You Can’t Touch Wet Paint Without Changing The Color Of Your Hand

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1042

Here’s an email exchange I had with RPT GM Edward Sawlaw about how he outlines and runs his campaigns.

It’s a bit of a long convo, but I thought you might find bits of it interesting.

Edward: Hi Johnn. I loved the “How to Get Your Players to Care” RP Tips email.

I think a critical element of that is challenge, as well.

I have always found players have way way more investment if they believe their characters could perish. I get 100% more engagement during and after a party threatening session.

Johnn: Thanks Edward. That’s a good point.

It’s good to have a story to make the threats contextual, too.

Edward: My Campaigns are generally about 40% story-driven roleplaying, 30% character-driven roleplaying, and 30% combat (and my combat has some RP elements to it too).

I divide my combat driven encounters into three categories:

  • Easy
  • Moderate
  • Difficult

A 25%-50%-25% division.

The difficult encounters threaten death to one or more party members.

Moderate encounters require critical thinking, but generally shouldn’t result in more than one character dying, if any.

My difficult encounters, when they arrive, increase player investment in the next few sessions — not sure why.

Johnn: I like that system!

How do you drive the 30% character driven part?

Do you have extensive PC backstories and PC side-plots? Or do you do something else?

Edward: I try to avoid extensive pre-written backstories. Rather, I develop them organically as I go.

It’s a bit Deus ex Machina, but it makes for better player engagement.

But truly that is a minor part.

I use some of your tips — side NPC’s that have depth and real personality. This draws the characters in and results in character growth — especially as change and conflict comes to those NPCs.

Romance helps, occasionally, but one has to be careful about that. Some players thrive with romance, others grow uncomfortable.

And most of this is accessory to the story — non-essential. Can be completely skipped if they want — but I rarely have characters pass it up.

Because players know if they do, they are going to have nothing to do while the other players enjoy the opportunity.

Mine is not a hack and slash campaign.

Johnn: So those side-NPCs — how do you use them to create PC depth?

Edward: I try to get the PCs to work with an NPC using the NPC’s motivations. Having a few flavorful, recurrent NPCs is helpful to that.

So that might be the local wizard who the party goes to for help on occasion — having to work around his ego, and his search.

By making the NPC more lifelike, the PCs have to respond in kind — just trying to ‘roll a persuasion’ check isn’t going to work.

Few players go for that roll route because of the way I organically frame it. Asking for a roll feels odd in those situations. And even if they do, they are at disadvantage or penalty (depending on system).

The other side of it is the NPCs that travel with the party — the squire, the bard, etc.

For instance, they had a combat in which an NPC follower bard was with them. The bard took some unlucky hits, and goes down.

This is someone who was with them for 4-5 sessions.

They saved his life.

But afterwards, days later, covered in scars, and rattled, the bard comes to one of the PCs privately and has a heart to heart.

He’s not sure if he can keep going — maybe the adventuring life isn’t for him.

He almost died, took two goblin arrows and a nasty club hit from an ogre.

He sees the PCs, and they feel invincible to him, but he’s not.

He had bones broken.

And his mind, his heart show it.

He isn’t sure if he can keep going.

That dialogue, and the PC trying to convince him to keep going — and failing to do so, creates a real depth.

Because now something is lost.

And how that player reacts through the character is huge.

Jacques (the bard) had personality.

He filled a space.

And he was helpful.

But suddenly he goes his own way, makes his own decision. It becomes painfully clear he wasn’t an accessory. He was a PERSON, he had PERSONALITY.

And he wasn’t taken from the party. An ogre didn’t kill him. He made a decision, he has a choice.

That interaction, even though it was between an NPC and one PC, was witnessed by everyone, and that suddenly paints Jacques in a very different picture for everyone — which in turn retroactively paints previous interactions.

You can’t touch wet paint without changing the color of your hand.

In the same way, PCs can’t interact with a vividly painted NPC and not change themselves.

Johnn: Very cool.

That change, that dynamism, is KEY in increasing depth.

How do you draw out shy players or players reluctant to engage this way?

Edward: Several ways. One is to be encouraging, and to be open and honest with the players — directly engage them DM to player.

Let them know what is going to occur, and then diving in as NPC to PC (in game). That helps — just being up front.

I also encourage it in mechanics. People who roleplay and need a check can gain advantage. So your character is more likely to succeed if you are willing to do some immersive roleplaying.

I also encourage it with XP rewards. Players are awarded an amount of XP based on the amount of time they play.

Hours Played x Highest PC Level Present x Y, where Y can be any amount the DM chooses (I generally do 20).

Everyone gets this, even if they just sit there and soak it in. That encourages showing up. But players can gain a 0-20% additional bonus (for combat heavy sessions) or 21-50% bonus (for RP heavy sessions).

And that is self grading, so I get the players to judge their own performance.

GM: “Bob, on a scale of 1-30, how well did you role play tonight?”

Bob: “Probably a 20? Better than middle, but not perfect.”

The 1-30 scale is for the RP heavy session (21-50%). So he gets a 40% additional bonus to his time experience.

Now, the “XP” incentive is unlikely to draw out the shyest players…but the conversation we have at the table while I calculate XP will.

When Suzanna sees Bob and Wes smiling, and discussing their excellent RP, and grading themselves highly, she becomes incentivized to do the same.

ESPECIALLY when she inevitably under-grades herself and I have to correct her….

Suzanna says, “I dunno, maybe a 10?” and I say “No way! Remember when you did X? And when you talked to NPC Y aboud Z? You were at LEAST a 15, probably an 18…”

That kind of encouragement is enough to draw out all but the shyest players after a few sessions.

I have an XP spreadsheet on Google Docs that I use.

It requires only a few inputs, calculates everything I need, and keeps track of player’s XP totals.

So everything is super fair. It has turned XP calculation from a chore to a matter of minutes — and something that engages players.

So low level PCs learn from the high level PCs. And they learn and gain experience faster because of the presence of the higher level adventurers.

This makes sense thematically.

And because XP requirements scale with level, it helps lower level PCs catch up a bit to higher level PCs.

So we have a 10th level PC in the party.

If they play for 4 hours, that’s 4 x 25 = 100.

Class bonuses can be calculated below in “Class/Skill Bonus” sub-table.

And they are based on my rules.

So Mages and Clerics get bonuses for spells cast.

Fighters for HD killed.

Thieves for gold stolen.

Monks for using Ki.

And utility classes get them for utility skills used (Rangers for Hunter’s Mark, etc.).

Then, finally, I ask the players to track their successful and unsuccessful skill uses. As well as critical successes and failures.

Merits are awards for clever moments or character-saving decisions, and RP that enriches the game or helps another player be a better gamer.

And the merits are large awards.

100, 500, 1000, 2500 XP depending upon level (they scale with level so as to remain relevant).

When the sheet fills up, I make a copy from the template, add the old total to the “Previous Sheet Total” box, and it starts anew.

I have also revised the XP method a time or two, but this seems to be the best and most balanced system I have had yet.

With a little bit of tweaking, a DM can make the XP system more or less generous. Some DMs prefer to level their party slowler, some faster.

Johnn: How do you plot your stories? Do you plan them out in advance, or make them up as you go along?

Edward: The 5th Edition modules sort of award people XP randomly. Lots of minor quest bonuses and phrases about “characters should gain a level here…” etc.

I prefer a more objective method — something players can rely upon. Again, to increase their engagement.

I always have the next session planned out well, and generally up to 3-4 sessions behind that (though they often change as the players make their decisions).

And I have a general outline.

My current campaign has been easy because I am running a homebrew mod of Storm King’s Thunder.

So a lot of the material is done up beforehand for me — though it is a fairly involved homebrew.

So I also have a general outline:

  • Stone Giants –>
  • (maybe Hill Giants) –>
  • Vampire Encounter –>
  • Wilderness Encounter –>
  • Fire Giants –>
  • Cloud Giants –>
  • Ally with Storm Giants –>
  • Frost Giant Nation

But again, there are many side quest options, and the characters can really change that up if they want.

They could skip areas, like the Hill Giants.

And those choices will have consequences in the world. Nothing is set in stone.

In my version, a powerful Frost Giant Jarl gained control of a human artifact known as the Sword of Kings

He mounted it on the end of a shaft, and it is now the Spear of Kings.

He has used its power to manipulate the other giant tribes (through forced subservience, trickery, bribery, etc.) to his plot.

I forgot to mention something a while back…I also draw players in with cinematic moments.

So I had a Paladin, played by a very tactical gamer.

And he was already coming around.

But he really got into it after one particular mission.

The party had ridden into this town, and someone noticed there were no street urchins.

No children seen at all.

Otherwise, normal town.

They hunt around, find out one of the nobles has been “helping these children” by “finding homes for them among noble houses through the nation.”

They were actually being used as slave labor in the mines.

Paladin goes to rescue them, I describe the setting.

And I played a song in the background during the main event, which was all RP. These 0 an 1st level mine guards had no desire to tango with a 6th level Paladin.

Yeah, in that moment the paladin player BECAME the hero.

He really SAW it.

Really FELT it.

And the music was a big part of that.

He was my all-star RPer for the rest of the campaign, which sadly never finished (as I moved).