This entry is part 5 in the series Lessons From The West Wing


In the first part of this article, which is itself just the first installment of a series of articles, I discussed the execution and delivery of unique-ness in an RPG campaign, and derived a definition of doing so to a standard of perfection that was achievable in more than a hypothetical sense, that was actually a practical goal:

“Perfection in an RPG is achieved when player contributions synergise with the original vision to produce a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts”.

I then went on to list four elements that were required in order to achieve this goal, and have ended up dedicating a specific blog post to each of them (this article is a LOT bigger than was originally intended!) The second part examined the first of these elements, the initial vision, and how to achieve it; the third considered the creation of a common foundation between players and GM on which to construct the campaign; and the penultimate part discussed the use of a campaign plan to evolve the vision with the passage of game time, and in response to PC actions and choices. In this concluding part, I will examine the final element required to achieve “perfection” (as defined above):

An Evolution Of Character

There are two distinct types of character-oriented evolution that a successful campaign should encompass. The first is that characters should be changed by the events that they experience, they should grow and learn. This is not the same thing as gaining levels or skills, I’m talking about growth in personality. The characters should have triumphs, and failures, and regrets, and emotions – they should care about what they have seen and done. While this can easily be faked by a player, it’s far more satisfying to all concerned if the player actually feels these emotions when looking back over the campaign. This type of evolution is the single hardest achievement in a roleplaying game; first, the players know that it’s just a game, putting them at arm’s length from the events; second, unlike a novel or even a TV show or movie, the players are constantly stepping out of character to deal with events at a game-mechanics level.

Failure to achieve this does not make a campaign a flop; it’s entirely possible to enjoy a campaign while never reaching this level of involvement, and usually “having fun at the table” is a big enough goal to strive for – but we’re talking about achieving “perfection” here, and that means going beyond normal levels of success.

The second type of evolution of character is a way of simulating this level of achievement, by deliberately building “personal evolution” of the PCs into the campaign in the first place, as ongoing subplots. The reason for doing so is that it is easier to make the transition between faking immersion in “evolution by fiat” to actually feeling that level of emotion. If you pretend to an emotion you don’t really feel, it is easier to actually begin to feel that emotion. If you’re feeling down, forcing yourself to smile is a lot harder than being grumpy and short-tempered – but if you force yourself to smile, before too long, you aren’t feeling as depressed. (Note that this advice does not necessarily apply to more serious cases of mental illness such as Depression; I’m not a doctor, and not qualified to dispense professional psychological advice. Consult a professional!)

Evolution from relevance

In many ways, the entire objective of everything that has been written about in this series to date is to achieve the first variety of evolution of character. The initial vision was a canvas and set of pignments; the characters constructed by the players were the brush; the campaign plan was the rough sketch; and the personal involvement of the characters (and hence, hopefully, the players) is the painting. It is only through this level of character evolution that you know you have achieved “perfection” – player involvement is the yardstick of success.

This is why the campaign plan is so intent on making campaign situations relevant to PCs. The more closely a character evolves to achieve what the player wants despite adversity, the more that player will care about the PC. If campaign events matter to the character, and the player cares about his character, then the campaign events will matter to the player. At the same time, if the campaign events matter to the character, and are stimulating or emotive to the player, then they will come to care about the character. These two cycles feed on themselves and each other to elevate the campaign.

Making the campaign events matter is the objective of the campaign plan – taking the raw ingredients, the basic ideas, and making them relevant to the characters is what its’ all about.

Evolution from Reaction

In many cases, players will alter their character’s development to make them better-suited to dealing with the challenges confronting them. In D&D they may take a prestige class chosen to better respond to the challenges that the GM has put before the party; in Champions they may develop a new power, or a variation on an existing power; and so on.

While this is not the kind of evolution that we are striving for, it does nevertheless represent a devlopment of the character in reaction to campaign events. When this occurs, it is CRITICAL to achieving the overall objective that the campaign plan be revised to include specifically targetting the new capabilities of the character, so that the players effort in choosing a new direction for their character makes a difference. By choosing to evolve their character in one particular direction, the player should also be shaping the campaign’s future.

Consider the alternative if this is not done: it signals to the player that his character’s choices of development path don’t matter, which gives rise to a feeling of being on a plot train – even if the players aren’t! This is wholly negative and destructive to the campaign.

For that reason, when a player proposes such an evolution in their character, the GM should look at the consequences in campaign terms and make sure that the player is aware in general terms of the implications. If the player likes those implications, all is well; if not, then perhaps the player’s choice of mechanical evolution should be re-thought.

Evolutions that damage the campaign

It is also possible that such mechanical evolution will sabotage one or more future plotlines that the GM considers critical, by shedding a different light on events, providing a different context to decisions, giving the character the ability to easily thwart what were supposed to be difficult challenges to be overcome, or simply by providing a means of accessing information that the GM has been trying to keep hidden.

When this occurs – and it happens to everyone, sooner or later – the first reaction might be to ban the player from taking the class or power or whatever because it violates the campaign premise. This should be a last resort, and one undertaken only with hesitation. The character belongs to the player, not to the GM.

If that’s the wrong approach, what’s the alternative?

  • Start by attempting to revise the campaign plan to accommodate the new evolution. If this can be done, then there is no problem, the GM can smile and say “sure, go ahead.”
  • The next possible solution is containment: can the character’s new capabilities be walled off by circumstance from the critical information? If the answer is yes, then the player’s new direction simply provides the GM with more ways to connect the character to future events, and the potential damaging abilities actually become a constructive force within the campaign.
  • If the campaign plan can’t be revised completely, can it be revised sufficiently if there is some handicap or re-dressing of the affected plot elements – for example, requiring the character to achieve a cetain goal in-game before the mechanical evolution can be achieved? If this approach can solve the problem, then discuss the situation with the player, don’t simply place the revision or impediment in their way!
  • If you are still faced with catastrophic implications for the campaign’s long term, examine closely the consequences and implications to the character, especially those that they aren’t aware of, or are not taking into account because the player doesn’t know what the GM knows behind the scenes. It can be better to game out an attempt by the character to achieve class ‘X’ and then change their mind (without penalty) because things aren’t what the PC expected them to be. This gives a clue to the GM’s future plans that he hadn’t intended, and necessitates a revision of the campaign plan accordingly, but it can be less damaging to the campaign in the long run than the alternative. Again, this is something that should be discussed at a metagame level with the player BEFORE the GM puts such a strategy into motion.
  • If none of the previous solutions will solve the problem, or if the player refuses to go along, then the GM is faced with the difficult choice of inflicting lasting harm on the campaign or banning the class outright – inflicting a different but no less lasting form of damage. Either can potentially put “perfection” out of reach. Perhaps the player can be bargained with, for the good of the campaign – revising the ability to remove the most damaging aspect of the abilities in return for some form of compensation. Either way, the GM is now in a situation of (relative) desperation, if “perfection” is to be achieved. When this occurs, it’s time to aim for something less than perfection, and ask the difficult questions of what will provide the most fun to everyone concerned?

It has to be said, however, that except in unusual and rare cases, any such circumstance is a sign that the campaign plan is not (and probably never was) as robust as it should have been. The plan should anticipate such problems and players should have been told up front, in the house rules, that specific classes or abilities or whatever are not available to PCs. If it is essential to the campaign that no-one in the party be a Mage, the GM should know that up-front and should make sure that the players know it up-front as well.

Evolution from Design

The final type of character evolution to be considered is building evolution into the campaign with the full knowledge and cooperation of the player. This works by the player deliberately designing a flawed character, one that is not quite the way they want the character to be at the end of the campaign, and by charting a “personal journey” designed to take the character from A to B in the course of the campaign.

Some of my players have grasped this idea instantly, others have had great difficulty understanding it. In a nutshell, the process is:

  1. identify an aspect of the character that you want to change;
  2. create a subplot or series of subplots in which the character undergoes a personal crisis as a result of this aspect of their behaviour;
  3. suggest a means by which they can overcome this crisis;
  4. justify the change in character as a consequence of the crisis;
  5. roleplay (at least once) the process by which the character achieves that change.

A variation is to have the character end up exactly as they were, despite the crisis, after some form of fall from grace and redemption.

These key points – which shouldn’t be spelt out in great detail – then become raw material for the GM to build into the campaign, plot elements to which he can connect other parts of the storyline.

For example, a character who is “trusting” might have a simple plot arc:

  1. Character meets someone socially who seems trustworthy, develops a friendship;
  2. Character is taken advantage of by the ‘friend’ but does not mind (the warning sign);
  3. Friend gets into serious trouble and solves it by getting the character into the trouble instead (precipitates the crisis);
  4. Character resolves the crisis;
  5. Character confronts the ‘friend’, and learns the life lesson that not everyone can be trusted.

If the goal was to restore the character’s innocence at the end, then some additional plot steps will do so:

  1. The character becomes suspicious and mistrustful (the over-reaction);
  2. Character turns away someone who approaches them for help (the foil);
  3. The ex-’friend’ (feeling guilty over what they did to the character) gets into trouble helping the foil (2nd crisis);
  4. Character rescues ex-friend and foil (resolve the crisis);
  5. Character’s confidence in people judgement is restored, ex-friend is rehabilitated in character’s eyes. ‘Friend’ may then leave to search for the cure to his own problems without further burdoning the character.

The GM is left free to tinker with the nature of the friend (co-worker, childhood companion, drinking buddy, employer), where and how they meet, the nature of the troubles, the relationship between foil and the other participants, and so on. He can put a number of ‘place-keeping’ encounters (ie encounters which only maintain the status quo and do not advance the plot) between the character and the other participants into the campaign in between the significant stages of the plot arc, and so on. The player gets to roleplay the friendship, the crisis, the feelings of betrayal, the overreaction, the reluctant rescue, and the resolution – all aspects of the character’s personal life and personality that might otherwise have been nothing more than a notation on the character sheet (“trusting”). He can link these plot elements to other events taking place in the campaign, in ways that fit the genre. The result is that the overall plot arc constitutes a heightened level of personal involvement within the campaign for both the player and his PC.

Player-targetted evolution

If you know your players well, and especially know of a subject on which they have strong opinions, you can sometimes be tempted to forge a bond between player and character by placing the character in a position where the solution comes from adopting the player’s attitude to the subject, or where you challenge the player’s opinion in-game in order to achieve drama, or where you outright disagree with the player and attempt to ‘educate’ them using in-game examples. I have just one piece of advice to offer about such temptations:

DON’T DO IT! EVER!!

The game is not your personal soap-box, and others may have opinions that are different but just as strongly held. You might be right, or wrong, or there may be more than one ‘right’ answer – or NO right answer. The whole thing is a recipe for confrontation and arguement, and it’s metagaming of the worst sort.

If the player makes it clear that the character has specific beliefs or philosophies, those are fair game – but never target the player.

Even then, be wary of attacking principles that the player and character have in common unless the player is mature enough to seperate his personal feelings and beliefs from those of his character – and there is only one way to know for certain, and that’s to jump off the deep end BEFORE you know whether or not you’re wearing concrete joggers.

It’s simply not worth the risks, either to the campaign, or to the friendship with the player (which can easily be affected).

In Pursuit Of Perfection

Even if you carry out everything that’s been discussed, there is no guarantee that a campaign will achieve perfection. The unknowable “X-factor” is ever-present and can derail anything at any point. But at least, if you achieve all these things:

  • a vivid, unique, and uncompromised initial vision;
  • a common foundation for players and GM to build on;
  • a campaign plan that evolves with time, circumstance, and involvement by the players; and,
  • an evolution of characters within the campaign;

…then you have a fighting chance. And, almost certainly, a better campaign.

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