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Five Ways to Integrate Characters Into Your Campaign

by Mike on 26 June 2023

When we think about where best to spend our time to maximize the fun of our game, we can do far worse than focusing our attention on the characters.

In the eyes of our players, no aspect of our game is more important than their characters. Characters are the interface between the players and the rest of the world.

Whether running a published or homebrew campaign, finding ways to integrate the characters – their goals, motivations, backgrounds – is time very well spent.

Here are five ways to integrate characters into our campaigns.

Relate to an NPC

Build relationships between characters and key NPCs. Maybe they're old war buddies. Maybe their cousins. Maybe they grew up together on the streets. Relate important NPCs to the characters so those NPCs become part of the characters' background. It's one thing to take down a high ranking cultist of the Cult of the Dragon, it's something else when that high-ranking cultist is the character's cousin.

When running a published adventure, either tie NPCs in the adventure to characters with your own connections or make up entirely new NPCs from the character's background and weave them into the adventure.

Build Meaningful Magic Items

Players love magic items. When we spend time tailoring magic items around the characters, and the desire of the players, we're almost sure to make players happy. Even better is when the story of that magic item relates to the character and their background. You might even work with the player to strengthen and solidify the bond between this magic item and the character.

Expose the Characters' History in Lore

When characters explore dungeons deep and caverns old we can bathe these locations in history and lore through secrets and clues the characters can discover. It works really well when the characters learn about themselves from these histories and lore. A paladin might learn more of their ancient order and the deeds the order fulfilled centuries ago. An occultist bearfolk might learn more of the strange cults they research and how their own lineage is woven in. A ranger in league with the deity known as the Hunter might learn more about past rangers and the path they took under the Hunter's mantle.

Reveal history and lore meaningful to the characters instead of just general history. Each session, look at the characters and ask how you can paint the location they're exploring in history that means something to them.

Change the Characters

One way to make a campaign more meaningful to a player is to have their character actually change during the campaign. This is something you'll want to work on very closely with the player before implementing anything. If they're into the idea that their character changes, lean into those changes. The player represents the character and you represent the world. How does the world react to this change?

Always make such changes a choice for the player. Don't take away their agency. Let the player decide how their character changes even if those changes weren't optional to the character. Examples include drinking eldritch fluid that changes the character into a vampyr, having a character realize their divine nature, or having a character physically evolve after a curse or as part of the nature of their ancestry.

Build Characters Around the Campaign

If we give players enough information about the campaign, the main story, the arcs, the organizations, and the NPCs before they build their characters, they can build their characters around these themes. If you hand the characters a list of potential patrons, they can decide during character creation if they're related to the patron. If you give the players a list of organizations, they can tie their background directly to these organizations. Give out meaningful campaign one-sheets before running your session zero and players can build their characters around the campaign just as you sew those characters into the campaign as it plays out.

Integrating characters into a campaign is a two-way street. You can bend, meld, and form the world around the characters. At the same time, players can bend, mold, and form their characters including history, background, goals, and motivations, around the themes, histories, and NPCs of the campaign.

Time spent bending your campaign around the characters, and vice versa, is almost always well spent. It's one of the best places we lazy DMs can spend our time and energy.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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