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Maybe the Campaign Isn't About the PCs


cailano

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I've often heard that a good campaign has to be about the PCs and what they want. It is usually stated as an unsupported fact, as if it were self-evident. It's a truism that often lies at the heart of sandbox campaigns. What do the PCs want to do?

The problem I've always had with the idea is that it makes character death problematic, and I believe the possibility of character death is essential to many types of RPGs. It maintains tension and keeps players interested.

But how can a campaign that is about the PC's continue if it was all about what they wanted and now they're dead? What happens if they all get killed over the course of a few adventures and replaced by new PCs?

Game Designer Anthony Huso of the Blue Bard blog has an interesting take on the idea. In session zero, he tells his players the game is not about their characters. It is about a setting and a series of events that will change that setting. Certain characters will have a huge role to play in those events, but no one at the table knows who those characters are yet. It might be those they've rolled up or characters they haven't met.

To underline the point, he has his players roll up two characters in session zero: one to start with and the other to replace them if they die.

The more I think about it, the more I think this could be an outstanding approach to a campaign. Maybe your characters are world-changing heroes, maybe not. It remains to be seen. If they want to carve their legend into the setting with sword and spell, they will have to earn it.

Here's the blog post in question.

Please discuss. Remember to be excellent to each other.

 

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I think when people say that, what they mean is that most people (players) find games more immersive if the GM can engage the PCs' backstories in meaningful ways. It doesn't have to be the case always, and it also depends on the type of game and the group, but if there's no backstory engagement, PCs and their motives (and, by extension, the game itself) can feel generic and uninteresting.

I don't think this means that PC death shouldn't happen. Indeed building the game premise in a way that it makes certain/all PCs indispensible for the plot is a sure-fire way to write the game into a dead end, as ghosting and dropping out happen all the time in PbP.

There's ways to do both at the same time, as you say-for example, having a back-up character-but these techniques all have their pros and cons. I find that multiple characters can dilute character depth, but that also doesn't have to be-it's only a matter of time and investment.

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Good thread, good blog post.

I don't like the idea of rolling multiple characters at character creation. We did this when we were kids playing BECMI a few times, maybe it was because we were young, maybe it was the simplicity of BECMI compared to later editions, but it just gave all the characters a feeling that they could be thrown away because we had backups. Those campaigns never lasted long.

In my most recent AD&D 2e campaign, one that ran for about 7 years, we had a couple of near-misses with death and they were tense. Level-draining wraiths, a spectacular fight with a beast cult and wolfwere, even an encounter with a green dragon (thank god for the light spell)--the threat of death was real, the rolls were public and we knew how deep in the water we were, and the game was better for it. That we survived any of those encounters at all was nothing short of a miracle, but I don't think the victories would have been so sweet were the threat of death not so real.

That campaign did ultimately end in a TPK, but it was 100% our fault. We were tired, one player was actually tired of his own character (50 sessions over about 7 years is a lot), and we made a lot of poor decisions that were ultimately fatal. We were about 6th-7th level, and it was a couple of ghouls that got us. That campaign most certainly was about our characters, but we knew going in that AD&D 2e doesn't pull a lot of punches and that it would all be over if we didn't stay on top of our game at all times.

All that said, I do absolutely love the funnel mechanic in DCC RPG, and I've run Sailors of the Starless Sea for my family. Four peon characters per player, so twenty characters going into the campaign, and only four characters survived. They used pitchforks, clubs & unsuspecting hens because they didn't have anything else, and when the final encounter was done you could see blossoming heroes emerge from the potato farmers and beadles that survived. I think that the 0-level DCC funnels are designed specifically for this lack of attachment to characters at the outset though...not that it can't be applied to other systems, I just haven't been a player in any other game that did it effectively.

Great discussion though!

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I don't like the idea of starting with two concepts with the expectation of one of them dying. It feels like the player is agreeing to something that isn't necessarily going to happen. I also know plenty of players who cycle characters like they do their shoes, so watching them pencil out new back-up characters after few weeks also sounds terrible. I knew one guy that would project out his character in a campaign based on some random new thing he discovered while playing in the game, but spending all of his time with a nose in a book and also breaking up IC stuff with his latest and greatest. I know this is the exception and not the rule, but I just feel like players will be less invested in one character over another. This might still be true by not making the second character until it's needed, but why throttle the bull before the rodeo?

Ninja'd (and better said) by Sellsword.

But the other part of your assessment has always been how I play most games. My enjoyment comes in the challenge -if that's what it's considered- of making my character a part of whatever story is being told. If they get so intertwined with it that their death ruins the plot, that may not be my fault. It could be, but it might be the nature of the campaign itself. Getting another character up to speed and invested is always going to be a tough sell, but that's where two humans get together and hash it out.

I've called myself a very passive player because I want to be told a story while also telling my story. Spoilers, OOC info, and even someone blurting out their theory way too early (only to find out its the right answer) can all ruin the fun for me. If my character was the focal point of the story, I would have to have a much lower threshold for those three things.

Now, if we get to the Session Zero and the GM says: "I want plot hooks because this game is about YOUR PC." Then we arrive at the beginning and the end together, with me putting my trust in the GM that their portion of the story will align with my ambitions. But in a game that routinely has 4-5 PCs, it should probably not be about one individual.

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4 hours ago, Sellsword said:
 

All that said, I do absolutely love the funnel mechanic in DCC RPG, and I've run Sailors of the Starless Sea for my family. Four peon characters per player, so twenty characters going into the campaign, and only four characters survived. They used pitchforks, clubs & unsuspecting hens because they didn't have anything else, and when the final encounter was done you could see blossoming heroes emerge from the potato farmers and beadles that survived. I think that the 0-level DCC funnels are designed specifically for this lack of attachment to characters at the outset though...not that it can't be applied to other systems, I just haven't been a player in any other game that did it effectively.

Great discussion though!

I ran Sailors on the Starless Sea here on Myth-Weavers last year, and it was epic. Harley Stroh is an incredible game designer.

** WARNING - GAME STORY AHEAD **

Here's what the funnel did to one of my poor players. I threw all the PCs into Sailors on the Starless Sea right at the beginning of the dungeon, which is the default for the module. I told them they were villagers who had decided to do something about the beastmen in an evil fortress who kept kidnapping people from their village. Again, this is the default for the module.

One of my players decided her character was a mother whose teen son had been kidnapped. Okay, cool. The module provided a couple of points where the players could replenish their numbers because it assumed many PCs would die. That happened, and at one of the replenishing points, I added the PC's son to the group they could rescue. My player then controlled both mother and son as PCs.

The adventure continued, and a few of the PCs survived the final battle, including both of that player's characters. However, right afterward, the son triggered a trap and got roasted alive right in front of his mom, who went on to become a grief-stricken, vengeance-obsessed warrior in the next module.

It's a tragic story, but the result was a rich, unique character that started as nothing but random stats.

Gotta love emergent storytelling.


** END GAME STORY **

Funnels can be a great way to set the tone for a challenging game. I guess what I'm reading in Huso's blog is akin to a never-ending funnel. The PCs increase their chances of survival as they level up and find powerful items, but the possibility of death is always there. Since the game was never really about them, the campaign marches on even in the event of their demise.

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As I see it, the game can be about the PCs, it can be about the setting, or a plot, or something else I haven't thought of -- but it has to be communicated clearly by the GM. If you apply and expect the story about your PC but it turns out to be not, that's a problem. If the player expectations and GM design contradict each other, there will be a grinding of teeth.

Specifically about the OP, I think that's a completely valid approach. If it's stated openly, people will be attracted who like the idea and the game's good to go.

However, I don't think any other approach is less valid.

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4 minutes ago, paula36 said:

As I see it, the game can be about the PCs, it can be about the setting, or a plot, or something else I haven't thought of -- but it has to be communicated clearly by the GM. If you apply and expect the story about your PC but it turns out to be not, that's a problem. If the player expectations and GM design contradict each other, there will be a grinding of teeth.

Specifically about the OP, I think that's a completely valid approach. If it's stated openly, people will be attracted who like the idea and the game's good to go.

However, I don't think any other approach is less valid.

What if the GM doesn't say anything about it? That seems to be the default. Do you feel there's a default assumption on the part of the players?

I agree with the GM setting expectations, your post just made me wonder about assumptions.

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I have mixed thoughts about this and any answer I give would naturally come with many caveats. Still, I'm interested in seeing the discourse the topic is bound to bring up and will follow along so that I can observe what points crop up.

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34 minutes ago, Saberfan said:

I have mixed thoughts about this and any answer I give would naturally come with many caveats. Still, I'm interested in seeing the discourse the topic is bound to bring up and will follow along so that I can observe what points crop up.

It does make for an interesting discussion.

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18 hours ago, cailano said:

What if the GM doesn't say anything about it? That seems to be the default. Do you feel there's a default assumption on the part of the players?

I agree with the GM setting expectations, your post just made me wonder about assumptions.

First question: I think that's an invitation for disaster. And I think it's sad if that's the default.

Second question: I don't know. I'm running one game here, a single-player game, which is focused on the PC. You seem to be a veteran compared to me; do you think there's a default assumption?

 

PS: Now that I think about it, I would really love to play in a campaign like the one run by BlueBard. I wouldn't dare to run one, though.

Edited by paula36 (see edit history)
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I played games where there was no PC death and they were interesting.

In one game, we were all siblings and someone had stolen father's spell book. He announced that whoever returned his book, without killing your siblings, would be his heir. We had great fun chasing down the thief while sabotaging our siblings efforts.

In another game, we were a lord's tail. We hung around the capital showing off the lord's colours and proving we were the best (by beating up other lords' tails). Any killing would be investigated as murder by the king's guards. Then our lord was accused of a crime and we had to find (or manufacture) evidence that he didn't do it, mainly by proving (or framing) some other lord did it.

In these games, the PCs couldn't kill and character death, altho possible, was not likely. Games can be interesting when the players cannot kill and their deaths unlikely.

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I think every GM should run a game, even if it's just a short one, where death is literally impossible. Not via mechanics, nor narrative. Just a hard "no" on all death. PCs, NPCs, doesn't matter, nobody can die for some reason, explained or not. Why? Because it's a great learning tool to figure out how to make engaging scenes that don't simply rely on character death as an outcome to create tension. Makes all future games a lot better when you apply those same lessons to other games.

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7 hours ago, paula36 said:

First question: I think that's an invitation for disaster. And I think it's sad if that's the default.

Second question: I don't know. I'm running one game here, a single-player game, which is focused on the PC. You seem to be a veteran compared to me; do you think there's a default assumption?

 

PS: Now that I think about it, I would really love to play in a campaign like the one run by BlueBard. I wouldn't dare to run one, though.

I think the assumption has changed over time. PCs became much more heroic in 3E and Pathfinder, which continued in both 5E and PF2E. And that's fine. I think back on the Jade Regent campaign I ran a few years back, which lasted for several years and was completely awesome. We didn't have any PC deaths anywhere in the campaign, and I actually used hero point mechanics to make PC deaths as avoidable as possible. I kind of had to. It was a very plot-driven campaign, and a TPK would have ended it. No recovery possible. And we still almost had one.

So, just to be clear, I'm not saying that all campaigns have to be high-lethality. For some genres, like superheroes, death should probably be very rare.

Going back to assumptions, I would guess that the default assumption in 2024 is that the PCs are the story's protagonists and that PC death will be rare, if it occurs at all.

That definitely was not the assumption in older editions of D&D. PC death was common, and entire modules- like Tomb of Horrors- were essentially death traps.

Seeing how we are in 2024, though, I would recommend that gamemasters communicate clearly with their group if they intend to run a challenging game where PC death is a real possibility. Some players like that sort of game, others do not. Here on Myth-Weavers, I'd put that sort of thing right in the recruitment. I have an upcoming recruitment that will post later this week, where I do exactly that.

I don't think there is any one true way of running a campaign. I absolutely agree that a mismatch between the player's expectations and the GM's expectations is a recipe for disaster. In the words of Tom Stoppard, "Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in."

It's our job as GMs to make sure they expect the right thing.

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49 minutes ago, RedRajah said:

One of the reasons why I like running/playing 7th Sea is the lack of PC death -- and a clever GM knows there are consequences worse than death (especially in a game where Reputation is a Big Thing).

Haha, that would require a mature group. I'm picturing my high-school D&D group if I put them in a game where death was impossible. They would have been a bunch of insufferable, immortal jackasses tearing the setting apart. Ah, the good ol' days.

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