Lessons Learned: RPG Campaign Story Crafting
Campaign building in RPG, be it D&D, Numenera, The Sprawl, Pathfinder or anything else, the main thing is to make sure that the story you're crafting is engaging. That means bringing the characters, and thus the players, on an interesting journey through that story. The story is the core for everything in your world, and is therefore the core for everything we're going to talk about here.
The Five Points of Stories
If the base of your world is the story you'll tell in it, then it's worth first starting with the five parts of a good story, and then unpacking the parts of each of those things.
A good story uses the following effectively:
- Character Arc
Just quickly, in case you're unclear between difference between the story and plot, the plot is the narrative arc told in a story, whereas the story is the emotional content, the characters, and everything in it. Think of the plot as the journey, and the story as the people in it.
It's worth noting that these are similar to the points of literary fiction, although that also includes writing style. Whilst GMs obviously have a style, this is different enough and will be unique enough to you that we'll discuss that separately at another time.
The Five Points of Plot
All engaging story plots can be broken down into five parts:
- Exposition & Opportunity: scene setting and the challenge laid down.
- Challenge Accepted: the character decides to/is forced to act.
- Progress: the character encounters challenge.
- Moment of Despair: all seems lost.
- Resolution & Aftermath: completion of the challenge & what happened after.
In the Lord of the Rings, we see Frodo and his life as it exists in the Shire. Next we see him being shown the one ring, what it is and why it needs to be destroyed, leading to him accepting his task to destroy the ring. We get his initial journey to Rivendell. Up to that point, he could turn back, but now he gets to the point where continuing means he cannot go back. Beyond that we get Mordor, his darkest point where it seems all is lost after the encounter with Shelob. Finally, he destroys the ring and heads back, and we see the resolution of what doing this has done to him. But equally, every section has the same arc. The battle at Helm's Deep has the same arc: the quiet display of the people in Helm's Deep, the readying of them for battle, the point where the battle starts, the demolition of the outer wall and injuring of Théoden, and the arrival of Gandalf and beating of the Uruk-hai.
These parts give the players time to observe their characters in the world, to lead them to the knowledge of what they must do, to decide to put their characters on a fixed path, create danger and a situation where there is clear, real and serious danger, and to then resolve the situation and survive (or not). These beats create affinity between the party as a whole, and the characters and their world more broadly, as well as giving tension when danger occurs, as the players are invested, and emotional pay-off after encounters. You don't want your players to be apathetic to what's going on.
Story Setting & Development
Now let's look at how the setting and ongoing development of that setting can influence the story being told, hook players, and lead to greater depth for both you as a GM, and your players.
Welcome to the Shire... You'll be seeing it again much, much later...
Scene setting is an obvious place to build flavour for the setting of your story. However, it's not the only place that this happens. Indeed, as it's likely the story will take place over a variety of locations, you will likely need to continue to build the setting all the way through at least the first four parts of the story. Depending on what's happened, it might even be relevant in the Resolution stage.
There's five parts to any setting:
- Location - where is it? In a village/city/country/planet?
- Society - what are the people there like? What customs/strata/fashions exist?
- Period - how advanced is the society and world generally?
- Geography - what's the land like where it's set? What's the weather like?
- Time - what time of day is it right now?
It's important to remember that setting isn't just the immediate location and physical things around where your characters are. Whilst setting obviously does include the immediate physical location, it also includes the social environment in which the characters are placed. It also means fleshing out the historical period with a tableaux of what the characters will be observing at any given time, the actions taken by people around them and what they encounter, the geography of the area more broadly, and the time of day and the current season.
These all combine to give the players a sense of the world in which their characters inhabit. If it's winter, they'll be dressed differently to summer, and equally their attire will be different for a rainforest versus a northern city, versus a desert, versus frozen tundra. How they'll behave will be different in a capital city in a noble district, vs their actions in a seedy port by the coast, which will be different again in a rural farming village. So, this brings us to the first question regarding the settings for your campaign:
What Are Your Settings?
Breaking this down further, it's easy to say "RPG setting" and have an idea as to what that means. For most of us, I think it means "the world in which the campaign is set". But that's a fairly broad and woolly definition. For example, think of Star Wars. It's sci-fi and future set, sure. But the Force is a pretty standard fantasy magic trope at work. Most of the combat uses swords. There's mentors and apprentices. All that is fantasy setting fluff. So what we've really got is a future fantasy setting, not a sci-fi one. On the other hand, it's got space ships and interplanetary travel and non-standard non-human races. So it's very much sci-fi too.
Sci-fi? Fantasy? Hero's journey? Love story? Sequel? The start of something greater? It's true; all of it
The truth is, it's both, in the same way that Pirates of the Caribbean is a pirate/sea faring setting, but also a fantasy setting (mythical creatures, armies of the dead etc), and The Iron Giant is sci-fi but also historic (1950's, with earlier art-deco design stylings) and very much social commentary on the post-war era.
Make sure you've got a clear idea as to the world you want to expose through the story you and your players are journeying through. You don't need to have just one concept for that world, but the more clearly you can define that setting and what you want to do with it, the strong the storytelling will be as a result.
Where's the Flavour?
Wherever you're setting your story, even if it's in an existing world, there's going to be things in it that give it its own unique flavour and stamp. If you're running in a Harry Potter setting, doing a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead concept of viewing the HP universe from the viewpoint of non-trio students, you need to establish what from the world you'll be using. Similarly, you'll need to define what you're not going to be bringing in. Alternatively, you could run that universe from the point of view of adult wizards in the magical community, caught up in the first wizarding war. What's going to be allowed on-screen vs off?
There needs to be an element of novelty, to keep a setting fresh and engaging, even if it's something familiar to everyone, but it still needs to be consistent with the existing universe.
On the other hand, if you're running something original, make sure you're clear on what's original material vs what you're bringing in from the tropes related to the setting. Make sure your players understand what's available to them, and what's not.
In either case, you need to have enough scope in your setting to tell interesting stories. It's partly why running something like Star Wars is tricky as a setting - the expanded universe has told so many stories already, it can be harder to be unique in it.
Keeping Everything Consistent
Part of the key for both of these things is that everything in your world must be internally consistent. If something works one way now, it needs to work that way later. You don't want confused players, who've done something in the past and want to do the same thing now, only to discover that they can't.
For example, in Triumvene, magic came from the breaking of the world. Everyone with magic has a post-death healing ability, and two other abilities. Magic is powered by a hole created to another place, which occasionally leaks out and affects people. There's rules by which the world works. In Harry Potter, you say a set of words and an effect occurs. In Star Wars, you will something and it happens. In Edding's The Belgariad, Newton's third law applies to magic too (equal and opposite reactions).
One-Shot or Campaign?
The final part of this is the length of the campaign you're running. If you're planning a one-shot, you don't need to have quite as much depth going on. Think of the difference between a single Marvel film like the first Iron Man, vs the entire MCU. The villain in any particular MCU film tends not to get too much time being fleshed out, unless you're going to see them again later. Think of the difference in on-screen time for Loki in the first Thor film, vs Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. Obadiah is very broad-strokes character development, whereas Loki gets some real time fleshing him out. There's no equivalent to this for Obadiah:
Loki discovers he's adopted
This is the kind of thing you only really need to do in a campaign. In a one-shot, it's enough to have a goal for the party, and they go and achieve it or not. In a campaign, you need a world with depth and scale. Where their decisions impact the world around them and they see the consequences of their actions. Where the NPCs they'll interact with will come back and have their own character progression.
These things - the length of the story, the unique flavour, and the concepts drawn on are what allow players to embed their characters in the world, and enjoy exploring the game as much as the GM enjoys building it.
Themes & Choices
Here's where we get a little more involved in the work. If you're going to throw choices at your players, you're invoking themes, whether intentional or otherwise. Any time the players make serious decisions, whether to kill the villain or show mercy, to help a thief stealing medicine to save her child or bring her to justice, or anything else, you're exploring questions about the world in which they, and we, live.
These themes can be as diverse as coming of age, the conflict between the individual and society, ambition, loneliness, race, gender, religion, wealth, society's relationship with technology, how governments deal with homelessness... Anything goes.
Bringing an overarching theme into your work beyond "people who do bad things are bad guys and must be killed" is a great way to present your player's characters with interesting challenges, force them to confront things as a group (and possibly confront each other), and give opportunities for story and character development beyond simply advancing in XP and gaining new gear.
Setting a Theme
A campaign story can have one theme or many, but in my experience, despite that there may be many actions which could be construed as reflecting one theme or another, a story arc will naturally come to have a single, overarching theme. For example, in a campaign I've run recently, the main theme is the ethics involved in acting or not, based on incomplete information. To what extent is it right to take actions which will harm others, based on ideals or knowledge with gaps in.
Certain settings lend themselves naturally to certain themes, whilst some leave that very open to interpretation. For some examples from literature, TV and film:
- Battlestar Galactica - is there any line you don't cross to survive?
- Blade Runner - does an individual matter in a complex society?
- Pride and Prejudice - to what extent should you allow yourself to judge people?
- Jurassic Park - should man interfere with nature?
- Schindler's List - one person can make a difference
- Lord of the Rings - the smallest person can make all the difference
As it turns out, you can in fact be completely wrong about someone, even after rather a lot of time with them...
Of course, a campaign doesn't need to have a theme. However, having one can bring greater engagement as the players grapple with the decisions that face them. Which brings us nicely to...
Creating Theme Interaction
If you're going to have a theme to your campaign, you need to bring your players to it time to time for them to engage with it. That doesn't mean you beat them over the head with it, but every now and then, plan for something to happen than brings them back into it.
For example, if you're working with something like the Pride and Prejudice theme, you could have them engage with NPCs and subvert their initial impressions every now and then. If it's something like the Jurassic Park theme of interfering with nature, have their actions that involve things related to that have real consequences that they'll have to deal with later.
Mostly this just comes down to consequences; having the actions the players take have long term repercussions that genuinely affect them and the world around them in a consistent way.
The main (but not only) thing to be careful of with this style of player is that you avoid railroading your players - that's for them to do to themselves. As a DM to have to work with what they do.
Whilst you'll likely have points where you want to bring your players to in terms of the overall plot, you can dangle threads in front of them, and then it's up to them to pick them up. Getting them to take those is a case of creating circumstances where the actions which are true to the characters, and the requirements in terms of motion in the story, are one and the same.
You need to practice your skills, to be the best player and GM you can.
For example, if you want them to have to deal with a misconception to do with a group of people they encounter, then if they attack, subvert their reasons for attacking. Let's say they're from a region that the group players are at war with. Maybe have the group they encounter be rebels or fleeing their people, so the players are attacking people whom they should be working with. If they negotiate, subvert that in some way. Maybe there is a spy in the group, who will lead to the party being captured in the night. If they hide and avoid them, have that turn out in an interesting way. Work with what the players do, to bring about an outcome that's counter to what they expect.
Then see how the players work with that unexpected detail. These sorts of situations work best where the players themselves will come into conflict with each other, due to differing backgrounds/point of view/moral philosophies. Through that, the players can better engage with their characters and the characters of the group. Often, these moments can be some of the best for the players - where you as the GM are doing nothing more than letting them work through a situation amongst themselves, intervening only when absolutely necessary.
Most of all though, have fun with it. Remember that theme work is 90% about your players, and 10% about you as the GM and your ability to lead them into it. Give them the latitude to do what they want with it, and enough time to enjoy that choice.
Characterisation, Alignment & Motivation
Characterisation and character growth are related, but distinct. The first of these, characterisation, is to do with the character as they are now. It fleshes out the personality of the character, their background, how they got to be where they are now and how they are likely to respond to situations.
To get someone to bring out their character, look at talking to the player and getting parts of the character's backstory and goals that the other players don't know about, and weaving those things into the campaign over time. Make sure you build in time for the players to talk to each other about what's happening/happened recently, especially after larger events, so everyone can get a handle on what the different characters in the adventure are like.
Another good tool for fleshing out character is running the Five Why's with the players individually. Start with something the character wants to do, and ask why. If a character wants to find a the sword of their father, ask them why. It might be something like "it's the sword he left me before he died; it was stolen by bandits and they're tracking it down; the bandits stole it as it was previously the sword of an ancient king, from whom the character is descended..." and so on. Each "why" adds to the character and their motivations, allowing future actions to have greater significance.
The better fleshed out the NPCs in the story are, the more the players will be able to engage with the story through them and get a richer experience from it. This part also has a player component too however...
More abstractly, characterisation comes in no small part from how a character views the world, which is mostly defined by the motivations of that person. So, tying in with character alignment, here's how motivations and backstory can work with alignment to create character depth for both players and NPCs...
Alignment defines how the character views the world and their place in it. It's separate from their motivation in that this defines how they will respond to a situation, rather than what their response will be. It creates the guidelines which the person running the game can use to put your characters in interesting positions.
In the end, in most (not all, but most) games, you're going to be playing a character who doesn't know they're a character. As a player, you want that character to have an engaging, interesting story, but the character wants to do something in particular, driven by their backstory and the current circumstances in the game's fiction. As a result, the best alignment works in tension with the story to create moments where the character is true to something deep within them, even though it's not necessarily the best thing for them.
Everything you need to know about two characters, played out in two minutes.
So I think this would be a good time to talk about...
I've always liked this definition by Andrew Stanton from Pixar on character motivation:
The idea is that the character has an inner motor; a dominant, unconscious goal that they're striving for. An itch that they can't scratch
Wall-e loves all the beautiful things around him
That motivation, whatever it is, doesn't have to lead to making good choices. Anakin Skywalker's motivation, reduced to its base, was to protect those he loved. Having recently lost his mother, his drive to protect his wife from the death he believes is coming forces him to choose between the advice of Yoda or Palpatine: accept that everyone dies, or learn from the Dark Side how to save her. Equally, in the Lord of the Rings, despair over his survival given Sauron's power pushes Saruman to choose to support Sauron rather than fighting him.
For an example of potential motivations and the base emotion driving them, take a look at these:
- Wants to help those who need it - Charity/Courage/Confidence
- Has been hurt and need to get even - Hatred
- Doesn't care about the stakes - Indifference/Sloth
- Doesn't feel happy compared to others - Envy/Greed/Avarice
- Wants to hurt other people - Sadism
- Wants people to tell them they're great - Narcissism/Vanity/Pride
- Wants the world to be just - Justice/Vindication/Piety
- Wants to understand - Curiosity/Studiousness
- Wants to rule/to have power - Political/Economic/Ambition
- Wants personal freedom above all else - Lawlessness/Nihilism/Ambition
- Wants to be loved - Romance/Lust
- Doesn't want to cause harm/be harmed - Fear/Rage/Despair
These things all have a base which you could tie into a character's backstory to give a base motivation. For example:
- Take the last one, based around despair, combine it with the loss of a mother and get Anakin's motivation
- Take the first, combine it with naivety and confidence and an upbringing guided by Merlin to get King Arthur
- Take "wants to hurt other people", combine it with being told by a father that killing innocents is wrong, but that sometimes bad people get away, and get Dexter
- Tale "wants to understand" with a need to be told he's clever and a fascination with the criminal mind and get Sherlock
- Take "wants the world to be just" and combine it with having been forced to witness that it often isn't and a lot of survivor's guilt and get Malcolm Reynolds
Note that this motivation is rarely (on its own) good or bad, it just is. Some things tend towards one or the other, but they're mostly just a fact about a character. It's when you combine them with an alignment that they become that way.
Combining Alignment and Motivation
When we combine an alignment and a motivation, we get something driving a person and then setting the tone for their responses based on that motivation and the circumstances we see the character in. For example:
Wants to be loved + chaotic good = funny romantic lead
Wants to be loved + chaotic evil = terrifying
These are two very different outcomes, based on the same motivation. Between the nine alignments and endless potential motivating circumstances and character backstories, you can create a character unique to you, with depth, consistency, their own way of responding to what happens in the game, and a real sense of agency.
Character Arcs & Development
So now we come to the fifth and final part of effective storytelling - character arcs. Just as the story moves and evolves, so should the characters. As they complete personal quests, or are denied things they've been seeking or advance in certain ways, the player's characters should grow. After large personal moments, talk with players about what their character is going to want to do now. How has this change affected them and what are their goals now? This can be both in visible ways in how the character acts, or internal changes that alters how they think about what's going on.
This should always be tied in with the history of that character, and their current characterisation and traits. These things give hooks with which to develop the character further.
Particularly during the Exposition & Opportunity, Progress and Moment of Despair points, you can give experience or confront the character with things they may fear or desire. Throw them into situations where they experience loss or sorrow or anguish, despair or hope or peace or acceptance. These give vectors to the agency of the character, allowing the players to explore how their character responds to these situations. Also, in the Resolution & Aftermath, the players can explore any changes their characters have undergone, as both a means of contrasting how they are now with how they were before to build the characterisation with regards to the change, and also to examine their previous views with any new ones, as their character arcs continue. But how do we create these evolving internal journeys and explore them?
Character Journey in RPGs
With a character's internal motor (their motivation and alignment) understood, the person controlling them can take them on a journey from that initial place to a different one. This is spurred by the events of the plot and the world they inhabit, but is very much something internal to the character.
So how to do we define a character arc? Personally, I'd define it as the journey a character goes through emotionally and intellectually from their current state to a future, different state. This can be a good or bad transition; the form isn't that important. The important thing is that it's impactful to the player and their group, and that comes from tension and resolution. Which brings us on to...
Wants vs Needs
The pivotal moments in a character's journey come in moments of anagnorisis - when they make a vital discovery and realise something true about either the world or themselves. The best way to do this is to play their motivation off against something deeper.
Character motivations are inevitably a want, rather than a need. For some examples from films and literature:
Thor wants to be King, but needs to be humble enough to accept he's not ready
The Iron Giant
Hogarth wants to be a man, but needs to be OK being a child
Lord of the Rings
Frodo wants to live in peace, but needs to accept peace comes through others' sacrifice
A Christmas Carol
Scrooge wants to be rich, but needs to learn to value friendship & caring
The best of these work when what they character wants is fundamentally at odds with what they need. In Thor we see that everything he's done until the start of the film has made him complacent in his strength and his "right" to rule. The more he's appeared kingly, the less he's become a ruler capable of leading Asgard. Equally, Scrooge's wealth has poisoned his mind, which has driven people away, making it impossible for him to remember why caring for others matters. The further these people pursue what they want, the further they're taken from their need.
It's this tension that makes the moments of anagnorisis so powerful.
This is the point where the character finally recognises something true. This can happen more than once in a work, and indeed in series of films or long-running shows, there's almost certainly going to be more than one. However, sticking with our list from above, here's the revelations our characters receive:
Kingship is about servitude and humility, not power and strength
The adult world is no better than the world of a child
He must be willing to sacrifice a future life of peace to do what's right
His hoarding of wealth makes him lonely and hurts those around him
It's these moments of understanding that change the character, develop them, and allow you to see the world differently as a result of their changed perspective.
In the case of Thor, his revelation makes him accept that he's not ready to become king. This is then reinforced in the second film where he comes to realise that he cannot be king and do what a king must. He has come to value his duty to protect his people and have a clear conscience more than his desire to rule. In the third film, he accepts he's not a king. And by the end of Endgame, he's accepted he's not a great leader or warrior either. He needs to define himself by something other than who he's supposedly meant to be. His worth is measured by who he is, not who he isn't.
Thor finally gets the message
This brings us to the final point. In the wake of a revelation, the player/writer must decide what the character does with this information. This can go well and push the character towards being a hero, or towards becoming a villain.
For some examples, in his defining moment of choice, Anakin decides to come to the aid of Palpatine rather than Mace Windu, marking the start of his turn to the Dark Side. On the other hand, the titular character of The Iron Giant, on understanding the town will be destroyed, chooses to give his own life to save that of those who cannot defend themselves. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet reads the letter from Darcy and realises she has been flattered by Wickham and wrong in all her judgements of Darcy. She decides to put her previous assessment of his character behind her and to judge him by his own merits and actions, no a received interpretation of them. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne decides that he can't endure what's happening, and that he'll turn himself in to stop more people being killed. In that case though, it's subverted as Dent takes his place before he can do it.
This is where the fun in character arcs comes from - the presentation of a choice which will meaningfully alter a character, and the decision and resolution of it. It's how you make a character grow, and keep the story meaningful to the characters in it.
The journey ends