After writing the previous post, I was checking back on a thread at ENworld that I started two months ago about how to let players take charge of where a campaign goes without telling them their characters’ goals and objectives but still getting some kind of great coherent and continuous story rather than just scattered, small scale one-shots. It led me to a conclusion that I think really deserves to be put here as a post as well.
As it turns out once again, system matters.
And having recently found a new skill based fantasy game that I actually like the looks of, I am feeling that the main error I made going into this entire thing was to approach it from the perspective of a party of 1st level D&D characters.
The level based system of D&D means that if you want an NPC of a given class to be really good at one of the abilities of its class, you also have to raise all the other abilities of that class to the required character level. That means if you don’t want to cut out two thirds of the game like in an E6 campaign, you’ll end up with an NPC population with a very broad range in power levels from the generic classless 1 HD guardsman to the 10th, 15th, or even 20th level high priests and court wizards. As such there is going to be a huge gap in power between new starting PCs and the top 20 movers and shakers of the setting. (Of course you can start the campaign with PCs with 100,000 XP, but in a game where XP are meant to be earned and representative of accomplishments, this always feels hollow to me and any further level you gain unearned as well.)
In skill based systems, all the individual skills advance separately and characters can just be really good at their specialization without having to be overall amazing in all the fields of their archetype. Which to me means a much easier time to have new starting characters with zero advancement be people of status and reknown and who are capable of contributing meaningfully in the big events of the campaign region.
I think the real takeaway from this is that the PCs have to be the most important people on the stage. They are supposed to be the protagonist of the story and the campaign is supposed to be their story.
Which doesn’t mean they have to be the strongest people in the game world, or even the strongest people in geographical area in which the campaign takes place. But they have to be real contenders for control over the environment and community in which the scenes of their story take place. In a game about street gangs fighting over turf in the harbor alleys at night, the PCs don’t have to be able to fight and defeat the knights of the castle or the sorcerers of the magic school. But they need to be able to stand up and challenge the biggest baddest bastard in the harbor. No equal to him in combat power, but able to have a real shot at winning a fight if they can corner him alone and all jump him at once from the shadows. And they don’t have to be able to do it right away, but it needs to appear to be plausibly within reach in the foreseeable future.
That’s when you really can let the players get proactive. The conflicts that matter in the scope of the campaign and the narrative stage it takes place on need to be at the scale of the PCs’ abilities. Of course you can have a campaign about ordinary townsfolk trying to survive in a city that is getting torched by barbarians. But in that campaign the conflicts that the players would be dealing with would not be about defeating the barbarian king in battle and driving out the invaders. That would be the story of a very different group of protagonists.
The conflicts that make up the story of the campaign need to be on the same level as the PCs. If the conflict happens at a scale way above the PCs’ abilities, then the players can only be spectators but not drive the story. As a background context a conflict that is way above the PCs’ heads can work very well, but that can’t be the conflict that the players get to primarily interact with.