Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

Thomas Shey

Legend
Personally, scale, in the absolute sense, isn't important to me, nor do I think it makes much difference in terms of play or system. Mervyn Peak's famous fantasy trilogy, which is every bit as detailed and elaborate as LotR, Gormenghast, takes place almost entirely within the confines of the castle itself!

Of course Gormenghast is likely bigger than all but the biggest cities. Its nothing resembling a normal castle.
 

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I have the impression that there are multiple related things called "immersion." Some examples I see, like this, make sense if "immersion" consists of a strong concentration on the character's background and thinking, trying to frame everything in terms of their personal psychology and drama.

That's not what immersion means to me. Trying to relate everything to background and psychology feels more like soap-opera to me. What I try to do with "immersion" is inhabit the entire person of the character. That includes background and psychology, of course, but includes their skills and abilities, and all their other available resources, be they material, social or organisational.

So my influence over the fiction outside the character comes from the character doing things: making plans, buying or otherwise acquiring equipment, asking NPCs and the other PCs to do things and creating details that the GM has not specified, but seem plausible. This approach can be carried out without leaving "actor stance," or otherwise breaking immersion. It does require a fair amount of concentration, but it pays off, for me, in being more enjoyable.
Mmmmmm, I assume this is a comment on narrativist systems, but I don't understand what would make one think these sorts of systems neglect 'skills and abilities'. Honestly, every one of these systems has some sort of handling of these kinds of factors. Dungeon World, for instance, doesn't have 'skills' per-se, but it does have moves and character features which portray what characters are good at. I'd also point out that D&D didn't get skills for almost 2 decades, so things are not really all that different.
 

Of course Gormenghast is likely bigger than all but the biggest cities. Its nothing resembling a normal castle.
Its large, but not THAT big, and only a small number of people seem to actually live there. In fact it is described as having a castle village nearby where some of the locals live, IIRC. Its certainly VASTLY less extensive than most fantasy worlds, yet the petty power struggles and goings on of its people are every bit as engaging and 'deep' a story as the whole history of Middle Earth.
 

Mmmmmm, I assume this is a comment on narrativist systems
No, actually. It was a comment on the variations of "immersion." Some narrativist systems emphasise character psychology and inner drama, but I've also run across cases of people playing traditional systems with that as their priority, calling it "immersion", and alienating the other players and the GM from the concept of immersion. I tend to find that needing to switch between "actor" and "author" stances spoils my immersion, but clearly many people don't have that problem.
I'd also point out that D&D didn't get skills for almost 2 decades, so things are not really all that different.
Some of us old-timers built skills mechanics from the non-weapon proficiencies of the Dungoneer's Survival Guide and Wilderness Survival Guide (both 1986) and are still using them.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
No, actually. It was a comment on the variations of "immersion." Some narrativist systems emphasise character psychology and inner drama, but I've also run across cases of people playing traditional systems with that as their priority, calling it "immersion", and alienating the other players and the GM from the concept of immersion. I tend to find that needing to switch between "actor" and "author" stances spoils my immersion, but clearly many people don't have that problem.

Some of us old-timers built skills mechanics from the non-weapon proficiencies of the Dungoneer's Survival Guide and Wilderness Survival Guide (both 1986) and are still using them.
Also, player skill is a thing. If you don't have a mechanical separation between player and PC, as many narrative-based games do, player skill can feel just as immersive (by whatever definition of that word you're comfortable with).

That being said, personally I still prefer some kind of skill system.
 

Yora

Legend
Well, this thread has taken some strange turns over the months. But I actually have some new thoughts on the subject I started with. Might as well share them here.

As it turns out once again, system matters.

And having recently found a new skill based fantasy game that I actually like the looks of, I am feeling that the main error I made going into this entire thing was to approach it from the perspective of a party of 1st level D&D characters.
The level based system of D&D means that if you want an NPC of a given class to be really good at one of the abilities of its class, you also have to raise all the other abilities of that class to the required character level. That means if you don't want to cut out two thirds of the game like in an E6 campaign, you'll end up with an NPC population with a very broad range in power levels from the generic classless 1 HD guardsman to the 10th, 15th, or even 20th level high priests and court wizards. As such there is going to be a huge gap in power between new starting PCs and the top 20 movers and shakers of the setting. (Of course you can start the campaign with PCs with 100,000 XP, but in a game where XP are meant to be earned and representative of accomplishments, this always feels hollow to me and any further level you gain unearned as well.)

In skill based systems, all the individual skills advance separately and characters can just be really good at their specialization without having to be overall amazing in all the fields of their archetype. Which to me means a much easier time to have new starting characters with zero advancement be people of status and reknown and who are capable of contributing meaningfully in the big events of the campaign region.

I think the real takeaway from this is that the PCs have to be the most important people on the stage. They are supposed to be the protagonist of the story and the campaign is supposed to be their story.
Which doesn't mean they have to be the strongest people in the game world, or even the strongest people in geographical area in which the campaign takes place. But they have to be real contenders for control over the environment and community in which the scenes of their story take place. In a game about street gangs fighting over turf in the harbor alleys at night, the PCs don't have to be able to fight and defeat the knights of the castle or the sorcerers of the magic school. But they need to be able to stand up and challenge the biggest baddest bastard in the harbor. No equal to him in combat power, but able to have a real shot at winning a fight if they can corner him alone and all jump him at once from the shadows. And they don't have to be able to do it right away, but it needs to appear to be plausibly within reach in the foreseeable future.

That's when you really can let the players get proactive. The conflicts that matter in the scope of the campaign and the narrative stage it takes place on need to be at the scale of the PCs' abilities. Of course you can have a campaign about ordinary townsfolk trying to survive in a city that is getting torched by barbarians. But in that campaign the conflicts that the players would be dealing with would not be about defeating the barbarian king in battle and driving out the invaders. That would be the story of a very different group of protagonists.

The conflicts that make up the story of the campaign need to be on the same level as the PCs. If the conflict happens at a scale way above the PCs' abilities, then the players can only be spectators but not drive the story. As a background context a conflict that is way above the PCs' heads can work very well, but that can't be the conflict that the players get to primarily interact with.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think the real takeaway from this is that the PCs have to be the most important people on the stage.

Regardless of game system, I do this by controlling the size of the stage.

As starting characters, they are the most important people in the immediate environment. As their renown increases, these young but gifted persons are recognized as local heroes and as some of the most capable people in their local community - certainly the most capable people still in the prime of their youth and health. Plus, those people in the community who are considered important, are often considered important for handling administrative matters, or performing some trade, or for skill in rhetoric or business. None of that necessarily translates to a lot of skill in delving into the depths of the earth and fighting cosmic horrors. Sure, people in the community might respect an 80 year old great-grandmother for her long-accomplished life and treasure trove of local knowledge, but she probably isn't spry enough to be spelunking in some cold and muddy cave anymore.

As the characters grow in power and renown, so does the scope of the story they find themselves in. They go from being one of the groups fighting against the dark powers (or whatever it is they are doing) to THE group fighting against the dark powers - the one that matters, the one that keeps going where all the others have failed, the one that all the others look up to. And if along the way, there are at every point somewhere out there characters more powerful than these characters, well they are currently engaged in their own stories - they aren't central to this one.
 

Anon Adderlan

Explorer
Existing games like BitD and DW don't, IME, fall prey to this to any great degree.
On the contrary characters in BitD are explicitly and mechanically held together by a central mission. It's literally the core premise of the game.

Is it really enough to tell the players you want them to treat the PC's like stolen cars?
No.

Or do you perhaps need to actually incentivize that in some way?
More so you need to clearly present the procedures you want them to engage in, as it doesn't matter what other incentives you provide if the players don't find the central activity itself rewarding.

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.
All RPG mechanics are genre mechanics. It just so happens your familiarity with the 'real world' renders them invisible.
 

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