Giving the Players a Reason to Enjoy the Campaign

Over at the Campaign Builders’ Guild, a regular recurring discussion is on the very nature of why we build campaigns, and what is in it for us as builders. The answers vary – it is an art form that we are perfecting, it is a way to write down ideas without pretending to be writing a novel, it is a way to write down ideas for a novel, it is for an ongoing (or soon-to-be going) campaign, it is for publishing and making money, yadda, yadda, yadda. However, a question that seems very rarely (if ever) to be answered is “what is in it for the players?” This question presumes, of course, that the campaign you are building is for a game that is actually being played.

And really, that shouldn’t be that difficult a question to answer, right? I mean, what do players want other than loot, high levels, and a vague sense of accomplishment? They never care about all the ridiculous amounts of work you’ve put into your setting, and those tiny details that you believe makes your setting unique often get trampled on while the players are trying to find the next bard handing out quests. How do you get the players to care about the life blood of your imagination and creativity?

In the Memory Fading campaign I recently began with three friends, I did something I have never done before as the players were creating their characters. Taking cues from my brother in Asheville, who just had a phenomenally successful campaign, the four of us got together over coffee and worked together to hash out the characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and general purpose. When I say “got together,” I mean it. Each player (with me watching) created his character in terms of stats, feats, skills, abilities, and equipment. Then I had a small 10-question form that each player answered about his character.

  1. Where was your character born?
  2. Who are your character’s parents?
  3. What were your character’s parents’ professions?
  4. Are the parents still alive?
  5. Where do they currently live?
  6. Does your character have any other immediate living family?
  7. Why does your character adventure? (money, power, knowledge, etc)
  8. How does your character hope to accomplish his goals?
  9. Give the name, location, and profession of three allies/friends/informants that your character has met that he still has contact with.
  10. Give the name, last known location, and motivations of one person who your character is at odds with/is enemies with/has fought against but still lives.

You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I wasn’t quite done with it at this point. After each player finished filling out this little information sheet, without me looking at them, they passed the sheet to their immediate left, thus giving this knowledge to another player. Then, I gave each of them a second, shorter questionnaire.

  • Using the answer to question #9, give an explanation for why one of the three NPCs may have some sort of grudge against the player, or why one of the three NPCs may currently be seeking out the player.
  • Using the answer to question #10, give the current location of this NPC (it may be the last known location), and what this NPC has been up to for the last three months.
  • Give one reason your character may have heard of or has reason to adventure with the character you are writing about.

Then, after these were done (and the players wrote a great amount of detail for me on these), I collected these second questionnaires (to be my personal secrets), each player passed the character information sheet to their left one more time, and I gave them a last sheet to fill out.

  • Using the answers to questions #7 and #8, as well as the info sheet I gave you on Ordanth, please write the reason that this character has made his way to Ordanth, and how he plans on using this location to meet his goals.
  • Explain how your character first met this character, under what circumstances, and how long the two characters have known each other (even as just acquaintances).

This particular sheet got passed back to the original player, along with his character’s information sheet, so that it would be in his knowledge.

This process, which took about 1.5 hours, served a three-fold purpose. Firstly, it allowed the players to each have a hand in their group’s history, giving them more of a “stake” in the group’s progress. Secondly, it gave them a vested interest in the setting, the locales, and the NPCs of the area. Finally, it gave me potential story lines to work with for the setting in such a way that would (hopefully) always make the games interesting for each player. With the characters having the connections that they have with each other, as well as family and NPCs in the area, it creates a network that I can exploit as a GM to fully delve into the world with these characters.

How have you as a GM gone out of your way to really get the players – and characters, let’s not forget them – interested in the campaign that you have created?

The Swordmage is not a Druid (obviously?)

Wizards of the Coast recently gave us a taste of the new Swordmage class, who is a new Defender-role character you can add to your 4E D&D campaigns. He is the class that you can choose if you would like to play both a warrior-type character and a spell-casting-type character at the same time, and going by what abilities I looked over, he seems to be somewhat nature-based (or at least, elemental-based). So thank you WotC for a fighting/casting class. But… where is the druid?

Okay, seriously, I know where the druid is. He is (presumably and supposedly) coming out in the next Player’s Handbook (PHBII), using possibly some new power source for which we will need to purchase several new splat books to get all the information necessary to use. I guess that question I mean, instead of “where is the druid,” is “why are we having to wait for the druid?” Again, I know that at least part of it is financial/monetary – WotC has a business to run, and instead of making new books as “optional” (such as Tome of Magic, Tome of Battle, etcetera), they are instead putting many of our beloved and iconic races and classes in these second core books so that we will need to spend more money with them to play D&D with all our favorite archetypes. But logically….

The Forgotten Realms, as anyone who has played a lot in it, is a very nature-oriented campaign setting. They have (or at least, had) multiple deities of nature, and many important NPCs were nature-based – most notably, of course, Drizz’t and Dove Falconhand – so why was the new class introduced in the Forgotten Realms book not the druid? It would have been the epitome of of fantastic ideas, because it would have actually made sense! They would introduce a class that everyone is waiting for, that logically is very important to the Forgotten Realms, and that covers a very similar role to the class they did introduce, but which has no true importance or history with the Realms.

I’ve so far been at least semi-pleased with 4th Edition D&D – I’m not a hater, I have all three core books, and plan on getting more. My current campaign, Memory Fading, is running 4E, and we’re having a good bit of fun so far. But I just can’t shake the feeling that WotC is making too many mistakes with their new multiple core book releases and their leaving out such iconic classes and races that people have been playing with for twenty-plus years now. It’s just a feeling, I have no facts. The only fact I have is the Swordmage is no Druid, and with the Forgotten Realms now out and for sale, without no druids all across Faerun, it is a less magical place.

Sometimes, When I Close My Eyes…

… and start to go to sleep at night, I begin thinking about my campaign setting. Often times, this leads to several hours of tossing, turning, pondering, and driving my wife crazy, with me ending up on the couch in the living room. It makes me wish that I could program my dreams so as to get the full effect of my imagination running wild, while still getting the recommended amount of R.E.M sleep each night. Alas, as of yet, I am unable to decide what I will dream about, and thus must use the hours of 11:00 PM to 1:00-ish AM each night to think about role playing.

Last night, what kept me up for several hours, was recalling a key event (and discovery) in the last session I had, which was the third session thus far in my new 4E D&D campaign. At this point, the party (which consists of a cleric, ranger, and fighter – yes, slightly unbalanced at the moment, but we have a fourth player joining soon as a wizard) had been doing research into the mysterious disappearances of four children in Shaelford, a small village, when the ranger of the group, Disorn, notified the other two that he spotted one of the children in the Drakenhaunt Forest on the previous night while he was out and about. The three went to the spot that Disorn believed he had seen the child and found the remains of a rabbit, completely drained of blood, with two ragged bite marks on its neck. After doing a bit more research, the party discovered that some livestock from a farm had been killed in a similar manner just a few weeks before, but they could find no more information about the killings than the manner in which they were done. As the last part of the session took place, they heard of a rumor about an old mansion in the Drakenhaunt that had always been avoided superstitiously by the village folk, and the party decided to check this mansion out.

After the session ended, the players began discussing the obviousness of a vampire nest, and what to do if there were several turned children. Dorin’s player, Timothy, said outright that the children would have to be slain, but both of the other players believe that this would be a terrible, terrible move, and that they would need to find some way to save the children’s’ souls. Of course, all this is done in a meta-gaming fashion, with absolutely no idea as to how vampires work in my particular campaign, and with the ruling from the GM (me) that their characters know nothing about vampires in-game, though the cleric, Mohinder, may have at least heard of a similar style of undead before. This didn’t bother them though, and they continued to debate on whether or not they would have to rescue the children.

What they don’t know is that I have secretly made the decision much tougher for them, though they won’t find out for another session or two. In Memory Fading, vampires can be brought back to life as humans if the sire is killed, though it is a process that requires very quick action after the sire’s destruction. However, the sire of this small nest is no longer in the area, having decided that he can find better game in the small city Haven to the northeast. This leaves four vampire children hanging around near the old mansion, who will aggressively attack the PCs when they arrive, and if the PCs don’t arrive soon, will turn several other children into vampire “playmates.” What I’m basically hoping for is the realization from the PCs and their characters that there is no way that the children can be redeemed, save locking them in cages, traveling with them by night to Haven (if they even figure out where the sire has gone to), and hunting down the sire to perform the final acts. They will have to kill children (albeit, of the blood-sucking variety), and will have to live with their acts.

When I told this idea to some of the people at the Campaign Builders’ Guild, they thought it was a swell idea in that it introduced that gray-scale of morality within the first few sessions, and let’s the players know that I’m playing for keeps. However, when I told the plan to a couple of my friends, who I used to play with, they seemed to disagree on whether the event was just “over the top too cruel,” or simply “darkly cliché.” I personally like the idea, but I am now rethinking certain aspects of the soon-to-be scenario.

And thinking on that is what kept me up last night. Care to comment and help me resolve my thoughts (so I can get some sleep)?


Culture in Gaming

Let’s talk about culture. I’m not talking about races (though race plays a part in the definition of culture), I’m talking about what makes societies click. What makes them work? What makes them seem realistic? What makes certain groupings of humans different from other groupings, and what makes certain races different from humans, other than their physical features?

This thinking process (re-)started with me recently when I read a particular article on my current favorite blog, Exchange of Realities. The article in question, posted on August 13, 2008, titled Iron Chef World-builder: A Creation Process focused entirely on music within a particular dwarven society in the author’s campaign setting, and through the process of determining the music of the society, several other important key concepts pertaining to the dwarves’ culture arose. So, being a musician myself, it got me thinking.

In Memory Fading, I have so far not focused too much on various cultural aspects that would really help define and distinguish different people in the setting. I have been working a lot recently on various religious aspects of certain races (which is a key part of different cultures), and I have mentioned in a few of my races and societies that “honor,” “family,” “courage,” etcetera are defining characteristics of various peoples, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone. Now though, I’m starting to develop ideas on what really defines these people as people, and not just race names with statistics on them.

I have decided that the sydhi have a unique cultural take on language and oral tradition. They believe (and have always believed) that the only true way to appreciate and respect a subject -whether it is art, music, history, or anything else of the like – is to pass this subject down completely orally, and never write it down. The sydhi believe that the act of writing down music, stories, mythologies, or history causes the writer and reader to then take for granted that the information will always be available, and thus they lose respect for the subject. Every sydhi child, from the day they are born, is taught by his or her parents of the long, tragic history of the sydhi, and is sung all the songs the parent knows. As far as anyone knows, the sydhi have no written histories anywhere on the planet.

Similarly, I wanted the sydhi to have a very different style of music than what is typical in our western culture, and decided that sydhi musicians are solo artists, and have no ensemble playing. This stems from another particular cultural quirk that I came up with – the sydhi never interrupt another person speaking, and always give their full, undivided attention to whomever is speaking at the time. This translates to music in such a way that a sydhi performer will always have the full, undivided attention of all who listen, and thus, no other musicians will play at the same time as the musician in question. This leads to a question of instrumentation. I need an instrument (or several instruments) that can play melody, harmony, and accompaniment all at once. There are many instruments that do this, such as guitar, piano, organ, vibraphone, and other stringed instruments, but they mostly all have a distinctive “western” flavor to them. Then I listened to the koto, a Japanese instrument that has in the past few weeks, become one my new favorite instrument. I had heard koto playing before of course, but had never really thought about it in a way that lent itself to role playing games. Now I am picturing a group of sydhi, sitting in a circle by a stream on the outskirts of Tusai Viil, with a performer playing this koto-like instrument, harmonizing with the tinkling of the creek, the singing of the birds, and the whistling of wind through the trees. The sydhi call their version of this instrument the tayo tu, which roughly translates to “song of the trees.”

So now with this first little tidbit, I have begun thinking about other aspects that define cultures that are rarely focused on in role playing games. Music often leads to performances of theater, as well as dance, so those are the two aspects I focused on next with my sydhi.

For this, I decided that the most common form of dramatic art amongst sydhi would be an actual combination of those two aspects. I began picturing a non-choreographed routine that involves two dancers, often in the role of opponents to each other, whirling around and mock-fighting with wooden staves. However, I don’t want there to be any sort of element of true violence to this, so instead of being like wushu or Kabuki, I’m looking more at a stylized version of Canne de Combat, a French sport that involves two opponents fighting each other with canes. Now, I picture the sydhi being very fluid, with lots of spins, twirls, and fantastic leaps, either accompanied or not by a tayo tu player. They call this dramatic dance art form stris bu, which means something like, “the trees’ strike.”

The last cultural aspect I want to focus on today is visual art. The sydhi, being forest folk, and living often times out of doors, probably don’t do a lot of art that would involve the ruination brought upon by a summer storm, or wood-and-paper eating bugs. Taking from the elements of Tusai Viil, the only sydhi city not within the bounds of Nalimoseo, I believe sydhi visual art is very cloth-based. Sydhi will take portions of silk cloth, and using special dyes from various plants they know of, will make broad strokes of colors on their cloth tapestries, and when done, will hang these tapestries in the trees. The dyes immediately bond with the silk, creating something of permanence that the inevitable thunder storm or blizzard won’t damage. And since silk is not the common diet of most bugs, hopefully we have something that has some of the longevity of the sydhi themselves.

So that’s all I’m going to focus on for now. However, I know I’ve missed some very important aspects of culture that should be discussed. Not to mention, I could do this same process with all the various societies and civilizations across Alsa Eru. What are some other defining cultural aspects that are rarely (if ever) focused on in role playing games, but are most important here in the real world?