I'm going to take a little break from the crunch you're used to, and actually talk a little bit about game theory (well, sort of). I want to talk a little bit today about immersion.
When someone speaks of immersion in a role-playing game, they're referring to that state a player enters, that dissolves away a little chunk of the real world, and replaces it with the setting that is being used in the game. I'm not speaking of losing touch with reality. Instead, I'm speaking of players that (while engaged in the game) begin to refer to your campaign setting as though it were a real place. Campaign settings that have great locations, interesting history, and intriguing personalities, get talked about over and over by the players, until the world itself comes alive.
I've seen this happen personally in a couple of ways. The first, is with my three years previous experience playing World of Warcraft. That setting is so rich (and I played so often), that places like Thunder Bluff, Booty Bay, & Stormwind became real. Not real in a tangible sense, but while I was playing, I felt I had been transported to a whole other place, separate from the real world. The same is true with my second example. When I was a teenager playing Dungeons & Dragons, we almost exclusively played some version of the World of Greyhawk setting. Again, we played often enough that places like The Sea of Dust, The Horned Society, & The Scarlet Brotherhood seemed real. These places had real geography, religion, politics, even cultural differences. Once again, it was a setting that when you sat down to play, you felt like you had been transported to another place.
I can't say my own campaigns have the same magic. I've tried to build an interesting campaign setting, but my players just don't seem engaged, and are mostly divorced from the process of world building. We have enjoyable games, but I can't help but think the fun would be enhanced if my players had more at stake in the game.
Yesterday evening, I was mulling over these thoughts with both Tracy Hurley (Sarah Darkmagic) and Quinn Murphy (At-Will). SIDE NOTE: These two blogs are most excellent. If you're not reading them now, your RSS feed is incomplete. In different ways, they're both experts and have a keen interest in immersion. I think all three of us feel that while 4th Edition is an awesome game, there are probably gaps in the design with regards to player immersion. Both are advocates for increasing the amount of input the players have in world building. As a result of our discussions, I came to at least one solution (there are likely several) to provide a stop-gap measure until WotC decides to give us some additional tools. My solution is: The Solo Adventure.
That's right, the Solo Adventure. I'm not going to go into great detail about running Solo Adventures. Many have already written about that (even as recently as this fine article over at This Is My Game). What I want to talk about is how running a solo adventure for each of your players is a great way to help them become further immersed and invested in your campaign.
Immersion is about details. While some DMs will literally spend years working on the minutia of a campaign setting, not every DM has this kind of time. The best you can do is either build a rough skeleton, or cobble together previously existing stuff in order to have something that looks like a world. However, in the rush to throw together a campaign setting, the little details that really hook players in (the immersion part) can go missing. Here's how a Solo Adventure can help with that.
Every hero comes from somewhere. It's presumed (unless it's a really odd campaign) that the hero comes from fairly humble (or at least natural) origins. Before they began their careers, heroes might have spent time farming, bar tending, being a minor noble, or even a street urchin. While 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons presumes their heroic abilities were bestowed upon them early on, there's nothing that says the desire to go adventuring was bestowed at the same time. The point, is that before they stepped out into the world, each hero had a view of the world that was born out of this early life-experience/perspective.
This exploration of the early experience of the hero is where the DM can step in. If your player says that his character comes from a farm, then ask the player what farming is like in this part of the world. What crops or livestock did the hero's family raise? How were the goods brought to market? Were there important festivals or planting/harvest rituals?
Here's another example. Let's say your player's hero is an orphan (you can't swing a dead cat in some campaigns without hitting an orphan hero). If the orphan was brought up in a monastery, you can then ask about religion. What kinds of rites did the monastery practice? Were there holidays? Did the orphans work as slaves, or were they rewarded? Did they have to stay until adulthood? Each question the DM asks, becomes an opportunity to expand the campaign setting and increase that player's immersion. Let the player run with the ideas. Then, as DM, incorporate them into your world. Of course, you'll want these various ideas to fit together properly, so you might not take all of their ideas to heart. Remember, though, that the thinking here is that you use most of them, thus giving your player a solid investment.
Once you've taken some notes, you can then incorporate some of this origin into a solo adventure. My recommendation (particularly if you have several players), is to make this adventure last for no more than one evening, two or three brief encounters at most. The goal here is to take the hero out of his "ordinary" life and put him on the path of the "extraordinary" adventurer's life. My own recommendation is to provide some reward at the end of this adventure that becomes iconic to the character. Maybe a magic item or trait of some kind that stays relevant to the hero throughout most of his or her career.
You might ask, "but the heroes in my campaign are already *X* level. How do I work around that?" That's an easy fix. Simply have your player bring back his hero as a 1st level character. The DDI Character builder makes that easy, but otherwise, it shouldn't be too difficult to do that from scratch. You don't keep track of XP, because your hero has already earned it. This "flashback" can either be integrated in the ongoing campaign (as a dream or revelation of some kind), or you can simply retro the information back into your setting.
The largest drawback this technique has, is time and effort on the part of the DM. For it to work properly, you need to run a solo adventure for each player. This can indeed take up some time. However, if you make the encounters short, and incorporate the "world building" portion as part of the activity, you can fill an evening. Your reward is that your players will have contributed something significant to your campaign setting, while at the same time, becoming more invested in their own characters' story lines. My players don't know it yet, but I plan on doing this with them in order to aid my own campaign. I wish you luck!
Until next time...
Game excellently with one another.