I want the PC’s actions to matter. There needs to be consequences for actions, good or ill. How frustrating is it when you go to a game and find out the game is scripted so much that the characters are there as little more than footnotes? Likewise what fun is NPC theater for the players? To me NPC theater is nothing more than storyteller masturbation The consequences don’t have to be world changing, but they need to change the way the environment interacts with the characters. Likewise the PC’s need to be the stars. It’s easy and a common pitfall for ST’s to put a NPC with the party, that is far more powerful than the characters, but it’s always a trap.
One of the things I always do when setting up a game is determine who the major powers are going to be. Sometimes its as easy as determining which published npc’s or entities to use. Shadowrun and Cyberpunk are great settings for this as there are a plethora of options to choose from. Pick a couple of corporations and go from there. Likewise L5R has built in genre antagonists as do many other systems.
D&D is a bit harder to set up in this manner unless you’re setting using published settings. The pro and con to using those is the players already know much of the lore of the setting. While this can definitely be an advantage, it can be just as much as a liability. The Zhentorum are the bad guys, and your players know this. So attempting to paint them in another light, oft times is pointless. Obviously you can twist things etc, play off of the player’s expectations ad nauseum. I personally found after doing just that multiple times in the Ryoko Owari setting for L5R, that I ended up putting almost as much work into it as I would’ve had i just started from scratch. So why not just start from scratch?
Incidentally if you ever can get your hands on a copy of the City of Lies boxed set for L5R, I highly recommend it, even if you don’t play in that setting. To me it is one of the best supplements AEG ever released. I’ve ran games in that city quite often and is one of my favorite ways to introduce players into the wonderfully rich and complex world of L5R. It details a city in a way I wish I could reliably do.
Going back to the setup, once I figure out the powers to be, I start asking questions about those major players. What are their goals? What resources do they have? Why do they have these goals? What are they willing to do in order to achieve them, and why are they willing to go to such lengths? What are their limitations? Sometimes as I go through this process, I find I need to change some of the ptb up or swap them out or add in new ones to fill in holes.
In my current campaign I’m working on I already decided that I wanted in part to touch upon the themes of a desperate struggle, where the good guys are facing potential annihilation. Kind of touching on some classic tropes inspired by Tolkien. Unlike the companions in Tolkien’s work there is no magic ring to destroy. Instead the players have to help resolve or at least temporarily overcome some deep seated issues, help deal with a missing heir, find allies, overcome some ingrained religious prejudices and otherwise find a way to sort out this massive Gordian knot. All of this while figuring out what their own roles are and figuring out what they truly want. Its quite possible a few might try and use the opportunity to carve out their own pocket empire.
My group has surprised me before. I still remember the time I had set up one of the characters as the chief suspect in a murder (Going back to the City of Lies, aka Ryoko Owari). The characters were all magistrates for the emperor, and as such in charge of enforcing his laws. When the NPC’s took advantage of the change over to kill a rival who was a fellow magistrate, they framed the PC who had been in an argument with the target only the night before. It was clearly an obvious set up. The players quickly unravelled bits and pieces of the mystery and together they had all of the information. I also turned up the heat some, by indicating that the Emerald Champion (their boss) was going to be making an appearing shortly. Here’s where they shocked me. I knew the Matsu magistrate who was framed was brash, rude, and antisocial. He also was the highest ranking member socially. What I hadn’t counted on all of the players finally deciding they had enough of the Matsu’s antics.
After a couple of days, the next highest magistrate, a Kakita Duelist, decided to act upon a “hunch” and walked upstairs to see the Matsu. When the Matsu answered the door to his room in his usual gruff manner, the Kakita drew his sword and cut him down in a single stroke. He then looked down upon the corpse of his fellow magistrate and declared “Just as I thought. This isn’t the Magistrate that was sent here, this creature was an oni sent to infiltrate our vaunted ranks, and discredit us.” The player of the Matsu was initially stunned, then everyone had a good laugh at my expense as I briefly stared dumbfounded at the player of the Kakita duelist. He sacrificed his honor, for expediency. In short, as he explained it, he panicked. We helped the Matsu’s player make a new pc, and game went on.
The NPC factions of the city, some of whom knew the truth, realized they now had a formidable foe amongst them, and it turned out to be an almost perfect result for the players. In one stroke they proved they were ruthless and pragmatic, and they weren’t willing to play certain types of games. Instead the Scorpion clan (the rulers of the City of Lies) ended up arranging for the Kakita Duelist to receive a bride from their family, thus binding him through marriage, instead of trying to trap him in schemes and manipulations. In essence their choices made an impact upon the game environment, and they mattered.
Right now the characters have little real reason to care (outside of alignments). They’re already witnessing some of the flaws inherent in the society. So my next challenge will be to give them a reason other than survival to care. I don’t really want to force one onto the players so I’ll need to give them sympathetic individuals to relate to. Hopefully as the game progresses those individuals will be the catalyst for the players to really give a damn. Instead of “I’m fighting those guys over there because they will probably kill me” I’d rather see them go “I’m supporting Lady Eleanor because she has treated us well, and she cares about us and the people” . The latter will hopefully provide more of a moral quandary if they have to choose between Lady Eleanor or Lord Summerland, both of whom have treated the PC’s well.
Otherwise there are no real choices. The PCs can simply pick whichever noble who would be the most effective in the war with little regard for long term consequences. This also means the PC’s actions matter. By defining the factions that the PC’s can interact with, there are real choices that have to be made. Do the character’s support Faction A over Faction B? Even though Faction A has some despicable beliefs they might have a stronger military, which would be beneficial in the war. Do they make deals with the devil so to speak?
Anyways, rambled on long enough for now.