by Mike Shea on 24 June 2016
Here at Sly Flourish we talk a lot about focusing our games around the backgrounds and motivations of the PCs. We think this is the best way to draw players into the game and build cooperative collaborative stories well beyond the single imagination of one person. It's a core focus of the Lazy Dungeon Master and we've written a lot of articles about it including the following:
We even designed a PC-focused GM worksheet that takes the place of or augments your typical GM screen.
There's a reason we've written so many articles about this topic—it's surprisingly hard to do. It is much easier for us to write down a rigid outline or follow the chapters in a published adventure without even considering how the PCs fit in. Sometimes it works out just fine. Players have fun. We have fun. No harm, no foul.
When we focus a story around the PCs, though, our game moves up a level. It feels like a unique story built by the group. It's a creation greater than the sum of its parts.
It's hard to fit character focused storytelling into the basic components of what builds a good D&D game, though. When we're building a D&D game we might put down a loose outline of our next session; where it begins, what scenes we expect, what secrets we might reveal, which NPCs might come into play, and which combat encounters might take place. Where does the background and motivation of the PCs fit into this?
One way we can fit character focused stories in is to actually build encounters around the background of those characters. Many published adventures including Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd include random encounter tables to throw encounters in during travel. What if we modified them or replaced them with encounters built to tie into or showcase the backgrounds of the PCs?
Let's look at an example. In our Curse of Strahd game we have six regular PCs, each with their own personalities, backgrounds, and interests. We can write down a short list of potential encounters with the hooks that tie them to these PCs. Here are some example encounters:
We might be tempted to use this list as a standard random encounter list. Each time the group is traveling, we can roll on this list and use the listed encounter. This ensures we're not playing favorites. Instead, we might just pick the encounter we think fits best given the time, place, and attendance. Obviously we don't want ot run an encounter for a player that isn't actually at the game.
We can, of course, spice up these encounters with some interesting encounter features. Here's a quick list of ten. You might also use a randomly generated ancient monument. The ones below are flavored for our Curse of Strahd campaign. Feel free to add an appropriate effect to the feature such as bonus radiant damage, advantage on particular attacks, or another such interesting effect. You can also, if you want, add a random Tarokka effect to really spice things up.
Our character-focused encounters need not remain the same throughout our campaign. In fact, it's better if we change them up as we go. Just as the stories of the characters continue to grow and evolve, so can the encounters that showcase those backgrounds. We don't have to change them all every session but it's worth reviewing them before each game, seeing which ones are still relevant, and modifying them to fit the story as it is now. A few tweaks each week is probably all we need.
Exercises like this have the added benefit of reinforcing the stories of the characters in our mind in a way that we can directly use in our game. It's one thing to say "keep the character backgrounds in mind" and something else to actually use those backgrounds to build out parts of our adventure.
Building out these encounters helps us tie together interesting threads between the game we're playing (like Curse of Strahd) and the backgrounds of the characters. We don't have to put character backgrounds on one side of our table and the story we want to tell on the other. Tricks like this help us mash the two together to build practical components of our gaming sessions based on the parts of the game our players love the most—their characters.