On Wednesday I talked about how investing in your PCs and giving them personal stories, or bending your story around their characters, can make for a better game. Today I wanted to share some examples from games I've run and games I've been a part of to show how it works.
A Simple Story About Village Defense
Recently a friend of mine ran a Shadow of Esteren game. The idea for the game was simple. The PCs were from a small village, and the village was coming under attack by supernatural forces as Winter set in. The idea was to have town politics, the looming threat of the supernatural, winter in a mountain village, and limited resources drive the drama. On events this game could've lasted. However, the GM took the time to focus on the characters and make them the focus.
As such we had great moments as the Outsider Alcoholic Mercenary had to find a place in the family they married into, failed at it, and then had to deal with the downside of alcohol withdrawl while the town was under attack.
We had a Blacksmith make an actual magic sword by taking elements and bits from the town and forging it through an almost druidic ritual to defend the town, all the while finding a sweet romance that helped align two of the powerful families in the village and keep the peace.
We had a character that was from the village and returning home to a dead family and a lingering mystery that was tied to the evil plot going on and giving everyhing that personal touch that made it all about him, even while it was all about everything and his part was more just his family's culpability in what was going on.
Finally, we had two characters literally "grow up and mature" throughout the game as the brash and wildness of their normal life gave way to the need for caution and safety as the winter went on. Both characters grew into more leader type characters, very different from where the players started.
All of these personal stories elevated and fed into the events of the GMs plot. Some plot points became harder. Some became easier. Some got changed completely. All because the character stories got to come forward.
I ran a Super Hero game where the over-arching plot was stolen from the comic Wanted. Super Villains had won. They took over the world and made everyone forget about super heroes and super villains and super technology. Only they didn't include everyone in their plan, and another villain was trying to reset things to how they were. This meant making heroes and reminding the world about super heroes.
A key point in the story came about when a sole PC was involved in a prison break that was going bad. During the fight the PC offered to sacrifice themselves to save the other people. The villains paused. Thought about it. Accepted the deal, and took it.
When the other PCs arrived on the scene they found their friend dead. The area was rocked by the sacrifice of this teen super hero, now dead so that others could live. It was a huge moment in the game and changed the tone of the whole story all the way to the end. However, that moment could never have played out if the players hadn't been invested in the characters, and if the game didn't give them the chance to express themselves and react to them in meaningful ways.
It was never a plan to execute a PC there. But the PC made the choice because it was in character. And it was in character for the villain to accept. So it happened. So the game changed.
Stand Out Moments
Thinking back over the course of a lifetime of games, the moments that stick out to me fall into two categories: Something Absurd Happens or Character Moments.
Absurd happenings are those times when everything defies the odds and happens. A PC sees the villain and jumps out a 9000 story window. A PC sacrifices themselves for no reason. A character rolls 3 nat 20s in a row and one shots the BBEG in session 2. They're things that stick out because their so unexpected, so alien to what is supposed to happen, that it can't help but happen.
The other though is meaningful. I can remember plots to games that were good, but the moments I remember most clearly are the moments that didn't define my plot - or the GM's plot if I was a player - but the character's involved in the story.
Mesutsume, my Ikoma spear maiden, drawing a line in the sand between her and her downed squad on a castle attack and somehow holding it until help can come is both character and absurd (them rolls though) but it's a vibrant moment I remember more than the rest of that entire campaign, and I have character journals hosted on this blog from the game I loved it so much.
A character named Hermes in a Super Hero game I ran being told by a speed fragment of his grandfather that there's a difference between sacrificing yourself because there is no other choice, and just choosing to sacrifice yourself.
A Shinobi in an L5R game hobbling a clan mate on a besieged castle wall and leaving him to his fate because he was a danger to the clan.
A group of PCs scattering across a village without sharing a word between the players or characters, only for everyone to return together each having collected specific, different, and vital data for the group to function.
A mother letting her son die and finally accepting that his mortality is his to do with as he pleases.
A teenaged girl ending a campaign learning necromancy because everyone else got a happy ending, so why can't she?
An Ikoma warleader who loved his wife so much he gave her the space he thought she wanted, and that she absolutely hated.
There are countless, character defining moments across a dozen years or more of gaming from so many campaigns that are in my head not because of the story or the bad guy, but because of the characters.
And Of Course...
Still not convinced? Look at Bioware. Their entire business model for RPGs is stories that are pretty good, with characters that are good to great and relationships that are phenomenal. The event based story of Mass Effect 1-3 is pretty plane. Evil Robots are outside the galaxy, coming to harvest everyone, big war. However, the characters make it happen. Who Shepard is makes it great. The companions and what they mean, who they are, and what they do gives it value.
Bioware makes you care about those characters by making them real, and because of that you care about the stakes of the game. There are people who can't get certain endings or results in bioware games because they can't handle the reaction that happens in game. That doesn't happen if you don't care about the characters and the world.