By Devin Wilson
The unique benefit of tabletop roleplaying games is how they allow us to experience and tell a collaborative story together. It doesn’t have to be particularly detailed, or even well-written. It just has to be fun for those involved. Everyone has their own idea of what a fun story is but I believe most, if not all, would agree that having it involve the backstories and concepts of the characters being brought to the table is a big part of it. The gang deserter having constant run-ins with bounty hunters, the priest of the sun facing against shadow cults, the ex-soldier being hired to take on members of their old battalion. They may be cliché or contrived encounters, but they keep players invested and excited about the ongoing story as well as allow them chances to really explore their character. So today we’ll be taking a look at ways you can design a story around the interests of the players and how you can adapt already written stories to better include them.
There’s generally an understanding between the players and GM that there will be some form of prepared adventure the players are going on. Even so, it’s always a good idea for everyone at the table to be aware of expectations on all sides. There’s been a lot of talk in the community about session 0 as well as its importance for a multitude of reasons, and preparing player-driven storylines is one of them. Even in shorter games, where there will only be one or two sessions, taking a few minutes at the start to go over the basics will greatly improve your ability to invest the players into the game. If pre-mades are being used, I would still recommend giving the players some time to personalize the characters and add their own flair.
Ensuring that the players are given the information they need to integrate their characters into the world and plot is incredibly critical to the initial planning stages of the game. A synopsis and/or hand-out sheet detailing the basics of the world and the kind of planned story will do wonders to assist players in deciding what to play. The last thing you want is someone painstakingly and lovingly creating an awesome desert ranger with a backstory heavily involving dragons, only for them to find out the whole game will be set within a jungle on a world where dragons don’t exist. It’s also just as important that you be aware of what sort of things the players are looking to experience in the game as well. The story doesn’t have to be focused entirely upon their expectations, but it will help inform you of aspects that should be included. Sometimes you may even get lucky and have one or more player character’s backstory be the perfect outline for a campaign right then and there.
When it comes to planning your game around the players, there is such a thing as too much prep. The term ‘railroading’ gets used a lot to describe when the players are led along the plot with minimal to no sway over the story. Sometimes, like in one-shots or for newer players, this can be okay. But most of the time it is frowned upon. The other term commonly used for the opposite of a railroad is a ‘sandbox’, and is usually considered a better way to run a game’s story. However oftentimes if you drop players into a complete sandbox, everything grinds to a halt as they struggle to find a goal. Players need some level of direction or they’ll feel lost and floundering around for what to do. It can sometimes be done if the player characters have pre-determined goals which have easy starting points, but in general you’ll want some sort of hook to pull them towards a story.
Designing the setting and the goals of those within it is a great way to build the story without falling into the trap of writing an interactive novel instead of a game. Once you know the locations and cultures, as well as the people involved, their personalities, their history, and what they’re trying to achieve, it is much easier to have them react around the players’ actions. In the same way, you’ll also know what they will do if the players do not interfere with their plans. With this approach, it allows a lot of freedom in how the players interact with the story and makes them feel like their characters and their decisions matter. It is harder to prepare a game story this way, but the rewards far outshine such difficulties.
Incorporating the player characters’ backstories into the plot is another important aspect of planning. Many times, players will include potential rivals, NPCs, towns, or even guilds into their character history. Valuable worldbuilding ideas literally handed straight to you. It is worthwhile to find ways to use these ideas, even in small ways, as often as you can within the confines of your story. You can even replace certain aspects of your previous preparation to accommodate them. The town marshal is written as a human who’s a former bandit, but there’s nothing saying they couldn’t instead be the fighter’s old combat rival. The western town under attack could now be the eastern hometown of the wizard. Maybe the boss fight against the really powerful wizard can instead be against a warlock with the same patron as a player’s warlock causing a truly dramatic conflict. So long as the substitution makes sense within the context of the story, it will add an element of personalized stakes and drive immersion and investment to new heights.
Last, but not least, is adapting the story to match what the players are doing. Were they able to actually foil the evil plan weeks before you thought they would? Perhaps they decided this nobody NPC they just met is their new best friend and they’d like to invite them along on their quest. Did they latch onto a throwaway hook and are now going down a rabbit-hole that leads nowhere? Players are incredibly unpredictable, and that’s something that makes tabletop roleplaying so much fun. Anything can happen! But it also means preparing for every outcome is both impossible and pointless. The best thing you can do with this is embrace the chaos, rewriting the story to go along with it. If the players are fascinated by an NPC you just made up on the spot instead of the shady rogue in the corner, take that as a compliment to your abilities. Switch the roles out and have this new character be who they need to speak to. Punishing the players for getting invested or forcing them to do what you want instead will always lead to disaster. Nothing you have prepared is unchangeable until you narrate it, so why not add that extra twist and really excite your players?
While writing, preparing, and planning a story for your players can sometimes feel overwhelming and thankless, the feeling you get when they get emotionally attached to your NPC, shocked by a crazy revelation, or excited with potential is something that will make every long night of scribbling worth it. I guarantee it will have everyone leaving the table with treasured memories that will last long after the game is over.
I personally try to use these methods and ideas in all of my games, but to see a dedicated example of a six-session campaign where I based many encounters and story beats around the characters and their backstories, check out the Crystalfellen series on SixSidesofGaming’s Youtube channel.
Written by Devin Wilson