The Shared Experience of Storytelling

Posted on : 03-15-2011 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, Guest Posts, mbeacom

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Another post from our friend mbeacom, in which he talks about soliciting player input in your campaigns.

I just read a great article over on Dungeon’s Master and I’d like to use it as a stepping off point for some thoughts and experiences I’ve had on the subject.  In this article Wimwick discusses the subject of player input, and in particular, how much should players have in building the story and even the campaign.

I think he rightly surmises that player input is both vital to the story, as well as incredibly helpful to the DM, a person who often struggles with the endeavor of putting together an intriguing interactive fiction that is hopefully enjoyed by all.  He starts with the tried and true; the player back story. Then he moves on to what I think is just as key to keeping things moving along; the Paragon Path.  Wimwick supports my belief that Paragon Path is more than a few extra class features and attack powers we can expect to get in the mid levels of the game. It’s something we can use to fuel our player progression and set us apart from (or bring us closer to) others in the group in a good way that advances the story while supporting creativity.

So, let’s take those solid building blocks and see if we can pepper in some more juicy bits that might benefit players, DMs, and more importantly, stories moving forward.

The Player Trademark
I play in two alternating groups and DM for two others so I have lots of opportunities to try out different techniques.  One that I’ve been tinkering with, as well as been exposed to, is The Player Trademark.  It’s still in its infancy but I’d like to throw it out there to see if others are having success doing something similar or if it sparks an idea that might improve on it.  I’ve been trying to put together a few little eccentricities (as have some of my players) for the characters I play to give them flavor. After reading posts like Wimwick’s, I think there may be greater potential here.  I can see a possibility where a player Trademark would be a great vehicle for using story to give information to both the DM and the other players in the group.  

An example of this is my Ranger character.  He’s level 7 now and I’m considering the Battlefield Archer Paragon path.  That’s good information for my DM to have for planning adventures and we’ll eventually have the very discussion that Wimwick advocates. However, being the story loving type that I am, I would like to influence the story in more subtle ways as well.  I’m going to try to develop a Trademark that will give the DM even more flavor for developing any portions of narrative that lead to my eventual Paragon Path. Currently, I’ll call what I do a gimmick more than a trademark.  My Ranger has a habit of whispering the name of the enemy he attempts to kill in combat prior to rolling the d20. I’ll probably take this a step further and begin whispering the name to my bow, or perhaps to each arrow specifically, communing with it as an extension of myself. Perhaps I’ll come up with a post-combat ritual to add to this.  Doing this can be an interesting RP exercise as well as giving my DM a peek into what is important to me as a character, i.e. my bow and how I use it to dispatch my enemies.  Knowing this can add the extra oomph to how he plans my trajectory into the Battlefield Archer Paragon Path.  This extra depth allows me to impact the story such that I can help seed the DMs imagination in a way that is in keeping with who I view my character to be.

Player Relationships
Another interesting story seed is player relationships.  This is a pretty common thing to think about. Does the Paladin get frustrated by the Rogue or the Warlock? Does the Dwarf constantly bicker with the Elf in the party? Is the Warlord constantly “over” negotiating NPCs with his intimidate and diplomacy skills?  These are pretty standard tropes insofar as we understand them. However, thinking about this has made me realize there is more potential there for the thoughtful player and DM.  

Others may take this for granted but it struck me recently that these relationships should both be informed by player backstory as well as impact Paragon Path choices.  Our relationships with other PCs, NPCs and even villains, can be a great way to set our characters on certain adventure paths. Do we want our character to be someone who melds easily into society? Do we want them to be someone who struggles to maintain relationships? Do we perhaps antagonize certain types of characters or villains? Do we have things in common with them? How does the way we make these choices, and how we RP them, affect the ideas we have about our Paragon Path choice?  I’m not sure I have all the answer to this one, but I’m certain that with further thought, and potentially some feedback, there is great storyline potential here, especially as we try to link it to our chosen Paragon Path.

Player Weakness
Now this is one that I think has some great potential.  We all spend a lot of time building our characters strengths, powers, and capabilities.  However, inherent in those very designs is weakness.  In many ways, those weaknesses, those “holes” in our character optimization can be just as interesting as our actual abilities. Perhaps you’ve designed your character to be an expert in certain areas. This could very well mean your character is narratively deficient in others. Think about your skills.  What happens when you stack your design to have great scores in certain areas? Naturally, your scores in other opposing specialties will suffer.  This is more than just good game balance. This is a narrative opportunity.  Similarly, those nights where your dice are ice cold can present an opportunity to tell a story that is interesting and different from the nights where they are flaming hot.  This is a story challenge, and even failure can be exciting if you build a story around how it relates to your relationships and even your Paragon Path.  Just like failure needs to be interesting in a skill challenge, so too does failure need to be interesting when it comes to our characters’ abilities and endeavors.

In fact, I’ve recently had discussions regarding one of the games I play in where the DM makes success a bit too easy.  All those potential storylines that revolve around failure, or lifting yourself out of defeat become purely theoretical. Don’t get me wrong, I like to do awesome things as much as anyone (see my most recent guest post) but I also think that the greatest feats of awesome often begin life in the shadows of failure or near-defeat.

Think about your character’s weakness. Perhaps it’s a Barbarian who is weak at ranged combat. Perhaps it’s a Cleric who was built around healing but has little damage potential. Perhaps its a character designed for combat but who suffers in RP situations.  These are all great hooks that can be influenced by backstory and further used to make our Paragon Path choices all the more interesting and potent.

I guess the point I’m trying to get across as it relates to Wimwick’s post is that he’s more right than he realizes.  Backstory is huge. Paragon Path is huge.  So much so, that we need to continue to expand on both as well as what they mean for the future and how they relate to our past.

If you have any thoughts on getting the most out of your backstory and Paragon Path, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Comments (4)

Thanks for mention. I did notice that the link to the article Mbeacom mentioned doesn’t seem to be working. Here is the proper link How Much Input Should Players Have on the Campaign?

I agree that Paragon Paths are one of the most defining choices a player makes. I think it is an even more important choice than Epic Destinies. Because some Paragon Paths are so specific it is very easy for a player to get burned and not get all of the benefit from the choice they have made. If a player wants to take a specialized Paragon Path a chat with the DM is in order to make sure it fits with the vision of the campaign.

Your comment on player weaknesses is also interesting. D&D as a system doesn’t focus or have a system for weaknesses per say. Weaknesses tend to be great role playing hooks. However, weaknesses also become apparent in character design. The defender with the high strength and constitution is going to have one very low defense score and this can be exploited.

Other weaknesses aren’t as obvious. I have a player who uses the archer Warlord build. He is an archer to the point that he doesn’t even have a mundane dagger as a back up weapon. This works for the player as he has a few teleport powers to get him out of a jam and his bow gives him great range. However, when I’m able to lock him down and reduce the effectiveness of his great range his greatest strength turns into a weakness.

Wimwick,
Thanks for the followup. Your post really got me thinking about Paragon Paths. So thanks for that. It’s always nice when you read something that is illuminating to the point that it changes things for you.

And with regard to your Archer Warlord, that’s a great example. I’m curious, you mention his weakness. Does he use this to the advantage of the story? It could be great if he embraced the weakness and explored it, what it meant to him and how the group worked around it.

In a campaign I run, there was a player who was an Archer Ranger and he just really was not getting into the role at all. He couldn’t find the groove. It came to a head one night in a skill challenge as the group was trying to negotiate their way across a swamp. He was heavily needed for a lot of the nature checks and he was rolling horribly. It almost ruined his night. At the time, Essentials had just come out and he was jonesing to give the new thief a try so he asked me to kill off his ranger. I didn’t feel like that really worked so we decided to try to find a different solution. We decided to have the ranger “fall”. Basically, he found that he had lost touch with nature and with the primal forces that guided him. The end result was for him to be an archer style Essentials thief. Making the change ended up having a great storyline impact. At the very least, it gave new meaning to all the jokes in the group about what a lousy ranger the teams ranger was. Once he embraced this weakness, it helped make the story that much deeper and meaningful.

Obviously, changing classes is a pretty drastic way to demonstrate a characters weakness, but the point is, I think, still a good one. Weakness can be just as interesting a way to advance the story as strength, sometimes moreso because it makes the strengths a character possesses that much more interesting, rather than something you just take for granted.

Lastly, with regard to Paragon paths, I’ve given some thought to building custom ones. Well, at least allowing my players to design their own by mixing and matching roughly equivalent existing path features. I’ve not tried it yet, but I think it could work if you are very careful about what you allow and why (advancing a characters story rather than as more CharOp potential).

Now that I’ve had time to think about paragon paths (and also epic destinies) from the perspective put for in your post, mbeacom, I find that the philosophy of using them to inform character development and story development is really not all that different from what you see in a lot of indie RPGs. The difference is that it’s not really explicitly discussed anywhere in the text of D&D.

In FATE, there are aspects, which are descriptive terms that have both a narrative and mechanical impact on the game. Most importantly, they are a way for the players to tell the GM, “This is what I think is cool, and it’s what I want to see in the game.”

There’s nothing explicitly like that in D&D, but I think a lot of mechanical choices in D&D should be viewed through the same lens, and would benefit from it. The case for paragon paths and epic destinies is obvious when you think about it like that. A paragon path defines what your character is becoming, in terms of abilities and, to an extent, profession and outlook. The DM should sit up and take notice, and endeavor to use that story fodder in the game. Ditto with epic destinies, which have somewhat less mechanical impact but potentially far more story impact.

Things like feats and skills should be looked at, too, though. Consider a warlord who takes skills like Diplomacy and Intimidate versus one who takes skills like Athletics and Acrobatics. These choices say something about the character, but they also say something about what the player wants to see in the game. Similarly, if a player takes a dragonmark feat, or a similar feat with story implications, the DM should take notice and work it into the story.
Brian recently posted..The Shared Experience of Storytelling

Brian,
As usual, you make a great point and observation. Were I to re-write the article, I’d add a section on skill choices. I would expand on it by suggesting that HOW and WHEN a player attempts to use those skills would further develop what those skills mean to them and could inform a DM as to what types of things that character wants in an adventure. The idea is that sure, you could sit down and give a DM a list of things to put in the game, or you could play in a way that says as much. I think doing the latter is more challenging, but ultimately more productive as it will improve the game for everyone, as it happens.

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