Pretty much for every type of media I consume, I like character drama plus action. That’s movies, books, comics, videogames, and tabletop roleplaying as well. Just recently I started playing a videogame which is effectively a case study in anti-design for emotional investment – and funny enough, it reminded me a lot of bad campaigns I’ve played in, or run in the past. Which, naturally helps me better think about what does work and why.
The usual advice applies – you should find a way to coordinate on the focus of the story, make the NPCs and situations flexible, not IF-THEN constructs which fundamentally block the protagonists from being protagonists. Anyway, with that said, here’s some things that occur in the media that get character drama right in terms of getting people to emotionally invest:
There’s friends, family, lovers, mentors, and so on. People who generally think well of the protagonist(s), try to help, offer advice, ask them how they’re doing, serve as a sound board, and sometimes check them or ask for help in return. Friendly characters allow us to see who the protagonist is with the people she or he cares about.
However, part of this is that these characters have to have actual interaction. That interaction doesn’t have to be all smiles and happiness – troubled relationships can still matter, however, the fact is if you just say “You’re supposed to care about someone” without showing and playing it out, getting the player investment is hard.
A lot of tabletop campaigns fail here either by having no friendly NPCs at all with which you build up a relationship, or, that the NPCs are all quest givers and potential betrayal characters – in which case, they stop being people and start being more like a treasure chest that might be trapped… They’re not really characters, they’re objects, in which case, you don’t get emotional investment.
Unfriendly characters with voices
This is the second thing. If you have rivals or enemies, they have to have a voice, the ability to have a conversation in order to be a way for us to learn more about the protagonists. The key is that while they may not be someone you can convince to your side, it’s a conversation because both the protagonist and the antagonist can make solid points towards each other – and how they react to that reveals more about their characters in the process. Batman and Joker punching each other is not as interesting as Batman and Joker talking to each other.
The key failure for a lot of tabletop games is that when the unfriendly NPCs speak, they don’t have conversation – they’re usually monologuing and/or clue dropping. This again, is because a lot of folks end up running their games with pre-planned scene goals, so the only point of dialogue is to try to usher players into one of the appropriate planned branches, instead of having the NPCs respond in ways appropriate to the situation.
Setting with Context
So lots of games have lots of setting. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages. Timelines, history, population counts. However, that is usually the least useful information as far as emotional investment – what matters is why should anything matter?
The context of what something means is the important part. “We’re going to kill the king” hold some weight. It holds more weight when you consider this might bring the downfall of Rome. Context gives it power. And it only has context for the group if a) everyone knows it’s something important, and b) why it’s important.
If some action or declaration in a game is supposed to be important, but it’s dealing with a tiny paragraph in the middle of 300 pages of setting… your players may not know that’s “the important part” or have even read it.
In most stories there’s a build up of context, which makes things important as you go. The information is given or revealed to the audience, and the investment matters more. While you can get away with some exposition up front, you need to also reinforce it during the actual events in the story itself. In roleplaying games this can be out and out narration to the players as well as characters’ talking and characters’ inner thoughts.
Adjusting in play
Tabletop RPGs have an advantage that other media do not – you can adjust during play to find the stuff the players are most interested in. Let me rephrase that – everyone playing can adjust the focus of play to the things they are interested in. As a group, you can work together to make the most exciting, entertaining, and meaningful game for your group collectively.
You can pass the spotlight, you can have your characters ask questions of each other and the world around them, you can use mechanical pushes or Flag mechanics to help each other get the game and story you want to see. You know how you watch a tv show and you think, “I wish they’d do more with X & Y characters?” You can do that. That’s totally something you can have happen in an rpg, and you should take advantage of it.
This was something that playing lots of Primetime Adventures taught me – the focus you think you’re going to start with, will probably turn out to be different within a few sessions of play. You go in a general direction and play shows you the specific direction of what gets everyone excited.
Making this happen in play
Well, you start with a focus for the story – that gives you some unity of motivations and character concepts – but also important, it lets you narrow down the setting stuff you need to focus on. You can give players a quicksheet of the most relevant setting bits and then it’s easier to have the focus of what to work with.
Players give you Flags, you design NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, around those. Including having some NPCs who are tied with one protagonist tie over to another player character’s Flags. (“Your sister is actually hanging out with the street thief the other player has been trying to catch…”).
Make sure to give scenes of the characters interacting in all kinds of ways – sometimes it’s action, sometimes it’s reaction and commentary on the action. The NPCs make motivated choices – sometimes wise, sometimes not, sometimes the worst possible thing, sometimes the best possible thing, according to what fits their personalities and the situation at hand.
The players take actions and the world responds accordingly.
Emotional investment? It’s a combination of characters who play and respond, and a world the protagonists have a hand in shaping.
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