Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Incentives that make the things that the genre of the game is supposed to be about mechanically advantageous are one of the big blind spots in the field of game design. That should be the primary focus of the whole body of game mechanics for each game. Everything else is secondary.
I think this is largely dependent on if you are aiming for a specific bespoke experience, or a general sim style system. If you have X specific IP on the cover, than yeah it better be designed to lean into its themes.
 

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Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Incentives that make the things that the genre of the game is supposed to be about mechanically advantageous are one of the big blind spots in the field of game design. That should be the primary focus of the whole body of game mechanics for each game. Everything else is secondary.
Strong disagree. Genre mechanics are only worth it to me if the goal of the play experience is to tell a story in a particular genre. If your focus is on creating a verisimilitudeinous world and letting the PCs loose in it, genre mechanics harm immersion by rendering the experience more artificial, at least to me.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Incentives that make the things that the genre of the game is supposed to be about mechanically advantageous are one of the big blind spots in the field of game design. That should be the primary focus of the whole body of game mechanics for each game. Everything else is secondary.

I first noticed the truth of that when reading the VtM rules when they first came out in the early 90s. The writing in the rulebook and the concept was at the time compelling and interesting, but it didn't take me long as a GM reading the rules to realize that all the incentives in the system were set up wrong to achieve the sort of gameplay the book claimed to have as its target. The rules were in fact a total mess on so many levels and examples of play appeared focused on interactions between a single GM and a single player, which wasn't going to be the normal situation that would prevail in play.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Strong disagree. Genre mechanics are only worth it to me if the goal of the play experience is to tell a story in a particular genre. If your focus is on creating a verisimilitudeinous world and letting the PCs loose in it, genre mechanics harm immersion by rendering the experience more artificial, at least to me.

Then the correct genre mechanics for that sort of game will tend toward "the game rules are the physics of the game universe" where the game rules then strongly simulate the expected behavior and interactions of characters with the imagined game world and produce the "common sense" outcomes reliably.
 

Yora

Legend
I think the idea of truly universal and generic rules systems is a bad one to begin with.
When you design something to be capable at everything, it's by nature not great at anything.

We already have hundreds of RPGs, we don't need a single one that can suit all possible use cases. It's better to have a range of tools available that each is designed for different use cases. And I believe it's impossible to play a campaign that is completely open ended and in which everything could happen regardless of expectations. People bring in expectations of what kind of story they are in, and it's better for everyone to be on the same page.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I think the idea of truly universal and generic rules systems is a bad one to begin with.
When you design something to be capable at everything, it's by nature not great at anything.

The problem is the alternative is when someone wants to run a campaign that's off the beaten path they end up having to do a lot of system design themselves, or potentially use something that is great at something else, but not really well suited to what they're doing.

Swiss Army knives have a purpose, even if dedicated tools are better for dedicated purposes.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
And I believe it's impossible to play a campaign that is completely open ended and in which everything could happen regardless of expectations.
Quite possible and my favorite way to play. It does take a very proactive mindset for players to grasp it. This style is certainly not for everyone.
People bring in expectations of what kind of story they are in, and it's better for everyone to be on the same page.
This is what a campaign primer and session zero hammer out for open ended games.
 


Clint_L

Hero
Here's my approach to making a comparatively open-ended, sandbox style campaign. I'll use my current home game as an example.

I knew the players were going to be arriving in a bustling, mercantile coastal city, Nicodranas (I'm using Explorer's Guide to Wildmount), so before the game I came up with a bunch of different story threads. One involved the usual jobs board lead on some work, which might lead to a relationship with a local Archmage who has some jobs that could use doing. Then there are some other events going on that they might notice in the newspaper, or pick up rumours about - a disappearance at the theatre, an attack on some street folk, a stolen relic from a shrine, ta kind of thing.

I don't plan any of these out in much detail. Instead I build out the setting with some interesting locations and NPCs, lots of whom might link to one thread or another. And on the first game in the new setting, the PCs just sort of poke around until something grabs their attention. They are also following up on their personal story, so that can also lead to unexpected events.

Once the players start developing a particular direction, I narrow my attention for the next session. In this case, the PCs wound up taking a job to go help out a village on the edge of the nearby wetlands, which relied on harvesting frogs until some kind of creature had recently started terrorizing the workers. That was all I had going in, so before the next game I came up with an antagonist and gave them some motives: a local hag didn't like the villagers starting to over harvest and hurt the ecosystem of her beloved swamp, so was using her froghemoth to scare them off. Okay, the PCs eventually made their way to her hut and confronted her, sort of haggling but ultimately getting into a fight and killing her beloved froghemoth before she plane shifted and escaped. The party returned to the village to deliver the news but also decided the hag had a point so decided to intimidate the villagers to stop the over harvesting. End session.

So for the next session, I just ask myself, what would the hag do next? She's a hag, so a typical behaviour might be to haunt someone's dreams, slowly weakening them until they die, so that's a decent starting point. But I don't use alignments, so why would she do that? Just vengeance? That's a bit thin, but hags also like to bargain, so what could she get? Plus, the party kind of get bonus points for helping out on the frog over harvesting. So she starts in on the old dream torment gimmick but uses it as leverage to get the party to agree to find her a new pet and help her reunite with her long lost sisters, while one of the party members countered that she also wanted help with a possession issue she'd been having (total player side invention that she'd been hinting at for awhile) and now they are off to find the hag's missing sisters.

Phew. That's a ton of story, and that's only the half of it, but aside from my bread crumbs everything is driven by player choices and NPC backstory. None of it had to happen - I don't have some sweeping campaign narrative, and had the players simply made a different choice at any number of points, the current story would be completely different.

So for me, the key is to not write plots, but to write locations and NPCs with wants and needs, and then see what the players do with it.
 

Clint_L

Hero
So I guess my thing is that I see a lot of fantasy RPGs driven by the imperatives of fantasy novel plots, which are almost always grandiose. I think those sorts of stories almost always need to railroad the players - after all, if you have to stop the BBEG to save the world, then that's going to determine almost every choice that you make. I greatly prefer smaller stories driven by character wants and needs, both on the part of the players and the NPCs. It creates stories that emerge out of our role-play and that create character depth and emotional resonance. And because the plots are truly cooperative, I get to enjoy finding out what happens.

Until last weekend, I had no idea that hag had sisters, or that one of them was now living with a group of yetis and caught in some inter-yeti politics (yep, that's happening). And now I can't wait to see where it goes.
 

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