April 13, 2010
Herein I present four important areas for players to explore within a game; the dungeon, the game system, world culture and the players themselves. I also provide a few ideas of how a DM can keep each of these fresh for the players.
The most basic form of exploration is the dungeon. It is the one we are most familiar with and the one most new players and DMs start with. What lies on the other side of the door? What is down the left hallway and also down the one on the right? These are very simple questions with an easy way to get the answer; just kick the door in. But at their most basic it is about exploring the hidden. The trick is to make the players want to see what is on the other side of the door.
How to keep it fresh: Never do the same thing more than once. A pit trap in a hallway can be used once but if used again change it up; add spikes, make it difficult to leave the pit, make the pit lead somewhere else, have a second pit trap immediately on the other side of the first one. The bottom line is to never use the exact same thing twice.
A second thing a good DM can do is to build anticipation of what is behind the door. Is the liche the party was warned about behind this door? Is the heavy bar on the door to keep the adventures out or something else inside? Is that blood seeping out from under the door?
Another form of exploration is the game system itself. What abilities can I use now and in the future as I level up? What is the best combination of my abilities; which will bring me the most success? How can different abilities be used in different situations? How can my abilities interact with others in the party? As the game progresses it is all about learning these things.
However, once a player has played his character (and by extension his chosen class) for an extended period of time he knows the ins and outs of the character. There quickly comes a time where he gets bored or simply jaded about his class. Some more modern systems have set out to keep a character’s abilities growing as they progress so they have something to look forward to and can continue to explore their class and its system.
How to keep it fresh: One thing is to keep introducing new things into a system. This can involve new abilities and subsystems. Most game systems of any longevity produce “splatbooks” that provide more options for a character. Even if a player never chooses to use any of these new abilities, access to such material allows them to continue to explore their character’s abilities with a lot of “what if?”
Subsystems are things added to a core rule system that expound on and detail a facet of the overall system. This could be a more detailed diplomacy system. It could be a mercantile system wherein characters can trade goods as they travel. It could be a form of mass combat that provides for a different scale of combat than what the players are used to.
The only danger to splatbooks and subsystems is the added complexity, not to mention the added expense. Too much additive to a system can overload the game.
Another way to keep it fresh is to allow players to swap around their characters. The driving force of a campaign is often the characters themselves, but this doesn’t mean they can’t change up their class. Perhaps the characters enter a strange vortex that affects their souls (and allows them to readjust their lives-and class). Perhaps the characters fall under a curse that swaps their bodies and minds (and allows the players to play other characters within the party instead of their regular character). Perhaps you could allow the players to make up evil henchmen of their main nemesis and every once in a while they can play those to show the machinations of the villain. The point here is that it is possible to maintain the integrity of a campaign and still allow the players to explore different parts of the game system.
Culture and the world the game is played in, this is another type of discovery. As the characters move from city to city, region to region, the world changes. The NPCs they meet change. One time it might be a travelling merchant who is looking for his lost daughter and the next it might be a tribe of centaurs being plagued by spriggans. Some cities allow weapons to be carried and others force the characters to hide them. A world can be ever changing and understanding those changes is all part of the game.
As the players move through your world they begin to understand it. It becomes a part of themselves. The more they learn about your world the more they make it their world as well.
How to keep it fresh: Mix it up. Add diversity. Make something unique for every culture or group within your world. The way they dress, what or how they eat, customs they adhere to. A single unique trait can make them feel “more real”.
Be rigid in your portrayal of cultures and peoples. A stereotype is an assumed characterization of a person based on the culture from which he comes. In this case I advocate using stereotypes, but stereotypes that are created by you. If the Northmen wear beards braided into elaborate designs then all your Northmen should do so. This small detail can bring the world alive and make it feel more familiar to the players. And when they finally meet a Northman who does not wear a beard, they will want to hear the story of why.
Bring in cultures from areas the players are not in. There could be a wanderer from another land that the characters meet. This wanderer will portray a unique trait from his culture. You wouldn’t even have to worry about designing the complete culture at this time. Just a name and single trait should be enough to make the players wonder about that part of your world.
A fourth form of exploration is one of self. I know this can sound a bit hokey but to a large degree this is true. Players are able to ask themselves how they would react in real life to a situation their character was placed into. As an example, if a character or member of the party has a one-night stand though the character is married, on some level the player is asking himself how he feels about it. Do I see it as a failure on the part of the character?
RPGs allow us to see situations we have not personally experienced. Characters are not necessarily expressions of self (the player) but ways to see situations wherein the player can make a judgment. When faced with such circumstances, without even realizing it, the player is making decisions about situations he has not confronted before. And an interesting side note is that the player may not even agree with the moral choices of his character and that is another form of learning about themselves.
How to keep it fresh: Present the players with interesting situations beyond simply killing the next monster and taking its treasure. Do they save the child or the mother? What laws are they willing to break? Is doing bad acceptable if the end result benefits the majority of people? Find moral dilemmas that cause the player to pause and think before they act, or at the very least give them something to think about at the end of the night.
When there is no longer any form of exploration, there is nothing new to be learned; that is when games die. It is then that a group moves onto another system. The trappings of the dungeon may be new (sci-fi doors over fantasy doors), the system is likely very new (different abilities and die mechanics), the cultures can be new (space faring aliens instead of goblins) and the situations the characters find themselves in can also be new (is cloning morally wrong?).
Despite the fact I presented some ideas of how to keep things fresh, sometimes it is a good thing to end a game and move onto something new. Keep the players exploring in your current game, or in a new one, and they will enjoy themselves and your creation.