I’m asked a lot of questions about gaming and running games. But the one I hear from other gamemasters the most is:
“How do you draw players into your campaign and how do you get them to care about it and become emotionally invested in the events unfolding around them?”
I love hearing that question because right away it tells me that this is someone who really wants to run a great game for his players, not just himself. Ultimately I think the key to a fantastic campaign is the ability for the GM to put aside certain ego-centric aspects of running the game and focus more on the players’ experience of participating in the game.
Even though each gamemaster and every group of players are different there are several techniques that can be used to really draw players into the campaign. The following are some of the things I have incorporated over the years in order to help immerse my players in the experience.
An Aura of Mystery
When I talk about mystery in terms of building player involvement I’m not talking about solving mysteries as part of an adventure, such as who killed Baresh the Mad; or what are the Eyes of Darkness. Instead I’m referring to building and maintaining an atmosphere of mysteriousness in regard to the campaign setting itself. Nothing draws players in quite as well as curiosity about the people, places, and events surrounding them.
I use this technique in virtually every aspect of my campaign. In my current game I handed the players a map of their home area (The Seven Bridges Valley) at the start of the first session. Right away my players began to ask questions; why is the village of Shadowhaven a ruin? What is Monument Valley? What’s in the Fellmarsh? How come there are only six bridges in the Seven Bridges Valley? These questions immediately got the players thinking about their environment.
Things that might pique your players’ interests’ (a few of which I’ve used myself):
- A strange formation of stones, or perhaps just one unusually large stone, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they glow, or animals don’t go near them, or they’re surrounded by local rumors and superstitions.
- An old structure (like a keep or castle) that the character’s initially mistake for a ruin only to later discover the building was never actually completed to begin with.
- An old statue or monument that no longer has any indication of who it was of or what it commemorated. The statue could be in a village square or perhaps at a lonely crossroad along some rarely used road.
- A prisoner that has been locked up in the local keep for decades, one whose identity is known by only select few. Perhaps someday the characters will need info that only the ancient prisoner possess.
The most important part of this technique is to allow the players to wonder about certain things but to keep them on track with more immediate concerns like adventures and the campaign plot arcs. Then as time goes on you can satisfy the players’ curiosities by revealing something about the mystery or having it feature prominently in some new adventure. Maybe that unusual stone formation is where a villain makes his last stand. Or the heroes discover that it was the place where their arch-enemy transformed into a lich centuries ago.
In my home campaign one of my players, after having seen just the map decided that his character’s back-story was somehow connected to why Shadowhaven is no longer occupied. This leads me to my second tip:
Player Participation in the Creative Process
I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine; I only do a portion of the work on my campaign, the rest is knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly, done by my players. I like the players in my campaigns to feel as though they have helped create the world in which they play in. Nothing encourages player buy-in like being part of the creative process for campaign and story development. When allowed to participate in this way most players feel much more “connected” to the campaign and its stories.
I allow the players a lot of creative license in regard to the things that are important to their characters. In my current campaign one of the characters has a sister who runs an inn. I’ve given him complete freedom to tell the rest of us what the inn is like and who work there. What the atmosphere is like and the nature of the clientele. He went so far as to make up business cards for the inn. Not only is the player more invested in the campaign but I’ve just had a lot of work done for me. And if someday I need a building to be burnt down when brigands attack, or someplace for the murdered body of the Runespeaker to mysteriously pop up, I know just the place.
Character Back-story and Relationships
This one touches upon both of the previous tips. Allowing your players a great deal of latitude in creating their personal history is an excellent opportunity to involve them in the creative campaign design process and a great chance to utilize a little mystery. I don’t think I have ever met a gamer who didn’t like a bit mystery to surround his character.
When building back-story I encourage my players to be creative with people, places, and events, but not to worry about leaving a few “gaps” for me to work with. Many possibilities spring to mind when it comes to character history. Here are a few:
- A PC’s brother was killed long ago; maybe the character knows what happened, or maybe he just “thinks” he knows.
- An orphan raised by the church after finding her has a baby left on their doorstep. Who are her parents? Why was she abandoned?
- The tough warrior who still feels guilty about the events surrounding his father’s death. Is he to blame or does he just miss his dad?
- An elf that woke up in a nearby wood 18 months ago with no recollection of his life prior to that moment. Ok that player gave me a ton to work with, and boy will he regret that!
Another aspect I encourage amongst my players is building in relationships, both with each other and other NPC’s as well. Not only is this a great way to tie players into the setting but it also gives you as the GM a bunch of ready to go NPC’s to use in the campaign. Its one thing when the local Lord’s daughter goes missing but it is something else altogether when it’s the brother of a PC whom he’s had a long-standing rivalry with, especially when the brother is a local hero.
A few of the relationships that my players have created in our current campaign include:
- One character’s mother sits on the town council and has several enemies as well as quite a few “interesting” allies.
- Another character serves as a local guardsman assigned to the “house” of the first character’s mother. He has a wife and two children who constantly ask him to put down his axe and return home. Loyalty has him perpetually torn between his duty to the town, his family, and his allies.
- Yet another character thinks he may have met the love of his life. A sweet young lady who wants him to settle down and stay with her in the quiet little village of Cinderhill.
Relationships can become the absolute foundation of a campaign. I’ve had players ask me “Why do I care about what’s happening here?” Good relationships answer that question.
These are the primary techniques I like to employ but what about you? What techniques have you used to grip your players and suck them into your campaign leaving them anxious and excited for next week’s adventure?