Next time you start a campaign, have your players come up with two things in addition to their character – an organisation that loves them, and an organisation that hates them. I’ll explain how massively valuable this is in a bit, but first: preamble!
One of the problems with being a GM is giving the players what they want without making their goals seem too easy to achieve, or the situations they face seem too trite and pre-engineered. (Which is silly, of course, because the entire thing is pre-engineered, you wrote it or made it up on the spot, but there’s a desire to keep at least some of the curtain in place and not let the players behind to see the little old man working the machinery behind the emerald castle.)
You can ask players what they want to do, but it can feel transparent. For example, if when asked a player says “I want to push people out of plate-glass windows, that’s a thing I’m interested in” then every fight without a plate glass window becomes a denial of their goals, and every fight with a plate-glass window becomes an act of giving into their whims.
As examples go, it’s pretty daft, but the extreme nature of it underlines the problem with just asking people what they want – if it’s too specific, you immediately write yourself into a corner in terms of allowing the player to get what they want and still feel satisfied.
There are other problems with it, too – quite often, some people don’t know what they want, at least not consciously. Quite often they don’t know enough about the campaign world to make an informed choice – or, worse, they feel that they don’t know enough to make any choice valid, so they keep quiet.
But it’s important to understand what your players want from a game, and to try and give them something they’ll enjoy each week. If you’ve got a regular group, you’ll eventually intuit their likes and dislikes and be able to build sessions that please them – player X likes fighting, so we put a fight in; player Y likes telling outrageous lies, so we put in an easily-convinced NPC; player Z likes helping people out, so we put in someone with a problem.
Here’s a way, I think, that bypasses the transparent act of asking people what they want in a game, and is a lot faster than learning it as you go. It’s pretty simple, too.
Ask every player to invent two in-campaign organisations when they join the game – one which is positively inclined towards the character, and one which is negatively-inclined. A sentence about each should do it, although they can write as much as they want. (Within reason.) From this, you get to see what sort of stories people want to tell with their characters.
Did someone make a smuggler’s guild? They want to smuggle things. That’s obvious. Did they waffle on for a paragraph or two about a politically-motivated secret society? Give them some riddles and social warfare. Did they make a fashion house? They’re interested in how their character looks, and – more importantly – how other characters look. Suddenly clothes have become a thing in your campaign.
You don’t just have to interpret them directly, either; you can infer a lot from people’s choices. Did someone make a Gladiatorial Pitfighting Arena? They probably want to showboat during combat; they probably want an audience. Let them fight in public. Give them gangs of mooks to intimidate. A mercenary regiment? Give ’em big fights, people to command, great losses and victories. Pirates, or the Navy? They’re probably interested in ships and sailing, even if the specific organisations they design never come up.
Did someone write “The Solemn Men of Moloch” in their Dislike column and leave it at that? Great. Fucking brilliant. Vague works too. They’re saying they want to be hunted by a legendary force; work with that, spin it out, mention it in passing. (This happened to me once – that exact phrase and nothing more – when I did an exercise similar to this, and I’m gutted that I overlooked the player feedback due to nerves.)
Does someone mutter and say that they don’t have any ideas and write down “Fighter’s Guild” and leave it at that? Ask them a couple of questions about the Fighter’s Guild. What’s the favoured weapon? Are they scared of their superiors? Why? Does anyone else like the Fighter’s Guild? Who doesn’t? Anyone can answer yes or no questions, even if they’re just doing it at random. With four questions, if you ask the right ones, they’ve made a Fighter’s Guild. If you already had a Fighter’s Guild, replace it with theirs. Shouldn’t take too much effort.
Do two people write down “Thieves’ Guild?” Maybe they both work for the same one. Or, even better, maybe they work for different factions within the same one with different philosophies. Or, even better than that, maybe they freelance for two different thieves’ guilds that are currently in a brutal turf war over the affluent Elven district in the centre of town. This shit writes itself. You know that two of your players want to steal stuff. How can you work that into your game? Can you offer a stealthy route to success?
The scope of your game matters, obviously. If you’re playing a game about planet-hopping Inquisitorial Acolytes, you need to build organisations that have influence on more than one world. If you’re playing a game about dealing out frontier justice in a religious and pragmatic Wild West, you need to think small – maybe not an organisation, but instead a single man or woman. Work with the players to determine the scale you’re going for.
Have a think about people, too, within the organisations. They don’t have to have names, but sticking a human face on an organisation gives the players a definite way to interact with it. They don’t have to be powerful, or high-level, or authoritative, or even useful – but just the person in the organisation who’s most important to the character.
They might not work for every campaign – you might have already decided what the factions are in your game. You might have your plot all worked out. I’d encourage you, though, to cede control over your campaign world a little. Having player characters move through a world of your design might allow you total authority over the content of the game, but it means that they’re often having to guess at what’s what and they can’t be relied upon to feel engagement with the setting. Giving them the chance to create part of the backstory of the world means they’ll be much, much more invested in the story than they would otherwise.*
Plus, it gives characters automatic grounding in the world. You’re not just some Fighter fresh off the presses at the Dungeons and Dragons Fighter Factory; you had a history, you’ve acted before, some things are important to you. No matter how vague or unexciting those things are, your character has left a footprint in the world that extends back in time to before the moment the spotlight first shines on them. Characters with grounding are much more fun to play. (They just are.)
Make it mechanically beneficial, if you like! Give players a +1 or an extra dice or whatever your game’s equivalent of a little boost is when dealing with that faction, whether they’re for or against them. They know how they work, and they know how to act around them. Weighing up game balance against story impact, it’s definitely worth a +1 to a couple of attack rolls if you can recruit the members of your old unit for one last job rather than hiring 5 faceless goons to help you out in combat. It’s better to steal a pirate ship from your old, bitter, betrayed crew than it is to steal one off some chump with a boat.
13th Age does this already, albeit in a slightly more focused way – you have player-made backgrounds (previous professions) instead of skills, One Unique Thing that sets your character apart from all the others and has massive impacts on the campaign world, and Icon Relationships that let you abstract plot into mechanics, a set of rollable dice that inform the GM what sort of active relationships you want when it comes to power blocs and how often you want them to come up. (You could adapt Icon Dice for your campaign, even, if you’d like. Every player rolls a D6 for the factions they’ve made at the start of the story; on a 5, they get a benefit out of it with strings attached. On a 6, they get a benefit out of it with no strings attached. Even for negative relationships; odds are someone else wants you to hunt them down, as well.)
It’s a very beautiful game; a version of D&D written for Storytellers, not Dungeon Masters, but one that keeps the essential feel of kicking down a door and killing whoever’s inside to gain access to their pocket change. It is staggeringly clever. (There’s another version of a similar thing in the Dresden Files and Spirit of the Century RPGs, but as they focus on things that have happened rather than things that are happening, they have less of an impact on the plot of the game. Both are still fantastic titles, though.)
With this system, at no point are you putting people on the spot and asking them – point-blank – what they want out of a long-running campaign. There are no wrong answers. It’s much more subtle than that; you give the player agency over the story past that of their character. You give them the opportunity to shape the world in a way that pleases them, that they’re interested in exploring.
It gives you, the GM, the power to use things the player has created to tell stories the player wants to tell. And that’s golden.
* Okay; I can imagine some types of games that this wouldn’t work for. One-shots might have problems. Games in which the characters are mindwiped amnesiacs may not benefit from this approach. Games which are intrinsically tied to their settings – like Paranoia, say, or Shadowrun, or Forgotten Realms – might suffer if you have to juggle eight to ten new factions all in one go in addition to those existing. But still; maybe ask the players what existing power blocs they’re interested in exploring. If you’re playing Doctor Who, say, you could ask them which races of aliens they get on with and which ones they don’t; this doesn’t have to be original, you just have to let the players have some choice in the bones of your communal story.