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Put PCs First

by Mike on 22 September 2014

When you're sitting down to prepare your game, keep a list of the PCs, their backgrounds, and their motivations in front of you.

Great RPGs thrive on the goals and motivations of the PCs. While we GMs often have fantastic stories we want to tell, the best stories are those that grow from the actions of the PCs. Dungeon World states "be a fan of the characters" as one of its core rules for the GM. We lazy dungeon masters also know that building games from the actions and motivations of the PCs can make our lives easier when we prepare our games.

Many of us GMs know this and want to embrace it. We also want to build fantastic worlds and move the story forward at the same time. What does it really mean to be a fan of the characters? How do we implement this when preparing for our game?

A Quick Review of Lazy Game Mastering

If you follow the path of the Lazy Dungeon Master, you're familiar with 3x5 adventure design. Here's a summary:

You might refine this down even further to the following simple idea:

Write down the minimum you need to feel prepared for your game.

Keeping the PCs In View

Even filling out a 3x5 card can end up being tough to do every week year after year (if we're lucky enough to game that often). Where do we begin? What interesting locations might the PCs discover? Sometimes we have clear avenues for the story to go while other times we're left staring at a blank 3x5 card with our head in our hands. There are lots of ways we might get started but, whatever we do, we should remember what the PCs (and really the players) want to do. Let's start with that.

Take out another fine 3x5 card. Write down the names of each of the PCs. This is actually a great test for you on its own. If you can't remember the names of the PCs, you may not be paying enough attention to them.

Next, in only a few words, write down the background and motivations for the PCs. Here's an example from a 13th Age game.

Note: you can see from the above that I'm already slacking. I know backgrounds but I don't know the motivations for all the PCs. I don't know that I've actually really asked each of the players at this point.

Here's another example from a D&D 5th Edition game set in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure.

Note: For 5e D&D, instead of a 3x5 card, you might even use this handy campaign worksheet to keep track of names, classes, races, and backgrounds along with some other helpful tools to run your game.

With the PCs' information written out, we keep this 3x5 card in our view while we prepare for our game. As we sit there staring at our game preparation card, we can let our eyes wander over the list of PCs, backgrounds, and motivations. The more we let them seep into our mental processes, the more likely we'll start to use their hooks to plan out the game.

Struggling for an interesting adventure location? Take a look at the backgrounds of the PCs and maybe there's one lurking in there. Need a good villain? Who do the PCs hunt and why?

Keeping the backgrounds and motivtions of the PCs in view helps us tighten a stronger bond between our players and the game. It gives us the seeds we need to let the game grow at our table in a way meaningful to our players who are primarily invested in their own PCs.

The next time you're preparing your game, put out a 3x5 card with the names, backgrounds, and motivations of the PCs right in front of you. You may be surprised how it comes into play.

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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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