A Game Just for the Players

Author: Andrew /

So, in a recent post, I asked for more ideas for new "Takes". The response was good and there were a few ideas that really stood out to me. One of them was by my buddy Chris, who wanted me to touch on the idea of making a game FOR the players, making them feel like they're driving the game, instead of being in a story where it seems, for the players, that "any" hero could have been plugged into the spot and the adventure would have theoretically gone the same way.

I think this is a great idea so I'm going to tackle that right here, right now.


A personal experience is one that really caters to the individual. You've got players, who are people, who all have their interests and preferences. You've also got a GM who has his own ideas and experiences he wants to create. With this comes some really great meshing of personalities, but also some conflicts.

When it comes to running a game, there are certain ways you can go about this. They usually fall under these two categories.

Using a published adventure / campaign arc - Wizards of the Coast constantly cranks out pre-made campaigns, dungeons, stories, etc that can be used for a game. A lot of these can be tweaked to suit whatever needs you may have. Some of the adventures may be sub par, some might be fantastic. Usually you can go to places online, such as Amazon, where you can purchase the products and read reviews.

Using a home-brewed setting / game - In this situation, the campaign, adventure or just the session is played within a setting that is made completely by the DM (usually); it's usually created by someone who will be playing in the game and it's usually not formally published. This tends to be an option that's widely used as it allows for adaptation and greater manipulation of the world and more custom stories (although using just a published campaign setting).

That said, how do we answer the question "How do I make this a personal experience?"?

Well, the question, really, is a matter of tailoring and cooperation. If the DM is the only one taking part in crafting the game then it would make sense that it wouldn't feel as much about the players, since they had no part in creating the game.

The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 touches on the idea of cooperative world building. This generally consists of the players being given homework, giving them some of part in creating the world. The players are encouraged to think of interesting things to put in the world, interesting encounters, etc. It's saying to the DMs "Don't take it all on yourself, delegate some of it!"

Secondly, I truly believe in character backstories. Like, very very strongly. Figure out who your characters are (at least you PCs. NPCs can be a bit more vague as the story doesn't focus on them). Know your character's strengths, weaknesses, foibles, faults, motivations, likes, dislikes, hatreds, sense of humor, past jobs, family history, etc. Know where the character comes from. This will give your character a firm foundation in reality and make him very believable.

Also, you want to have a specific goal. Have something that your character is aiming at; be it finding his father, becoming the worlds greatest archer or even just becoming the world's richest man. With a goal and a focus in mind, that gives you a line to roleplay from that stretches from the backstory to the goal. Your character treads that line and it gives you a large point of reference that you can then use to guide you in your role playing.

This factors into making a game just for the PC's in this way. No matter what you do, DM's, if you are the one to make the game, it will always be your game, the characters playing second fiddle to your creation. If the players engage, you know what they want.

A story will always be a story. A series of events in an order that describe events. The characters of the game are, generally, the main characters of the story (although I suppose that one could run a game where the players are secondary characters to major events going on and if done right it could be really interesting). What the players need to do is work WITH the DM in working their backstories into the game.

If I make a place and say "Ok, you're all here and this is where I want you to go" (like most games tend to be some form of), it won't feel as player focussed as if the players immediately choose what they want to do.

In the end, it comes down to planning and the level of involvement that the players want to have. It's kind of neat that, in this way, helping design the game will in turn be it's own reward because the DM will be running a game that has elements that have been tailored just for your (the player's) desires. It requires a lot of communication and involvement on both sides of the DM screen.

Another thought I had is that DM's (myself included); we gotta start thinking of stories differently. If we keep them as "I'm taking your from point a to point b" it's going to lead to a feeling of helplessness, as far as the character's level of influence goes. Instead, I've been trying to think like this:

I come up with a place, be it a city, be it a country, be it a world, and I populate it with options. Yes, you don't want to make the whole thing right away usually, as that will usually take an incredibly long time and there will always be more to do BUT; you can make a place with a few options, little hooks to see what the players tend to gravitate towards. Maybe there's a thief who's been knocking over local businesses, but there are also goblin raids hitting caravans on the road outside the city as well as an underground slave trading ring. Perhaps they run into a few NPCs that just happen to play very well and the interaction is memorable and you come up with a direction on the fly and let the story carry itself.

A thing I realized in playing and running games is that D&D is very much not like other mediums in that it's not so much about the end result. It's about the journey. It's about memorable moments. It's about comaradery. It's about getting there. Who cares if, at the beginning, "There" is a vague concept. The question is "Will you have fun today?" If the answer is "Yes", then you're doing it right.

To make a point, I was playing a role playing game way back in the day, when I was in high school, and it was the first game I'd played in. Due to some choices my buddy and I made, we ended up in jail for about 4 hours of the session, trying to find my way out. At the end of the game, the game master was like "Guys, I totally didn't expect you to do that stuff. I didn't plan to have you stuck in jail for so long but it just went that way." And you know what? We didn't feel bad one bit. It was fun! We got to get creative, there were some neat roleplay opportunities and things were interesting and we felt like things were going the way they were going because we made them go that way.

Giving the players power is ok. When a player asks about the deep gnome society in the world they're playing in and it's not defined, why not say "You tell me!" And let them design it. For all you know it'll come with hooks already laid in there, just purely by virture of the fact that a player made it and it has things in it that interest that player.

One of the biggest keys I find is using all your resources. Give everyone a job, let everyone give an idea for at least a few parts of the world they'll be playing in.


Now, in an effort to be the first to practice what I preach, I'm going to do something interesting. I've created a world called Telain. It has a brief history. Not much to it, but some to go off of. In the next post, which will be called "Building Telain", I'm going to post links to my map and one with political boundaries on it. I'm going to be asking you, the players, to design some peoples for some of the regions on the map. Some cultures, if you will. Post them as comments to "Building Telain) and I will look at them (although I may alter them a bit to suit the world as I may need it to be) and integrate them into the world. This, in turn, will give me certain things to build off of. I hope this excites you guys as much as it does me and starts you all on the track to player involvement, deeper immersion and new heights of fun!


This post is dedicated to Chris. Thank you for a truely intriguing question!


Zato2TWO said...

Thanks for the topic, this is something that's been haunting me for some time and I got some good ideas off of this. There are some concerns I'd like to address that you didn't seem to cover though.

One of the things I've learned (the hard way) as a GM is this: NEVER underestimate the unpredictability of your players. What you have written is a great way of thinking... if your players are obedient, open-minded and have the ability to write cohesive plot-interwoven stories. But what about a player who DOESN'T think that far? What you have written about allowing each player to donate a HUGE chunk of their character to the GM's world sounds a lot like what happened with Adam's Breath of Life game. Don't get me wrong, it was a great experience, but I just know if *I* had to GM that game, I'd pull my teeth out with a wrench because it'd be such a nightmare to sort out (Adam did a good job of it though).

One thing of concern to keep in mind is that yes, it might be great that each player has their own story and their own stake in the story, but are they tied together? If they aren't, you have a table of players who've written intensely complex backstories for their characters who've each committed a bit of their separate stories into the main plot who ALL want a bite at it, and who MAY run off in every which direction to pursue their individual goals, because EVERYONE at the table wants to become the hero of their own story.

My ideas on it are all about getting the players together during character creation and making them all write their characters together, so that they're all on the same page about their stories (and better yet, to give them the opportunity to relate their characters to each others' directly), and this also makes it such that the players begin the game already knowing who the other characters are, to avoid that irritating step of "Oh, I'm in a tavern with a bunch of adventurers I don't even know, so I have no obligation to follow them".

Another thing I like doing is putting a 'theme' on the party, to help them better relate to one another on a common basis. Like, "Pick only Divine classes", or "You're all members of one family". Sometimes that would restrict a player's options, but it does give an immediate sense of relation to each other player and gives them a springboard to start from in case they don't know *how* to relate their characters to another player's. It's a problem I feel tends to drag down a lot of Star Wars games: you have a party where 2 people want to be Jedi and go around being space paladins, 2 people wanna be Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly and be a bounty-hunting-slash-smuggling space cowboy, and whoever chooses to be the 'Pilot' character will be bored because all he gets to do is 'drive the van around' when what he really wanted to do was get into epic space battles. By establishing a theme, you give the party a general common interest. You could say, in the above scenario, that "You're all Jedi", or "You're all smugglers", or even "You're all fighter pilots", and immediately the party's interests aren't so disjointed. It's not a definite solution to this infinitely-puzzling problem, but it's a good way to start.

But again, the variability of human beings will make this a trying task at the very least. I'd personally love to have a group of people able to create well-fleshed out characters and stories sit together and write one cohesive story, but remember that won't always be the case. There is NO shortage of ways the players will find to surprise you, in ways both shockingly fun and harrowingly inconvenient.

Andrew said...

Ok, firstly, I didn't write it (as much as it may seem that I did) only for players who know how to write a cohesive backstory. Even players who are all collected and whatnot do random and unpredictable things all the time. That's the nature of the game and it won't change, so, as far as my thinking goes, that aspect goes without saying and a DM just has to adapt. That's just how it goes.

As for themes, I tend to stay away from them because a theme can put some very large restrictions on PCs that really aren't necessary. That's just pigeon-holing and shoe-horning them into something you, as the DM, want them to be instead of working with what they decide they want. Sure, things may seem a little disjointed but it's up to the characters to get to know one another and invest themselves in the relationship(s) within the party.

When I was reading the DMG2, there was a good suggestion for party building. Firstly, it's a good idea to start the party together, or at least knowing each other (or at least most of the party). Second, it's a good idea for all of the characters to start the game with strong ties and a strong bond to one character, and to have some sort of tension with another. This will, in turn, create a bit of a dynamic personality web. As far as the tension goes, this is meant to only inspire a bit of clever and amusing banter, not animosity between the characters. They still are in the party together and they need to be able to function.

One restriction I tend to use is "No evil characters" as, if role played correctly, an evil character has massive potential to throw the party into disarray and make the game not very fun for the rest of the party. If a player does want to play an evil character, it needs to be run by the DM and in rare circumstances, it might get an OK, so long as it can further the story and make the game more enjoyable for everyone else.

The reason I try to only restrict that way is because people will always have ideas of what they want and they will seldom, if ever, all be the same thing. If you said to me "You're all Jedis" I'd just not play, if I didn't want to be a Jedi. I understand that was just an example, but what I'm getting at is that if you ARE going to pose restrictions, then make them broad.

I like this restriction: "You're an adventuring party that's been together for about a month or so, give or take, and you've gotten to know each other a bit to learn each other's personalities, etc. You've made some friends and bonds and ties have been forming."

That way you can start the adventure with party members who are aware of each other's existences, they have a brief history to work from and they can still be what they want.

That's my Take. =]

silent stone said...


Moreso than any of its sort-of-synonyms (like fellowship, comrades, brothers in arms, et cetara) the term nakama really sums up what a great group of adventurers in an RPG are to one another.

Party cohesion and solidarity needs to be an explicitly stated goal of character creation. Indeed, if I ever DM for a group again, I will likely have the players wait until the first session of play before finalizing any aspect of their characters, to permit them the perfect opportunity to weave their backstories together and establish the rough outlines of the intra-group relationships (to be fleshed out later during actual play).

Of course, the ties that bind the PCs together need not be wrought of adamantine, unbreakable even by the gods and an act of Congress—that would be just as obnoxious as the party being a group of random strangers who met in a bar and decided to smash goblins' faces in for fun and profit.

But the player characters need to be connected, and all need to be working towards a common goal that they themselves chose, each according to their gifts and in accord with their individual personality, rather than some goal imposed on them by the DM and enforced by the Amtrak Department of Story Progression.

Adam said...

There is such a thing also as player ettiquite. Its true that much relies upon the GM, but the players ultimately make the game imo. Players need to understand that they need to work together, and also, NOT TO GO OFF ON THEIR OWN. I think one thing that made Breath of Life work well was the fact that the players worked together, and were interesting in one another. Even when the game totally broke in the end, I think the players made it work and be enjoyable by being courteous to each other and working together.

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