How can you make the players feel like their actions have an impact on the world?

Ask the gamemasters

Sometimes, the simplest questions have the most complicated or profound answers. So it was with some trepidation that we’ve approached this question, which was asked virtually exactly as it’s quoted at the head of this article.

The short answer is, you can’t. You can’t make anyone feel anything, and you can’t get people to feel like their actions have an impact on the world unless those actions actually do make a difference.

So the real questions are far more complicated:

  • How can the players impact the game world?
  • How are the consequences of PC actions determined?
  • How do the PCs become aware of these consequences?
  • How can the GM ensure that the Players recognise the connection between action and consequences?
  • And how can the administration of these changes be kept practical?

These are all big, beefy, questions, with answers both complicated and profound…

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer: Every stone makes ripples in the pond

The title of this answer says it all very succinctly – everything the PCs do ultimately has an impact on the game world, or it should. Nothing occurs in isolation; it always has a context, and it is impossible to observe an event without interacting with it – and that interaction has consequences that the context defines.

Even if your campaign is nothing but a series of dungeon crawls in which the party invades some collection of lairs and kills or drives off the inhabitants, it does not exist in isolation. The (intelligent) escapees are far more likely to get out, and will spread word of the prowess of the party; when they enter a subsequent dungeon, they will be recognised and NPCs/intelligent creatures will react – either with stronger and more determined attacks that are targeted against the PCs known or imagined vulnerabilities, or by setting up traps to delay the party while the monsters sneak out the back door – with their loot, thank you very much – and go somewhere else.

Eventually, alliances will be forged with the sole purpose of curbing this danger, and acts will become more desperate and dangerous; kobolds will summon devils and pledge themselves to dark service if the devils will only deal with this terrible threat.

The next step up in campaign sophistication is to have the PCs interact with someone outside the dungeon in some limited way – they might stay at inns, buy products and services, sell unwanted goodies, and so on. The people they trade with will do their best to operate at a profit, so some of them will grow rich, and some of those who do will start doing things with their money.

Other businesses of the type the PCs are dealing with will spring up in competition with those already established; established businesses will trade hands; businessmen will start dabbling with political ambitions; others will oppose these newcomers, and may even target the PCs that are the source of all this wealth (since money equals power); some traders will get greedy, and try to gouge the PCs. There will be people who want a share of the wealth, earned or otherwise, either as an act of charity, or from an act of deception. Initially, these will be local effects, but in time they will grow.

A further step in sophistication, and dungeons begin to fade or even vanish as a source of adventures. The PCs get involved in local politics and whole scenarios take place above ground. Instead of being sources of great wealth per se, the PCs become the world’s problem solvers, dealing with Orc Raiding Parties and Thieves Guilds and Corrupt Nobles and so on.

Always, the trend here is for bigger campaign worlds and more involvement with the bigger picture – and that means bigger and splashier consequences. Ultimately, at higher levels, a careless word can influence commodity markets and political systems. Some people will become self-appointed champions of the ’causes’ the PCs espouse, and some of them will go too far. The PCs will be treated like rock stars, and everybody knows that they never have problems!

Determining the consequences

Every action has someone beyond the PCs who benefits, and someone who is disadvantaged. There will be those who agree with what the PCs have done and those who don’t. There will be those who want to take advantage of what the PCs have done, and those who want to stop them, and those who want to take revenge for past acts. And always, there will be the growing reputation and wealth to consider.

Identify all of these, decide how they would go about trying to achieve those goals, and then look at how these NPC actions will impact the PCs. Because nothing shows players that their characters are having an impact on the world better than the world having an impact on the PCs.

Revealing the consequences

Not all of the consequences will have a direct affect on the PCs. Not all of them will make an immediate difference. Sometimes, the relationship between cause and effect will be distant and obscure.

The most immediate impacts should be fairly obvious, and might even be mundane or trivial. If a character buys a meal from a particular trader on their way to the dungeon and tips well, there might be two or three traders offering the same meal when he emerges. The following trip, there are half-a-dozen traders, and they start elbowing each other and fighting amongst themselves to be in the best position.

The time after that, the trader that the PC has bought from most often has a sign up describing his wares as the PC’s favorites. The time after that, and that business has expanded, and put on more staff, and people start going to that establishment to meet the PC. The time after that, and a number of rival businesses have closed, and one that’s struggling has hired someone to burn down the ‘favored business’.

The time after that, and security guards have been added and the PC has a ‘reserved section’ just for him. A bard tries to curry favour by forcible serenading the character with a song he’s written about his favorite food. The time after that, and a rival ambushes the PC. The time after that, a punk kid looking to make a reputation shows up to challenge the PC. The time after that, and the businessman is complaining about all the tax increases that have been aimed at his business since it has become so prosperous. The time after that, perhaps some ‘businessmen’ are insisting that the merchant join their ‘insurance’ scam. The time after that, and a young female shows up, insisting that the PC is the father of her child. And on and on and on….

You might have to spell it out the first time for the PC, but it will soon become a running gag within the campaign, and something that the players will even look forward to – especially if you (usually) play it as not-quite-deadly-serious, or even outright as light relief.

The more distant and obscure the relationship between action and reaction, the more the GM has to sell the relationship to the PCs. If that means that the NPC involved has to spell it out (“You didn’t really think that you could interfere with the Brewer’s Alliance and get away with it, did you? Selling the Flask Of Never-ending Amber Fluid was the last straw…”), then that’s what he should do.

It only takes a couple of running gags and a persistent background ‘hum’ of other consequences, and the players will have absolutely no doubt that they are having an impact. With more experience and practice at it, you will start seeing these consequences as ‘blatantly obvious’ and start linking them together to form a more substantial structure:

  • Act 1
  • Consequence 1 of Act 1
  • Consequence 2 of Act 1, plus Reaction 1 to Consequence 1…

… and so on, while at the same time, you also have

  • -
  • Act 2
  • Consequence 1 of Act 2

… and so on again, each act adding ripples of consequence and reaction until the accumulated effects completely alter the campaign.

Keeping It Practical

The easiest way to keep all this practical is to let those consequences and reactions that don’t offer the GM interesting opportunities to affect the campaign fade away into insignificance. Limit the scope of the effects according to their level of interest to you, in other words.

The more groups you have predefined, the easier it is to run down the list and pick out those that are most likely to have an interest in any given PC act; if you also keep that list fairly generic but pick out one or two specific example(s) to take action, you start populating the world with specific groups with the potential to interact with the PCs.

Some of these groups will appear, do their thing, and then vanish, never to be heard from again; but the outcome of that confrontation will start its own ripples. Other groups might become a persistent thorn in the PCs sides, or a piece of omnipresent campaign colour, if more ideas about how to use them come to mind. I’ll generally put any group to one side once I’m finished with it, but every now and then I’ll run over the list of such groups to see if any new ideas for using them occur to me.

The Effect On Campaign Design

When most GMs first start to design campaigns, they set up a magnificent structure with everything predefined and predestined and packaged and labelled and in it’s place. They then can’t bear to see their grand plans fail to come to fruition, and the result is a series of plot trains.

With more experience at consequences, and a little more thought, A GM can learn to design campaigns that are like supersaturated solutions – campaigns that consist of nothing but opportunities for the PCs to cause someone to react in an interesting manner, to cause something to crystallise out. The campaign itself becomes an environmental landscape, a backdrop against which the choices of the players and the characters that they control define the adventures that will take place. Every action, and every failure to act, simply defines a future scenario. And every such scenario brings with it new opportunities to act, or fail to act…

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer

How can you make the players feel like their actions have an impact on the world?

Whew, that’s a big question. As Mike alluded to, I would decide right now if you are a hard core world builder. If you have the time and passion for extensive world design, then I would take a simulation approach to this question.

Build a detailed world

To know what impact the PCs will have you need to know what there is to impact. In the simulation approach, you need to build up the details of your world to create an inventory of potential consequences for PC actions.

Go play the Civilization video game for several hours. Get a feel for the rhythms of change and what types of things change. See how the physical, political, and economic worlds change. Watch how cities change. Look at the impact of technology and world wonders.

After playing Civ for awhile, look at your own world through the same lens. Get out your maps of civilized areas and see how they might interact. Look at your pantheons and see how they interact. Get a grasp of the economics and resources of your world and determine how things are currently balanced.

With the big picture stuff out of the way (I brushed over a lot of stuff there – quest for more world building advice online) focus on the adventuring area. Put detail into the power structure: authority, resources and wealth, military and muscle, the leaders and power brokers.

Then use a local area world building process to flesh out the adventuring area so you will know what is in play and at stake when the PCs start to create their ripples and waves.

You should also check out resources such as A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe to help build the pond the PCs are in.

Stick with what is in the spotlight

If you are not a hard core world builder, because it does not interest you or you do not have time, then you should narrow planning down to the pond the PCs are playing in. Forget the ocean.

Pick two notable events and one minor event

After each session note the events that occurred in the game. Key in on events that involve the outside world – NPCs, locations, items.

For example, last session the PCs in my game had some intra-party conflict. A cursed sword and barbaric code is causing one PC to descend into madness, and the savage warrior and civilized wizard nearly came to blows. However, all events were contained within the party. So, the world does not need to react to this. Perhaps if an NPC was spying on the PCs and he reported back to his master, then the world might indeed react to this information. But that wasn’t the case.

With a list of events in hand, pick two significant ones and a seemingly insignificant one. Figure out cause and effect for just these three events. If you have time you could tangle with more events the PCs were involved in, but three gives you a nice number.

Use the 5 Ws

As discussed in a recent issue of Roleplaying Tips, take each event and run it through a series of questions using Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Write down ideas that come to mind.

Use encounters to broadcast changes

Interacting with repercussions is the best way to show the PCs how they are having an effect in the game world. Turn answers to your 5 W questions into encounter seeds. Run encounters as they trigger.

If encounters do not trigger then let some expire (see Close loops quickly, below). Let others merge into new encounter seeds (i.e. the situations evolve and develop without further PC interference).

Use NPCs to broadcast changes

Within encounters, the best way to communicate how the PCs have changed the world is through NPCs. Through NPC interactions you can bring the full range of consequences, emotions, and gameplay options into effect. NPCs, by their nature, are interactive.

For example, if the PCs cause a fire you could certainly use that location for future encounters. First encounter you describe the ruins. Second encounter there you describe early repairs. Third encounter a month later you describe the new building and the new warning sign.

However, those situations become much more interesting if PCs meet the victim(s) of the fire and interact with them. In the second encounter PCs could meet onlookers and repairmen. Third encounter PCs meet the victims again plus the new bouncer or guard or city watch. Each of these NPC interactions can illuminate the suffering and cost of the fire the PCs caused, where conversation, combat, and puzzles are all possible encounter elements.

Use NPCs to show players the effect they are having on the setting.

Use reputation

An easy technique for creating a reactive world is reputation. Have word of PC actions and descriptions precede them in encounters. Have NPCs call them by name before introductions are made. Have NPCs act based on gossip, news and opinion received before ever meeting the PCs.

Generate sycophants, rivals and enemies

Bring in new NPCs – or even better, have known NPCs change their relationship with the PCs – to be rivals, enemies, and people who seek to gain personal advantage from their relationship to the player characters. Generate these relationships because of events and PC actions. Be sure to illustrate this via roleplay and encounters.

Close loops quickly

If you are using the spotlight method, keep changes happening quickly and be done with their effects just as quickly. If you want extended repercussions, and layered consequences, then I advise moving toward more of a world building approach.

The PCs will be doing so many things each session, on average, that you will not be able to keep up with all the causes and effects, especially if you carry over a lot from previous situations. Resolve things quick and move on to the next three actions you choose to act upon between sessions.

Those are a few tips for making players feel like they are making an impact on the world. Hopefully they help.

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