My wife and I have been getting back into gaming, most notably board gaming, but at least kicking around the idea of playing RPGs too. I used to be a big tabletop gamer, I started playing in 1974 with Chainmail, then moved into the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. While it’s not something I’ve played in many years, mostly because I’ve grown horribly allergic to fantasy, I was a big time roleplayer at least through the early 90s. I didn’t meet my wife at our gaming group but that’s where we started going out, so it’s played a big part in my life over the years.
We’ve been testing a couple of podcasts, trying to see which ones we like and we happened across The Secret Cabal Gaming Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast that covers both board and roleplaying games. It’s a great podcast, the only downside is that every episode is close to 3 hours long! Anyhow, we were listening to the most recent episode and they had a segment on getting out of the character creation rut. Mostly, they had the complaint that nobody bothers to do any kind of character background or pay much attention to character motivation, it’s just roll some dice and play the game and make the rest up as you go along.
It made me think back to some of the ways that I used to not only be invested in the characters I created, but how I would get my players, when I was GM, to become involved and interested in the lives and backgrounds of their own characters, which I think is really important for getting players immersed in the game and the game world.
First and foremost, for the individual, I think a lot of that motivation has to come from within. I never played with GMs that would force people to sit around a table and roll up characters in his presence to make sure they weren’t cheating, but I think that plays to the character of the people involved. If you can’t trust the people you’re playing with, why are you playing with them? So we all created characters at home when we had plenty of time to sit down and do it right. Myself, I’d roll up characters by the dozens, just to have them. I had manila envelopes full of characters of all shapes and sizes, all with completely fleshed out backgrounds, so when I sat down at the table and the GM said he wanted a specific type of character, I had one available. That way, I had my pick and could shore up the party where they might otherwise be weak, there were plenty of times that the group showed up with mostly fighters or mostly thieves and there wasn’t a cleric or a mage to be found. I could fix that.
When I was running games, I would have everyone bring me their character sheets a week early so I could take them home and weave elements from their back stories into the narrative. I might slip them something here or there, unbeknownst to the other players, that fit into the story I was trying to tell. Of course, we planned these games weeks, sometimes months ahead of time, so everyone knew what day they had to have things ready, we didn’t just show up at our weekly game night and say “what does everyone want to do?” Organization is very important to getting people invested and getting them looking forward to what they’ll be doing for the next couple of weeks.
But I think the best suggestion I can give, that always worked for me, is to play in a consistent game universe. Get people familiar with your game world and make their characters a part of it. No, that doesn’t mean that they save the world every week, I find that pretty boring, but their deeds and exploits ought to be known and commemorated somewhere in the world, for good or bad. Also, keep them playing the same characters for a long time if possible. I don’ t have them re-roll new characters at the end of the campaign if it isn’t necessary, the same characters will go on to have other adventures, sort of like Indiana Jones. When they die or when we decide to take a leap forward, maybe it’s their children that become the new focus? Or maybe it’s a character that idolized the old one? They’ll run across people singing the praises of their old characters or find references in encyclopedias detailing their adventures. I had one game where they found a pile of wanted posters for their old characters, reminding them that the outcome isn’t always going to be positive. For my sci-fi universe, I wrote a weekly newspaper where, in the advertisements, there was a long-running gag of bounty hunters searching for old characters. I’ll also randomly reward players with bonuses on their rolls based on some aspect of their backstory. The more detailed the story, the better chance of getting a lucky break when you need it the most. When we came back to the table, it was always within the same universe, with the same history and the same physics, it was just like coming home.
Because people knew that they’d be playing these characters for weeks, perhaps years of their lives, they got really invested in the characters, they didn’t take them for granted and put them into dangerous situations because… so what, they’d just roll a new one next week. What they did mattered and there are former players of mine who have written stories, and in one case, a couple of books based on characters designed during my campaigns. I’ve had players become even better experts on my game worlds than I was because they enjoyed the universe. They’d run into things they’d seen before and have that spark of remembrance and that’s a really fun thing to see as a GM.
I know it’s hard, especially when you don’t play the same game regularly, to implement some of these changes. If you’re playing D&D one week, Traveler the next, Shadowrun the week after that, etc., then generating a cohesive game world in each game is going to be difficult, that’s mostly why I never played that way, I kept to one or two RPGs, at most, with board or card games available to play between campaigns or if a session finished up early. There was never a time when people forgot about a game world or it’s history, they just didn’t stay away from it long enough and maybe that’s part of the secret too.
I really miss my days gaming. I wish I could do it now. I’ve looked, there just aren’t any gamers in my area and while I can play online, so much of the experience requires sitting down around a table with people you have a lot in common with and that you like and admire. Best friends are made that way. So are wives. It’s a shame I will probably never find groups like that again.