Main picture: Alice in wonderland by Gordon Tarpley
When creating any campaign in any game, the main thing is to make sure that the story you're crafting is engaging. That means being able to bring the characters, and by virtue of that, the players, on an interesting journey through that story. That central tenet 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, if you don't know the 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 & it's aftermath
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.
Scene setting, in the plot points, 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 setting:
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 tableaux of what the characters observe, actions people take in the world around them and what they encounter, the geography of the area more broadly, and the time of day and the 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 posh district, against their actions in a seedy port by the coast, against a rural farming village. Flesh out the setting to give your players the chance to build a picture of the world around their characters in their minds.
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.
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 characters 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.
The final part of a good story is 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 what's happened previously player characterisation. That gives you hooks with which to tie the characters into the story, ensuring the players stay engaged and develop their character.
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, you can explore any changes the 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 contrast the previous mental state with the new one, showing the development of the character arc.
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