Meta-Plot or Character Focussed

When I have time to work on my own campaign I tend to plan with an eye on a meta-plot that I want to achieve.  That is I always tend to have a story that I want to tell and so I design around the story and present it to the players.  I used to play with other GM’s who were very good that tended to focus more on the player character development than any great plot.  They would weave the campaigns story around the players desires so the plot became the story of the characters rather than the over arching plot.

The tools of my trade…

I am, and always have been, an aspiring author.  I have written many short stories, poetry, haiku’s and the like in my time but nothing that I yet wish to try to have published.  As a writer I seek to tell a story.  I have developing characters within those stories, but those characters are fully under my control and so serve the purpose to create the plot to give my message.  It is no surprise then that when I come to make my games I utilise the same approach.  I get an idea for a story, set the theme for the tale and then utilise the NPC’s and settings to tell that story.  I have in the past created very memorable horror games, standard fantasy games, sic-fi and cybertech games as well as love stories and dramas.  Many of my players still talk to me about remembering such and such a game where there character did this and that.  I tend to remember the games based on the stories and plots I was running rather than the way that their character performed.  Of course, the player characters are the medium through which my story is delivered the components of the plot are there to play out before the player characters are even rolled up.

On the flip side, my favourite gaming memories as a player have come from the games where I was involved with a character focussed GM.  They generally would start their game out with some set plot material and some of their favourite NPC’s and see where the interaction took us.  When I was 14 I played Mega Traveller with a GM and my character was a little roguish and the games we played developed him into a Psi drug dealer with interstellar contacts.  I still have a folder containing all the notes I made in game with him that catalogued his whole story.  I read it every now and again as he was one of my all time favourite characters.  Another all time favourite character of mine was Sam the thief in AD&D some 20 years ago now.  My ambitions started small time with her and stayed there.  We played many memorable games with her where she honed her cat burglar skills.  The GM of this particular game enhanced it so well by designing to cater to this with my character finding dirty little secrets of the residents in each home.  Over time these little secrets got my character to a great position of influence.

So, which is the better approach?  Is it an eternal argument that goes on Plot or Character?  Obviously it is the same in the movies, Forrest Gump is pure character where Aliens is plot.  Of course there is always characters and character development in both but are they there to tell a story or just reflect on the character themselves?  You could actually choose a middle of the road approach and start with an overarching plot and allow the final point of the plot to be fluid.  This would allow the players to truly effect the world if they want to pursue their own ends or, the end you desire be the final point if the group is more happy to be lead than to lead.  I think this can be a point of consternation between the player and the GM if the factor is not addressed.

I run my games with the plot set but I use sub plots to allow my players to explore their own character in depth should they want to.  I tend to lean toward gaming systems over time that allow for the story to shine and have a richness, or depth in the way they portray things.  This has meant over time that I have tended to run games that were a bit left of centre.  E.g. Earthdawn is what I am best known for running, James Bond RPG (although in this I follow almost an even 50/50 split for character and plot) as well as a game system called Aria that I dearly would love to run one day.  I stayed away from your more mainstream games like Dungeons and Dragons as simply by playing the system sets up an expectation for some gamers.  That said, now it has changed to Pathfinder, I find it has a rich background and a good place to set meta-plots.  It is also the reason that I love playing the adventure path, as long as the adventure is right.

Most of the games that tend to be all character focussed tend to run better as one on one (or solo) games for the player.  It allows for the character to be fully explored which can be a difficult task to achieve in a multi-player scenario.  Multi-play with this style of play will tend to have some characters who have felt “left out” at some stage because the focus shifts so heavily on to one character at any given time.

In my experience there is a wealth of enjoyment to be had in either setting.  The important thing as a GM is you cater to the players tastes OR you find a group of players that enjoy your style and play with them.  After all it is just a game and the point is to have fun!

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