Ties that bind

Over the years I’ve run several role-playing campaigns with various systems and settings, from King Arthur Pendragon to Shadowrun and Beyond the Supernatural. While most of these campaigns have been fun enough to run and play, only two of them stand out as especially memorable: a Vampire the Masquerade campaign I ran some ten years ago, set in ancient Rome, and the Smallville campaign I’m currently running. While pondering what exactly has made those campaigns click, I noticed that there’s one significant element they both have in common.

Back when the Vampire campaign was starting, I took an uneasy look at the various contacts, allies and other chorus members the players had listed on their character sheets. Anxious that portraying a cast of so many different supporting characters believably might become overwhelming for me as the Storyteller, I decided to engage in some creative pruning. I would take two or more of these roughly-sketched bit players and fuse them into a one fully fleshed-out character – for example, a merchant contact of one character became also another character’s mortal father – ending up with a much more condensed entourage for the player characters.

In the first sessions of the campaign, this design decision drew some bemused remarks from the players as their characters discovered being connected by much less than six degrees of separation, but these sentiments soon faded to background, as the connections also served to get the player characters more involved with each other. However, besides easing my job as a Storyteller, this exercise in creative destruction had also unforeseen side-effects that would become elemental to the success of the campaign. The shared connections to various members of the supporting cast tied the player characters firmly not only to each other but also to the setting and helped them relate to the happenings around them on a personal level, so that they were strongly motivated to act on them. Towards the end of the campaign the game was almost running by itself, with me needing only to provide some occasional prods and hooks to the player characters.

And if you are familiar with the Smallville role-playing game, you already know that the exercise I described above is exactly what Smallville’s character creation system is all about, if only in a more player-driven manner. Testifying further to the strengths of this approach, my own Smallville campaign has reaped great benefits from it – even though the campaign isn’t even halfway through at the moment, it has turned out to be even more enjoyable and engaging both for the players and myself than my previous success with Vampire, to the point of myself getting faint from the excitement due to dramatic turns of events in a session.

While both Vampire and Smallville are distinctively character-driven games, I’m quite confident that even the average plain-vanilla fantasy campaign can also benefit from this approach, not to mention many other kinds of games. Whether by getting the players themselves involved in the design of the setting as in Smallville or by connecting the player characters with links forged by the gamemaster, making sure the principals of the story are also a part of setting is one of the most important ingredients in the recipe of an engaging campaign.

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