Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Player Characters (PCs); Building a Campaign to Last


MK here with this weeks MK Tabletop Talk! As this is the third week in a row, and only days left to enter, if you haven't heard about the MKTabletop.com International Tabletop Day Giveaway click here! All you need to read is the first paragraph with all the details.
 Now on to the business at hand...

This week we add to our "Tackling Tough Topics" library with: Player Characters (PCs); Building a Campaign to Last.

A lot of players, when looking at their next Role Playing Game (RPG) Campaign, go straight to what character they are going to play and how powerful a character they can build. I get it.
Everyone wants to be able to show off their ability to make a character build that stands out. Some people go for the "Tank" delivering huge amounts of damage while taking hits that would out-right kill lesser people. Others aim to be the most powerful magic wielder; slinging spells that always happen to be just right for the situation. This might be an important part of the game for you, but it certainly is not the first thing you should think about. You see, if you want to build a character in a campaign that will stand the test of time, there are much more important things to consider. When building a campaign you have to ask yourself: How long will we be playing? What is the world/Story I will be playing in? Who else is going to be playing? What is my story/how can I add to the experience? With all of this considered, what would be most fun for me to play?

How long will we be playing?
If you do not have a solid base for the game to start on, much like the Jenga tower in the picture here, it will topple and fall. Maybe it isn't fun because you built a character who can disappear at will in any outdoor area, but your campaign takes place inside a dungeon. Perhaps your character excels at talking their way into places and out of problems, but another character always rushes into everything with their Axe raised never giving you the opportunity to show your stuff. Regardless of what you think, the true reason the game has gone stale is that you didn't create a solid base, as a group, to build upon.
Had you talked to Axe wielding barbarian PC prior to the start of the game, one of you might have been persuaded to play a more complimentary class. If you had spoken with your GM about the campaign, you would know that playing a character more fit for underworld activities would be a better choice. Communication is key in the creation process. The GM is the most critical role in this. One of my favorite sessions of any game is the very first one. We hold what is called the "Creation Session". We get together and do much of the building of the foundation of the game together.

What is the World/Story I will be playing in?
Many pre-fab Campaigns come with a situational set-up that was written for the PCs. It gives them a feel for the world they live in and a basic idea of what adventure they are about to embark upon. Think of it like reading the back of the first book in series. It tells you nothing big about the series or the long-term plot lines, just enough to get you hooked into the story. Allowing players access to this before this session is always a good idea in my opinion! It lets them start to get a feel for the story and think about their place in it. Not everyone is capable of writing their backstory off the top of their head in one session. In fact, most people are not capable of this until they have had a LOT of practice at it. So allowing them a chance to think about the material before expecting a full detailed version of their previous life goes a long way. As a player, it is your job to take this information and truly think about it! This is the foundation of your story. This is the world you live in and the information you have. What is your favorite part of it? How can you use this to weave your PC into the world? But don't bust out your character sheet just yet...

Who else is going to be playing?
While this should never matter, we all know it does. As much as we would like to say that there is always party balance like the old Classic Party you see here, we also know that some players play certain types of characters. There is that guy who always plays the strength based character and picks fights, even with the good guys. There is the girl who always plays a rogue with secrets that she never tells. Sometimes the character has been white-washed over the player themselves. There are quite a few folks I have gamed with that always have a different set of skills, feats and powers, but they somehow always end up playing the same person. They are picking fights even though they are playing a character that excels at diplomacy. Knowing the people playing will go a long way to assuring your enjoyment of the game. If you know that they are going to play character X, than you also know how you would get the most enjoyment out of playing off of their character. Do you put a spell on the barbarian lulling them to sleep shortly after entering the bar to make sure you actually get to talk to your contact before it turns into a brawl? Or do you make a character that excels at hand to hand combat and grappling so you can subdue your contact in the chaos of the brawl? Knowing who is playing, how they play, and what they are likely to want to play in this particular story can really help you hone in on what is going to be the most fun over time.

What is my story/how can I add to the experience?
Do keep in mind that while there are more people at the table, you write your story. No puzzle is complete without every piece intact. Your role may be obvious. You might have an angle that is more of an X-factor than a traditional party role. What ever the case, these are your pieces of the story to define. What part of the epic tale are you? Are you playing the dirty beggar that turns out to be the King of a fallen tribe? Are you a small-time cleric who suddenly finds himself thrust into a life of service in the field? The GM always has a say, so if you do plan to be the bastard son of the main villain looking to extract your revenge on your father for the death of your mother, you should run that by them. You don't always have to be driven by some twisted back story either. Some of the best role playing I have seen were characters that really had no business being on a quest, but somehow fell into it kinda like Bilbo Baggins. The big part comes more with the second half of the question. If you want to play this game long-term, you need to only be adding to the story and making sure that you do not take away from the story of anyone else. Don't be the charging barbarian when your diplomatic cleric is trying to sway the enemy.

What would be most fun for me to play?
If everyone else is really into the game but you feel like you got stuck into a role you didn't want to play you are not going to have much fun. Don't let yourself end up like this guy on the right. Everyone immersed into the world of the game while you stand back reading your book. Only there in the room, not a part of the story. If you are joining a game already in process and it is strongly hinted that the party could use a healer, it is your role. You get to write it. Sure you may not be picking the exact class you wanted, but you do get to create the character. One of our players is an Oracle with the "Haunted" aspect. He is literally followed by spirits that grant him powers. Sure, he mechanically functions as our main source of healing, but he also made a deal with a Giant Fireworm and has become the Harbinger of Cindermaw wielding powerful spells. He had a drug problem that lead to his connection with the other side and pretty much created the powers he wields. So, "party needs a healer" does not always have to mean put on the white robes and wave your holy symbol around. You have to assure, no matter what role you fall into that you write a character that you will have the most fun playing. Story has no rule book. If it does not change the mechanics, nor alter the story too drastically, story it up! Don't limit yourself to the stereotype.

The Creation Session
The GM has provided you the basics of the world, and the premise of the story. You know who is going to be at the table with you, and their play-style. You have your story basics and have thought about your addition to the game. You know what you would have the most fun playing. It is time to have your creation session! Everyone will be bringing their input as well, so be ready to be flexible.
In most cases the GM will have had time to communicate with everyone individually to help guide the process and offer suggestions, and in some cases tell a player that they can NOT in fact play a God in disguise, just to have fun with the mortals. So this should be an easy and fun session.
Pick your role
It is time to discuss party balance and what roles people want to fill. Keep in mind that if you have the basics of your story you should be able to write any role into it. If you went right into the detail of defining class and feats and skills and everything, be sure that this has been communicated. It helps others decide another path if they know that one is already being walked. Why have two damage focused sorcerers? It might give you magic superiority, but if you get surrounded by well trained swords you are not going to last long. What am I saying? Have an idea, not an image and you will be able to mold anything into your role. If you have your image, show the role specific parts of it to the group to help them narrow down theirs. After the roles have been decided you can apply everything to your character sheet officially building your character. This part can feel like it takes forever to someone who came to the session with a pre-built character. If this is you, help others! Look up rules for them or help keep track of the process so they don't miss anything. The GM needs to be available to everyone to answer questions that are story or world specific to help everyone tailor their character to this one single campaign. Now that you have your corner stones. It's time to lay that foundation!
Building the Foundation of the Game
They say the foolish man built his house upon the sand. Sand is just tiny pebbles all in the same place. There is nothing binding them together. Some gaming groups I have played with have this exact feel. Every PC trying to one-up each other. All of them trying to play the stand-off-ish mysterious one. Too tough to tell anyone anything about themselves. Not willing to trust anyone. If the foundation has nothing binding it, just like this sand under the Leaning House of Beachfront here, it will erode. It will begin to fall apart. The entire campaign you have been building will crumble into a sandpit. I know these are all individuals. They might even have some great reason why they act the way they do, but they never tell us. We never get to know them beyond the sword they swing, or the spells they sling. Why would your character travel with these guys? Nothing is holding you there. Don't force the GM to create a reason you have to work together. Find these reasons yourselves. Let the GM work on taking four or more back stories and weaving them into the story they already have planned. This will be best for everyone!
My suggestion on getting the PC pot to meld? Group backstory. There are many different ways you can achieve this. It will not alter anyone's preexisting story, it will just give the group itself some story. My preferred way of doing this is by using Story Dice, Action Dice and/or Voyage Dice depending on the story you are about to tell. Basic Story Dice is fine for any situation. Action Dice are great if you have an action based group like a military patrol, or a group of competitive martial arts students. The Voyages set is great if they have had to do any traveling together before the campaign starts, like if they are all from a northern Viking-style tribe but the Campaign lies in the southern portion of the continent.
Each player around the table takes a turn rolling the dice and telling a tale of something the group has done together. It can be the entire party, or only two members, but it can not be a solo story. Just look at the pictures on the dice and string them together to tell the tale. The GM roles too! They can add story hooks into the campaign tying together two or more players that might not normally like each-other. If you are having as much fun with it as we do, you might even go around the table more than once! This adds depth to the relationships in the party and to the game as a whole. This is a foundation built upon the rocks. You have taken all of the tiny pebbles everyone has thrown into the bucket and added a binding agent to create concrete rather than sand. There are some fun story telling card games that can also accomplish this. If your group is good at story telling in general you could have everyone write a single word on a slip of paper and string them together to create the group backstory.
The part I like most about this? You get to skip the old tired "You walk into the local tavern and see..." scene. Most of the time that scene only exists to get the characters together in a group. You just did that with more depth, history and creativity than you would have been able to do by seeing the "Slender shape in the corner with a hood drawn up so you never actually see their face", or the "Biggest wall of a man you have ever seen pounding pints like water". Those are two-dimensional first impressions that only tell us how the PC wants to be seen. That can be easily accomplished before you role your first set of dice by everyone describing their characters.
Next time you and your group are ready to start a new campaign, do your best to create the perfect foundation for all involved. Take the time to contemplate the long-term game. Write a character that not only fits the role it mechanically needs to, but tells the story you want them to tell. I can never say it enough, you are a character in the story, you are not the story. Everyone has their piece to add. It might be the job of the GM to guide the story, but you help create and mold it along the way. Do yourselves a favor and assure you are building a campaign to last!

What do you think about this method? Have you tried something that worked really well for you or your group? Feel free to share with us in the comments!

Until next time ...Game On! -MK