Getting your players to lead the way

A number of my recent articles here at Campaign Mastery have been derived from conversations with other GMs on Twitter (yes, readers, we GMs do actually talk to each other – and no, it’s not to find better ways to screw the players, well usually not.)

Today’s article derives from just such a discussion between myself and Chris from Osaka (@HyveMynd) which started with an interesting quotation by @NewbieDM: “At a typical rpg table, with 4 PCs and a GM, the burden of the story lies on 20% of that table”.

The Burdon Of The Story

Now, some GMs don’t agree with this quote, and many more only begrudge a qualified agreement. Nor was there a consensus over whether or not this was the way things should be. Personally, my opinion is that some players are pro-active, and go out looking for the adventure, while others are passive, and wait for the adventure to come to them. It only needs one proactive player in a group for a significant redistribution of that burden.

My personal preference, and the approach that I employ in my superhero campaigns, is that a healthy campaign requires both approaches. I like to develop adventures that force the players to drive the plot forward, with some plots involving the PCs simply because they live in a world in which certain events are taking place, and others which involve the PCs because they derive from the characters themselves.

The Passive Approach

The key with the passive approach, where the plotlines come into existence and entangle the PCs within their narrative, requires a couple of key structural elements to be present within the adventure. They must:

  • derive from the actions, personalities, ambitions, and/or choices of NPCs;
  • have consequences that the PCs will care about;
  • engage the interest of the players;
  • promise the style of play that one or more players desire; and
  • be internally consistent and logical.
Adventures that derive from the actions, personalities, ambitions, and/or choices of NPCs

There are two sources of adventures that are worth noting within the Passive Approach. The first are plots that derive from previously-encountered NPCs. A would-be world conqueror won’t give up just because the PCs beat his plan into submission the last time around; he will attempt to determine where the flaw in his plans was, and look for ways to neutralize that factor or even turn it into an asset. Revenge, or previously-thwarted ambitions, make for powerful motivating factors.

A sub-source within this category are plots that derive from character actions, as the NPC strives to take advantage of, or undo, consequences of events from a previous appearance. A PC revealing a previously-unknown technology, a serendipitous side-effect, and a calamitous discovery, are just a few of the myriad of sources of such plotlines.

Bonus kudos may be awarded if the GM takes advantage of the opportunity for some personal growth in the instigating NPC’s character. Show something more about them, or have them change (perhaps just a little) as a consequence of their first encounter with the PCs.

The alternative source of adventures within this category stem from the GM having a plot idea and creating an opponent whose personality and/or ambitions will bring about that plot.

The richer the palette of NPCs within the campaign, the more likely it is that the right fit can be found between plot and an existing instigator, but it’s better to create a new foe than try to shoehorn an NPC into the role of instigator of a plotline that doesn’t quite fit.

When an adventure connects with a previous one in this way, player engagement with the plot happens more quickly because part of it will carry over from the previous plotline. That means the players will get involved in the plot more quickly and take a more active role in furthering the plotline.

Adventures that have consequences that the PCs will care about

These consequences may derive from the ultimate outcome of the plot (if the enemy succeeds) or be a byproduct or stepping stone of the plot. If the PCs have invested a lot of time and effort into setting up an Inn, threaten that Inn. If one of the NPCs cares about children, put some in danger. If a PC is addicted to coffee, threaten an import ban.

Don’t continually reuse the same shtick; find different ways to involve the PCs soft spots.

Take that Inn, for example: Having a noble threaten to confiscate it should only happen once. Threaten it indirectly by disrupting supply, by having a rival open its doors, by having the PCs overlook an obscure licensing fee or law, by threatening them with a health inspection after a plague of rats. Threaten it directly by a maniac running rampant through the city who likes to light fires, by a criminal or con-man taking lodgings there, by having an NPC (who doesn’t actually own the inn but who is associated with the PCs) losing “title” to it to the Thieves’ Guild in a game of cards, by having someone who is being chased by the watch take refuge within, by robbing a wealthy patron, by a storm that leaves the roof in need of repairs – after a minor incident or misunderstanding angers the builders at just the wrong time, by having it be located exactly where a mystic conjunction is going to take place, releasing some monster from the nether planes… if the PCs care about the inn, treat it as an NPC and look for ways to get IT involved in the plots. By virtue of the bond they have with it, they will care about the plotline.

If the adventure matters to the players, they will more readily act to further the plot.

Adventures that engage the interest of the players and avoid the dis-interest of the players

I have one player in some of my campaigns who loves mysteries but hates roleplaying detective stories because he is no good at solving mysteries. I have another player who hates big, “cosmic” stuff going on, but who enjoys sci-fi and space opera. A third player loves figuring out what’s going on a metagame level, getting inside my head and figuring out why things are happening and what’s going to happen next – and who absolutely lives for the times when a completely logical plot twist takes him completely by surprise, but who is easily bored by routine. A fourth player can’t stand to be a fifth wheel for an entire session of play – but doesn’t mind his character taking a back seat if he personally is enjoying the story.

If you can get the players engaged in the plotline, their characters will follow. If the players are not into the plotline, no matter what it might say on the character sheet, involvement in the game will only be half-hearted. So it’s important to be able to assess what your players want (even if they don’t know themselves, half the time), and if the day’s menu features something that won’t interest one of them, make sure it offers that player some other vector of connection to the plot, something else within the adventure to focus on.

If the plot interests a player, he will be more ready to get involved in it.

Adventures that promise the style of play that one or more players desire

Some players like intellectual challenges; others like to perform; some want to thump something. There are many different attempts to analyze player preferences out there in internet-land, and none of them have ever been completely convincing to me. Nevertheless, there are some styles of play that obviously appeal to a particular player more than others, and its important that the style of an adventure appeals to at least one player, who will then tend to take the lead in furthering that plot. If the plot doesn’t appeal to anyone – if the players are all thinkers and the adventure is a hack-and-slash masterpiece – they will act to reinforce each other’s negative perceptions; things will start badly and go downhill from there.

An essential distinction to make is the difference between this point and the preceding one. The earlier criteria was about the content of the adventure; this is about the style and tone of the activity within it.

If a plot lets a player do the type of things he enjoys having his character do, the player and his character will work to drive the plot forward.

Adventures that are internally consistent and logical

The final point to be considered under this heading is that adventures have to make sense. If there is a logical disconnect, it derails not only the suspension of disbelief, but the depth of motivation for the players to do something, get active, get involved – drive the plot. It will confuse them and make them second-guess themselves, or simply give up and say “it doesn’t matter what we do” – not a happy outcome.

The only flaw that comes close to being this bad for an adventure is an anticlimax. When a plot twist is revealed, you want to try and make the player’s jaws hit the deck – hit the table, at a dead minimum. When combat is about to come to a head, make sure it doesn’t end with a whimper but with a melodramatic roar with fireworks, explosions, lights, sound effects, and the kitchen sink.

Plotlines that don’t make sense force the players into introspective mental attitudes, trying over and over to find some rational explanation (that isn’t there), analyzing the whichness of the why not instead of making quick and decisive decisions and bold moves that will drive the plotline forward.

The Interactive approach

But, so far as I am concerned, all of the above are the lesser approach, that should make up no more than 40% of a campaigns plotlines (preferably 25% or so). The dominant source of adventures, which should get the players to drive the plotlines forward, are those resulting from the Interactive approach, in which the players have an active role in developing the adventures for the campaign.

I have a five-step process for achieving this. But before I go into specifics, there’s a caveat to admit to.

Aiming for the next level

The process that I am going to describe is the one that I am using for my current Zenith-3 superhero campaign – for the first time. The previous Zenith-3 campaign used a similar approach later in the campaign, but one that was not quite as developed; a still more-primitive version before that; and a barely-recognizable antecedent for the campaign’s first three or four years. At each stage, the evolution in the process & procedure has been logical – but at the same time, I have to admit that the current implementation is still in the promising-but-unproven category.

It should work. All the indications are that it will work and is working. But this is the bleeding edge of my development in this respect, and it is possible that it has gone too far.

It is also possible – even probable – that what works to a given standard within my campaigns will work to a different standard in another GMs games, with different players and GMing skills and preferences and circumstances.

All of which means that those reading this should be prepared to dial it back. Expect fewer plot threads or less complicated emergent plots or less tightly-plotted interconnections – none of which will mean very much to anyone yet, since I haven’t yet outlined the process, but the warning is there and will be reiterated as necessary.

Step One: Backgrounds Of Depth – with loose ends and integrated plotlines

The process starts with demanding that each player create a character background. In fact, it goes further than that in my campaigns: bonus building points are awarded for minor plots, for major plots, for plot hooks, for new and interesting NPCs, and for integration with established campaign background and canon.

Some definitions:

  • A plot is an adventure outline, with beginning, middle, end, and consequences, usually contained in written text between one paragraph and one page in length. It should be taken for granted that any player-provided plot will be revised substantially – if not completely – by the GM; it’s an outline of an idea for something that the player thinks would be fun for the character to play through.
  • A Minor Plot comes and goes with only minor consequences. It is a plotline that will be only one-to-three game sessions in length, the general content of each being specified within the written material submitted by the player.
  • Major Plots are more substantial, with subplots before, during, and after the main plot, and with deliberate potential for significant impact on the life or circumstances of the featured PC. The player has to indicate the general content of both the plot, offer suggestions of the subplots that lead to the main plot, explain why this plotline will be so significant to the character and what the changes within the character will be afterwards, if any.
  • Plot Hooks are loose threads in the characters background which the player has left unresolved. The player may or may not offer some indication of how he would like to see the loose thread resolved.
  • Shallow NPCs are little more than names and perhaps shticks.
  • Medium-defined NPCs mention the NPC’s objectives, techniques, and style in addition to the elements of a Shallow NPC.
  • Strongly-defined NPCs further detail the NPC with background, motives, and at least an indication of the character’s psychology, in addition to the elements of a Medium NPC. The result is a blueprint for the construction of the character.
  • Integration with established campaign background and canon, at its simplest level, simply requires that the character background does not contradict anything in the campaign background. A slightly more substantial approach ensures that established events in the campaign background are reflected in the character’s background in a logical manner, shedding new light on the events or their consequences. At it’s most innovative, the character background may turn an established event on its head, completely reinterpreting what took place without altering the outcome of the event or contradicting the experiences of the NPCs (and/or former PCs) who experienced the events at the time.

Some examples: (all invented for a fictitious, non-existent, campaign):
(I’ve decided to forego examples and discussion of background integration, simply to keep the size of this article manageable!)

  • A Minor Plot by the player of Cocoa-Bean: Cocoa-Bean is kidnapped and magically reprogrammed to think she is Queen of the Lima Beans, who are under threat by a horde of bulldozers under the command of the Evil Developer. A simulacrum takes her place amongst the Bean Crop to buy the kidnapper time for Cocoa to complete the task she has been assigned, but the Simulacrum lacks drive and the ability to make decisions, while Cocoa is the leader of the Bean Crop. In part one, the substitution takes place and the PCs have to overcome a dangerous threat without the leadership they have come to rely on; the simulacrum will inadvertently make the situation much more dangerous. In part 2, the PCs overcome the simulacrum and follow the kidnapper’s mystic trail, guided by the power of cocoa, whose true identity emerges when she sleeps, an extremely hazardous journey as they will have to overcome the kidnapper, who wants no interference. In part 3, the PCs rescue Cocoa only to discover that the kidnapping was for a Noble Purpose, and have to deal with the menace of the Evil Developer and his bulldozers before returning home.
  • A Major Plot by the Player of Vanilla Bean, with input from the player of Cocoa Bean: Summary: Vanilla bean is haunted by an evil future self who attempts to take control of the young bean’s actions in order to ensure that the evil future self comes into being. Pre-scenario subplot: Vanilla begins making mistakes in battle, having some difficulty with decision-making, and experiences heightened levels of aggressive tendencies intermixed with angst. She will have trouble sleeping and become noticeably tired and short-tempered. This should transpire over a 10-day period, game time, with each day exhibiting more severe symptoms (to a maximum of half the time).
    In part 1, evil-future-Vanilla takes total control of young-Vanilla for a short period of time at the height of a battle with the Wicked Lemur, leading young Vanilla to attack full-strength despite the presence of, and danger to, hostages. As a result, Wicked Lemur will escape when the other members of the Bean Crop divert from their planned and coordinated attack to protect the hostages. Afterwards, she won’t know what came over her.
    In part 2, evil-future-Vanilla will act to sever the growing relationship between young-Vanilla and Runner-bean, attacking Runner when his attentions grow too cloying for evil-future-Vanilla. The viciousness of the attack will add to the growing concern of her team-mates about Vanilla’s stability. As the team search for clues as to where Wicked Lemur will have holed up, Vanilla will take matters into her own hands, attacking a number of old cronies and former allies of Lemur to ‘force’ information about Lemur out of them. As a result, they become even less inclined to cooperate; Vanilla’s solution is to become even more aggressive.
    In part 3, Vanilla disobeys a direct order from Cocoa-Bean and interrogates Ferret Whistler so hard that the elderly former criminal suffers a major heart attack. When reprimanded by one or more of the team, she physically attacks the members criticizing her before quitting the group to go her own way. She warns the team to stay out of her way or she will reveal the secrets of the Bean Crop.
    Part 4 takes place a couple of days later; the Bean Crop’s attempts to track down Wicked Lemur have come to naught, while Vanilla has been cutting a swathe of destruction through the seedier parts of the City, and is now just as big a threat as Lemur, if not worse. Cocoa resolves that when next Vanilla reveals herself, the team have to treat her like any other Villain, regardless of the consequences. They don’t have long to wait; somehow, Vanilla has located the nursing home in which Wicked Lemur’s aged grandmother resides, and is threatening to destroy it if Lemur doesn’t reveal himself within the hour. The remaining members of the Bean Crop are about to depart to stop Vanilla – any way they have to – when the mysterious Tomato The Conqueror, a sometimes villain sometimes ally, appears and announces ‘this must not be’. He reveals to the team the interference of evil-future-Vanilla and offers them the chance to stop her before it is too late, because this is the act that will make evil-future-Vanilla’s existence inevitable – a being of darkness and evil who will destroy the Bean Crop and subjugate not only the planet but lay the foundations of an empire that will eventually crush freedom throughout the galaxy. Tomato will offer the team a bargain – if they promise not to oppose Tomato the next time they meet, Tomato will take the rest of the team forward through time to confront evil-future-Vanilla in a contest for the soul of their team-mate. Of course, evil-Vanilla will have grown in power in the intervening period, so this will be no simple challenge…
    Part 5 shows Cocoa-bean reluctant to agree to Tomato’s terms, citing suspicion about his motives. Tomato takes the team into the future to show them the dystopian nightmare that the world will come under the heel of, should they not agree to his terms. Eventually, Cocoa is forced to agree. The under-strength Bean Crop engage evil Vanilla. At the height of the battle (and the end of the game session), Tomato is revealed as a cybernetic rebuild of what was left of Cocoa Bean after Cocoa was almost killed by evil Vanilla. (Note to GM: This may be a deception on the part of Tomato – which is why Tomato did not reveal it when trying to convince the team. As always, Tomato is working to his/her own agenda.)
    Part 6 resumes with the Bean Crop attacking Evil Vanilla in 2112 while the villainous former member reacts to the revelation by Tomato. If they can take advantage of the distraction caused (and not get caught up in the shock themselves), they can slowly seize the advantage over Evil Vanilla; even if they don’t win, they can succeed in severing evil-Vanilla’s temporal connection to her younger heroic self. As soon as that is done, back in 2012, they undo the event that creates Evil Vanilla in the first place, so she fades from existence. Tomato, emotionless, even icy-cold, returns the team to the past (proving with the very fact of his/her continued existence that the ‘revelation’ was a trick, or was he/she protected from the change by being outside normal time when it took place? Tomato is always deceptive). The team can then confront Vanilla, who has come to her senses, with full memory of what she has done but thinks it was all her own idea.
    Aftermath: When the Bean Crop finally catch up with Wicked Lemur, it will transpire that he was hiding in a place with no access to media at all – he didn’t know about the threat to his grandmother and couldn’t have answered young-evil-Vanilla’s threat even if he had wanted to. Which means that if not stopped in 2112, Vanilla – dominated by Evil-future-Vanilla – would have carried out her threat. She will have to come to terms with what she did, and with the dark potential that she has found within her. The team, also knowing of that dark potential and never quite being sure of what might bring it out again, will no longer trust Vanilla to the same extent that they used to. Her personal relationship with Runner Bean has been damaged perhaps irretrievably. On the rebound, she will start to hook up with individuals who are the exact opposite so that they don’t remind her of Runner – bad boys, in other words – which (under the circumstances) will not exactly reassure the rest of the Bean Crop. Finally, there is the promise to Tomato – when will that chip get called in, and will Cocoa Bean honor the deal when the time comes?
  • A Plot Hook from the player of Runner Bean: He got his costume from a trunk in his parent’s attic. He has no idea where it came from.
  • A Shallow NPC from the player of Runner Bean: Sweet Pea attempted to seduce him into letting her go, not realizing how young he was. He ignored her charms and took her in.
  • A Medium-defined NPC from the player of Cocoa Bean: Coffee Bean is not really a bean at all, he is a mushroom who has been surgically rebuilt into what he considers a higher form of life. Since his hybridized existence is “naturally” superior to all others, he naturally should rule it all. To this end, he hybridizes other residents of Florina City, building their obedience into their very genetic code. While some of these hybrids are obvious, such as the immensely tough coconauts and the nightmarishly over-sized Karrots, some appear externally unchanged; using these hidden hybrids, he has infiltrated virtually every branch of the local authorities. You never know where one will be located, and any NPC can at any time be converted – then returned to their normal lives.
  • A Strongly-defined NPC from the player of Vanilla Bean: Beetroot Borer rules an underground kingdom of blind asparagus. Hidden tunnels connect him with cellars and underground structures and utilities all over the city. He only needs to pass close to a telephone cable to be able to hear what is being said, and can comprehend hundreds of conversations at the same time. He greatly resents being forced into this underground existence, and is naturally melodramatic and over-the-top in everything he does. Anger, cruelty, and frustration are never far from the surface, and he will be destructive just to see something in ruins. He is infatuated with Vanilla Bean, who he wants to make his Queen, but she can’t stand his bloated red appearance. He doesn’t realize that his asparagus citizens are mildly psionic and collectively bind him to them, which is why he can’t abandon them despite his loathing of the underground lifestyle he leads.

Some notes on these examples::

  • The Minor Plot by the player of Cocoa-Bean: This is barely adequate as a minor plot. Motivations are weak, the NPCs are weak, and the plot is somewhat cheesy. There’s just enough there for the GM to work with.
  • The Major Plot by the Player of Vanilla Bean, with input from the player of Cocoa Bean: This is a far more substantial plotline, and one that would only be possible with the cooperation of the players in question. The player of Vanilla Bean will obviously also play Evil-Future-Vanilla. Note that the only actions, decisions, or reactions by other PCs which are ‘pre-scripted’ are the planned reactions of Cocoa-Bean to the offer by the manipulative Tomato, and a continuation of romantic advances by the hot-blooded Runner Bean; the latter is predictable, an ongoing relationship the two have developed in roleplay, and the former is acceptable only because the author of the plotline has consulted Cocoa-Bean’s player and posed a hypothetical question about how Cocoa would react. Despite initial appearances, there is no real railroading in the plot; all actions are instigated by Vanilla or by an NPC. The plot would take very little additional development to be ready to run – details of Future-Vanilla’s abilities, the villainous Wicked Lemur, some locations and some flavor text.
    More importantly, this shows the power of the technique. A GM should never come up with a plot like this, it changes a PC, and relationships between PCs, too fundamentally – unless, of course, the players ask him to craft an adventure that brings about these changes. But as a plotline goes, it’s pretty stonking good!
  • The Plot Hook from the player of Runner Bean: Barely adequate even as a plot hook.
  • A Shallow NPC from the player of Runner Bean: Also barely adequate, though the idea of a would-be seductress named “Sweet Pea” in such a campaign has promise. There’s something both alluring and mysterious in the name – a lot of flavor.
  • A Medium-defined NPC from the player of Cocoa Bean: The player of Cocoa Bean is showing a predilection for certain types of plotline, between this NPCs background and the earlier Minor Plot – something the GM should carefully note. There’s a definite X-files ‘tinge’ here.
  • A Strongly-defined NPC from the player of Vanilla Bean: There is some real depth and imagination in this NPC, and some subtle nuances that are only hinted at. While the name is not of the same caliber as “Sweet Pea”, and might well be changed by the GM, the personality and characterization are very deep. The same can also be said of “Tomato The Conqueror” from the Major Plot. Vanilla Bean’s player is also definitely showing a preference for complicated plots with subtle and deep characterization. This is the sort of thing that I really love to GM – a challenge, but loads of fun if I can pull it off.
Step Two: One Weaving To Bind Them

The GM links these loose plot threads and NPCs together into an overall tapestry and integrates them into his overall plot. For example, he needs to establish the character of “Tomato The Conqueror” long before the plotline with “Evil Future Vanilla” takes place. After that plotline, he can use a “Bad boy” relationship between Vanilla and some other NPC to lead into another plotline. I’ve discussed this sort of integration in past articles quite extensively – consider:

…so I don’t think I need to go into too much detail. If I were constructing the “Bean” campaign, perhaps I might link the psionic Asparagus-people with the true origin of Tomato the Conqueror, for example. It’s about taking ideas from two or more people and weaving them together.

More importantly, and this is why all this discussion is present here, because of the involvement of one or more players in developing the plot, to some extent, the passive phase has already taken place, and the players concerned are ready and willing to drive the plot forward with little or no effort from the GM.

Step Three: Plots that Offer to Screw with The Characters

Yes, I know – that subsection title makes it sound like I am now advocating exactly what I said a GM shouldn’t do, in Step 1 (when discussing the “Dark Vanilla” plot). But it’s not quite the same thing: that plot does screw with a character, with that character’s player’s full connivance. What I’m advocating here is occasionally crafting a plot that will have a negative impact on the PCs if they don’t act – but leaving the choice of reaction as open as possible.

By virtue of the GMs prior choices of what resources (contacts, equipment, etc) he has already made available, and the creations of the players at the time of character generation and approval, the choice of reactions is pre-sandboxed.

This pushes the players into action, rather than standing around talking about what they might do, which can help develop the habit of driving the plot, at least somewhat. I find this subtype of solution to be especially useful after a plotline with a lot of roleplaying and not a lot of combat.

If the situation can’t possibly get any worse, the players are encouraged to “do something – anything – about it” and reassess the situation. You want at least one of them to say “This is something we can do” and for the others to reply “Then let’s do that”. Or to put it another way, get the players – when confronted by a seemingly-insoluble problem – to immediately act to solve any part of the problem they do understand, then look at what’s left.

The secret to the success of this approach is that the GM isn’t really out to screw the players, or even the characters; he just wants to make them sweat for a while. He is a double-agent, working on behalf of the evil plot that he has hatched at the same time as helping the PCs achieve their goal of achieving a solution to the plot.

Step Four: Consequences are a dish best served cold

Keep track of what the PCs do and use the consequences (both intended & unintended) to build a new plot. To some extent, the players will see this not as a new plot with a new passive phase, but as a continuation of the old plot. Once again, they will already be predisposed to action, because that action will be perceived as an extension of what they had already decided to do. When your campaign consists of nothing more than a chain of consequences to an initial ‘seed’ planted by the GM, it will be fully player-driven, at least that is the theory.

In practice, the GM will need to stimulate circumstances with fresh seeds from time to time, but 95% player-driven campaigns should be quite achievable.

Step Five: Tie it all together in a way that makes it personal

The final step is to connect more character-derived plot threads with these actions and consequences to bind your plots to the PCs. Players are far more pro-active when their characters are already directly involved.

The Passive-Interactive Campaign

In combination, the passive and interactive techniques outlined above should make the players co-conspirators in driving the plots, relieving the GM of much of the burden described in the quotation given at the start of this article. And that’s only fair – the players have at least as big a desire to make the campaign successful and enjoyable as the GM does. Using the interactive approach, besides generating plot material for the direct consumption by the GM, gives valuable clues as to how to identify the content that meets the requirements of the passive approach. Together, the two are more powerful, and more effective, than either would be on their own.

But there’s an up-side for players, too: there is less likelyhood that the GM’s plots will be detrimental to the player in unexpected and undesirable ways for the sake of involving the PCs more intimately in the action if they have pre-selected the plot hooks they want the GM to “use against their characters”.

Your campaign will be the real winner, and both your players and yourself will be the beneficiaries. Bargain!

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