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August 28, 2012

Character-Driven Storylines

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Character-Driven Storylines

The best story hooks are the ones the players made for themselves.

I'm still writing about hooks.  Once I get a topic in my teeth, I want to chew on it for a while.  Friday I'll try to write the Pitch essay I've been meaning to do.  (I'm trying for Tuesday/Friday posting.)

GMs are caught in a strange role.  They're responsible for their own enjoyment; in fact, if they find their own enjoyment waning, the consequences on the other players are pretty serious.  But they're also responsible for the other players' fun, to some degree, as well.  After all, in most RPGs, they're in control of the whole world those players' characters live in.

So with that said, I'm going to talk about using character-driven storylines in such a way that the GM still gets to run the game that's interesting to him and the players get stories written directly to their characters.  I'm not advocating for using this technique for every game you run; but you can still use parts of it.

Wait for it!

For a character-driven story, the GM needs to build a strong pitch ahead of time (I keep saying I'll get to writing a pitch essay, and I will!  I promise!).  That pitch needs to strongly convey the game's genre, subject matter and course of action, as well as the game's theme and mood.  If the GM does this well, the players will design characters to the pitch, and therefore what character-driven plots come from them will be aligned closely with the kind of stories the GM wants to run.

Can the GM create the plot's action before the players make their characters?  Yes, but he shouldn't.  Technically all you're going to take from the players' characters are strong, personal hooks.  But the reason you should wait to write even an outline of the story you want to tell is that the five players sitting around the table are five times more creative than you.  You could find that one of the players has written a backstory that resembles the first 25% of your plot.  So maybe you'd rather just start partway in!  Once they've submitted complete characters, with backstories and all that, you can move ahead.

Their characters will give you a disparate, chaotic jumble that doesn't cohere into a single, interesting story.  That's just how it is.

The goal is a cast of characters who may or may not know that  a common history unites them and draws them into a quest that they were on before they knew it.  The Fellowship of the Ring are all people whose lives were touched by Sauron and the One Ring -- even the Hobbits, connected through Bilbo and Gandalf to the Ring itself...

Shared motivations, settings and NPCs turn a disparate jumble into the protagonists in a serious story.  If everyone has their different motives, occupations, and histories, you get this:  Episodic (modular) stories where the plot touches on one or two characters at a time, and the only forces pulling them together are the immediate circumstances they're thrust into together.  It works for TV sitcoms, and it works for tabletop RPGs, but it's not what I'm talking about here.

Partial Rewrite

Technically, you have a range of options now.  You could totally rewrite the players' character stories to fit them into a coherent narrative.  This isn't as offensive as it seems -- remember, you haven't written your story yet, so this would just be rewriting them to make them all cohere together.  On the other hand, you could make no changes and write a fragmented and disparate story that addresses all the characters' plots independently.  That would be more hands-off, but each storyline in your game would address one character at a time, which isn't as efficient as doing something in between these two.

I suggest a partial rewrite.  Start with your basic idea of their character concepts and draw up some story elements that fit into the kind of plot you want to run.  They wrote their characters to your pitch, so you'll be working with material that's at least pointed in the right direction.  Write down the story elements you want to use for your plot that you think you're going to find in their characters, then start reading.  Let's say you want to play a D&D game about intrigue, involving an evil cult trying to resurrect dark powers to take over key positions in the aristocracy.  Your pitch basically said just that!  Take notes, writing down places where the players' character stories fit your plot idea.  

You're going to start noticing places where very small changes will connect the characters.  Often the player will write in details that aren't really that important, but they threw in because it didn't make sense not to have the detail explained.  Names are common:  Say the fighter's mentor is an aristocrat named Justin and the wizard's mentor is a hermit named Nyall, and Nyall recently vanished.

Talk to the players.  They'll generally be fine with small changes, knowing that they're necessary to pull them into the story.  Going back to our example, turn Justin into Nyall; make Nyall an aristocratic fighter-mage; and have him vanish just a few days ago, leaving a note "Open if I don't return in one week."  Now you've hooked them both.

Here's another example:  Say the cleric had a cult of Tiamat kill his parents, driving him to take up arms against evil with the church; and the ranger had a cult of Asmodeus wipe out his hometown, forcing him to live in the forest and take up woodscraft.  They probably chose any old evil god.  Why not ask the cleric to change the cult from Tiamat to Asmodeus?  Now the two characters share a common goal of vengeance against Asmodeus.  The players haven't specified much else, so you can fill in how the town was killed:  A magical plague sounds about right.  Plausible deniability being the kind of motivation that drives that sort of decision in an intrigue game.  And who knows why the parents were killed?  The assassin that did it and the uncle that avoided the knife and went into hiding.

Now, we've got four characters and a note that's about to be opened.  What if that note said "I have infiltrated the cult of Asmodeus to learn how they plan to open the Sovereign Reliquary buried in the Boneyard.  If you haven't heard from me, they have discovered my deception.  Here is what I know of their plans..."

Notice how you're only changing small details, adding Proper Nouns, and making things more coherent without the work or the tyranny of doing a total rewrite of everyone's character background.  You've also held off on your intrigue plot until after the players wrote their characters.  This makes the intrigue plot their plot.  The DM has only changed a few things.

As you write the story, instead of introducing new NPCs and settings to the players, use the NPCs and settings that their backgrounds specify or imply whenever possible.  If those characters and settings aren't perfect, make some more small changes.  The only time you need to use a new setting or NPC is if the only way to use an existing setting or NPC is to make a major change to a character's story.

It doesn't all have to happen at the start of the campaign.  Nobody writes the whole campaign before the first session.  You can keep making small changes as the game progresses.

In the example D&D campaign, here's what the DM gained by waiting to write his plot:

  • Nyall is now a major helpful NPC.  The GM can use him as a distant figure, leaving them hidden messages, sending his other confederates to aid them, and dropping vague hints along the way.  This could lead to a climactic scene where the PCs have to decide whether to scrap their complex schemes and rush in to save him or stand aside and let him die (or even kill him themselves to protect their cover).
  • The cult has been up to something for quite a while, and whatever it was involved murdering one character's family and another's entire hometown.  Instead of taking characters out of the story, it puts them in!  Why were the cleric's parents so important an obstacle to Asmodeus?  Who would be able to tell them?  Why, the cleric's uncle of course.  And what was in the Ranger's hometown that the cult wanted?  What is left there now?  What has the cult done with the land?
  • The Ranger now knows the layout of the land around this site, having lived in these woods for years.  Maybe he knows what hazards to avoid.
  • The Cleric's parents' assassin is now a major villain.  If the DM wants to run a game with "shades of grey" morality, the assassin might have since joined the Cleric's church, keeping his past crimes secret, leading to a climactic scene where the Cleric must decide between justice (turning him in wherein he would be executed for murder; or just killing him) and mercy (letting him atone in secret).
  • The fighter and wizard think they know all about Nyall, and may have flashback scenes where they remember important stuff that helps them decode his vague messages.  Memories and codes might even become motifs (more on that in another post, too!).

What if it's too late?

It's possible that you've already been running a campaign for a while or you're planning to run a module; and you want to use character-driven storylines.  It's too late to make the whole campaign character-driven, of course.  But you can still run character-driven stories.  

Say you've been running a campaign for a while and using hooks welll enough, but your plots aren't directly flowing from your players' characters' stories.  Now you want to use a few character-driven storylines.  Easy!  Just read their characters, find some common elements, and make some changes to align them.  There are a lot of tricks for creating "retroactive continuity" or retcon:  Illusion magic, "made it look like an accident," mind control, and other cliches have been mainstays of comic book retcons for decades.  If you speak with the players out of game and explain why you want to retcon some stuff together, they'll generally understand.

Let's say you want to run a module, but you also want to run a character-driven storyline.  The story is already written.  You're not going to be able to do character-driven story as well as if you were building the plot out of the characters' stories.  I would recommend sowing hooks instead.  Create NPCs, settings, capabilities, and motivations to hook the players into the module, and then ask them to include them in their character history.

Recap: The Process

That subheading sounds like White Wolf's newest game line...  Seriously though, here's the process I've just described, written out simply, with no examples:

How to build a character-driven plot:
  1. Build a strong pitch.
  2. Players create characters (this wasn't specifically addressed, but a character is not done until he has a bit written about his motivations, connections and history).
  3. Knowing the general shape of the characters, make a list of story elements they're likely to include, which you want to use to craft your plot.
  4. Read the characters and take notes of things that fit your story elements list.  Think of how you can change these in order to weave them all into the same story.  Take note of all their NPCs and all their settings.  
  5. Speak with the players to make small changes to their characters to make them more coherent and hooked into the story you want to tell.  Merge settings and NPCs so that they have shared connections.
  6. Write your plot, using the players' characters' story as the starting point.  Use all of their NPCs and settings.

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