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Campaign Worlds Should be Shaken, Not Stirred

In the same way that you should drive your NPCs like a rental [1], you shouldn’t be afraid to shake up your campaign world — whether it’s a homebrewed world, a published setting, a variation on the real world, etc.

Unless you’re ending your campaign with a bang [2], shaking things up doesn’t mean crashing a meteor into the planet, having all the gnomes die of a mysterious plague or anything else that drastic. It just means being willing to set aside sentimental concerns and change cherished elements of the game world, small or large.

This is pretty common advice for fiction writers, too: Don’t be afraid to let your main characters change. Killing off Sherlock Holmes might not have been the best idea (and the subsequent public outcry that led to his return certainly suggests that nope, it wasn’t the best idea), but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was on the right track. Characters, places, themes and traditions need to change.

When it comes to gaming, the PCs are changing all the time — resolving Beliefs in Burning Wheel, leveling up in D&D, switching their home base to a new ship in Star Wars — so why shouldn’t the world change with them? Shake things up a bit, and you just might surprise your players.

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#1 Comment By Micah On September 13, 2007 @ 10:12 am

This is also a good way to let the players know that the world exists externally to them. This is one of the major differences (to me) between tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs.

In a computer RPG, you can stay at the inn for 1000 nights in a row. Come out, and it’s the same 10 NPCs milling around. That’s how the program was written. The world just hasn’t changed. Time is irrelevant.

In a tabletop RPG, it’s totally different. If the characters decide to take a year or two off while they twiddle their thumbs, they can bet that a few dark gods will have been summoned and several evil cults have arisen. Even worse, another party of brave adventurers may have stepped forward to pick up the slack 😉

A major shake up can help shed a sense of “chosen-one” syndrome. It reminds everyone that the world is (hopefully) a living, changing place.

#2 Comment By OUTRIDER On September 13, 2007 @ 10:28 am

absolutely. change should take place within the setting and with things external to what the players have accomplished. This can lead to additional storylines being created for the players to contend with and does create a sense of completeness for the world and there are other forces in your setting that move despite the players efforts.

#3 Comment By VV_GM On September 13, 2007 @ 11:30 am

I’m a big fan of the occasional natural disaster popping up. It doesn’t have to be epic, just have a tornado touch down in that sleepy Midwest town where the PCs are fighting the evil dimensional invaders. Or a big storm hits the port where the PCs are staying. But focus on the aftermath – the favorite inn was leveled, a good ally suffered serious losses, the bad guys are looting everything. I and my players have always had fun on those nights when something bigger is happening that complicates the PCs (and NPCs) plans.

#4 Comment By Yax On September 13, 2007 @ 12:28 pm

Just reading the newspaper on the morning of a game and tweaking a few world events so they fit the medieval fantastic setting should do the trick.

#5 Comment By Telas On September 13, 2007 @ 1:07 pm

“(S)haking things up doesn’t mean … having all the gnomes die of a mysterious plague.”

Well, sonuva… (reaches for eraser) 😉

The world is dynamic, and only here for a little while. Don’t be afraid to drive it like you stole it…

#6 Comment By Jennifer Snow On September 13, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

This also means being willing to let your NPC’s trash something you love. Sure, maybe you spent days designing the King and his champions, but your players think he’s a jerk and they would rather ally with his enemies and sack his castle. So, toss out your plans and get involved with their idea.

In my current game, one of my PC’s is going to smack “my” NPC around. I wasn’t thrilled with this idea at the start, but I followed the rule of letting them do what they want regardless of how much I like/dislike the idea, and I think it’ll work out. Plus my players trust me more when they know I’m not kidding about letting them decide what to do. It encourages them to put up with my screwball plot.

#7 Comment By Walt C On September 13, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

I use change to great effect in modern campaigns.

The PCs have a favorite local coffee shop and bookstore (with weird occult books)? Have Starbucks move in and the old owner sell off inventory.

What do your gothy, angsty vamps do when the local goth club turns country western (or retro 80s)?

Are the PCs usually at odds with the local government? What happens after election time when the slate gets wiped clean and the new regime is almost too helpful?

#8 Comment By Martin On September 17, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

(Jennifer Snow) In my current game, one of my PC’s is going to smack “my” NPC around. I wasn’t thrilled with this idea at the start, but I followed the rule of letting them do what they want regardless of how much I like/dislike the idea, and I think it’ll work out.

Right on! NPCs should be used, abused and twisted to whatever fiendish purposes you — and your players — can come up with.

Burning Empires, even with just one session, was an interesting lesson in pushing back. I had a lot of trouble providing effective opposition for the PCs — the gloves-off aspect was a real challenge.

I can definitely see applying that to other games, too. The flipside of letting the PCs smack “your” NPCs around is pushing back enough to make them want to smack them around. 😉