It's A Big World Out There
Reviewed by David Bareford ©2002
Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion
Player characters are the stars of the show. The main event. The ta'veren. The Ones Who Get Things done. The GM knows it, and the players know it. Nothing happens in the world that does not affect them and nothing gets done that they do not do. This article suggests ways to make your world bigger than your PCs.
Player characters in a roleplaying game are often afflicted with a kind of egocentric myopia: they begin to believe that the entire world revolves around them and the problems they solve. In some ways, this is a perfectly accurate assessment. The PCs are, and should be, the central figures of the cooperative drama that roleplaying creates. Their stories are the focus of the campaign, and discovering the journey of their characters is the reason we sit at the table for hours upon hours. No player wants GM-controlled NPCs to dominate the game - we can read novels for that. At high levels, PCs actually are the movers and shakers of the world and have influence and power well beyond the reach of their sword or the blast radius of their fireball.
A kind of jaded egotism can set in, however, as PCs discover that the world needs them and will wait for them. What would it be like if the fantasy world was a much larger place, where events happened without - or despite - PC intervention? What would it be like to know that there are other similar "PCs" out there, some of whom are even tougher than Your Local Party?
It would be a lot like reality. As gamers, we try to create our imaginary worlds as "realistically" as possible. We laboriously determine everything from trade routes to monster ecology to current hair fashions, trying to imbue our roleplaying settings with life. But many campaigns fall short and our players begin to define the world simply as a list of the adventures they have survived. By expanding parts of the world beyond the PCs, however, a setting can seem like a living, breathing world and less like a backdrop behind the heroes. What follows are several suggestions ranging from the simple to the more complex, designed to give players the feel of operating in a "real" world.
1. Tell them about it. The easiest way to expand the world is to provide a passive source of information that informs PCs of sweeping regional or world events. If your setting is sufficiently advanced to have a regular newspaper, the GM can use the time between game sessions to draft up a short version of it. If your setting would not allow a paper, bards or town meetings suffice. These news sources should include information about events players cannot affect (flavor text for the world), things they might be interested in (read: plot hooks), and the occasional news relating to things the PC themselves have accomplished (players love to see their names in print). Using a news source allows the GM to educate players about the world and develop well-known NPCs and places without resorting to a PowerPoint presentation and a droning lecture.
2. Show them the world doesn't wait. Instead of introducing a single plot hook for the night, present two or three, and be prepared to develop whichever one the PCs choose. Then, when they return from their mission covered in gore and glory, let them discover that the other plot hooks have been resolved by someone else - or gotten bigger and scarier. This increases the stakes of mission choice for the PCs, because everything else won't stop and wait for them to be ready. It also introduces the possibility of NPC rivals, who may have successfully destroyed the necromancer's Widget of Doom and saved the city, eclipsing the PCs fame in the process.
3. Beat them to the punch. The PCs have chosen a mission to explore some nearby ruins, where a great treasure is said to be lost. When they arrive, bristling with weapons and magic, they find the doors ajar and unlocked, newly-dead monsters dotting the floor, and nothing of value anywhere. Slowly they come to the realization: someone got here first! Used sparingly, this scenario works well to remind the PCs that they're not the only powerful adventurers in the world; if they don't help the baron clear out the goblins, someone else probably will. This is also a great way to deepen a rival-NPC persona introduced earlier. Now the players have a personal reason to hate that guy.
4. Make the world bigger than the players. The previous points have discussed ways to make the world bigger than the characters; the ultimate step is to make it bigger than the players. This tactic requires a challenging amount of coordination, but can be very exciting to pull off successfully. Start with at least two distinct PC parties, preferably ones in which the players do not overlap. Both campaigns can by run by a single GM (very easy communication, double the work) or each run by separate GMs (requiring regular communication, but less work for each GM). Place both PC groups in the same world, in relative proximity. By "same world", I don't mean a general setting like Forgotten Realms - I mean put the PCs in YOUR version of Forgotten Realms, in YOUR Waterdeep. And put them close together - a second party who operates in a city four hundred miles away may just as well be in a different campaign.
Once placed, events that happen to one group begin affecting the other. For example, Party A captures a murderer on the loose and turns her over to the authorities, who find a document sewn into her clothing that implicates her in a conspiracy to kill the king. Party B is assigned to break the conspiracy, based on the evidence unearthed by Party A. Shared-world campaigns work best when both parties are at least on the same basic side of good and evil and can cooperate in an indirect way, like a group of knights and a party of rangers and good-aligned rogues. The PC parties should not come into direct conflict with each other, and rarely have face-to-face contact. Joint sessions can be fun, however, as both GMS and parties team up for a grand adventure - with lots of opportunities for intrigue as each party has a slightly different agenda. Of course, when both groups of players know each other in the real world, this arrangement really shines: imagine hearing someone brag about their character's exploits, knowing secretly that you provided the key piece of evidence that made their entire adventure possible!
The point of expanding your campaign world is not to make your PCs feel insignificant or small. The party should never be irrelevant to the world. By hinting at a world larger than the PCs, however, the characters (and players) begin to feel like part of something bigger, and can be truly proud when they make a difference.