What's the difference between a level 6 half orc barbarian and Kazdak the Mighty, Last of his Tribe and Avenger of the People of the Elk? It's simpler than you might think: player investment. Player Investment is the difference between having a Character - capital c - and a stat sheet with metrics for how to use it in combat like any other piece in a table top strategy game. That same thing is also the difference between a great game that people will talk about for years, and one that is merely good and may warrant the brief mention here and there. Today I want to talk about that, and how to make your game one of the great ones.
Event Stories vs. Character Stories
One of the theories in story telling is that there are "character" stories and there are "event" stories. Character stories are about the characters. The focus is on the person, who they are and what they'll do. An Event story on the other hand focuses on events. The focus is less on the heroes - and those heroes could be interchangable - and more on the events that are going on.
When it comes to RPGs I disagree with this theory. Honestly, I'm not sure I subscribe to this theory at all. After all, when you think of all the great stories how many are actually event stories? And how many stick with you because of the characters in them? Saving Private Ryan works not because of the events of the story, but because of the people in the squad that make it work. Bioware games aren't as big as they are because of the big stories - they all almost all break down to save the world from this guy/girl - but because of the characters and relationships in the game.
Who Is this Character?
In an otherwise bad movie (Never Back Down iirc) an English teacher in the movie says that for all the stories in the world there is only one plot, and that plot is "Who Am I?"
It's a good question to ask of your characters in your game. And the more you can focus the events in your story to bring that question to the player, the more the player is going to get involved in the game. Why? Because the game is directly engaging them and their character. The game wants to know who the character is, and ultimately the Player wants to know too. If they didn't, why would they make the character?
X People Telling A Story
RPGs are often described as "X People working together to tell a story." The idea is to get the idea that the GM and Players aren't antagonistic to each other, but working together to tell a story. The phrase isn't exactly correct though. Why? Because every player - even the GM - has a different idea of what that story should be. Put another way, an RPG isn't X people coming together to tell a story, but X people coming together to tell stories.
What stories are those? Well, the GM has their story they want to tell. This is likely an Event Based Story about some struggle of appropriate epicness to engage the players, and perhaps focusing on the "who is this" of a key villain or two....or three. This is the core story and the one the GM is bringing people together to run the game through.
The players, however, have other stories. Yes, they want to see the GM story - they are here for the game after all. In addition to that though they want to tell the stories of their character. Everyone may not be as strong about this desire as others. Some may not even know it is possible. However, if someone shows up with a backstory for their character already in mind or worked out, that person is invested in the character and their story. It's a tale they want to tell, and they've chosen your game to do it in.
You Mentioned Investment
This post started talking about player investment, and now it's talking about character stories, so what's the catch?
My proposal is this: the more you can focus on the characters, the more investment you will get from the players.
This isn't super complex. Each player wants to tell their own character story. You want them to help tell your story. The way to get them enthusiastic about that is to give them what they want, while also getting what you want. This is one thing Matthew Mercer in Critical Role does exceptionally well, but can be done in any game. It's no accident that every major villain in Critical Role has some personal tie to one PC or another. Mercer is telling a huge Event Based story, but he's focusing the episodes of that story on the characters. In response his players are very invested in the game and their characters. So much so that thousands of people on the internet are also enamored with the game and the characters.
But I Want To Run An Event Based Story
This is fine. It is even understandable. Someone doesn't start a game because they want to explore the inner workings of 4-6 PCs that haven't even been made yet. Nor do you have to sacrifice your event based story on the altar of character story. You can combine them. You can focus them. Craft your event story so that it hits the characters.
Yes, the characters need to stop a necromancer from obtaining the key of twilight, but wouldn't you know it the path to doing that means the exiled Noble Paladin must come to terms with his past and reunite with his family, or the PCs won't be able to get the army needed to deal with the necromancers skeleton hordes.
Sure you are running a game about the Star Wars Galactic Civil War, but isn't it funny how the PCs' father is the designer of the Empire's new super weapon so that not only are their the global/event based stakes, but also personal stakes as well?
Of course the adventure is about stopping the war between Floren and Gilder, but isn't it strange that the person to be murdered to stop the war is the true love of one PC, and the BBEG's bodyguard is the fated foe of the second PC?
RPGs in a very real way work on feedback loops. The more you give your players, the more your players give you, the better the game gets. However, the opposite is also true. If you have a player who is super hyped about portraying their character, only to never find a way to really explore the character on screen they'll stop trying to invest. Their character will go from Krazdak the Might, Last of his Tribe and Avenger of the People of the Elk and just become a level 6 barbarian that Sarah used to grind goblins and other monsters into XP so she can make her character sheet say level 7.
Make it personal. Use the game to ask who the character's are, then test those answers. Do it again and again. Get them hooked, and not only will they make your game great, they'll make the other stories you're trying to tell great too.