Let’s face it: nobody gets to spend all of their time doing what they love. As adults, we must balance our leisure time against our many other responsibilities, and often it can be a struggle to find the time to pursue our hobbies and our passions.
And right now real life is kicking my ass.
My family is growing, so my wife and I have purchased a new home that we are frantically trying to make move-in ready. So between painting, mending gutters, installing handrails, pulling up carpet – and a million other things – there has been precious little time for gaming and blogging. And so while this blog may be very low on my current list of priorities, it’s still very much important to me, which is why I’m tapping out this blog update on my phone during whatever snatches of free time I’m able to grab.
Anyway, all of this got me to thinking about player characters, and the “real life” obligations they might have that would keep them from doing what they would like to do. Of course, the big difference – aside from the fact that we’re talking about fictional superheros – is that such obligations probably don’t involve tediously prying tack strips up from hardwood floors and instead likely represent adventures in their own right. They just don’t represent the adventure that the character wanted to pursue or had planned to pursue at that time. Such obligations could be to an organization, such as a guild, church, or knightly order, or perhaps to a family member or close friend. Such an obligation could even be to a local lord, or maybe even the king himself. The important thing is that the obligation – whatever it is – should be unanticipated and probably a bit of a pain in the ass.
Such interruptions can be a great way to slow down the pace of the main storyline of your campaign, while adding another layer of detail (and possible subplots) to your game world. For example, the PCs may be eager to pursue the main villain along the North road before the trail goes cold, but the local lord has called on them to address the bandit threat along the southern trade road. Such a “request” could be made even more compelling to party members with the guild, soldier, or noble background. Or perhaps the quest for the Scepter of Macguffin must be put on hold when the PCs learn that their home village is threatened by orc raiders.
However, there are a some challenges that go along with inserting this sort of interlude into your game. One is the question of motivation. Different things motivate different people, and those things may not always be the same for every member of your party. In the example above, maybe only one of your PCs is from the threatened village. In fact, there is a good chance that obligations of this sort will only be compelling to a few – or even only one – of your characters. In general, the less characters that are compelled by an obligation, the easier to accomplish and/or the less dire the consequences for refusing should be. For instance, the orc raider example above would probably be a poor choice if helping said village was only compelling to one character. Try to avoid scenarios where one character feels like he absolutely must choose one path while the rest of the party is either ambivalent or likely to choose another. Never underestimate the power of a character’s fictitious family to draw him like a lode stone.
Since it isn’t always possible to compel everyone to care equally about secondary obligations, one tactic you can use is to make such obligations accomplishable “along the way.” Something that represents only a minor delay (at least at first – some things are more complicated than they seem) is much more likely to be undertaken by the group, even if only one or two party members care about getting it done. Also, keep in mind that most of the time it should be possible for characters to shirk such secondary obligations, but the decision to do so should be a difficult one, and it should carry consequences. A priest who refuses to fulfill obligations to his church may be required to make amends with a hefty tithe, while a guild member may be expelled from his guild outright for refusing to honor an obligation. Again, it should always be possible – but rarely easy – for characters to avoid these obligations.
One other thing: ignore everything I said about avoiding situations where only one character cares about an obligation if the player of that character plans to be absent for one or more game sessions. In that case, it’s perfect to say the character is fulfilling some secondary obligation. Perhaps when the character returns to play he may even have new information, skills, or resources gained from his side endeavor. How much of this side quest is played out or hand-waved is entirely up to you – it may be enough for you to describe what happened to the player and then simply give the character some experience points or information, or you may want to do a little one on one roleplaying session with the player to determine the outcome. Hell, you could even decide to involve the other players in the side-quest of a single character by allowing the other players to take on the role of “NPCs.” Maybe a soldier character has to complete a task with a squad of other soldiers that are represented by the other players. Such a side-trek could be a welcome break from the regular action of the campaign, but should rarely take more than one session to complete. If you choose this route, I recommend that you avoid doing it often, and avoid always having such vignettes be about the same character(s).
More than likely, your players will jump at the opportunity to pursue some goal related to their background, even if it’s a huge inconvenience to them. That’s because players really want you to acknowledge these things about their characters, even if all they ever did was write it down and then forget about it.
Anyway, that’s it for now. It’s time for me to get back to my obligation to pry up tack strips.