In the many role-playing campaigns I’ve run—be they Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, or Vampire: the Masquerade—I’m a big fan of presenting players with choice, and then exploring the consequences of that choice. For the many years I helped run a local Vampire game I was even known as the “Consequences” storyteller—whenever someone did something foolish the other game-runners would send the player my way to drive home the reaction of the setting.
I suppose my love of the mortal question started with my first exposure to L5R, where I quickly saw the dichotomy between what a character wanted and what duty required of them. This immediately became a recurring theme in the games I ran, because I think the core of the setting lives at the crossroads of that internal conflict. The story of a samurai who forsakes his duty for love is the stuff of legends, but so too is the story of the samurai who sacrificed everything in the name of honor and loyalty. Whatever a character decides, there’s real drama involved, and deep growth of both the overarching plot and of the character itself.
In games like Shadowrun where characters tend to be counter-culture rebels (or at least fitting into that role), having a moral or ethical twist slip into an adventure can be very interesting to watch unfold—what if the team comes across a hapless cleaning employee, how do they deal with the situation? How they choose to overcome that obstacle, no matter how quickly, efficiently, or round-about a manner they opt for, helps direct the rest of the campaign, because it’s a real opportunity for characters to grow, no matter the outcome.
Some time back I was playing a PC RPG—it was either Tyranny or Pillars of Eternity, I cant remember which—when an NPC asked me if I had heard any news of a particular event in my travels. I was thoroughly impressed with the options presented to me:
Instead of only a binary choice, and the game deciding how sarcastic, enthusiastic, or honest each answer is, it gave me the option to really explore how the character treats others. While that particular early choice may not have had the largest impact on the overall game, it did quite a lot to help me determine the kind of protagonist I would be for the play through. This example goes to show character development isn’t just about asking questions, but also about being receptive to the answers.
Something I’d say I’m known for in local gaming circles is the running of long (multi-year), character-driven chronicles which dive into the personalities and desires of the PCs that drive the story. I’m not terribly good at making NPCs or places seem distinct, but I believe I can craft scenarios which test or at least question a character’s closely-held beliefs. Is a character closely-ties with family? What happens if their family holds a terrible secret?
That isn’t to say I always turn things against characters or try to railroad their backstories into a predefined narrative. My goal is to take what the players (and characters) give me and shape a more fully-realized experience out of it, a dynamic and consistent world (no matter how fantastical) for them to explore. I think it’s great when there are sessions where I have to do little but show up, the rest of the group spending the session in deep conversation. I’m more than happy to set aside whatever plot I’ve developed or scheduled in favor of real character interaction and growth.