One issue I have encountered with some regularity in my discussions with narrators and game masters is how to keep a group of adventures “on task” during a heavily prewritten session or full campaign. Most of the conversations tend to revolve around the idea that pure force is the least desirable, but often only the effective way to ensure the adherence to a prepared storyline. During my time as a game master, I began to steal a ideas from myth and literature which can be invaluable to solving this dilemma. In the following few paragraphs I will outline these tools, how they have been incorporated into the rules of Faerie Tales & Folklore, and how a narrator can implement them within their own games. Now, I must preface this article by saying that some of these suggestions are designed to cause an emotion reaction, and thus should be used with a measure of respect for your current players, good taste, and a lack of being abusive.
To begin, I am going to talk about a common roleplaying trope known colloquially as the murder hobo and what creates this phenomenon. A murder hobo is a character who only seems to exist to travel around a map, kill anything they encounter, and loot the corpses. This is a concept that works well in certain types of situations, such as procedurally generated sandbox style games. However, this process can quickly grow old for players who seek a more epic, or “living” campaign. In my opinion, one of the primary reasons characters easily fall into the role of murder hobos is many character creation systems, especially old school ones, end with a character being an “island unto themselves”. When a character is played who has no attachments or connections to the community or world around them, they will tend to behave in unrealistic ways. Thus, a murder hobo is often the byproduct. If that was the desire from the beginning, then that character creation system has filled a need with efficiency. But, what if the narrator and players are looking for a more story based method of play? What can be done to guide players away from this simple and sometimes mindless format of hunt, kill, loot? (Continued below)
The best answers to this question begin with the creation of a character. When a character exits a game’s creation system complete with a family, friends, a home and possibly even a business, it is more likely that said character will have something the player might feel is worth protecting. By the same token, if said character exits that system with both virtues and vices, the referee has a simple map by which to exploit the character’s peculiarities in ways that are beneficial to creating an engaging narrative. Examples of how these traits can be exploited are listed below.
If a character has a business running an inn and the narrator is trying to persuade the group to go after a local gang of organized criminals, the narrator should try extortion, or the classic protection racket, by having the guild pursue that character and their inn through violence in search of goods, services, or coin.
If a player has created a chivalrous (virtue) knight and the narrator is having difficulty with getting the group to venture to a neighboring land to face rumors of a dragon, simply have the dragon abduct a local noblewoman.
Maybe a drunken (vice) mercenary warrior would like to do something other then face the band of brigands that is harassing a village for free. Simply have the brigands humiliate the warrior while he is too drunk to effectively defend himself.
Finally, If a referee wishes to start a storyline about local children disappearing, have one or more said children be those of the character’s themselves.
It is important in most of these situations, especially ones with consequences that directly impact the characters, to maintain the possibility of being resolved in a manner that does not permanently impact the character. Otherwise, the players simply end up angry and they may lose interest in the current game. As a narrator, one is often expected to be the villain, but taking this role too seriously is almost never a good idea from the stand point of pure entertainment. Keep in mind, most people do prefer a happy ending and some potential endings to a storyline can completely end a player’s enjoyment of the adventure or campaign itself. This is never a good resolution for the player or the narrator.
Many of the points spoken of above are built into the various character creation systems presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore. Specifically, “The Random Lives of People” (page 79 through 90) contains ways to generate family, friends, rivals, and defining events, along with the more universal systems of profession, virtues and vices. Even the introduction line of a character can be used to pull on a character’s emotions or sense of duty when the referee needs to redirect a group toward a predefined goal.
A samurai can be compelled to follow a foolish noble boy, even when that boy causes undue problems for said samurai. To go against this would most certainly be a death sentence for the samurai in question. This social convention can be used to draw said samurai into all manner of tense, if not downright foolish situations.
A dvergr (low man) enchanter could be compelled to seek an ancient horde guarded by all manner of deathless creatures just to expand their knowledge of enchantments and magical formulae (spells). The desire for such knowledge and the lure the treasures that provide it would pull at the very fiber of the character’s being.
The defining event “Successful Gambler” can be used to compel a character who rolled it to gamble when they know the stakes might be too high, such as in a game with the wrong type of folks. Doing so might get them into all manner of trouble, including situations like losing their business, or perhaps even their freedom. Just because they were successful in the past, does not mean they always will be. Eventually, luck runs dry for everyone.
There are no hard and fast rules to force a player into making their character take a certain course of action, as maintaining a strong sense of player agency is important in roleplaying. It is however beneficial for the character to follow these guidelines. “Story Benefits” (page 75 through 77) offer an incentive for players to have their character’s act in accordance with how they are described. Beyond this, a narrator is free to find creative ways within the storyline to aid in the enforcement of a character’s description. (Continued below)
For example, the samurai from the example above might be expected to commit seppuku for acting dishonorably and ignoring the orders of their lord. If this was not done, they would be forced into becoming a ronin.
The chivalrous knight previously discussed could be stripped of their title and rank if they do not heed a call to battle by their king.
A referee should always allow the possibility for the character to redeem themselves, as a player often creates a character with a destiny in mind for that character. Even when such a redemption would be unlikely in the real world, it is imperative that such a possibility be extended. Otherwise a player will be even less likely to respond to being steered by the narrator and their character’s description in the future. When this happens, the referee is likely to lose a powerful tool in maintaining control of the narrative.
The benefit of the systems presented in Faerie Tales & Folklore is that they do not require the creation and penning of a deep, complex background. Rather they exist as notes with which a player can expand upon during a game. If a character is married, do not have the player write the story of how they met, have them tell it during the game. If they were that “successful gambler”, have them tell the story of their success during a night of drunken blather at the inn. These hooks offer grand narrative possibility not only for the player acting as the narrator, but for the player themselves. As a narrator try to convince your players that leaving these hooks open to explore within the game can be of greater use if explored during the game, then when written out prior to the game’s beginning. In many instances, a large, pre-composed background is just a waste of a large number of great narrative possibilities. (Continued below)
The act of “old school” roleplaying needn’t be a dry and statistical affair, though there is nothing wrong with such an approach. A narrator should never need to simply demand their players take a particular course of action, as there are almost always better ways to guide players down the path the narrator has chosen. With but a few simple tools brought in during character creation, a whole myriad of options becomes available for a clever narrator. With a creative player, those same tools can be used to more organically evolve their character in ways dice rolls and statistics never could.
As a narrator, never underestimate the power of creating an emotional reaction. It is a powerful tool in manipulating the players. Nor should a narrator underestimate social consequence, for it is equally powerful in achieving those same ends. Without the hooks necessary however, neither tool can be used with any efficiency. As a narrator, it is vital to maintain one’s knowledge of the people that populate your world, and this includes the characters who belong to the players. Learn about them and what makes them tick. Find things within who they are and how they are presented that you can use to craft better storylines. Don’t just learn about the characters for the sake of manipulation. Learn about them and the vision their players have for them and use what you have learned to help them attain this vision. Learn about them to help provide the player with the greatest possible experience they could have along the way. In that, the narrator becomes more then a game master, they become a storyteller.
When you sit down at the game table remember, those who are gathered with you are in this together… Enjoy the ride.