Designing Game Worlds for Player Character Involvement

This series on creating viable roleplaying worlds started off by addressing plot density: How do you create a world that supports a viable, heavily-plotted game? Now we’re going to approach the issue from the other side: how do you create a world that encourages the player characters (PCs) to get involved with those plots?

The PCs need reasons to get involved with the plots they see going on around them. Much of this motivation has to come from the characters themselves and the plots the game master (GM) chooses to play with, but it helps if you create an atmosphere that’s conducive to nosiness. There’s a lot that you can do to make finding motivation easier.

General World Atmosphere

A paranoid, every-man-for-himself sort of world can cause you problems here. If no one has any reason to trust or confide in other people, then non-player characters (NPCs) aren’t going to want to trust or confide in the PCs. The PCs aren’t going to be as likely to poke their noses into other people’s business. This cuts off a very valuable avenue of motivation for the GM! If you have such a world, carefully balance this with plenty of other ways for the PCs to get involved in things.

Institutionalized Nosiness

It can help to institutionalize the act of nosiness and butting into other people’s business. Take White Wolf’s “Werewolf: the Apocalypse,” for example. It has a multitude of factors that reward and encourage nosiness on the part of the PCs. They get “renown” for doing good things, and the rank and power of the characters is a direct result of the amount of renown they accrue. The religion or philosophy of the werewolves characterizes pretty much anything bad or evil as being the purview of the big bad figure in their mythology (“the Wyrm”), which they’re supposed to oppose. This gives them the perfect excuse to butt into anything they see that seems bad in some way.

Werewolf society is structured such that it’s considered good to send people on quests (and to go around trying to find fodder for such quests). Also, anyone who sits around being lazy and failing to involve themselves is likely to be looked down upon. Still further, most packs of werewolves serve totem spirits, who can tell the werewolves to go deal with matters that interest them. If you want even more motivation, some of what the werewolves do revolves around dealing with spirits in general. What do spirits want in return for the things they do for you? They want to send you off on quests to do things for them that they can’t do for themselves!

This is still the best example of institutionalized nosiness that I’ve yet found in a roleplaying game. Work the idea of nosiness or butting in into the social structures in your world. Work it into your religions and cultures. Work it into your in-game reward systems and your chains of command. You don’t have to be as thorough about it as “Werewolf” is, but it helps to put it in there somewhere.

Game System Intervention

I realize that talking about the game system won’t always be relevant to people who are creating a game world. However, since many RPG supplements contain bits of “add-on” material like extra quirks and flaws, I figured this might be useful anyway.

You can work helpful attitudes directly into your game system. Many game systems have quirks, flaws, and other ways for players to get extra building points for their characters by giving their characters problems. Somewhere in these lists include such character traits as nosiness, curiosity, a sense of responsibility for others, a need to help the helpless, the infamous “trouble magnet” flaw, some sort of destiny background, and anything else you can think of that would encourage butting in or attract plots to the PCs.

Manipulate Flaw Values

Consider giving these flaws a little extra value to encourage players to take them (or, if players select flaws through random dice rolls, make the probabilities for these traits higher). Or you could provide a decent selection of such traits and then recommend that at least one PC in every group take one of those traits.

Contacts and Allies: System and World

Another possibility would be to provide something during character creation that rewards players for giving their characters interesting NPC contacts, since connections to the people around them is one way to draw PCs into plots. You might even provide an in-game means to reward the PCs for keeping their contacts and allies safe and happy. For instance, create a society where people are in part judged on their ability to make and keep friends and allies. You could also provide a good handful of NPCs and NPC groups who might be interested in developing a relationship with the PCs.

Not all groups need this sort of heavy-handed help, of course, so you might make it an optional method for GMs who need it.

Provide Plenty of Nosy Groups to Choose From

If there are groups (companies, organizations, cults, whatever) in your world that PCs can belong to, then give them tasks and interests that give them an excuse to involve themselves in other people’s business. One of the most common you’ll find is the directive to “investigate the unexplained”–in a roleplaying game this is pretty much carte blanche to involve yourself in plots. Another trick is to provide groups that can give the PCs some sort of temporal authority. Characters that feel they have the authority to get involved in things are less likely to run into things that they feel they shouldn’t butt into.

Other Useful Directives:

  • Protect others.
  • Develop fame or reputation of some sort.
  • Collect knowledge (or discover secrets, or unearth mysteries).
  • Meet interesting people and help them so they’ll owe you favors (in other words, amass a personal network of contacts and allies).
  • Develop a power base or collect personal power or rank of some sort.
  • Amass wealth and valuable items.

Obviously the more general the directive the more useful it is as a plot hook. However, you have to balance that a bit with the desire to give groups personality and color, which usually involves being a bit specific.

Any group to which the PCs can belong should have some reason why its members might be encouraged to go out and involve themselves in the world. The same is true of any character class, race, and so on. Another way to approach this issue comes from an old article we wrote that suggested that there are four main characteristics that cause PCs to get involved in things of their own accord: curiosity, ambition, a sense of responsibility for others, and the ability to connect with the people around them. You can adapt these into characteristics that are in some way selected for, encouraged or mandated by the groups the PCs belong to.

Group Plots

Provide plenty of plots and plot hooks within the context of any groups present in game. Don’t just give directives; provide past history that suggests plots. Provide past conflicts, allies, old unresolved mysteries, and so on. Try looking at it as though you’re writing up a page or two of “things your group cares about.” If their group cares about it, then it should be easy to drag the PCs into it. Any GM can make use of that.

Create Conflict

Conflict is not only a valuable source of plots in general, but also a great way to drag the PCs into things. Conflict between groups, races, and so on is a mainstay of most good RPGs (I’m tempted to say all, but I’m sure someone could come up with a counter-example!). From this conflict comes an incredible wealth of plots. From it also comes a fantastic way to draw the PCs into things. When their race, profession, or organization as a whole is in conflict with another, it’s awfully tough to stay out of things! Generally one side or the other will forcefully involve the PCs.

This, too, can be worked into your game system. Quirks and flaws often include items for personal enmities, or even group enmities — people who are hunting you, consider you an enemy, and so on. Again, consider giving these items a little more value than some others.

Appropriate Challenges

One of the tricks to getting your players involved in plots is finding appropriate challenges for them — things appropriate to their level of ability. Most worlds and games have no in-game rationale for why challenges of an appropriate level always seem to find the PCs. In some this is okay, because there isn’t a huge difference in, for example, ability scores and hit points from one level of experience to another. In some games, however, there can be a huge discrepancy in what the PCs can take on depending on how experienced they are.

An In-Game System for Ability Assessment

Thus, you might want to consider introducing into your world an in-game system for assessing ability. Take, for instance, “Werewolf” again. It has a renown and ranking system built into the game. These aren’t just mechanics; they’re social structures. This means that NPCs have a way to judge whether a particular group of PCs is good enough to handle their problem by what rank the PCs have attained. In Kenzer & Co.’s “HackMaster,” the Honor system does the equivalent. The amount of Honor your character has is directly relevant to other people’s perceptions of how good he is at what he does. This means that there’s a rationale for people bringing the appropriate sort of challenge to the PCs.

A ranking system that isn’t in some way reflected by the social structures of the game won’t do the job. A level system doesn’t help if there’s no in-game way for NPCs to assess the level of the PCs. At the very least, provide a great rumor network that can spread the PCs’ reputation before them.

Although it seems as though motivation is a concern for individual gaming groups, there’s a lot you can do to provide motivation within your world! You can throw plot hooks, broad directives, and even appropriate quirks and flaws into all sorts of corners. You can provide a system for bringing appropriate challenges to the PCs, and you can institutionalize nosiness and self-motivating characteristics. Between these suggestions and the ones in the last article in this series, anyone playing in your world should have no problem at all dragging the PCs into lots of plots.

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