Character Stories — How To Keep Players Highly Engaged

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1044

RPT GM Sebastian has seven players and asked me for tips on how to handle large groups.

My article Handling Large Groups: Keeping Players Busy has good advice.

But I have a different tip for you today. One not shared before.

And this tip applies to every party size — especially large groups.

We’ve covered Dangling Descriptions. These keep players on the edge of their seats, dying to hear what will happen next.

And we’ve discussed player engagement through assisting roles, such as Quartermaster, Scribe, and Squire. These keep players busy between turns and help relieve your burdens.

And now we’re going to talk about how to keep players engaged via Character Stories.

When between turns, and between sessions, players can noodle on their Character Stories, keeping them focused and entertained.

Because each character gets a Character Story, this scales to many players. Each player has something personal and special in the game.

It’s About Character Arcs

The better you develop a character’s personality, background, and motivations, the easier time you’ll have storytelling.

Tap into these character aspects during gameplay to get players working things out in their head.

As each player ponders their PC’s options, predicaments, and hopes, time between turns flies by. Games no longer drag, even in large groups. And you’ll get players driving the action more than ever, giving you a ton of new storytelling options.

The Journey is the Adventure

Character development lies at the heart of the Infinite Game and campaign level GMing.

Here’s how we do this.

Our games are about struggle and conflict. Without desire and challenge we’d be bored.

We can’t just hand players what they want without resistance. We can’t make it Christmas every day. Else it would get boring.

So we need to put obstacles and conflicts along the path. We want to make the PCs work for their rewards and give players a strong sense of accomplishment.

Likewise, encountering random obstacles and conflicts feels boring and futile. “Another 2d6 gnolls on the road? Really?! Zzzzzzzz.”

But when overcoming an obstacle means getting closer to your goal, it all becomes worth it.

When a conflict gains meaning because it’s a stepping stone to a reward, you’ve got the magic combo of storytelling working for you.

So players must take actions, undertake adventures, and risk it all to get their coveted prizes.

In this way, the journey itself becomes rewarding.

The Three Levels of Conflict

Character arcs tell the story of how characters develop while pursuing rewards.

This is the goal of campaign play. To develop cool character story arcs.

Meaningful rewards need struggle.

And the best struggles occur at three levels.

Engage a player at one level to get them interested.

Engage a player at two of the levels to keep them interested.

Engage a player at all three levels to make them passionate about your campaign.

So our goal is to understand the three levels of conflict and add them to each character arc.

Here’s a brief description of each level.

Level 1: External Conflict

Characters should have an extrinsic goal. One that results in character sheet improvements.

Work with each player to give their character at least one compelling objective.

Here are some examples:

  • Settle a grudge against the villain’s lieutenant
  • Acquire a wondrous magic item
  • Discover the entrance to a legendary dungeon
  • Rescue a lost brother
  • Save a village from plague (my plot for The Demonplague)

During the game you can treat these objectives like Side Plots.

Whether these Side Plots dovetail into your main plot arc is your call. I give myself bonus points whenever I can make that happen, but I don’t force it.

Armed with character goals, you then drop clues and revelations about character side plots during your main plot arc and encounters.

If players feel their plot progressing, they’ll stay engaged!

Level 2: Internal Conflict

Why does the character want to fulfil their External Conflict goal?

Why do they care? Why take the risks associated with their quest?

People want all kinds of extrinsic things. We want wealth, wisdom, and happiness. But why? What’s our personal drive for these things?

So too it is with player characters.

Link an internal motivation to the external motivation to create a whole new layer of story depth to each PC.

For example, a player wants to acquire a legendary sceptre that will give her character leadership abilities.

That’s a great external goal.

Why does she want this?

She tells you it’s because her character wants to make the world a better place for her village by leading them and helping the village flourish. The sceptre is key to that.


External Conflict: Find the sceptre

Internal Conflict: Help suffering villagers

Why is this effective?

The linkage creates a deeper emotional connection for player and character. It gives their story bigger stakes. And it hooks players beyond the character sheet into a more meaningful story.

And because these conflicts are linked, when you put an obstacle in front of one conflict, you jeopardize both goals. You work one plot and get two wins.

Level 3: Philosophical Conflict

We are driven by our values and beliefs. We see the world through these lenses every waking moment.

Open this world up to characters via player values and beliefs to capture an even deeper level of connection with your stories.

This is master storytelling stuff that Hollywood works hard at injecting into their blockbuster scripts.

If a movie falls flat for you, it’s often because the script or production has failed to tie these three conflicts together into an interesting narrative.

An example could be players’ belief that hurting other people is bad. This might extend to humanoids and monsters as happened recently in my Barbossa campaign.

So we construct a Character Story that confronts this belief.

External Conflict: Find the sceptre

Internal Conflict: Help people currently suffering

Philosophical Conflict: It’s evil to hurt people

Robbie’s cleric Templeton wants to find a sceptre to save their village from the villain who enjoys hurting people.

Now we appeal to the player in three ways, at ever-deeper levels.

First, we cater to the surface level aspects of the game. Treasure, rewards, and character sheet improvements. The sceptre.

Second, we tackle the why to hook our player deeper. A magic sceptre on its own is cool. But if it serves a greater purpose, now we’ve got a story brewing. A village suffering.

Third, we add deeper meaning by tapping into a player belief. Now we’ve got players a real mission. A cause. A deep story hook. Stop the villain because hurting people is bad.

Each time the villain hurts a villager, it’s more than an adventure kludge. It’s a personal raison d’être the player brings to their character sheet and chair at the table.

Try it out yourself and see. Give each character a Side Plot that invokes conflict from the three levels.

If you have any questions about this powerful adventure design method, just hit reply!