I’ve seen a worrying trend of players being physics-denying pinballs who behave completely at random and without regard to any discernable motivations, goals, or memory of prior events. I’m not here to say that players should happily allow themselves to be railroaded. To the contrary, in order to meaningfully contribute to the group narrative the players need to have a goal, remember the goal, and pursue the goal. Last week we touched on the concept of establishing an objective as a party, and this applies to that objective, but your character is also his own person. What goals does he have that he should remember and pursue?
We’re going to consider these goals and the continuity they support at three levels: the campaign, the session, and the encounter.
What kinds of goals can the party or individual characters have that endure for the whole campaign (or at least across multiple sessions)? It can really be anything. How about some examples from my campaigns? In the Stormguard campaign, Benquil was in search of his father and later trying to establish the greatest tavern in the land, Lamila was in search of more of the magical gems left by the world builders, and Hilbrent was intent on becoming the greatest mage of all time. In Primordial Frontier, Rathdar wanted to restore his god Vardor to the pinnacle of the pantheon. In Rise of Lolith, Evren (with time travel amnesia) is trying to remember her exact motivations, but she does know she must stop Lolith while Labkost is seeking revenge for the destruction of his village. In Haven, Rovert and Verdis are seeking world domination in one way or another, Malcom strives to redeem the dead, and Randall seeks peace for the world. For my own characters, Jex is trying to prove his faith by proving he can sacrifice himself for the greater good and Raglan wanted to go down in history as a great hero.
You probably don’t want to go with something as one-dimensional as “to kill everything I meet and steal everything I see,” that’s no fun for anyone in the party, but if you’re just trying to become as wealthy as possible (Flynn Rider?) or become famous, those are good enough goals to explain why your character is on the campaign.
But it doesn’t do much good to have a goal if you don’t remember the goal. Maybe you have a sticky note on your character sheet or you write a character journal between sessions or you review your backstory before play. It doesn’t take much to keep your character’s motivation at the back of your mind during the every session, but it is worth checking if you are.
Of course, the having and the remembering are all just to get us far enough to do some pursuing. There’s no need for this pursuit of your character’s overarching goal to be single minded (Rathdar annoyed with his fanatical insistence on proselytizing for his god). The goal serves primarily to color your character’s decisions as the campaign progresses and add a cohesive connecting tissue throughout. A character in it for the money will make different decisions than one hoping to gain a lordly title for service to king and country. When your character gets back to town with chests of gold, does he blow it on drinks at the tavern to make sure as many people as possible come to hear the tale of exploits? Does he make his way to the temple to pay his tithe on the treasure? Or does he sock the treasure away while he saves up to build his tavern?
By pursuing your character’s goal at the campaign level, you tie all of the sessions together. With your character tethered at one end to a long-term goal, you have a line to grasp onto and pull yourself forward. If untimely death cuts that line and throws that character from the campaign, so be it, the goal served its purpose. You will need another for your next character.
While your goal at the campaign level ties the sessions together, you will spend most of your effort within a session focused on smaller goals. These may be stepping stones to the larger goal, they will often be shared with the whole party, and they dictate most of your decisions within the session. The successful adventures post last week touched on picking this goal as a party, and the importance of cooperation, but this doesn’t preclude your character having his own goals. In either case, you must have a goal for the session, lest you drift aimlessly in the session.
Of course, once the session has begun, you must remember this goal! How easy it can be to enter a session knowing well what the goal is, only to become distracted when a cave on the way contains a shiny (and almost certainly either cursed or mere window-dressing) crystal we just can’t resist investigating. These ad hoc objectives don’t need to always be passed on, but best not to spend too much time on them or let them make us forget what we were really setting out to do. Focus must remain on pursuing the goal.
Pursuing the goal for the session means looking at each scene as it comes (whether a conversation, a dungeon chamber, or a mountain stream to cross) through the lens of the goal. What course of action best serves the goal in this situation? Is this a distraction? Is it something that might be relevant for later? Can you spare the resources needed to pursue the opportunities presented? Asking these questions will help the session to move smoothly rather than to jump from distraction to distraction and miss important clues. This will allow the GM to trust you with the more complex puzzles that require such attention.
Pursuing the session wide goal helps, when each encounter arises, to have a goal for the encounter. You know what you are pursuing and whether this is an obstacle or an opportunity, whether it is to be confronted or bypassed. Once you have made this decision, the goal will guide your actions in the encounter.
Believe it or not, though, this does not mean distraction is impossible. It might seem absurd that players might forget their goal in the midst of an encounter, but if you think, you can probably remember many times at your own table that the party has become distracted in the middle of a combat. In my games and listening to actual play podcasts, I have encountered players forgetting to focus on an enemy they well knew would bring the end of the other enemies if defeated. I have heard players fleeing combat, when their turn comes, apparently having no idea what is going on an picking a random spell to cast because it sounds cool. (This is the event that brought me to write this post.) Especially when the turns are long, it takes great effort for players to remember the goal for the encounter, rather than assess the situation anew each time their spot in the initiative order arrives. But this phenomenon is not limited to combat. Players interrogating a prisoner have forgotten the questions they sought answers to and ultimately killed the prisoner in frustration without collecting the needed information. Parties visiting a governor to be briefed about troubles in the area have left grossly unprepared for the quest he sent them on because they let banter distract from their questions they meant to ask, or worse, became bored with the conversation and left without trying. (In one actual play, the players used three powerful spells for the day to get access to four key witnesses in their investigation and after speaking to only two of them decided they were bored and skipped the other two.)
In these examples, I may have strayed a little into the idea of pursuing the goal. At the level of the encounter, the goal is simpler and more apparent, but so also is random behavior not in service of the goal more obvious and more disruptive.
In all of this, I am not saying that humorous distraction should always be avoided or that execution of the goal is the only joy in the game, but at all of these levels of play, having a goal, remembering the goal, and pursuing the goal helps to keep everyone’s immersion and to craft a story that is coherent over the course of many sessions. Doing these things helps you to contribute to the story as a player, rather than being a chaotic blob that the GM finds a way to shape into a hero. When you have a goal, remember a goal, and pursue a goal, it also makes it all the more memorable when you deviate intentionally, whether for humor, drama, or any other reason, rather than the tired result we see when player deviations are constant and uncontrolled because they have no path.
Alright, I got carried away with this one and went very long. I hope there was information in it pertinent to you as a player that will help you to find greater enjoyment in your games.