Resonance – Part I: How Do You Get Players to Care About Their Characters and Your Plot?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0755

How do you get players to care about their characters and your plot?

This is in the top 10 questions I get asked all the time. It’s tough to do. Today I’ll share one approach to encounter building that’s part of the 5 Room Dungeon product I’m working on that helps you solve this tricky problem.

Here’s the situation. You slave away crafting an awesome situation using the encounter triangle. You’ve got location, foes, and plot. You even add green flocking to your minis.

But then the hobos rip right through it. As the first foe starts to parley, the barbarian hurls a handful of dice in his face and cleaves the second guy on the backswing.

You then try to roleplay during the combat. But each word just buys the PCs time to sharpen their weapons, including the cleric (hey, how did the cleric get an edged weapon!).

In frustration, you bargain.

Johnn: “Hey guys, these baddies might have some important information. Maybe you should try talking to them.”

Hobo 1: “Nah. We’ll cast Speak With Dead after the XP cha-ching.”

Hobo 2: “Forget that bro! Don’t waste the spell slot.”

Hobo 1: “Heh. Could good call, droogie. Hack on!”

In previous tips we’ve talked about Theme. Add strong, unifying themes to your adventures and encounters to build a better gameplay experience for you and your friends. Tie things together thematically to intensify your game and bring focus on your campaign goal.

But if your players do not connect with your theme, you’ll lose them. They press the big red throbbing hobo button.

If your group does make an emotional connection though, there will be less stabbing and more gabbing. Even if they stabbity stab stab, they’ll be doing it with feeling!

I call this Resonance. As Schell says in his fantastic book, The Art of Game Design, some themes are better than others. The best themes are ones that resonate with players — themes that touch players deeply. Themes are experience-based, and when your theme resonates with the fantasies and desires of your players, the experience quickly becomes important to them.

Schell also says resonant themes elevate your work from craft to art. An artist is someone who takes you where you could never go alone (sounds like great GMing to me!), and the theme is the vehicle for getting there.

I’ll talk more about Resonance next Musing. But I’ll give you one example today to help illustrate this point.

What if you detected some resentment in your players about abusive authority? Bad bosses. Mean bankers. Petty bureaucrats.

So you decide a theme in your campaign is Payback.

You could choose Fairness or Justice to explore the same issues, for example.

But Payback resonates more deeply as a fantasy within your players.

Let them get some rage out on enemies who represent or are abusive authority figures.

Cathartic? Maybe. But engaging? 100% yes! Those players will resonate with this theme and care a lot about your game now. It means something more to them than just XP cha-ching now.