So, you’ve got a group of players together. They’ve made some characters and you’re ready to start your Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, GURPS or Star Wars RPG game. You have a grand plot of a top-level bad guy who will bedevil them at every turn.
And the way you craft your campaign should be modeled on two of the best video games of all time.
“What?” you say. “Video games?”
Yes, video games — Skyrim and Civilization, to be specific.
Why you should think of Skyrim when running a D&D game
Skyrim, aside from being one of the best video games of all time, does storytelling the way every game master should.
If you’ve played Skyrim, you know what I’m talking about — even if you can’t identify it. Once the player gets introduced to the world, they’re allowed to wander freely. The world is crammed full of stories, but the game forces none of them upon the player.
Instead, the player travels from town to town on his own motivations. Along the way, he encounters tendrils of stories that coil across the map. When one piques the player’s interest, he can follow it to into the larger plot.
This is how all game masters should run their tabletop role playing games. Too many of us rely on railroading our players into an adventure. The king calls for adventurers, and the players follow along. Often, they follow along only because they know the game master expects them to. If they don’t, the game master probably doesn’t have a plan B.
This dynamic ruins the immersion that’s supposed to be the hallmark of role playing games.
So, when you’re laying out your plot, think of how the creators of Skyrim would do it — which is to create doorways into the campaign in any place the player might stumble across it.
Why you should think of Civilization when running a D&D game
Civilization belongs to a category wholly different from role playing games. So, why should you think about it while running a tabletop role playing games? Because of the way it treats independent actors.
One thing that can feel jarring about Skyrim — or any other open-world role playing game, for that matter — is that the NPCs eventually devolve into cardboard cutouts. The first couple of times players speak to them, their reactions are new and interesting. But, eventually, the player finds that they keep following the same script, with little or no regard to what has happened around them.
In Civ, you typically face off against several AI opponents — possibly many of them. And each AI reacts to the player according to its interests and personality.
If you and another civilization share the same religion, they treat you nicely. If you trade with them, they treat you better. As you build settlements close to their territory, they grow irritated. Attack their friend and — depending on their temperament — they might sever ties with you. Or start a war.
And this is how the major players should react in your role playing game. Due to the unpredictable nature of players (not to mention dice) you can’t plan for how your group is going to impact the game world.
So, when they do, the game would should react to them.