Wield the Unseen Ripples in Your Campaign

How do you motivate players to seize the story?

RPT GM D asks:

Thanks for your email and tips. When I read your opening sentence I was expecting a very different tack from you.

I read it as ‘GMs being frustrated that players won’t make any decisions or show initiative’ and your response was about GM railroading.

I wonder if you might have comments or suggestions for GMs with players waiting for them to lead them in the story – the ones that either have learned the response or just lack initiative to make decisions.

Great question, D! Thank you.

The number one way I’ve discovered to engage players and get them leaning into play long-term involves creating and running a dynamic milieu, or campaign region.

A dynamic milieu changes based on the outcomes of player choices and character actions. For example, characters kill the evil dragon. That’s a good thing, right?

However, a power vacuum now exists within the dragon’s faction. What actions will the dragon’s lieutenants take?

Perhaps they initiate an internal faction war to seize the top position. Subsequently, this conflict overflows into the milieu, as lieutenants kidnap locals to bolster their forces and sabotage infrastructure to hinder rival armies’ maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the dragon’s children converge from afar, anticipating great rewards from the reading of the will. 🙂

Alternatively, the lieutenants might target the player characters to reclaim the dragon’s hoard. Possessing intimate knowledge of the hoard’s most precious and valuable items, they know precisely what to seek. However, the party has already sold many of the jewels, rare art works, and lesser magical items. So, when a series of unexplained murders and thefts emerges, the players come to the startling conclusion that these crimes are focused on retrieving the dragon’s treasures they had parted with months earlier.

A world can change for good, as well. Perhaps local villages and nearby cities learn they must defend themselves or suffer greatly when a tyrant emerges. So these settlements beef up their defenses, treat each other better, and prepare to stand on principles instead of being brought under the heel again.

Also consider the second-order effects of party actions. Here, our milieu starts to feel deep and immersive because of player Fog of War. Players won’t make immediate connections between milieu events, but then they’ll gasp as they realize what’s happened, motivating them to try and fix things.

However, all we did to achieve this effect was brainstorm a few second-order effects and translate those into events, encounters, and 5 Room Dungeons.

For example, while the influx of coins from the hoard has enriched many, it also marks the region as a target for envious neighbors. Factions from adjoining areas scheme heists (that the PCs are possibly hired to commit), banditry in the area surges (resulting in bounties and pleas for help), and taxation by greedy rulers increases, ironically causing greater destitution than was seen under the dragon’s reign.

Here’s a tool I shared with Wizards of Adventure long ago that helps us brainstorm and think through first-order and second-order effects from party actions that will change our milieus:

Start at the lowest tier — Actions. Then work up each level and see if any ideas emerge on how things are different now because of player choices and the consequences of character actions.

Write out any thoughts that come to mind. Don’t self edit or judge the ideas. Often, poor ideas trigger different and better ideas. Set a timer for five minutes, walk through the tiers, and brainstorm.

When time is up, review your ideas, pick the best ones, and translate those into encounters, 5 Room Dungeons, and milieu events.

Wizards of Adventure, I have created a fantastic new Resource for you here called Tiers of the Game. It includes:

  • A video walk through of my Tiers of the Game method to help you plan your campaigns and sessions.
  • How to encourage player engagement by clearly defining areas of player agency.
  • Three different ways you can use Tiers of the Game to design better and more dynamic player experiences.
  • A simple way to understand the balance between GM and player agency.
  • How to organize your gameplay information by keeping details appropriate to their levels so you stay consistent and reduce redundancy.
  • Simplify prep by walking the pyramid structure and applying the Content Waterfall model, making it easier to manage and adapt to player actions.
  • How to make your story more consistent, even if you do a lot of improvisation.
  • Strategies for GMs to adapt their plans based on player choices.
  • 8 examples of second-order effects you can adapt to your campaign.
  • d3 examples of second-order effects for each Tier of the Game to help provide more context and examples about what I mean by second-order effects.

RPT GM, if you are not yet a Wizard of Adventure, become a Silver or higher tier one today to get access to this in-depth Tiers of the Game resource:

Review your options here.

Have more fun at every game!

P.S. Today I only answered part of RPT GM D’s question.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer tips on how you can help passive players make decisions during the game.

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