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Ways to Play

Bringing it together

by Chris Chinn
May 13,2003


Bringing it together

Hi, welcome back to another installment of Ways to Play! This time, we're going to take the ideas given in the last three columns and tie them together, give you examples, and point out some finer details about how to set up a campaign without predetermination, and provide great conflict and characters.

The 3 elements

To briefly recap the 3 concepts we've covered previously, and their role in the making a campaign fly:

Protagonist Play:

"What happens" is decided by the players' decisions, the protagonists' decisions of the story, not by preplanned "plot events" or the GM forcing story to happen. The choices of the protagonists are meaningful and drive the story. Preparation is minimized and tools are used to adapt to any sort of possibility on the part of the players without railroading.


Conflict is the first tool that provides a springboard for ideas for the GM. If play ever seems to be losing focus, or be "not interesting", look back to the conflict to bring things back into focus. A good conflict inspires ideas.


Good characters are defined by motivations, not by powers, and definitely not by a preset plan of actions to be "triggered". Using motivations, each NPC can and will adapt to the situation to fulfill their goals. The GM need only be able to play an NPC as one would a PC.

Ok, so now that I've summarized the previous columns, let's look to putting this in action:

Setting up a campaign

Let's assume that my group has decided on a system and setting to play with. For simplicity's sake, we'll say they want to play the classic fantasy of "Heroes of light vs. villains of darkness" sort of thing.


There's really two ways to set up a conflict, either by painting a broad picture and going into details, or starting small and ballooning out. Since the players suggested good vs. evil, I'm going to start big and work my way in. We'll say that the big conflict is over "He who controls the 3 True Artifacts on the eve of the new Millennium will give birth to a new God".

Using the guidelines given for conflict, I can define this conflict in many ways:

-Groups in Conflict- Good vs. Evil(plus some neutral parties as well)
-The Power Balance- Neither group controls all 3 Artifacts, yet
-The Stakes- Who gets to create a new God? What kind of God?
-Who's affected? Potentially everyone, Gods are a big deal.

Now, to paint in some details as to the groups in conflict. The major groups are defined as the Council of 9(the good guys, representatives from various religions of Light), and the Darklings(followers of the gods of darkness). To make things more interesting, I'll set up some sub-conflicts within the groups, but I'll detail that with the characters below.


Now that I have a good conflict, I need to come up with some characters to invite to the party. I've got a solid conflict with momentum and high stakes, now I just need to add desperate people, dysfunctionality, and emotional involvement(check my Conflict article for more on this), all of which comes about through characters.

For this example, I'll only create 4 characters, but for a full game I'd have a roster of at least 6 to 12 full blown characters to make the conflict interesting.

Motivation: Ideal(Restoring the Old Kingdom)
The oldest, and wisest of the Council of 9, Melchior has been waiting a long time for this chance. He wants to create a patron god to restore the Old Kingdom to its glory, to bring back the Golden Age. In order to do this, he may choose to undermine the other members of Council by loading them up with other duties or responsibilities or otherwise "non-maliciously" tip things in his favor. He's waited far too long and worked to hard to let this opportunity pass him by.

Motivation: Love
Selena is Melchior's youngest daughter, only 15, and has been mostly ignored by her "too busy" father for the last few years Selena has become fairly independent, although she knows well how to play the "good girl" role for her father. Selena has fallen head over heels in love with the passionate Marcus(see below). Her love will drive her to do anything to protect him or aid him, but he's becoming impatient and may throw down an ultimatum for her to choose between her father and him. Not only that, but Selena has jealousy issues with Angel, who Marcus fawns attention upon.

Motivation: Power tripping
Marcus is a young man of only 16, but has become powerful beyond his age when he accepted the power of one of the Dark Gods. This power allowed him to take vengeance on his abusive slave owner, but he's been rampaging ever since. Marcus claims to be freeing slaves and bringing justice, but really he's just looking for an excuse to power trip and hurt people. Recently he's developed a relationship with Selena, and taken Angel, an orphan, under his wing. Marcus sees Angel as a little sister, and Selena as a "girlfriend for now". Marcus is driven by his ego mania and dark masters, he hopes to raise himself as a new God, and to make the world bow to his "justice".

Motivation: Survival
Angel has always struggled to live in the streets. Small, underfed, and only 11 years old, she's mastered the art of doing anything for survival, including a bit of manipulation to get protection from those stronger than her. Angel has also accepted the Darklings' power under the advice of Marcus, but is afraid of using it, and having second thoughts about her decision. Not only that, but Marcus is unstable and sometimes scares her witless when he blows up at her. Angel is taking a serious gamble, hoping to be able to create "guardian angel" god for herself...

Character overview

So here I've detailed one member of the Council of 9, and a couple of the Darklings. Naturally for a campaign I'd include more characters, but the conflict between these folks is sufficient to use as an example. Although the "big picture" is about the birth of a new god, the emotional conflicts are Melchior vs. Selena, the Selena-Marcus-Angel triangle, Angel's desire for freedom from Marcus, Melchior's control issues over Selena, and of course, the internal conflicts, such as Melchior's choice between his ambition and his daughter, Selena's conflict between choosing her father and her lover, etc. With just these 4 characters, a nasty web of conflict and sub-conflict is drawn and the stakes(the 3 True Artifacts) only serve as magnets to make sure that no one can walk away from this affair.

Things that make this(or any) conflict work particularly well, character wise:

Desperate people:
For whatever reason, the outcome means a LOT to each individual. Their motivations and goals may be good or evil, but its important to them. Not only that, but they'd be willing to go farther or break a few more rules to achieve it.

It's clear that the relationships between everyone I've listed are not healthy and on the up and up. This tends to create the irrational and uncompromising sorts of people who are great for conflicts. An interesting thing to note is that folks go to desperate measures to maintain(Marcus to Angel) or to break away from(Angel to Marcus) dysfunctional relationships.

Emotional ties:
This conflict could simply be about 2 groups fighting to make a new god, but now its about family, father and daughter, 2 lovers, a stalker sort and his "ward", and all sorts of personal issues. The "stakes" are simply a catalyst to start the fecal storm between all the relationships. Since people on both "sides" know each other, their emotional relationship complicates the conflict. When you want to make things emotional, either have the various groups already have previous relationships(Luke and Darth Vader) or allow them to quickly establish new ones(Romeo and Juliet).

The Players' involvement

So far, so good. Ideally, I'd have talked to the players and gotten a better feel for the kind of game they want, and what kind of characters they'd want to play, and built my conflict and characters around that. We'll assume for the purpose of example that they have done so, and my only requirements would be that the players link their characters to the NPCs(of either side) through some tie, regardless of whether that means the players would be aligned or not.

For the sake of example, the players have all chosen to play "good" characters, although they won't have known each other. One player chooses to play a classic paladin in service to Council of 9, although he owes a big favor to Melchior for getting him the position. Another player chooses to play the classic scholarly mage, also in service to the Council, although she works for a rival council member, and also has her own intentions about the new god(she wants a personal god of magic). A third player chooses to play a shifty thief sort, who is in town looking for his lost daughter(Angel).

Notice that all of the PC's are tied to one or more NPC's, and have their own motivations regarding the conflict at hand. They may or may not work together, or see eye to eye, but its only a matter of time before they (repeatedly) cross paths. The PC's have also set up mini-conflicts of their own; The paladin will be drawn between his loyalty to the Council as a whole, his own morals, and Melchior's desires. The mage has her own goals, but is also working for a patron as well, and may find Melchior trying to win her over or hinder her efforts. Finally, the thief is looking for his daughter(who may or may not want to see him, may or may not resent and hate him...), but probably doesn't want her living under this abusive power mad jerk, or serving the gods of darkness.

Setting up Scenes

Hopefully you're seeing the sheer possibilities for trouble and drama, and imagining some possible scenes that could take place. "But what happens?" is an easily answered question at this point. Choose a PC, look down your list of NPCs, and figure out who would interact in an interesting manner and highlight the conflict.

Consider if I want to start with the paladin player, obviously his link in to the conflict is through Melchior, who might send him on a short trip to go find his daughter(who of course, he might catch hanging out with Marcus...). Perhaps Melchior's daughter counters by threatening the paladin, "If you say anything to father, I'll say you ravished me!" Maybe Marcus sees the mage and develops a crush on her(oops, looks like trouble with Selena). What if the thief finds his daughter, only to have her "protected" by Marcus?

After any scene closes up, I need only look down the list of NPCs and PCs and match them up according to who would produce an interesting scene. If things seem to be off track, I look at the conflict and figure out "Who would do what?" based on their motivations and goals.

With a good Conflict and good cast of Characters, I no longer need to preplan actions and reactions. Sessions do not "run themselves" but have a living quality, they are created by the actions and reactions of ALL the players, not just the GM bouncing the players through "possible outcomes" that have been predetermined. Both the players and the GM are coming to the table with the same idea: "I don't know how things are going to turn out, but I've got all the tools I need to play".

You make it sound so easy...

And no, it is not "easy", but then again, it is no harder than learning where all the charts are in a game, or being able to look up or memorize rules for a spell. It is a skill that is learnable, and may take a little time, with practice. The key point is that these tools allow you to use protagonist play and play without "winging it".

At first, you might take a minute or two between scenes to figure out what seems interesting. No problem. After all, these are the same players who will take 20 minutes to discuss a plan, or 10 minutes to revise actions in the midst of second to second combat in game. They owe you a couple of minutes here and there. You're only being asked to help create an exciting cinematic experience without a team of scriptwriters and one draft...

If you get really stuck, take a 10 minute break, carefully look through your list of NPCs and think about what is the most interesting, exciting, and "fun" thing that they could do next. In fact, worse come to worse, think of something that would drive an NPC to their most desperate measures, make that happen. In the scenario above, some fun disasters I could throw in:

Melchior- gets ejected from the Council of 9(power play by a lower member?)
Selena- Marcus throws down an ultimatum, or just ditches her for someone else. Maybe Angel steps up and accidentally kills Marcus in self defense after he gets too abusive...
Angel- Marcus starts trying to beat her to death. Maybe Selena comes after her for real.
Marcus- Angel gets hurt, a PC is either responsible or mistakenly blamed by Marcus

As you can see, some of the possible turnouts are completely contradictory, or won't fit together. None of these have to happen, they are just ideas that come up when you look at the character's motivations, personality, and the conflict at hand. In general, if I want to make something exciting happen, all I have to do is really throw around some of those True Artifacts I mentioned earlier, have them change hands, and watch folks get worried.

Play over time

So now you have the tools for the immediate session. How do you extend that game over multiple sessions? Easy.

-Expand the Conflict

Remember, you can always have another character or group step in with big plans or a stake in the conflict. In the example above, I might have some other groups or characters step in and shift the balance of power. Consider what would happen if Melchior did get evicted from the Council? Who was responsible? Who takes his place? Who else gets to join the Council? How would Melchior complete his goals now? Does he have a network of old friends, or does he make new alliances? All of these questions add new twists and considerations for the future.

-Shift the Conflict

What happens after the millennium is over and the new god is created? What kind of god is it? What influence does this have on the people? Who's in power? For the side that got what they wanted, what do they do now? For the side that didn't, what do they do now? Are they taking even more desperate measures to achieve their goals? What are their new goals?

If Marcus becomes a god, what happens to Selena? Will Angel ever have freedom? If the Old Kingdom is restored by the power of a new patron God, what role does Melchior have? What do the folks of the newer Kingdoms do? How does Selena react? If Angel gets her protector, does she leave never to be seen again, or does she enact some form of vengeance on folks? What happens to her father, the thief PC? Is he loved or hated?

As you can see, even resolving the conflict opens up new ones.

Further Details

As you can see from my example, most of the work is done before a campaign begins. Between sessions, I don't need to prep serious ideas for "things to happen". The hardest part is coming up with a good conflict and a set of characters who will make it work. Just as players do most of their work at the beginning of a campaign, the GM does likewise.

But what if the players do X, Y or Z?

As you can see here, the strength of Protagonist Play is that there is no way the players can ruin the "story". Anything the player characters do, either initiated or in reaction makes up the "story". If any of the characters, or even all of the characters listed above were killed or disappeared in the course of play, each of them has further connections, friends, family, allies, rivals, and enemies who would step in as a reaction, either to take out the person responsible or try to fill the void in power. The game does not hinge on the actions of a few characters, or require specific conditions to be fulfilled.

As a GM, I have no idea how the game will turn out. But that doesn't mean I feel unprepared, or that I would just arbitrarily make up "what I like" and force it down the players' throats. What if the players work against each other? Well, then that would be interesting. What if the players join the Darklings? Well, then there would be opposition from the Council of 9. What if the players eliminate one side or the other? Others would step in to take power, or internal conflicts would escalate. The players cannot ruin the story, they can only create it.

Next Time

Hopefully the examples in this column give you a good idea of how to tie in the information and ideas presented in the previous columns. Next time, we tackle the simple but difficult subject of fundamental play.

Go Play!

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