January 10, 2011

Do Your Players' Characters Care?

You’ve read about setting stakes, and about making sure you have robust quest hooks, but how do you do these things if your players aren’t invested in the game world? It should be obvious if they players treat NPCs as props they’re not likely to be invested in them, so you need to give them a reason to care about what goes on by making it personal.

This starts in character creation. No matter what diverse group of abilities the character has, they had to learn it somewhere. Extrapolate what type of training a particular character would have needed to become what he was. A wizard was probably taught some of what he knows. A warrior had training. A jack-of-all-trades drifter has a street he still thinks of as home. Think about these things, and make the player aware of them.

From there, approach backgrounds. Some systems have mechanical benefits for fleshing out character backgrounds, and if you’re using one of those systems, awesome, use them. By offering the proverbial carrot you get information out of your players that they have some investment in, because it made their character’s numbers better. But don’t stop there.

Ask where the characters are from, who their families are, where those families live. Why is the soldier loyal to his country? What place of the game world did they always want to visit? Each question you ask makes your players think about the world as a place, and not just a sandbox, investing them in the answers they give because they took the time to put it together.

Use those answers to build your world. If your player mentions a mountain range they call home, erase a label on your world map, or add a mountain range where there didn’t use to be one. Any organizations that your players give you incorporate into the world building; they have to exist somewhere and using them rewards your player for having come up with them.

The other option is to not to develop your world without your players. Don’t change details, let your players create them. This is the same as changing your world, except you save yourself effort. It does take some planning, and you need to write off your first session for character creation (Aren’t you doing that already?).

After that, all you can do is make the world care. Change details if you have to. Don’t do nameless damsels in distress, pick someone related to the party. The evil organization has someone involved the players know. The army isn’t bearing down on a random town, it’s coming straight for one of the party’s home. The important thing to remember is not to take it away arbitrarily, threaten it so they move to protect it.

To make it clear, if you destroy things and take things on a whim, with little plot reasoning and no ability for the players to stop it. Threaten what they love, but don't take it unless they fail a reasonable challenge or choose to let it go.

My last piece of advice is pretty basic, but basics are important. If your players go after an NPC, they probably are interested, it’s now your job to flesh the NPC out even if it was a throw away built off a random table of personality traits. Their interest is good, and everyone has more fun when everyone is interested.

Alright, readers, your turn, any ways to catch your players’ interest I didn’t put here?

Related:
Great post on collaborative world building at This Is My Game.

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