Let’s talk about rewards for players. I have yet to meet a GM or player who doesn’t get the basics of rewarding players with experience points. In some systems it’s an equation as simple as putting monsters in at one end, running them through the shiny bladed grinder of players, and dropping at the feet of the players blood splattered items of surprising usefulness. This is all well and good, and keeps the characters growing in power, but this can be minor to rewarding the players for their actions instead of just their characters.
Rewarding the players is a way of showing things have changed, that the players have had an effect on the game world. As long as the players are playing the same characters there needs to be change to the status quo, otherwise it is pointless action and you’d probably feel better in the long run just discussing any one of the variety of geeky eternal debates we have (i.e. the weaknesses of each Star Trek series).
Players feel stagnation very easily when the same plots and same adventures are thrown in front of them. Even giving players a slightly different version isn’t enough to keep the adventures from getting stale. A very easy way to keep this from happening is to let the effects of past adventures colour what is going on in the future. Now this sounds obvious letting the past colour what goes on next, but it’s not as easy as that.
This means NPCs have to change.
Just having NPC motivation isn’t enough anymore, unless you’re having the players interact with a memory wiped droid. For a campaign you have to keep track of how the players have acted to each recurring NPC and how they would in turn react. The recurring NPCs will learn to deal with the PCs as they are interacted with and a memory is needed for that. When the players deceive the NPCs they could hold a grudge, or they could keep track of how the characters have crossed them and that leads to complications down the line for them.
Those two things are changes, holding a grudge and keeping track of wrongs makes the NPCs much deeper characters and will bring the players to the table in an eager fashion. When the world starts to change from their actions it allows for them to try and create things, making their own changes to suit the world to themselves. These changes can be your guide to letting them dig deeper and winnowing down the styles of preparation that you need to do.
The net effect of these changes isn’t to just tell a story about the players’ actions, it is a reward for the players. An unchanging world is boring and lifeless, letting changes happen shows the players that the world sees them differently. This is the reward for their effort of going through the adventure you came up with; it’s an intangible thing that will mean more in the long run than any experience gain or gold coin that you can provide.
Changing the world
Now we do this already with large BBECs such as slaying a dragon or eliminating an Imperial Moff and creating the story of what comes next, but both of those are killing beings and not changing things much other than to remove a force in the game world. The real effects are from those not in pine boxes but that have to deal with the aftermath. It’s one thing for an evil emperor to be vanquished, but the empire still goes on and needs to be dismantled lest another upstart red-eyed and blue-skinned tactician decides to take over.
NPCs that are dealt with need to remember how the players last acted to them and deal accordingly. Were the players flip while talking to a noble that they now need to ask a favour of? Has the fence the players have been dealing with been getting too much business and called the authorities down on the players inadvertently? The tavern where they have been working out of is now flush with cash and robbers decide to first knock over the inn with an eye to trying to control the party afterwards.
If you don’t change the world around the players as they do semi significant things, such as finishing adventures in steps towards the end of a campaign, the players will start creating reasons for the change not to have happened. Stories will emerge whether you want them to or not, but if you allow the world that the players are in to change you get to have some measure of control.
Where I’m at
From the standpoint of my Lepskin Campaign, I’ve messed this up rather badly and stories about a certain NPC have erroneously grown to a level I wasn’t quite aware of. I had set up the council for the Lepskin rebellion and when the players decided to not be part of the Rebel Alliance I moved time back a year or so (it’s great to be a GM). Now only two of the council having met and are in the process of getting the other NPCs to come to the leader. I set them off on a few adventures and they started doing what I’ve come to expect from players, doing the mission and acquiring a ship (sometimes even a functional ship).
The problem that I’ve run into, and hope to start working to fix in tonight’s installment, is how the leader has been reacting to their overachieving. He’s been working to create a stable base for the players to go to and move forward from and they’re consistently doing things that the Empire is going to take notice of, not the least of which is shooting up a stormtrooper checkpoint and stealing a corvette.
Where I have messed up is the rebel leader hasn’t reacted much more than to acknowledge what has gone on, he hasn’t freaked out at them or praised them, just sent them on mission after mission. This has robbed my players of some of the growth that they could have had and some feedback from me on how they are doing in the middle of this story arc.
Have your players brought themselves to cross purposes because you didn’t give them feedback for what they’re doing? Have you found a method for showing off how they act in public? Do your players move from town to town trying to outrun their actions?