When running a campaign for my players, one of the things that I always aspire to achieve is honest to goodness character progression on the part of the PCs – not the levels, feats or experience points, but the fundamental shift in who the characters are at the conclusion of the adventure. As a GameMaster, it’s one of the things I use to decide if the campaign was a success or a failure. Did it change how the players viewed the characters they created at the outset? or did it merely scroll by sideways while they beat down enemies and grabbed power ups like in Super Mario Bros.?
It can be a difficult thing to pull off, because you aren’t simply telling the players a story like with a book or a movie. Your tale is a collaborative one, shaped as much by the players as by you. Sure, the core events remain intact: they save the princess, they drop the One Ring into the fire, whatever the case may be; But how profoundly the story impacts the characters (and by extension the players) ultimately comes down to two things:
- How invested the players are in portraying their characters.
- How invested you are in making your PCs into Bagginses
Once upon a time, a GameMaster was running a campaign for a group of players. He had worked very hard each week, spending considerable amounts of time preparing so that every single session was as immersive an experience as he could manage. All of his NPCs had descriptions, with performed voices and mannerisms to match. Every location was unique, well described and distinguishable. Some might even say he had gone too far, as the campaign he had originally said should last around four months was already in its eighth session and had barely scratched the surface of his plot.
Despite this unintentionally protracted time table, all was well and the players were enjoying the fruits of his work. He knew this to be true because he had solicited their feedback at the end of each of the previous seven game sessions. On this night, the PCs would be investigating an inn that was rumored to be haunted after murders had taken place within. As the troupe moved through the city, he turned to one player in particular and said “As the party moves through the city streets toward the inn, you see a face pass by in the crowd that you immediately recognize… it’s Alison.”
The player cocked his head to one side and responded, clearly confused “Who?”
Whenever I run a campaign for my troupe, I like to sprinkle in companions from time to time – NPCs who will help the players during their mission, or journey with them for a while. Some GameMasters do this because they want to also be a player in the story they’ve envisioned, others do it because they want to put some sort of safety valve into their game to keep things from going too far off track. I do it because I believe it feels cinematic and helps bring the setting to life.
So of course, my players give me as much grief as they can whenever one of these companions fails to live up to their potential. Maybe the dice were against them and they couldn’t land a single attack. Maybe in my focus to keep the game moving, I forgot about them for a scene or two, or a few rounds of combat and they effectively stood there and did nothing when the party needed them. Maybe their name just sounded funny to the players and became a source of ridicule… Whatever the issue, these dud characters are always the ones the group seems to remember forever.
The players look to one another with expressions of uncertainty and bewilderment, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders as the GameMaster watches silently, expectantly. Character sheets are skimmed front and back, and one hopeful player pages through notes in a futile effort to find something, anything that will help. Seconds continue to tick by, the obvious tension in the room mounting with each one. Finally, someone cracks and admits defeat: “I,.. I don’t know man… what was that shopkeep’s name?”
Not every challenge players face in a campaign is related to the rules, or even the actual events taking place in-game. Sometimes, the hard part is remembering some small detail that suddenly becomes important, or reading between the lines of an NPC’s dialogue because what wasn’t said is every bit as crucial as what was. It’s the kind of thing that rules systems rarely cover because it exists outside the scope of the game proper. It’s a lot like when a character in a movie breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, it happened, but not in terms of the narrative of the story.
As a GameMaster, this is the sort of challenge I like to construct for my group from time to time. I like the idea that it’s purely for the players, and that nothing on their precious character sheets will help them. Usually, the only challenges that reach this sort of “fourth wall” area are riddles – but why limit yourself?
Everybody screws up from time to time. Outside of the proverbial ‘death and taxes’, it’s quite possibly the only guarantee we have for humanity. In terms of the shared reality that is a roleplaying game, the screw ups are generally with respects to the rules. Newer players might misremember the rules due to their fledgling status. Veteran players might do the same because they’ve played too many different systems and have gotten their wires crossed here and there.
GameMasters tend to screw up because they’ve got twelve things going on all at once and they don’t want to slow the pace of the game by thumbing through the books – and none of this even scratches the surface of intentional rules “mishaps” (a cheating player, fudged GM dice rolls, etc..). Ideally these rules blunders are caught when they happen, but oftentimes they aren’t. Myself, I tend to catch them between sessions when I’m evaluating how the players stomped my latest boss far easier than I had planned for…
If there’s one thing that players can’t stand, it’s being railroaded through a campaign (or portions of one). The concept of player choice means little when there is only one option available, and as the GameMaster you can pretty much forget about the group having any real investment in their characters, or any genuine excitement about what’s going on in the game. Once the rails have been spotted and the track identified – the only thing you can count on for sure is the players to politely go through the motions until your predictable plot runs its course.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You have a story you’re trying to tell, and certain events need to transpire in order to get the Party to the grand finale.