My 9 RPG Story Goals Part 2 — RPT#615
From: Johnn Four
Last week I shared something I had written in my GMing notes in 1999 => my RPG Story Goals. These are things I figured were essential to a great game experience, all centred around GMing a great story.
In RPT#614 I listed the first three goals, and in this edition I’ll share the remaining six.
Here we go.
Story Goal #4. Tell More Than A Single Story
We’re not writing books or scripts here. We’ve got an interactive game with multiple players and a whole world to play in. We don’t have to be limited with just one story, and good gaming actually needs several.
There are three ways I tell more than a single story in my campaigns:
Story Type 1) The Central Plot
First, I like to create the central plot. I covered this recently in My 4 Step Recipe for Creating Great Campaign Seeds.
Next, I like to walk the critical path of my plot. The critical path takes the shortest possible route from encounter #1 to the final, climactic encounter.
Here’s how I typically generate my critical paths:
- Brainstorm how the plot might progress.
- Write down all the events and encounter ideas I can think of in 10 minutes.
- List things the villain(s) must accomplish to win.
- Note things PCs could do to foil the bad guys’ plans.
- On an index card, list just the essential items from all these notes.
That last step is most important. I want to get my critical path down to 10-20 events and encounters. I challenge every item by asking, “What if this doesn’t happen? Would it affect the ending?”
If not, I cut it. (I still leave it in my ideas notes for future use though.)
Then I divide my list into three sections. Each section becomes an act, as in the 3 Act Formula.
Now, I’m only creating a potential plot progression here. I’m not writing a script. The way I run my games, there’s no way this progression runs true the whole campaign.
But the point of this short exercise is to get a handle on the whole plot, from start to finish => just the essential bits. This gives me a guide to plan and GM with. I’ll make numerous changes on the fly as the game winds on and the characters do things and reap the consequences.
Ok, with critical path mapped out, I do my other campaign prep work and start the campaign. Then players create their PCs and I get briefed on their backgrounds.
Story Type 2) Character Stories
Next, after the first session, I get an index card for each player. Player’s name goes on the front. PC’s name goes on the back.
On the player side I write their kicks. This is a technique from the book, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. You analyze what type of player each person is in your group, what kind of game play and game content they like most, and how they get their kicks from the game. Cater to these per player, and you build a very excited group eager to play each week.
On the other side of the card I write down character kicks ideas and side-plot ideas. I read the PC’s background, I think about how session #1 went and what the character did, and I note key relationships.
I refer to these cards both between games for prep and during games for inspiration.
For example, say I need an NPC guide on-the-fly during a session. I might as well hook him to a PC for bonus points right? The more you hook game elements to players and PCs, the more engaged your group will be.
So, I’d look at my index cards, think about a player who hasn’t had much attention lately or whose turn is next for a side plot, and figure out how to make the NPC a new story in the game, tied to one or more characters.
In this way, I’m always closing and opening new character stories, giving me multiple layered stories in my campaign.
Story Type 3) Standalone Adventures
The third type of story I run in parallel to the central plot is adventure stories.
Some adventures are part of the critical path. I’m not talking about these right now.
What I do is have side adventures. These make the world seem bigger and the campaign feel more complex even though tracking a couple of additional adventure plots is not complicated.
As a bonus, I often find ways to connect side adventures into the main plot once we’re gaming it. And that makes the central story feel deep and rich to my players.
For example, after a few sessions of city play, I might get a hankering for a dungeon crawl. I’ll pull a module off my shelf, tweak the background so it fits in my world and campaign, and deploy hooks. We might game the dungeon as a standalone side plot. Or, I might connect it to another plot and roll it up into that one.
In this way, my campaigns often don’t feel linear or on rails, even though the adventures I use or create might be more traditional and sequential. Because the PCs have a multiple objectives and a pool of choices due to the different ongoing stories in front of them, linear becomes sandbox.
Using these three story types, you can create an amazing lens dilation effect in your campaigns. You have the big plot always churning. You have character side plots added to the mix. And then you can throw in standalone adventures anytime.
Here’s some additional advice on layering and nesting stories:
Story Goal #5. Begin And End With Excitement
Sessions that start slow seem to stay lethargic unless something surprising or climactic happens. But if I can get a burst of energy going in the early minutes, the rest of the session stays full of life.
Here are a few ways to begin with excitement, paraphrased from past tips:
- End sessions with cliffhangers. This way new sessions can pick up right away with where you left off.
- Recap the campaign so far. Tell it like a story. End the recap with the present situation and what dangers or interesting choices lay before the PCs.
- In medias res. Start in the middle of an exciting encounter.
- Roll initiative! Trigger a short and exciting encounter.
- Tease between sessions. Send out rumours, news, and campaign information to keep interest high.
- Secret or revelation. Have the first encounter propel the plot.
It’s also important to end on a high note. Sessions that fizzle out like a balloon leaking air do not provide reward or incentive to play again.
For new groups, ending strong gets players keen to play again.
For established groups, you’d normally take the usual ups and downs and keep playing, regardless. But with consistent great endings, you raise the overall engagement and excitement level of your campaigns, stave off burnout and cynicism, and get that great-game-feeling you can ride with enthusiasm to the next game night.
Here are a few ways to end with excitement, paraphrased from past tips:
- Defeat a stage boss
- Achieve a goal
- Close a plot loop, solve a mystery
- Open a plot loop, reveal a mystery
- Drop some great treasure
- Character sheet improvements
- Character developments
(Note when I use the word mystery I don’t mean the classic type of murder mystery. Instead, I mean something compelling with an uncertain outcome left unresolved.)
Our brains are wired to remember the first and last items in a sequence or experience. The middle stuff gets fuzzy and mixed up. And, unfortunately, we make judgements on lasting impressions, which means we put more weight on the start and end of things than in the middle, where most of the meat actually lies.
If you can achieve a pattern of starting and ending in style, with excitement, you and your group will have more energy and desire to play. Gaming more often becomes easier. So does having more fun.
Story Goal #6. Test The Skills Of The PCs And The Players
The two sides of the gaming coin are players and characters. Because we play an interactive game, we can create challenges for both audiences. Technically, characters should exist and operate independently in their imaginary world. But PCs are operated by players who inject their thoughts, experiences, and style into the fiction.
That gives us an opportunity to play the game at two levels => testing the skills of the players and testing the skills of their PCs.
Study the Character Sheets
First thing you should do each campaign is grab all the character sheets and make notes. Do this again every couple of level-ups or notable power increases.
Character sheets are maps on how players intend to have fun in your game. They are also maps to gauge strengths and weaknesses. And the sheets will guide you to what kind of encounters to build.
For example, a stealthy character will want opportunities to sneak, unlock, and spy their way to the treasure. You could have them stumble onto a reward out-of-the-blue, and while that’ll delight the other PCs, the rogue will be disappointed because he didn’t earn it through thievery.
An even better example is a spellcaster. What’s on his spell list? If it’s full of massive damage, you know to queue up some meaty foes fairly often for him. If it’s full of utility spells, you will need more thoughtful designs. If it’s full of illusions, prepare for some intrigue and deception.
Go through all the character sheets and mine them for ideas. Consider sheets as campaign requests. Think of them as buttons to press to crank up player enjoyment.
Think Experiences vs. Combat
I co-wrote a course about Faster Combat running awesome combats, and during writing it became apparent we were teaching GMs how to create action scenes, not just fights.
We designed templates like CombatScapes, Signature Traits, and Mission Stat Blocks. But during this, we realized we were teaching GMs how to create extraordinary experiences, not just to run combats efficiently.
Test PCs (and players) by approaching every combat encounter as a well-crafted design encompassing:
- Clever foes
- Interactive terrain
- Environments full of spectacle
- Cool missions not solved with mere toe-to-toe dice fests
Approach your whole game this way.
Think about the experiences you create with your designs, roleplaying, and GMing. This gets you thinking about encounters and adventures differently. And you’ll be testing players and characters in wonderful new ways in the process.
Roleplay More And With Seriousness
Get into character more often with your NPCs. Run and portray them like their lives are on the line. Because they are with murder hobo PCs running amok.
It’s fun playing silly Spit the obsequious goblin who trips over things and says dumb stuff. Lots of laughs, lots of fun. But have Spit be willing to serve the PCs with loyalty…until their backs are turned. What happens when Spit breaks the party’s stealth to draw attackers? Or informs on the PCs to the corrupt local lord?
Do this, then have plausible or sympathetic reasons ready for Spit to talk his way out of the situation. “It’s not his fault, the Baron has his family in chains.” “Sorry masters, Spit not as quiet as you, Spit so sorry!” What do the PCs do now? This challenges PCs and players.
Spies And Informants
Next time the PCs sell off those mere +1 magic items, give the encounter an edge that’ll make the players think twice. “The merchant gladly accepts your counter-offer and you sell your stuff. But, Brother Brogan, as you leave the shop you look over your shoulder and catch her eyeing you and the rest of the party up and down, a calculating and greedy glint in her eyes. [Sleep well, guys.]”
It’s Not What You Think It Is
I don’t know about your group, but my players always hate authority. Who wants to bow to an NPC who’s like their boss at work, right? 🙂 If the King is a jerk, I know he’s getting an arrow in the face. And then the campaign is shot. (Pun intended!)
Here’s how to solve this common situation so you can still roleplay seriously with NPCs in authority. Put the NPCs in dangerous dilemmas.
We try to give players dilemmas. But twist that and put NPCs in dilemmas => which then puts players in dilemmas.
What players hate most (again, in my experience) is unfairness, abuse of power, and arbitrariness. And that’s just me, never mind the NPCs! Ba dum bum.
Seriously though, players will empathize with authorities roleplayed with an edge if they know the reasons for the behaviour. For example, the King is a jerk, but it’s because he’s got a potential civil war on his hands with his beloved son leading the rebels. Lots of people are jerks under pressure.
Have a third party make peace so you can still play NPCs with an edge but not turn every situation into murder. For example, a counsellor stands beside the PCs. After you roleplay the King being threatening and demanding, have the counsellor whisper in the party leader’s ear an apology for the King’s outburst because his son has just attacked a village near the forest, etc. etc.
NPCs Have Their Own Thing Going On
Once you get used to roleplaying NPCs with seriousness and gravity, the challenge level of the game goes up. Allies don’t always have to pander, they can champion their own agendas and disagree if they want. Neutrals don’t have to be blow-off encounters, and instead they can create an air of caution, danger, or intrigue.
Such an environment keeps PCs and players on edge, engaged, and challenged.
In your games, be sure to test players and their characters. Do this by targeting character strengths and weaknesses, think about the experience design of your encounters, and game your NPCs with realism.
Story Goal #7. Teach Players A Bit About Themselves
Games mirror life, even if in small ways. However, our beloved roleplaying games have such high bandwidth they relate to life on many levels. (I’m going to quit apologizing for the puns, just enjoy them.)
Think about all the skills we challenge and nurture in our games. We have teamwork and collaboration between players. We have problem solving, imagination, critical thinking, a bit of math. We use words that would be proud to appear in word-of-the-day widgets, like portcullis, stalagmite, and trade wind.
As GMs, we set up situations and let the players game their way out. This might involve negotiation, thinking outside the box, or just learning about good timing.
As our players get smarter, we must get smarter and more creative too. And so we have a positive feedback loop of ever-increasing skills and creativity.
I think good games should teach us a little about ourselves. We learn what we like and don’t like. In my case, I learned Charisma is my dump stat. My lack of patience negotiating with unruly NPCs translates pretty accurately into my lack of patience negotiating with certain people in real life.
RPGs also excel at storytelling, which is the The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brain primary medium in which we learn. The stories we tell express our values and beliefs. And this teaches us a lot about ourselves.
Even though it’s fiction, we have real feelings and real reactions when we learn the villain is enslaving orphans, or that a good NPC just lied, or that the PCs just chose to save one life now while possibly jeopardizing more in the future as a result.
Story Goal #8. Reward Them With Glory
We can hand out many rewards during games, but best of all is glory. The feeling of being a hero trumps gold, magic, and experience points.
I get emails from players telling me about their characters. And do you know what the most common element of all those stories is?
Players most often write in to tell me of their character’s deeds.
In 14 years doing Roleplaying Tips, no one has ever told me how many experience points their PC earned. Instead, they tell me about stuff their character did, or more likely, how their GM blocks them from earning any kind of glory. (Because where’s the glory when the adventure is a railroad, or the GM always says no, or the GM doesn’t let the PCs affect the world?)
Set your adventures up so the potential reward is glory to make your players feel awesome. Here are a couple ways to do this.
Big Stakes Involve People
Saving the world becomes trite if the characters don’t know anyone in it.
The first few times you go deep into the dungeon and save the world from a crazy villain is great. But it’s funny. That gets old after awhile. The players want to spend more time in town doing more than cashing in their gems and duplicate magic items. They want to meet NPCs, get to know them, help them, and even save them.
So in your adventures, create a cast of characters. And fill it with a variety of story roles. Add NPCs who need help, who complicate things (but are still good at heart), and who offer help. Make these recurring characters and roleplay them well so the players form bonds with them.
Then, when the bad guy shows up and poisons their water or creates the drought, the players will feel like the stakes are bigger. Sure, treasure will be there as part of the game should they prevail. But saving their new friends => that’s glory.
Give And Receive Respect
Create NPCs the PCs respect and who can offer their respect in turn.
This is basic human nature. The approval of our peers and respect from those we admire feels fantastic.
Add this element to your games through NPCs. The key is to demonstrate such NPCs are worthy of respect so that, when they give their respect to the PCs, your players will feel it personally.
Something we often miss is respect between characters and villain. A reader once reminded me not all villains need to be evil. Some villains just make bad decisions or are put into difficult situations.
Try to create a villain the PCs can respect, even while they strive to stop the NPC, through force if necessary.
To create respect for any NPC:
- Have them be consistent (no one respects wishy washy)
- Give them at least one good quality (bravery, compassion, etc.)
- Demonstrate the good quality (show, don’t tell)
- Create a personal connection to the PCs (best is through encounters)
- Roleplay and portray them well (cardboard characters don’t get respect)
Once a relationship exists, make sure the NPC witnesses the characters’ deeds or is present for the retelling.
Have the NPC react favourably towards the PCs, perhaps even giving them a small and personal reward that reflects trust and respect, such as an invitation to their home or introduction to a friend of import.
A simple example would be a cheer and chant when the PCs return to the inn and tell everyone the monster is dead. Villagers known by name come up to the PCs and clap them on their backs, praise their bravery, and thank them with sincerity (here’s your roleplaying skills coming to the fore).
Another example would be rival NPCs giving grudging respect the next day during an encounter in the street.
A third example would be the Baron, though a giant jerk and pain in the PCs’ ass, summoning the party to hear the tale first hand and then giving the group hearty and sincere applause.
The path to glory is in service to others.
We all have values. Examples include freedom, family, courage, being smart. Characters will have values too, even if sometimes muddy. Challenge these values so players can earn glory by sticking to them.
Many characters inherit the values of their players. That’s great. I can work with that.
However, some PCs seem to have no values and are just reactionary or thin game constructs. Help players forge values for these PCs in-game through trials.
Past Roleplaying Tips have talked about offering dilemmas and moral quandaries. Use these to test PCs and see how they deal with these situations.
In some cases, a character’s values will shine forth during such tests, clear to GM and player. Great. Make note so you know what to test on future paths to glory.
The paladin who serves and saves the meek should have meek to serve and save. The rogue who has a soft spot for the homeless should have opportunities to defeat the Beggar King or the evil Orphan Master. The wizard who values knowledge should have a chance to discover The Great Library and emerge victorious by using his knowledge to overcome foes.
When you target and test a character value in an encounter or adventure, point this out. If the test is to help a player discover their character’s values, then make the player conscious of the test while it’s happening.
Here again we turn to NPCs to witness and point out the situation through roleplay so we stay in character more often. For example, a prisoner might ask the wizard to have mercy on his captors. “Sir Wizard, will ye value life over revenge?”
Another option is to call it out as GM to player. “Bob, before the group rolls initiative I want to call out your character is in a tricky spot. You’ve still got fireball left, but burning up the abductors is still murder. They’ve done bad things, but what does Grizban value more, mercy or justice?”
A third option is to bring in alignment or the gods. Create a third party, in-game judge for PC actions. The purpose is not to punish or straightjacket players. Instead, the purpose is to observe and point out what values PCs prioritize through their actions. Then you can test these values in future encounters and adventures to offer glory.
A fourth technique involves logging the campaign and recounting character deeds. Maybe you start sessions with a quick recap of what happened last time. So, during this recap you can frame events up in terms of values. Instead of saying the wizard rescued the prisoner, you could say the wizard showed mercy by tricking the captors into a cell instead of fireballing them into oblivion. Now everyone is aware the wizard is merciful.
Remember that glory is closely tied to honour. If the PCs do act like murder hobos, then you’ll have to take a different tack to show them how rewarding glory can be and what they need to do to earn it.
But if the PCs demonstrate honour and positive values, use the four methods above to learn what they are and test them so glory is indeed their reward.
One problem is we let our games devolve into crunch, wealth, and power. As we run adventure after adventure, we lose sight of the tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment glory brings. So this tip is a reminder to put glory back on the table in your campaigns.
Once your group realizes glory is up for grabs, they’ll strive to earn it.
Story Goal #9. Outcomes Affect The World In Small Ways
We’ve talked before about making our game settings dynamic to deepen the experience. Remember those cartoons from the 60s and 70s where the characters acted on a static clip-art backdrop in scene after scene? Spiderman, for example, would web his way through the same city block and pass the same tall buildings over and over. While this reduced art expenses, it also made the city feel fake.
Don’t do this in your games. Make your world change over time as a result of both PC and villain actions.
The problem is, worlds have so many details that making changes might seem overwhelming to choose and track.
I like to change the world in small ways. This keeps the scope down to a manageable level, makes things simpler to track, and best of all, makes great future surprises for players.
Making huge changes might offer surprise, but one time only. Then all resulting effects after that are bookkeeping and expected. But if you offer numerous small changes, you create many opportunities to surprise and engage your group.
For example, a GM in one game gave our town a spreading disease we brought back from crypts we explored. He targeted NPCs we interacted with first – gate guards, merchants, the innkeeper and his family – then had the plague slowly spread.
We did not realize what was happening at first. When we learned the innkeeper got sick, we filed the detail away under trivia, though we appreciated the immersive detail. When his family succumbed, we though uh oh, a plot hook. But when we returned to merchants and craftsmen for our orders and whatnot, we saw the pattern.
Meanwhile, clerics soon became involved. Then they got overwhelmed. Eventually, the King besieged the town with the Third Infantry as a quarantine measure.
And all this was happening in the background while we continued our adventures. We saw a dynamic world and thought it was great. We had to sneak in and out of the city, we hoped we didn’t catch the disease, and we ground our teeth at service delays as merchants closed shops, too sick to take our money.
We were eventually hired to cure the plague, and over the course of several encounters learned we caused it! So we decided to go back to the crypts for research. But the crypts had changed since our last visit. Monsters used the places we cleared out as lairs. A new villain was in the middle of setting up a base. And the disease was transforming foes in terrible ways.
The world kept changing. And we loved it.
Loopy Planning Comes To The Rescue
I turn to Loopy Planning to help track changes. The core of the method is to run through a list of game elements and figure out how they are affected by PC actions, how they respond to PC actions, and how they’ll act next according to their agendas regardless of PC actions.
You can layer setting changes into this process. Think in terms of People, Places, and Things. Just add new line items for NPCs, Locations, and Items to process each passthrough. Remember that NPCs tend to group, so you will want to think of NPCs at the faction and culture level too.
You will also need a way to document setting changes generated from your Loopy Planning document. Just update your world notes as details change. Add a timestamp for each update, so you can create a timeline as you go.
Say you have a wiki for your world. First, copy your whole wiki as a backup and as a possible reset state for next campaign. Then, as details change, update your wiki entries so they reflect current game events. But note what changed, how, when, and why. This gives you an always-current setting handbook.
For example, the entry for the city of Karth used to say it was a thriving metropolis of 100,000 artisans and wealthy nobles. Now it says Karth is a plague city of 50,000, quarantined with the Third Infantry camped outside. Looting, riots, and mayhem add to the daily terrible suffering.
Track With Cast Of Characters
I also keep a Cast of Characters. This is a record of NPCs the party has met, has heard of, or might meet. It also holds NPCs related to my plotting and ideas.
I use MyInfo to track each NPC as a separate entry. Often, I start with a 3 Line NPC and a name. I’ll flesh out the NPC with more details and game stats as needed. In this way I prevent time wasted from over-planning while staying on top of all the NPCs in my campaign.
During Loopy Planning, I’ll copy line items into individual NPC entries, timestamped to help keep my timeline straight.
I can go to any NPC in my file and see their current status, which means tracking details of how they change over the course of the campaign is fast and easy to do and to reference.
Update Your Quartermaster
Also in MyInfo I track notable items, one item per “record”.
As with NPCs, when things change, I just update their notes. The timestamped log helps me see the differential, so I know what changes have occurred and can GM accordingly.
In reality, items don’t change much. Usually it’s ownership or location that changes.
For example, in one campaign the PCs hit a warehouse and discovered a stairwell leading down with sturdy door at the end. They decided to retreat and heal up. Next day, they cleaned the lower level out. In the last, well-guarded room they spotted an outline in the floor where a chest used to sit. Tracks and scrape marks revealed it was taken out a secret entrance into the streets above, where the trail was lost. The tracks were fresh.
But the party found a clue – a unique boot print they’d seen before – and they were off adventuring once again.
In the background, during a break in the session, I had updated details on an important magic item. It was located beneath a warehouse, in a chest, guarded by tough thugs….
When the PCs hit the warehouse the first time, the item was there. But then the party retreated, giving the bad guys not only a warning the PCs were close but also time to react. I went into MyInfo and updated the item entry with its new location.
The important part is I noted the circumstances of the item venue change in a couple sentences. I noted who moved it, when, where, and how. This helped me change the world in a small way, but in keeping with consistency and believability. The update meant I had exact details on the flow and logic I could refer to anytime to prevent plot holes from creeping in.
A classic GMing trap would be to forget about the unique bootprint of the known enemy who supervised the chest and item relocation (and the faint lingering magic aura if the PCs had checked). In the past I’ve reacted to such changes, trying to keep all the details in my head. Those small facts often escaped me. And sometimes that causes logic bombs.
“Johnn, wouldn’t my Detect Magic have picked up the magic aura of the item a couple sessions ago back in that warehouse?”
“Yeah, and I would have recognized Spit’s tracks if he was there because I made a big Spot check when searching that room.”
“Ummm, yeah. But, uh….the chest has a thin lead lining. Yeah, that’s it. And, um, Spit got new boots.”
Update Your Gazetteer
A third section in my MyInfo campaign file is always Gazetteer. Just like Cast Of Characters and Quartermaster, I track all locations and places here.
For dungeons, buildings, and places with rooms, I keep them here too, and I make sub-documents for individual room entries as I design these places.
Same with settlements and cities. These places get a document with overview information, and then nested under them are sub-documents for all the individual locations.
If I’m using a published adventure or location supplement, I’ll take notes down and put them in MyInfo just as if I were designing them myself. This way I can track changes and have them all in MyInfo. But, I only add to MyInfo when things differ from the published materials – I don’t reproduce the entire book, just any new notes and details, if that makes sense.
Other Tracking Systems
There are other ways to track small changes in your world. You don’t have to use MyInfo.
I recently learned Microsoft has made OneNote free for PC, Mac, tablets and phones. That’s a great option.
Long-time readers will also know I also love index card systems. File them in boxes with tabs for categories, and just track changes on the cards. Use Post-Its for another layer of notes on cards.
Wikis are great. I also recently learned one of my favourite wikis, TiddlyWiki, now has a desktop app. Use this to manage multiple wikis, clone wikis (i.e., for new campaigns) and save TiddlyWikis with ease. Nice!
I also like GM binders. Just keep adding notes. 🙂
So while I spoke a lot here about MyInfo, I want you to feel comfortable using any system that works for you as long as you can find details fast and make detail changes easy.
Regardless of your information and world management system, use Loopy Planning to make small changes to your game world between sessions, and even during sessions. This will make your settings feel real, deep, and dynamic.
9 Keys To Your Game
I wrote these 9 story goals over a decade ago. But despite massive changes in game designs and technology, I believe you will still get a ton of benefits from incorporating them into your games today.
Each item past-Johnn wrote down adds to the RPG experience. Each item speaks directly to a core element of our game.
And most importantly, each of the 9 items revolves around the players (and you) in a specific way. That’s what RPGs are all about – the GM and the players. Oh, and having more fun at every game!
That’s it for this week’s issue.