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The Californication Principle

Alysia and I have gotten sucked into Showtime’s Californication, which is much better than its premise — washed-up writer has lots of one-night stands while trying to fix his life — suggests, largely because of David Duchovny.

Before we started watching it, I read a review of the pilot that stated that Duchovny was the only actor who could play this role in this way. And the reviewer was absolutely right: Californication just wouldn’t work with anyone else playing the lead. Duchovny has just the right mix of charm and sleaziness, sex appeal and regular guy-ness, to pull it off.

So: the GMing angle. It strikes me that this is a pretty good analogy for tailored campaigns. A tailored campaign is one where the adventures are explicitly about the PCs — not just because they’re the PCs, but because they’re those specific characters.

The opposite of a tailored campaign is one where the scenarios would be pretty much the same no matter who was in the party. Running a published module is a good example of this: Barring a few mechanical changes you might make to accomodate character abilities, you could slot in any other group of PCs and the adventure itself would be nearly identical (though the outcome might be different).

A tailored campaign, on the other hand, should be like Californication for every single PC: Without this specific group of characters, the campaign just wouldn’t work. Not only does it revolve around them, but their backgrounds, personalities and accomplishments are part of the fabric not just of the world, but of the adventures themselves — it’s written for them, and it would be a completely different game without them.

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#1 Comment By VV_GM On September 11, 2007 @ 9:10 am

I tend to wing it a lot now-a-days and my secret weapon is the copy of every player’s character sheet. Usually while the players are debating something like where to go next or how to accomplish X I’m plotting the next part of the adventure by reviewing their characters and notes from past sessions. It really helps to accomplish exactly what it is that you are promoting.

#2 Comment By Baron On September 11, 2007 @ 9:27 am

A downside of tailoring things to specific characters though character death becomes more difficult. Either in terms of the campaign being severely derailed/stopped or characters survive something they might not normally have to avoid such problems.

I think as with all things, extremes seldom work brilliantly. Some tailoring of the game is great for the players, too much and it has to end with the character.

#3 Comment By Walt C On September 11, 2007 @ 9:35 am

There are two big problems with tailored adventures:

1. Characters die (or get changed), which could really screw up a major plotline, motivation, or session. Ditto for players that are absent during a session.

2. Tailored adventures can sometimes lead to PC favoritism, as some players (or characters) are more easy to write for than others. This can lead to a number of problems.

Problem One can easily be solved by building trapdoors (a term borrowed from Babylon 5 creator JMS). Whenever you tailor a plot point, encounter, or motivation, ask yourself “what do I do if PC X isn’t available?” In other words, always have a plan B to hook and/or challenge the current players.

Problem Two is harder, since you’re dealing with personalities rather than mechanics. My general rule of thumb is “forget about equality, just be fair” when integrating the various PCs into the adventure.


#4 Comment By Vanir On September 11, 2007 @ 11:06 am

I love this idea because it means the campaign will have a story, and most likely won’t be a generic, boring dungeon hack.

Despite the aforementioned pitfalls, having a campaign that needs these very specific PC’s to work would lend a lot to a sense of importance and responsibility, and I suspect a lot of the “beer and pretzels” mentality would disappear if everybody buys into this.

Nobody’s going to pull a Leeroy Jenkins if there’s something big at stake. (Or if they do, they are beaten to death with about 5 PHB’s.)

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On September 11, 2007 @ 12:21 pm

I think this concept plays out a lot more easily with a smaller group of players. Doing this with the 6 or 7 I just had in my last game would be mind bogglingly difficult. Still I think it is something that you can do in almost any game, be it a dungeon hack or a story filled intrigue adventure. You just have to scale down the concept.

In my last game I asked all my players to give me one big thing they would like to do. I then wrote up easily insertable single adventures based on those things into the plot. One person wanted to do horror style zombie fights, so I had that written up as a sub adventure. One person wanted to take on a Siege Suit (a dwarven mecha) singlehandedly, so I had an adventure written up that put him in that situation. When I would get around to using these in the main plot I announced that we were doing “player a’s” thing now, and let them know the general idea. “It’s gonna involve zombies, play it out.” The other players kind of realized that they were relegated to side character for a while, but that there turn was coming up. It worked well sometimes, and not so well other times, but everyone loved it when their turn came around.

#6 Comment By Jennifer Snow On September 11, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

I prefer to use a semi-tailored style because of the aformentioned problems with people not showing up. You *can* create a tailored game to deal with character deaths and people changing characters, though. The biggest problem I ever have is with “character here, player in Vegas” syndrome (unless you’re in Vegas, in which case the player is in Reno), as dramatized so beautifully in The Gamers by the barbarian standing in the background staring into the distance.

Aside: I actually have this problem with my next session in my current game, so I’m going to knock the guy’s characters out and make the rest of the party cart them around . . . or not, and I’ll have to run a short game for this guy so they can escape on their own when they come to. 🙂

If you really want to run a tailored game (without just winging it), the best advice I can give is as follows:

1. Tell your players *exactly* what you are planning on running. I don’t mean tell them the setting. I mean give them precise details like “You are all going to be captives of Baalok on a volcanic island and the game will revolve around you exploring the island and the weird cult that lives there. There won’t be a lot of resources, so this will be a Robinson-Crusoe type adventure, and I expect it to evolve slowly, with you starting out building a crude hut and finding food etc, then only *gradually* becoming aware of other things happening on the island.” The more specific you are about your game, the better the characters will fit the setting. I haven’t seen a game tailored for a character that doesn’t fit the setting.

2. Have everyone make up their characters together with liberal input from the other players.

(You can actually reverse these two steps if you want to . . . have everyone make up a group of characters together, then make up your setting. The order I’ve given works well for me because I find myself being the ‘spark plug’ in my games a lot.)

This may help you arrange for pseudo-tailoring. However, I’m not sure you can force complete tailoring on a game. I think it is something that evolves when you have committed players that take ownership of their characters and a GM that really wants to let the PC’s do cool stuff. If you don’t have this combo, you either end up with the GM throwing out lots of stuff to see what sticks and the players passively accepting it, or the players trying to take ownership of a game where the GM is saying “no” to their cool ideas because it diverges from some setting detail.

#7 Comment By Walt C On September 11, 2007 @ 1:19 pm

Jennifer’s post sparked a thought of my current “pseudo-tailored” campaign.

I’m running a D&D campaign based in Green Ronin’s Freeport setting. Prior to the game, I told the players that I’d be running a series of published adventures and that I would not be making any modifications. It was up to them, as a group, to create a balanced party.

Initially, there were four players, so they each took one of the four food groups (a cleric, a fighter, a ninja, and a sorceror). A fifth player joined and created a paladin to support the meat shield and healer.

When my players asked about backgrounds, I said that they would all be strangers to Freeport. I also caused some raised eyebrows when I told them that they could be from any fantasy culture or world that they wanted to be from.

The characters were generated, and I opened with each of them doing something in their home culture….and then they all woke up on a ship, with no idea how they got there or why they all know this strange alien language. By communicating with the crew, the PCs learned that they booked passage as a group several weeks ago. The PCs each had a copy of the same message of things to look for in Freeport (each copy printed in the native language and handwriting of its owner), and they all discovered that they are all a little older then they thought they’d be.

It was a very entertaining start to the campaign 😉

#8 Comment By ScottM On September 11, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

I like tailoring, though as many people above have mentioned, the exact degree of tailoring depends on the group.

It isn’t hard to do and it can really make the characters shine. The problem that sometimes crops up is the “unmotivated” character– one who doesn’t provide a level of personality and background to really hook. Jennifer’s advice to let the players know about the adventure in greater depth is also good.

#9 Comment By Frost On September 12, 2007 @ 8:36 am

I go with a hybrid approach. I’ve got my overall campaign, usually broken into three acts that span the course of levels 1-15. However, I run adventures custom tailored to specific characters. During these sessions, certain players might shine more than others, but after doing this for a couple of years, mostly everyone has come to realize that they’ll get their time in the spotlight. Right now, I’ve only got one player who “needs his PC to be cool all the time.”

This allows me the to personalize, without getting penalized when a PC dies or a player takes an extended leave of absence.

#10 Comment By Jennifer Snow On September 12, 2007 @ 9:04 am

Frost: I’ve played in a lot of games that took that tack, so many, in fact, that my group refers to this as “playing out your character’s background”.

Currently, I’m working on spreading it out a bit more. One of my players ever-so-helpfully made up an NPC that his characters know, so I just went nuts with the idea. I created up a band that follows this NPC, all of different alignments and motivations. I came up with a quest for them. The quest involves another PC in the party . . . in a negative way.

So, now we have a ready-made conflict: this NPC likes the characters of the guy who made him up, but he’s hunting one of the other PC’s. His band don’t know any of the PC’s, they’re just out to complete their mission for a variety of reasons. The two PC’s just met each other. So what will they do? I’m looking forward to finding out. 🙂

It’s easy to multi-tailor like this if you keep in mind one simple rule: something that is *positive* for one character should also be *negative* (or at least troublesome) for another character. This means that two things cannot happen: 1.) your party can’t operate as a homogenous unit, and 2.) they can’t just let whatever character is personally involved in the situation take the lead, because there are at least *two* of them. The other players can take the part of arbiters or people looking for a “win-win” solution, a third option where the conflict gets resolved and no one has to suffer some kind of setback.

Tres cool.

#11 Comment By Stewart On September 17, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

I used to partake in the pretty standard “six roughly interchangeable PCs partake in whatever the GM came up with” style campaigns, and enjoyed them immensely. A few years ago, I hopped on with an established play group with an experienced GM that plays a very unique type of game. He comes out with a setting, and the barest outline of a plot, and then has people create their characters.

Then he builds the entire plot around the characters. As far as I know, he’s never lost a PC (although I’ve come close to dying several times), but if he did it would be devastating. He’ll only play with 3 players, no more, no less. Everybody has to be extremely dedicated, and has to take the roleplaying extremely seriously. If somebody can’t make it that week, we don’t play. It takes a TON of preparation, and everybody really has to pull their weight.

So yeah, pretty much all of the drawbacks that people pointed out above. But man, the benefits. The story real feels like it’s about your character, and that your actions have consequence and meaning. You actually come to feel responsible for the NPCs and what happens to them. And when the whole story is built around your character, particularly if it’s built around their weaknesses, the potential for meaningful character growth is outstanding.

My friend has moved away, so I’m the default GM these days. I’ve strayed from his formula somewhat, mostly because I’m unable/unwilling to put in the prodigious amounts of prep that he would do, but I don’t know if I could ever go back to out-of-the-box campaigns and be satisfied.

#12 Comment By Martin On September 17, 2007 @ 8:35 pm

Good discussion!

My group’s Stargate campaign fit the tailored model well, and it definitely couldn’t always have been run with less than a full group — but there were plenty of times when it could have, and at least a couple of times when Don did run it with just two of us.

I agree that having a smaller group (three players) helped, but with enough baseline flexibility it’s entirely possible to write out a PC for a session as needed.

None of us croaked, though — that’s a good point. I bet Don could have sorted it out, but it probably would have been a bit of a pain.