Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Emotional Investment in Character & Story

In addition to keeping the holiday fires burning for my family, I’ve been playing a bit of Skyrim and reading and thinking about role-playing. There was an interesting post on Bethesda Softworks’ (creators of Skyrim) forums that talked about the failings of the writers of the game. It was pretty well thought out, but I couldn’t help but feel that the poster may have missed the intent of the game designers.

Like some tabletop RPGs where the GM is creating a world as a canvas on which the players can “paint” their stories, Skyrim is a sandbox-style game. The NPCs and events of the world, taken on their own, are somewhat flat. As various posters in the thread above noted, there are many examples of games where some player choice is sacrificed in favor of a more compelling story (as determined by the writers of the game.) But, in true sandbox style, it is up to players to discover what compels them in Skyrim.

This is the approach I’ve tried to take with my tabletop game as well. By having my players create some background information, and noting how they interact with and influence NPCs, I’m able to get a read on what they value in their characters, and in the story. The stuff they’re emotionally invested in. Of course this is much easier to do in a tabletop game than in a CRPG. But I think it’s one of the keys to a successful campaign.

Jared von Hindman, who writes for WotC in various forms recently posted an article on character development, and some of the differences and connections between the game-mechanical aspects of characters, and the emotional investment in story I’m talking about here.
There your characters are, living out a story, which is presented by the DM. Yet those characters are living out a story that, if TVTropes has taught us anything, often follows certain narrative imperatives. Stories have power. A story told enough times can reshape the world. Your adventuring party is creating a story, touching elements of older, darker stories that they might never see the end of because that's not their story.
— Jared von Hindman
As a GM, I’m creating stories in my campaign that are independent of the characters, yet may be influenced by them. Oftentimes, as von Hindman says, there is a certain narrative imperative to the story that creates an informal agreement between players and GMs, and the campaign will, for a time, follow a certain path. This is, to some extent, a matter of convenience for both players and GMs. We have a limited time in which to play, and a certain amount of narrative imperative keeps the game in a context that provides the illusion of full freedom of choice within a realm that is manageable by a GM (who most likely has a job, family, and other commitments that need attention.)

Ultimately though, what will make the campaign work is the emotional investment of players in their characters, their characters’ stories, and in the stories of those around them. Balancing this with game mechanics, the dynamics of individual game sessions (influenced by factors like attendance, distractions, and player capabilities, to name just a few), and maintaining a sense of continuity, is what keeps the campaign juggling-act such a challenge.

So that’s my goal for 2012. To see if I can engineer a successful combination of these factors, in hopes that they’ll foster a greater emotional involvement for my players in both their characters and in the campaign. If you have any suggestions on how I might be better able to do that, or if you think I should try another direction entirely, please let me know!


  1. You've mentioned Mouse Guard, and I think they do a great job in that respect in making players come up with a personal goal and rewarding them for fulfilling it.

    I think rewarding players is probably a good way to do it. Fate does the same thing with fate points awarded when you invoke a negative aspect. So why not give people bonus chips. Say "ok, you give me some background that I can use in a story, and I will give you 3 (or however many) bonus rolls you can spend at any time. Fail a check? Use one to re-roll it. Or use it to add a bonus on damage.

    My Hero GM has asked me about this kind of stuff, and I haven't done it. Not because I don't like it, but because I'm lazy :-). Give people a tangible short term bonus, and they might take the time to give you fodder to work with

  2. I like Bennies in Savage Worlds for rewarding players. I think it is something that gives players a smile and a sense of accomplishment. I tend to hand out bennies for even good funny jokes or pointing out a mistake that I made (without it turning into a debate and rules lawyering).

    The thing about FATE points is they are rewarding because you are playing into a potentially risky situation. In the Dresden Files RPG death can come at any minute because you are not a super human (like D&D). So by taking that risk and "playing your character" you gain a reward. In a system like D&D it's harder for those points to mean more since there is so much more at your disposal for survival.

    For D&D a Action Point system like Eberron (3.5) or what's in place for 4e or a Benny system has worked better for me.

  3. On a totally unrelated and sappy note...happy new year to you, Keith, and all your readers! To a future filled with boundless courage, steady resilience, forgiveness of others and continued growth in all your endeavors!


    And on a side note....

  4. Thanks you guys!

    The give and take of gaming is what makes it fun for me. Without players bringing their ideas and aspirations to the table, it is pointless. Thanks for all your contributions!