Mastering as Game Master: Player-Driven Episode.004

For days, you have hunted to find the hidden trail winding up Voldemir, the massive mountain dominating the western portion of the Eastsea Mountains.  The map your uncle gave you marks this general area as the base of the path, but you cannot seem to find it yet.  William, from your childhood, you remember your great grandfather telling stories to you before bedtime of his past adventures.  One of these tales was about Voldemir and how he scaled it by himself to rescue his adventuring companions.  He had mentioned the stone you now possess thanks to the smooth talking of your Bard companion.  Walking along the foothills, the stone begins to glow a dull blue, illuminating brighter as you make your way to what looks to be a very rough game trail.  Your journey up Voldemir begins.

This episode is about knowing the difference between running a game that is player driven and one that is story-driven.  There are tremendously fantastic published modules available that have gone down as the greatest games played in any role playing genre.  They are rich with plot, adventure, intrigue, humor, and mystery, and they demand critical thinking, great role playing, and sometimes lucky dice rolls.  There is nothing wrong with them at all in their own entity.  However, although the GM is the captain of this ship, the players are really the navigators.  And they ultimately determine the destination of the voyage.

When I want to run a campaign that will take longer than 3 or 4 sessions, there is significant prep work that I will do before I even approach the group with the proposal.  It involves writing a “bible” of the campaign setting, thanks to the brilliant suggestion of Wizards of the Coast’s Chris Perkins and his now-archival blog (an absolute must read for GMs).

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(Sketch created by Richard Gaines, known as SuperStinkWarrior @ DevionArt found here.)

The other area I take care of is character creation.  For many, this stage in any campaign is the most exciting.  The idea of starting something new is always enticing to anyone.  The smell of a new car, the feeling of booting up a brand new computer, or even slicing up fresh tomatoes are all appealing because they are new.  So when my players are beginning the initial concept of character creation, I never let them work on it entirely solo.  Otherwise, it can often lead players to having worthless characters, boring characters, or a mix of the two as the campaign progresses.  This is because that campaigns are all different, and they affect the characters created for various reasons.  It may take place almost entirely in urban areas, making traditional druids nearly obsolete.  It could be mostly wilderness exploration, which could render rogues useless.  It’s essential to communicate with the players as much information as possible so they can have a clear imagine of the world.

Character creation should not be something to take lightly.  Those who simply roll some dice, look some stats and equipment up in a book, then say “I’m ready” are not going to really get much out of a campaign because their character isn’t developed.  It’s not a 3D character.  Why does the rogue have a 9 Charisma?  What caused his Constitution to be average at a 10?  Yes, even the attributes can be fuel to writing the background of the character.

The background of any character is the most important part of character creation.  You could really write the background first and then create the statistics based on it if written properly.  Although not everyone is a professional author, everyone can visualize and create in their minds, no matter how creative they think they are.  We all used our imaginations when we were kids; we dreamed of incredible places.  That power is still in our minds, it just has to be tapped properly.

Some general areas of what would help create a solid background: heritage, philosophical ideas, quirks, beliefs, nightmares, traumatic experiences, contacts, physical appearance, medical history, past professions, education, inspirational people or events, hobbies, current or past loves, joyful and sad memories, favorite childhood toy, favorite food.  It is almost as if you could be writing a profile for an online dating service.  The goal is to create someone that looks as genuinely real on paper as possible.  The more real that individual looks to be, the more variety and options the player will have when fitting into the role of the character.

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And all of this is what a GM needs to study and memorize as best as he can before the campaign begins.  As a GM, you should know your players’ character inside and out.  There should be no surprises because when it happens, it usually means that they are going to tip the scales and something will fall greatly into their favor, possibly screwing up your entire adventure.  For example, if you have the party exploring a dungeon and you give the description that you hear the sound of the prisoner to be rescued from the other side of a thick wall (hoping they will continue down to the door you have trapped), then your excitement may be deflated if one of the players has a spell or ability that lets the party walk unharmed through the wall.

Knowing the party will help you develop the story better.  The bard lost his mother on the voyage over to the mainland and was never found?  You can (and should) take that and create a mini-campaign within your main story line involving the bard overhearing the name of his mother at a seedy seaside tavern where he can possibly follow clues to discovering she is alive and well.  It gives the story focus on the character, and it brings them closer in connection with the campaign.  Players feel more like their characters are meaningful when they have such significant impact on the story.  This really can’t be done with modules because those are generic, suitable and well-balanced for any combination of characters.

I take the concept from Chris Perkins again in that each game session, I enjoy spotlighting one of the characters for the evening.  The over-arcing main story line is still there, but this evening, the bard is going to find a captain who remembers a woman by his mother’s name becoming a pirate.  She is living in a cove a day’s journey that happens to be on the way to the hidden monastery the party is searching for.  This is all because the player who is running the bard wrote about his missing mother in his background.  It can be simple such as the cleric finding an arcane spell book that was written by his father whom he never knew dabbled in magic.  But little moments like that will bring the characters closer to the game and story, and their interests will peek.

There are even times when I ask the players what they want in the campaign.  I allow them to mold it a bit such as adding a crazy campaign rule.  I ran a Deadlands campaign years ago where the players wanted the setting to allow automatic weapons from the 20th Century.  That’s what they all wanted.  I’m not suggesting to let the player’s crazy ideas destroy your campaign, but listen to their wishes and interests to make sure you know what kind of side quests and player-driven adventures that will keep their interest.  I’m treading into the next episode here, but knowing the characters and knowing your players follow in a similar path.

Every GM has writer’s block at some point during a lengthy campaign, and utilizing this concept of players driving the story along with their backgrounds can revitalize a GM’s creativity.  When you are sitting at home staring at a blank piece of paper hoping to come up with a great adventure for next week’s session, grab the copy of the character sheets (you did make a copy, right?) and start filtering through them and challenge yourself to find a story hidden among them.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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