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What is at stake for the PCs?

pemerton

Legend
As some of you will know I've been playing a fair bit of Prince Valiant lately. In my most recent actual play thread I posted this quote from the rulebook: Normally death [of PCs] is not an important part of Prince Valiant.

What is important? Glory. Family. For some of the PCs in our game, piety. And also the integrity of their holdings. A couple of sessions ago one of the players used his Storyteller Certificate - a fairly precious "player fiat" resource - to make his newly-married wife fall in love with him, so that she would uphold the changes he had made to the Duchy out of personal loyalty to him, rather than revert to the cruel ways of the previous Duke, her father.

What drives the action in your RPGIng?
 

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pogre

Legend
For many of my players their PC motivations crystallize through play. It would be easier on me if they had clear goals, but we are a pretty relaxed group.

My latest campaign began with the PCs inheriting a fief on the edge of the empire. Part of character creation was coming up with a reason their character was named in this unusual bequest. Inherent in the inheritance was a pathway to nobility and standing within the empire. Clearing the fief of monsters, trying to make it economically viable, and staving off competing warlords have been the immediate goals.

The group has largely bought into the concept. However, for some players it is still just finding the next combat, and I am OK with that.
 

uzirath

Adventurer
In my experience, even light-hearted dungeon crawls work best if the characters care about more than preserving their lives and gathering loot. Behind the curtain, it's also about hooking the interests of the players through their characters. Mysteries can often work well here. I know many players who would care less about the death of their character than the fact that they wouldn't be able to find out who had betrayed them. Currently, I'm running a very low-key Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh adventure with a mixed group of adults and children (ages 7+). They discussed burning the mansion to the ground when they first arrived because they thought this might take care of the hauntings in one fell swoop. But, as one of the kids said, "But then we won't find out what's really going on." Clever kid. Now they are deeply enmeshed in the unfolding story, brimming with questions about the details.

In a game where I'm a player, our first campaign arc was to rescue the fiancé of our holy warrior/princess from a distant prison. Since the princess was a PC, and the arranged marriage was part of her backstory, we were all pretty into it. After many distractions and an extended journey, we eventually discovered that the fiancé was, in fact, a demon-in-disguise. Now we're heading back to the home kingdom to find out whether the Queen was in on this or if her main advisor is corrupt. (We have some clues that suggest the latter, but we aren't sure yet.) Each character in the story has a slightly different motivation (some are just in it for the money), but it's safe to say that all of the players are fully hooked and eager to excise whatever infection has taken root at home.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What drives the action in your RPGIng?

That varies wildly from game to game, campaign to campaign, character to character.

I'm currently running an Ashen Stars game. Each character has their own desires, but the group as a whole has a couple that drive them - 1) Get Paid*. 2) Try to keep thousands, millions, or billions of people from dying.

In this campaign... the players may shortly be in a position to satisfy each of their personal desires, in total, and never have to worry about money again. And, doing so would also stop a war! However, it would elevate to effective godhood a creature of... questionable ethical and moral stance, and to do it they might have to release a horde of self-replicating combat robots on the galaxy, and might rewrite the timestream.

All with very little personal bodily risk.

Meanwhile, I just started playing in a new D&D game. The characters... still haven't found themselves yet. I'm working with the basic motivations of, "don't be like the rest of your family, who are generally horrible," and, "satiate an insatiable curiosity."


*This is not merely about getting rich - some of the characters have cybernetic bodily systems that have, on normal human terms, truly atrocious upkeep costs. Packing away enough money to retire is not an easy task for them.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
I find that there is a consistent sliding scale of what is at stake that is largely controlled by the number of participants in the game:

If you have very few players, say one or two, or at most three, then play is or can be dominated by the personal stakes of the participants. That means play catering specifically to the player's individual aesthetics of play, whatever they are, play driven by individual character arcs and individual character backstory. A small number of players allows play to cater to exploration of character, either individual players discovering who their character is and exploring what it is like to be someone other than themselves, or low melodrama where characters immerse themselves in thespian RP with the goal of creating emotional scenes.

But the more players you have, the less time you can spend on those scenes that really serve only one or a few player's aesthetic goals. If you have 6 or 8 or 12 players, you can't spend a lot of time on low melodrama with deep character exploration because not only would you never get anywhere in the story, but three quarters of the game would be players serving only as an audience to another player's game play. It might be hours before your turn came to participate, and this is really not an ideal situation.

So the more players you have, the more the game is about group stakes, and group stakes are almost always set by the DM and involve some larger plot afoot in the world. The more players you have, the more the game tends to be about combat, because tactical combat is one of the few situations where everyone can and must contribute to the success of the group, and where everyone has meaningful choices to make on a regular basis. Other sorts of challenges, it almost always makes sense for one player or one subset of the group to overcome by themselves, simply because they are better suited to do and the situation is not one were more numbers provide meaningful assistance. Likewise, the more players you have the less time you can spend on individual character stories, and the less immediate impact a particular character's backstory has on play, and the less proactive a particular player can be in deciding what the stakes of play are. Simply put, the more players you have, the more the stakes of play have to be a result of a consensus, and that consensus almost always tends to gravitate toward, "Let's follow the plot." provided the plot is even remotely interesting.

Of course, this can happen with smaller groups as well, either by choice because following the narrative and challenge are the player's preferred aesthetic of play or simply because the group lacks the experience or skills to play in any other way. But with larger groups, it feels very much like the choice of aesthetics is forced on you, both as a GM trying to manage such a large group and a player trying to play cooperatively with others.

Personally, as long as everyone has fun, I don't think it matters what aesthetics of play that a game caters to, but I do think that designers often fail to realize that some aesthetics of play can't really be central to play unless there is a small group involved. So there is a certain snobbery amongst designers who design games for and play test with 3 or fewer players, that their games are more advanced and simply better more mature games than traditional RPGs which evolved out of play by tables that catered to a large numbers of players.

And I've also regularly encountered games where it seemed like the process of play was intended to cater to aesthetics of play that focused on the actions of a single player and a single GM, and it was never at all clear how the game would be played if you had - as is usually the case - more than one player. That is, it was never clear from the text how the describe game could be shared by more than one player. I think the most obvious example of this was the original Vampire: The Masquerade rule book, where all the examples of play were about the internal struggles of a single player exploring the boundary between being human and being a monster, where as in practice basically no group played the game in that way because they played it as a social game with fairly large groups and the game as described couldn't be supported within a large group. In the case of more obscure games where the examples of play all involve solo play, I often wonder if anyone is actually playing the described game, or if the game exists solely in the experience of someone reading the rulebook.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I've enjoyed the way Paizo's APs have often built in hooks to keep PCs motivated with the main arc of the plotline and, for the most part, we've found them reasonably natural and easily adopted.

For example, in our Skull and Shackles game (Paizo's piracy campaign), we found ourselves in possession of a pirate ship and crew... that had once been someone else's. And he, at that time, was quite a bit more powerful than us and had his own pirate fleet at his command. So we spent quite a bit of time building good relationships with other pirate captains and strongholds just to try to deter him from taking retribution. It was a pretty good and natural motivator in our decision making and, of course, fit in well with the long term flow of the campaign and its intrigues.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But the more players you have, the less time you can spend on those scenes that really serve only one or a few player's aesthetic goals. If you have 6 or 8 or 12 players, you can't spend a lot of time on low melodrama with deep character exploration because not only would you never get anywhere in the story, but three quarters of the game would be players serving only as an audience to another player's game play. It might be hours before your turn came to participate, and this is really not an ideal situation.

This is true... when all the action must be directly mediated by a single GM. You can totally have large groups of players with tons of melodrama driven by individual aesthetic goals if you decouple from the GM, and largely allow the players to go off and have their moments in small groups on their own.

This basically becomes the live-action model. Mechanical adjudication is decentralized to allow folks to walk away from central focus on the GM.
 

Celebrim

Legend
This is true... when all the action must be directly mediated by a single GM. You can totally have large groups of players with tons of melodrama driven by individual aesthetic goals if you decouple from the GM, and largely allow the players to go off and have their moments in small groups on their own.

This basically becomes the live-action model. Mechanical adjudication is decentralized to allow folks to walk away from central focus on the GM.

All true. Which is I think precisely why LARP became almost the defacto way to play VtM. It allowed you to have those small moments of personal drama that were supposed to be central to game as described, while at the same time allowing a larger group to cooperate in a social manner.
 


uzirath

Adventurer
My group is motivated by four basic principles: spite, greed, petty-mindedness, and irrational affections for inconsequential NPCs.

I have found that last motivation, whether rational or not, to be a powerful stake in most campaigns. PCs get attached to NPCs and thus begin to care about protecting them or supporting their goals or opposing their antagonists, etc. Or the opposite—most of us have probably played in games where we were out for revenge against an NPC villain.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I have found that last motivation, whether rational or not, to be a powerful stake in most campaigns. PCs get attached to NPCs...

In my Ashen Stars game, one of the PCs got attached to... a tall, ugly bird-like creature that goes "honk" a lot. It is of an endangered species, and its eggs were getting smuggled around as a food delicacy.

PCs are weird.
 

Numidius

Explorer
I'm running the introductory adventure for a Trail of Cthulhu game, provided in the core manual, which actually revealed itself being a proper scenario of Cleveland, summer of 1938, based on real life murderous events.

Pcs have chosen their own basic drives during char gen, for the explicit purpose of solving the mistery, and, pretty much, that was it.

We took a spontaneous relaxed approach, and instead of focusing on the main investigation, the Pcs delved on the many side story elements of the scenario and I improv/prepped new linked situations from those detours, to a point in which, instead of those rather two dimentional Pcs, I've seen how the Npcs are becoming recurrent and developing their own motivations and willingness to follow closely and interact with the players' main line of investigation, as the supernatural mistery slowly unfolds; such as to act in the interest of an affiliation, for personal political advantage, forbidden lore, redemption, vengeance, disinhibition after exposure to Mythos, self awareness... And the like.

We're into half a dozen sessions, and still navigating in deep waters, regarding the core clues examination and comprehention.

From my perspective the above is unexpected and welcomed.
The scenario is inspiring enough that I want to spend a long time in it and have the chance to develop my Npcs thru a prolonged play, while, hopefully, fostering the same mentality among the players.

I soon abandoned the actual rules for action/combat resolution, in favor of a full player facing style, using the non-combat/investigative ruleset as guideline, meaning less dice rolling and a lot more interactive roleplay with the Npcs, punctuated by resource spending on the Pcs side.

They are only recently experiencing the blandness and ineffectiveness of their characters, the need to take back the reins of the investigation itself in a setting in which the Gm's characters are more nuanced and proactive, than just mere info givers and clue donors.
I may ask them to (re)consider the drives and pillars-of-sanity of their Pcs as the basis on which to chose courses of action in the story, and, eventually, build a personality that they will enjoy playing and also risk losing, along with their Sanity ;)
 

I have found that last motivation, whether rational or not, to be a powerful stake in most campaigns. PCs get attached to NPCs and thus begin to care about protecting them or supporting their goals or opposing their antagonists, etc. Or the opposite—most of us have probably played in games where we were out for revenge against an NPC villain.

Very true. My current campaign, currently 24 sessions in, has as it's linchpin a NPC whom I intended to be used as a single-encounter 'color' event.
 

Aebir-Toril

J.C. Denton probably
Very true. My current campaign, currently 24 sessions in, has as it's linchpin a NPC whom I intended to be used as a single-encounter 'color' event.
My PCs got attached to a Githyanki who I never intended to be a major character. They were devastated when she fell in combat.

Similarly, a Human scholar (who still lives) became an unlikely ally.
 

In the Blades in the Dark game I’m running, there’s all kinds of motivations that drive play. The game is very much about the Crew and its rise. This is in line with the stated play expectations. The idea is to create something that will last beyond the PCs, since their lives as violent criminals will not likely last.

So there is always the goal of pursuing their criminal enterprise. They’re Hawkers....purveyors of illicit goods...and they’ve established a pretty good position for themselves. They’ve made alliances and have a good deal of clout, but they’ve also made enemies....and they’re far from the top of the heap.

Each of the PCs has personal goals, as well. Many are related to their criminal enterprise, but I find that to be very organic.

The Spider PC (a master manipulator) is an attorney who’s been stripped of his license to practice law. His goal has been to be reinstated, and he recently managed to pull that off, so now he’s going about reestablishing himself in the city’s legal circles.

Another PC is in a relationship with a Spirit Warden, which are basically arcane investigators. He wants to keep that relationship despite the fact that his crew deals a drug that is supernatural in nature....the kind of crime the Spirit Wardens seek to prevent.

Another PC is determined to increase her own arcane power through deals made with powerful entities, like demons and forgotten gods.

So all these motivations are at play, pushing the story forward in different directions. The way Blades is set up, the existing NPC Factions respond to the PCs, and that helps create a lot of drama as well. There are built in friends and enemies and the PCs don’t exist in a vacuum. So they’ve got some personal vendettas against other factions.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
What drives the action in your RPGIng?

In the Glorantha (Heroquest 2e) game I've just started, we the players have got the survival of our clan and our way of life at stake, and are wondering how much of the second we'll have to sacrifice to preserve our families and herds.

In the Pirates of Drinax (Mongoose Traveller 2e) game I'm running different players have different motives. One is focused on establishing security in the region so that her families trade interests will profit, one wants to become rich and important, one just wants to fly the best ships he can get his grubby hands on, one hates pirates and likes to kill enemy ones, and one is aiming at the throne of Drinax himself, via marriage to the heiress.

The oddest motivation I remember was in a superhero game where one of the other players had a 'mad scientist' type character whose main desire was to miniaturise an elephant so he could walk it on a lead like a dog.
 

pemerton

Legend
I soon abandoned the actual rules for action/combat resolution, in favor of a full player facing style, using the non-combat/investigative ruleset as guideline, meaning less dice rolling and a lot more interactive roleplay with the Npcs, punctuated by resource spending on the Pcs side.

They are only recently experiencing the blandness and ineffectiveness of their characters
Would you abe able to elaborate on these two things ie (1) your rules changes and (2) how their PCs have revealed themselves to be bland and ineffective?

The only CoC I've played recently is Cthulhu Dark, which (as the name suggests via word-play) is very "lite" with a simple but (as I've experienced it) effective resolution system and rather colourful PCs.
 

pemerton

Legend
The Spider PC (a master manipulator) is an attorney who’s been stripped of his license to practice law. His goal has been to be reinstated, and he recently managed to pull that off, so now he’s going about reestablishing himself in the city’s legal circles.
This reminded me of a PC in a 1990s RM game I GMed. The character was a wizard who had been born a slave, bought his freedom, become a lawyer, and wished to become a magistrate in his city (it was at this point in his life that he entered play). But various turns of events led to him becoming addicted to an expensive magic-enhancing drug, as a result of which he lost his house, and that plus some other misfortunes meant that he lost his dignity. In the end another PC. also a wizard and from the same city but who was plotting with Vecna to conquer said city, persuaded the first PC to join the plot in exchange for the guarantee of a magistracy.

I think the quest for status (which doesn't have to be nobiity, though of course it can be) can be a powerful driver in RPG play.
 

pemerton

Legend
In the Pirates of Drinax (Mongoose Traveller 2e) game I'm running different players have different motives. One is focused on establishing security in the region so that her families trade interests will profit, one wants to become rich and important, one just wants to fly the best ships he can get his grubby hands on, one hates pirates and likes to kill enemy ones, and one is aiming at the throne of Drinax himself, via marriage to the heiress.
How do you handle this in your Traveller game? In the Classic Traveller game that I'm GMing (it had been our principal game until it got eclipsed by Prince Valiant, but I still consider it "active"), the PCs have various motivations and I try to frame scenarios that speak to them through various intertwined elements, but I find it a challenge because so much of the action is oriented around the group and its travels on its ship.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I ran a Primeval Thule campaign where during Session 0 my 3 players decided that their characters were brothers. They came from a barbarian tribe that worshipped the Black Goat With A Thousand Young and were part of the chieftain's family.

The oldest brother (actual Barbarian class) was the heir apparent, engaged to be married to the daughter of another powerful family in the tribe. The middle child (Rogue/Poisoner) was in training to become the tribal healer/shaman/medicine man. The youngest brother, by tradition, was to be sacrificed to Shub-Niggurath (the aforementioned Black Goat).

The event that immediately preceded the campaign kickoff was the two older brothers interrupting the sacrificial ceremony and rescuing the youngest. By doing this they were all expelled from the tribe and banned from ever returning. The touch of the Goddess sparked a change in the youngest brother, who became a Warlock (GOO of course).

This background allowed me to tailor adventures to them specifically, working with the inherent tragedy and weaving modules into this larger narrative. As someone upstream mentioned, the small size of the group let us focus on an intensely personal game, and it was absolutely fantastic.
 

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