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Perfecting Your Game

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We've all been there. DM or player, it doesn't really matter; after half a dozen dungeon crawls and miscellaneous quests for stolen heirlooms, you start feeling like you've been here before and done that already. Alas, roleplaying is now in your blood. How do you jump start your game so it doesn't feel like any one of your past five campaigns?
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If you have the time and energy for it, you can write an epic quality setting with epic villains and supporting characters and epic locations that stir the blood and get readers stamping their feet and chanting war songs. While you're at it, you might as well go ahead and write the novels for that and make some money doing it.

Assuming you don't have the time or energy to build that kind of story driven epic fantasy, there are still several things you can do to spice up your plot and setting.

Follow your own rules -- add a few twists to your world that weren't specified in the original fantasy ruleset you're playing. Perhaps magic isn't quite as powerful in your world, or there's always a certain chance of it failing. Maybe vagrants like adventuring PCs are heavily taxed or considered outlaws. Perhaps trade in some circles is based on honor or favor instead of on coin. Maybe the land was cursed so that there's a 15% chance that the sun won't come up on any given day. Is gravity in your world stronger than normal? It might produce stronger characters and inhibit the flight of missiles somewhat. Whatever you decide here, keep it consistent (unless the effect is based on a specific locale) or it won't be believable.

Organize your society -- Think about the "pecking order". Societies have different layers. Where do the PCs fall into this? History is a good resource for this. By learning a little of how different societies were organized (think ancient Babylon, Egypt, Fuedal Japan, the Norse, heck even modern India just to name a few examples) you should get a good feel for how different societies treated their different classes such as tradesmen, royalty, commoners, slaves, serfs, and the like. By adapting some of these ideas and giving them a fantasy bent, you might be able to use culture to infuse your setting with a unique feel. If you don't feel like boning up on history, pay attention to these themes as set forth in different fantasy and science fiction stories that you encounter. Many of those borrowed from such historical themes.

Switch up the treasure -- Lately I've seen campaigns kicking off with an awful lot of gold and magic items available from the word go. This can make things dull; if they're already wealthy, what do the greedier characters have left to shoot for, really? Yes, they should have other motives for adventuring but treasure is still one of the things that makes adventures interesting. So make the treasure interesting again. Try making magical items and valuable treasures scarce, even if the treasure tables insist on handing out 5000 coins worth of gear every time the PCs sneeze. The book isn't the GM, you are. Conversely, if you've been going the low magic / treasure route and your players are getting bored with that, let them have a few valuable and interesting things. Make one of those things intrinsic to the next story arc, and you're set for another leg of the campaign as well.

Tell a unique story -- This is one of the hard parts, especially if you're pressed for time. Ideally you'll be making up a loose storyline (based on the above elements) that you've already personalized to fit your unique setting. If you don't have the time for that, it's okay to borrow a couple of obscure (but interesting!) plots and adapt them, but try and give them that unique "this is your setting" feel. Here's where the PC backgrounds your players provided can come in handy. Look them over for story hooks, and give those hooks a sly nod in your story.

Give your key characters some personality -- If you've been stuck in a "crawl the dungeon, kill The Grand Foozle, loot his treasure, and move on" rut, here's where we put an end to that. Introduce a villain with some style and pizazz who just won't die. Maybe he holds a key position in society and can't be attacked directly but keeps showing up to taunt the characters after they thwart his evil schemes. Time is on his side and he knows it.

That is just one of many possible ideas. I read a novel once where the main hero finds his dragon but discovers the beast collects butterflies instead of treasure. "They're just as pretty, aren't they?" It's an interesting twist, and who saw it coming, really?

The key here is to give your key NPCs strong points and weak points. Moral strengths and flaws. You can operate in black and white or shades of grey here, but make the key players interesting. Plot and scheme for their best interest, and make sure some of those interests are likely to conflict with the well being of your PCs. Remember, these guys (and gals) have hopes, dreams, and problems, as well as good reasons for everything they're up to.

Challenge the players as well as the characters
-- There are books that delve into the proper use of tactics and monster types to make combat interesting, so I'll assume you've already made the most of your combat variety. But if your players have used Brute Force to solve the majority of their woes, try giving them problems that can't ideally be solved that way. Toss a mystery at them or have somebody wanting to hire them for a consulting gig instead of brainless muscle. Put them under some time pressure, if you like. It'll take some work to keep things interesting, but that's where you draw upon the work you did on the above points.

Stir the pot with a plot -- Ok, you've freshened things up a little bit, but how do you get there? Where exactly are you going? Try stringing together a few loose plot lines that originate from different places. Have a few plots besides the main story based in or around your main town. Don't write a novel, just keep things loose. You'll fill in the blanks when it's needed. The idea here is to have an idea of where your PCs will start from, where they're headed in your story, and what they'll be facing on the way there. Having multiple ways to hook into the plot gives your players options, and if you do it right you can steer them toward the one they're already headed for anyway without making them feel too much like they're being railroaded. This step should help clarify which NPCs are the key characters you'll need to personalize as mentioned above.

The idea here is to have enough details at the ready to tell a story that feels halfway unique, present your players and their characters with options and challenges that hopefully also feel halfway unique, and give them some interesting things to play with and wrap their heads around while they play your game -- without having to write a series of epic novels first.

Remember: the books and the ruleset are not the GM, they are merely the tools. It isn't their responsibility to make the setting alive and interesting. That's your job. Have fun with it!

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Updated 07-07-2010 at 03:43 AM by Count_Dreadstone

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  1. CreepingDeth93's Avatar
    Another well wrote blog entry Count_Dreadstone. The points you have said yourself are of course real ways to make a game more enjoyable.
  2. Lass's Avatar
    I'd also add that players have a big responsibility here. If you keep playing the stock characters over and over then the game will grow stale and suffer. I mean how many times have we played with someone taking the Sir Sad, Knight of the Broken Heart emo guy, or the Naive Ranger/Druid forest freak, or knock offs of the Dragonlance, Drizz't or whatever the fantasy flavor of the month character is.

    If players dont step out and play interesting, inventive characters themselves. Jump into the RP with fun, clever or otherwise challenging characters than as GMs why should we go through the effort of crafting a campaign for them. As I see it, give me boring archetypes to work with and your going to get a boring dungeon.
  3. Count_Dreadstone's Avatar
    This is true. I figure that in a good game the players are providing about half the story, and the characters they build are what enables them to do that. If they're not going to do much besides roll up some stats and say "I cast magical missile at it" then I'd probably have more fun running my NPCs through the adventure I just created.

    If my PCs are asking me to challenge them, they ought to be ready also to challenge me. Not in a belligerent rules-lawyering fashion or metagaming, but I mean with story driven logic, planning, and smart tactics that arise out of the situation being played.

    I could go on, but there's enough to say about the player/PC to make a whole other article, which I'll probably write soon if no one else does.
    Updated 07-07-2010 at 09:55 PM by Count_Dreadstone