The Color of Adventure IV: Integrating the PCs into Your Game
First published 10/3/2000; last edited 12/20/2004
As you probably well know, there are many different ways to run a roleplaying game. Some games run purely on the conceit that it's a game, and therefore the player characters (PCs) will automatically get involved in plots and work together. In others, the players and game master (GM) cooperate (ideally) to create a world in which it makes sense for the PCs to deal with each other and get involved in plots.
Unless you're into roleplaying purely for the hack-and-slash, you've probably found that you have more fun when the players feel that their characters are a part of the campaign. When the PCs have a personal stake in things the players become more involved as well. This heightens the tension. The game is more fun.
How do you integrate your players' characters into the game so that they're more than just visitors? How do you give each of them reason to get involved in the plots? What can you do to make sure that your players will enjoy the types of plots you throw at them? How can you encourage a cohesive party? As always in this column, I will address what you can do before your game even starts to deal with these issues.
Team Play (The Simple Way)
The easy way to create a cohesive party and to make the PCs a part of the plot is to declare it so. For example, many GMs prepare a game in which the PCs are all members of one group: a research team, a group of mercenaries, etc. What they are inherently makes them a part of the plot. The research team's plot starts with a project they're all working on. The mercenaries' plot starts with a contract they're given.
This method requires the least advance work, but also offers the least flexibility. It requires the GM to declare by fiat that the players are playing scientists, mercenaries, etc., and some players will balk at this unless it's for a short game. Also, this method gives the players the least personal stake in the game, as they were given the least say in their characters.
This method does pitch all the PCs headfirst into the GM's plot, thus guaranteeing that they'll get involved. If the PCs work for a company or take random contracts, it provides a ready-made way to hand them plots on a silver platter. It does restrict later plots, though, to those that suit a research team, a mercenary squad, or whatever. Thus it also lacks a certain amount of plot flexibility. Again, this best suits a game of limited length.
The Plot's the Thing (The In-Between Way)
The GM creates a plot that can drag any characters together. They're all in the wrong place at the wrong time and get attacked; they have to work together over a period of time in order to get back at their attacker. Or they start out as inmates in a wing of an asylum and have to work together to escape and then prove that they're not insane.
In these cases, it doesn't matter what types of characters the players play as long as they can end up in the right place at the right time to enter the plot--and this is usually easy.
This has the advantage that the players can play pretty much anything. The assumption is that the original plot sticks them together for long enough (or in a permanent enough fashion) that regardless of differences between characters, they'll work together anyway. The GM does run the risk that character differences will eventually pull the party apart, however.
This method tosses the party head-first into the plot, so that it doesn't matter whether or not the characters find it interesting. However, it also runs the risk that characters might not fall so easily into later plots. In this case the GM doesn't even have the advantage of knowing that a certain type of plot will appeal to the party as a whole, which he does with the first method.
This method perhaps best suits games of intermediate length. In these games, the overarching plot that started the game off frames a number of shorter plots along the way. The characters might spend a couple of months proving that they didn't do whatever it was they were incarcerated for, catching the people who did it, and clearing their names. In order to do this, they solve a number of other plots along the way, that either have bearing on the larger plot or just get in the way. If the GM is lucky, the plot forges bonds between the characters that last past the plot, and the GM then has the option of continuing the game.
The players can't generally know what sort of game they'll be playing in these cases, as that first plot tends to uproot them and force them into a new mode of living; thus, they can't prepare for it. They can't choose character background that will complement the game. They may feel it's useless to create characters with any real depth to them, as that depth is irrelevant to the plot. Again, this limits the players' involvement with their characters.
Character Depth (The "Hard" Way)
A lot of games start out with players sitting down around a table, creating characters, and then playing with those characters an hour or two later. If you really want to get your players involved with their characters, have them make them up ahead of time. Spend an entire gaming session with your players addressing character creation. Have them develop the concepts they want to play with during this time. Encourage them to make sure their characters will be compatible; help them on this. Then give them at least a week to continue this process on their own. Allow them time to write up all of the background material they come up with.
This method is all about preparation and communication. First let's talk about plots. If you talk to your players ahead of time you can have a brief chat about plot types. Do your players enjoy politics-plots? Do they like hack-and-slash? Do they enjoy complex puzzles? What about crime mysteries? What don't they like?
When your players don't enjoy the types of plots you throw at them, they're likely to avoid those plots. This certainly makes it difficult to integrate their characters into the game. (Mind you, asking the players what they like to play is something any GM would be advised to do, no matter which of these methods they prefer to use.)
One of the best ways to make sure that PCs will get involved in plots is to make those plots appeal directly to them. You can do this in any number of ways. Give the PCs a personal stake in the plot--it affects them or someone they care about. Have someone they know ask them to get involved. Make sure the plot appeals emotionally to the character. Have details of one plot show up in another plot that a character cares about.
You can't do any of this if your players' characters don't have depth and background. If they don't know other characters, then they won't have anyone to ask them to get involved in things. If they have no quirks of personality, goals, or personal interests then you can't appeal to them emotionally. If they don't care about anyone, you can't threaten their loved ones.
Get your players to spend some time during that week continuing the development of their characters. If you know your players tend not to give their characters interesting friends and contacts, give them a few extra character creation points that MUST be spent on friends and contacts. If you know they don't tend to come up with useful background, then come up with some sort of reward for creating background. Worst case you can always fill a few of the holes in their background for them, but you should make sure they don't mind this before you try it.
The one potential drawback to giving characters personality is that they will use it. You can't ask your players to play to their characters' personalities only when it benefits you; it tends to be an all-or-nothing thing. This means that the characters need to have a reason to work together.
Such a reason may come from outside--someone who has authority over a party insists that they work together. Even better, the players spend some time making sure that the characters will be compatible enough to stick together on their own. (You can also combine these two methods.) This can take any number of forms. Characters may be related to each other--brother and sister, for example. Characters may have background ties such as having worked or gone to school together in the past. Characters may be emotionally compatible, such as a character who feels protective of the young or naive being paired with such a character.
Most importantly, make sure that any character that could be described as a "loner" has good reason to choose to work with the party. Also make sure that a reason to work together doesn't turn against you. For example, make sure that the over-protective character doesn't decide that the naive character simply needs to stay at home and not get involved in things.
Not all characters need have the same reason why they're willing to work with each other. Not all characters need have ties to all other characters. A patchwork scheme of relationships can hold a party together quite well.
When I said that playing characters with depth was an all-or-nothing thing, I wasn't exactly telling the truth. The high-personality campaign can learn a partial lesson from the campaign in which everyone behaves the way they're expected to simply because it's a roleplaying game.
That is, ask your players to slant their actions. This means that if they're faced with multiple options that all seem reasonable to their character, then they choose the one that would be better for the game. If a character has no reason not to take the rest of the party along to a meeting, then he takes them. If another has no reason not to share information with the rest of the party, then he does. Ask party members to give other members of the party more slack than they would give a total stranger, without asking them to ignore conflicts.
This doesn't require anyone to violate their character concept. It simply asks them to take the game into account when making choices. If they want an in-game reason for it, then take a lesson from reality. In real life, people often like the people they like for no better reason than "he seems kind of nice," or "she has a gentle voice." Tell your players that their characters think that the other characters "seem kind of nice." This doesn't mean they're expected to treat the other characters like close confidants. It just means that they give them a slight benefit of the doubt when making choices.
The character depth method of character and plot preparation often works best for long-term campaigns. Few people are interested in putting lots of effort into a character that'll only be played for a few weeks. Characters with a great deal of depth and background to them can provide you with plot ideas for months to come. If you're ever stumped for what the next plot should be, you can look through your players' character backgrounds for ideas.
There are three caveats, however, should you choose this method, and one reassurance. First, if you ask your players to create in-depth background for their characters, then expect them to use it. Don't ask them to violate their character concept any time it's convenient for you. If a character really does turn out to be a problem, then talk to the player and explain the problem, arrange for events in game that will change the character, or have the player make up a new character that won't be a problem. (No matter what you do, talk to the player--communication is essential to a good long-term game.)
Second, if you ask players to create complex character backgrounds, then don't ignore them. You may take your time coming up to speed on people's characters; you certainly aren't required to work everything in at once. But if you completely ignore people's plot hooks they aren't likely to thank you for it. Because of this, make sure you tell your players before the game starts if you have a problem with anything they came up with; that way they can change it. Don't just ignore it and hope it will go away.
Third, make sure you get copies of the characters' character sheets and background write-ups. This is all pointless if you don't know about the hooks you can hang your plots on.
The reassurance is this. This method seems like a lot of work. After all, you need to work with your players ahead of time. You need to read people's character backgrounds (remember that you can put a limit on length if it'll help you). But it can save you just as much work in the long run, and the longer your game, the more work it'll save you. It'll provide you with plot hooks for months to come. It'll provide your players with characters that can interest them for ages, who have enough personality to live and grow along with your campaign. Complex and interesting characters can get into entire long conversations that you don't have to plan for at all; in other words, they'll keep themselves amused as often as not. You'll be amazed at how much your players become involved in the game. They'll care much more about what happens to their characters. And it gives you ready-made ways to involve your PCs in your plots.