In our last post we talked about how, when writing a roleplay campaign, a character-centric story is better than a plot-centric story. Today, we want to address the natural follow-up question: if a story needs structure (the plot), how do we build the plot if it's character-centric?
There are a lot of ways that a story can go wrong from a plot perspective (Hollywood has a lot of good examples of this), and we will address content you might use for your plot in a future post. This post will give you thoughts on how to craft a good story arc for the characters in your campaign generally as you start putting thoughts to paper.
1. The Campaign Should Have a Point
Perhaps the most important thing in a roleplay campaign is that the actions of the party have to have a point. Why are adventurers being hired for this job? Doesn't the man hiring them have servants who can do the task? Why bring in adventurers (who are more expensive and less trustworthy generally than your personal guard)?
This deals with the question of importance. Why is it important for the party to take this job? In The Magnificent Seven, for example, the party of seven gunslingers is the only group willing to stand up to the raiders. In Indiana Jones, Jones and his small band are the only ones who can decipher the clues before the Nazis attain their goals (or Soviets, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Their actions have importance, and more than that, uniqueness.
In the campaign I'm designing, I'm writing a tragedy (more on genre selection in our next post!) where the local lord is not strong enough to save his people - he needs help from the outside, and that comes in the form of 3-5 adventurers.
And this needs to be constantly reiterated during the campaign: no one else who can do this task, so the task falls to the party. And this leads us to another critical observation.
2. Victory Should Be Attainable
If the party is being hired or sent on a quest intentionally, victory should be attainable. My school of thought for game mastering says that sadism isn't an option: we're not here to make the party suffer just to "see how much they can take."
So it's important at the outset to define "victory" for your campaign. In the campaigns I've designed previously, "victory" was setting the world to right (in a way that only the party could fix, hence importance) and living happily ever after (or at least until the next installment in the saga). But in this campaign - a tragedy - the world will not be made right, no matter what the party does.
So "victory" means saving the people that you can (ideally the NPCs that you have built a rapport with and hold close to the heart), and injuring the aggressor to force a retreat. It is not a "happily ever after" victory, but it can still be meaningful to the players, especially if they are mentally prepared for this definition of "victory."
So "victory" has be defined both for you as you design the campaign, and communicated to your players at the outset of the campaign as well (more on that in a future post on the importance of a "Mission Zero"). Make it clear what the objectives are, and make sure that the objective is attainable.
Now, if the party completely botches things up, by all means don't reward them with victory. This also means that the party cannot necessarily be comprised of just anyone: if the quest requires someone with some situational awareness and sneaking ability, then the party should have at least one sneak character, and it's okay to tell the party this (even if it cramps their style during character creation), because it helps them attain victory.
Put simply, actions have consequences, and they need to feel those consequences, both for their benefit and to their detriment as a means of learning. And that's where we turn next.
3. Failure Should Be Player-Induced
It should be possible to fail the campaign. If the kingdom needs saving and the party spends all of their time starting bar fights, the kingdom should fall. If the party needs to recover someone and they get distracted and give up on the quest, the person should die, and the adventurers should be punished. There have to be consequences, as they add weight to the decisions of the party.
Of course, the sword cuts both ways. If the party feels like they are not necessary to the plot (i.e., if you neglect to reinforce importance) or they don't feel like there is a realistic chance at victory (i.e., if victory isn't attainable), then of course they're going to neglect the primary plot, so some of this responsibility falls on you as the campaign designer.
So in the campaign that I'm designing, one of the potential reasons for the party to abandon the main plot is by asking, "Hey: if the guy we're working for is a vassal to a mighty king, why doesn't his king save him? Why doesn't he call for allies? Why can't he just flee to another stronghold deeper into the kingdom?" So we address these questions preemptively while building the campaign, making a clear connection as to why the adventurers are their only hope.
And on the other hand, we have a sliding scale for how many villagers (including NPCs the party has met) will survive if the party is successful in an endeavor, so if the party sticks to the primary plot, they will save more of the people they like. And if they abandon it, more of their allies (including the people who can buy their loot, repair things - benefits that even self-centered adventurers respect) will be slain.
Now a lot of keeping players on-task comes from the pacing of the campaign (which we will talk about in our fourth write-up in this series). But I want to briefly touch on pacing here, as it is critical as you consider your overall story arc.
4. The Campaign Should Be Enjoyable for Everyone
People tend to pursue story arcs that they find interesting. I've been watching the TV show Lost recently, and if there is one thing that Lost did well (it did many things well, but this one stands out) is the diversity of subplots around the main plot. Each character has something unique that shaped them, drives them, coupled with an objective they want to attain, all building up the central plot of trying to escape the island they crash-landed on in the first episode.
Yet my interest level is greater for some characters over others, and that is natural. So also with roleplayers: as much fun as it would be to explore everyone's backstory as part of the campaign, not all of our players are interested in unpacking every backstory.
The trick for the storyteller (and I think Abrams did this well) is to keep the energy level going on what we love (the backstory of Character X, be that a player character or NPC) without losing track of our ultimate goal: trying to leave the island, which he also kept fun and interesting. So if you want to keep the campaign's energy alive, focus your energy on keeping the campaign enjoyable for everyone around the table.
And this brings up the central question of personal backstory for your characters and how it fits into the campaign, which is where we want to end our discussion.
5. Personal Backstories and the Story
Now, to be clear, I like when my player characters have personal backstory, history, and a path for desired development. If a player spends a lot of time writing up something for me, I'll read it and see if I can integrate it into the story.
But that does not mean that the warlord who killed your parents will appear in the story for you to fight (and certainly not fight alone: that's going to take a long time to resolve, and everyone else will be on their phones while that is happening), or that you'll have a chance to reconcile with your lost love, or the other things that are formed at random during character creation.
Now, does this mean that backstory doesn't shape our plot? Not at all - the Zurn system is nice in that the adjective system allows for players to use backstory to shape the rolls they make, much more than any skill or experience system. And inasmuch as it works to insert backstory (if you happen to have a warlord, you can make it the warlord from someone's past), you can totally insert it.
What I did for this campaign (and I think I will do this from now on) is that I sent out a brief intro to the campaign to the players before we start character creation, noting the major powers (both for and against them) in advance, so that players can place elements from this into their backstory.
So for example, my girlfriend is playing a knife fighter whose family, village, and lover were killed by the antagonists in the story. What this does is that 1) it gives her a reason to focus on the main plot (because stopping the antagonists is natural for her character), 2) it gives her greater energy in-mission to pursue the main plot (as she is staying true to the character), and 3) it ties her backstory to what is going on around her. So we can seamlessly integrate her backstory into the campaign, because her backstory was shaped by the notes I gave the players at the outset. And the result: a player who is fully invested in the campaign, because her character's story arc is inextricably linked to the plot.
So as much as you can, try to get your players thinking within the context of the campaign's arc when building their characters, as it will help them feel connected to the main plot as a means of building their personal character arc.
In our next post we will talk about the importance of selecting a genre for your campaign, and how this will affect the content that you use for building your campaign (the subject of our fourth and fifth posts in the series).