat stakes, especially if the characters are in an urban environment and want to live among society. The struggle to coexist with other people helps them realize they need to depend on their friends. It goes without saying that characters in a party will butt heads every now and again, but it adds to the drama. Usually that happens after they realize they need each other, which makes it all the better.
I could write a whole article on urban villains and how to keep them present but not fightable until the final moments of the campaign. To just plant the seeds:
- Make them important to something bigger than the characters can take on by themselves.
- Force the characters to find an avenue in the story to isolate this person from that something. A political faction, an impenetrable fortress, or simply the villain having long reaching fingers where the PCs have to travel to hunt them down.
Meeting that villain or someone who represents them is crucial. Just make sure that they can’t end it all in that moment…
Overland adventures usually remove the political and social struggles that come with their urban counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that the game has to be combat oriented. A GM can use things like weather and difficult terrain to help characters connect with one another. Combining those aspects with a combat encounter can up the ante, making everything much more dangerous. It’ll give the players a degree of caution amongst them, strengthening their codependency. Eventually, things should take them to some kind of township where characters interact with people outside of their adventuring group, and that’s where you can inject more complex conflicts that exist outside the group.
Believe it or not, all of this is the easy part. The most difficult thing to do is taking your players’ inspiration as they go along and making it relevant to the story. Whenever a player wants to discover something important about their character, they usually search for it. They won’t always tell you why they’re looking for whatever that specific thing may be, but it’s your job to eventually give it to them. At that moment, I prefer to ask the player what that thing is and nebulously describe its importance.
As an example: Crysx in my Ald Sotha campaign found out that he’s actually an Aasimar. His goal is to basically find the last remnants of his people and the reason they disappeared. They’re incredibly rare in our version of the Dragon Empire. As far as he knows, he’s the only one. Wilton (who hasn’t gotten into the recaps yet, sorry!) is a rich friend of theirs that has a huge library. He has one book on Aasimar. I told Crysx’s player, Ben, that he needed to vaguely describe to me a prophetic picture in the book. Rather than me telling him what his character’s destiny may be, I let him come up with something, giving him a shred of investment. Since then, I’ve been doing nothing but brewing over what it could mean, what I think it should mean to create an interesting story, a satisfying end. As we’ve traveled along, I’ve thrown small bits and pieces at him while we’re resolving the main objective of the campaign.
Now do this for every character. See how it can be difficult? You have to have these little pieces of information be littered throughout the environment, urban or otherwise. At the same time, it should be relevant to the main story arc while individually important to the character. Sometimes put them in seemingly insignificant places to add that sense of wonder and mystery to the setting. The most important part about doing this sort of thing is to throw it back at the players. When they have a question that you feel you don’t have the right to take creative control over, throw it back at them. You can find out what the player is thinking for the character, allowing you to further twist it down the road and make it bittersweet. It’ll greatly help put the feet of your players and characters on the same floor.
For best results, apply these concepts liberally to all of your games.
Stay Metal \m/