[RR] Character Story Mechanics

The most conventional setup for a tabletop RPG is for a gamemaster (GM) to run the game while the players react. The GM drives the world, and he or she also drives most of the story. The players use their characters (PC’s) to react to the world. Good players will roleplay their PC’s such that the response is what a barbarian would do, and not what Mark the Accountant would do, especially if Mark the Accountant is amoral about the barbarian’s death. In my gaming group we have a wider range with some player sticking to their characters while others blur the line between player action and character action. Either way, conventionally the players react.

A current mechanic I have seen more and more is for the players to be proactive in their character’s storytelling. I would say it is the RPG mechanic of the decade. Players have concrete reasons to push forward with their character’s motivations and ideals in many current systems. I personally love it.


Possibly one of the largest aspects of RPG’s is progression. In Dungeons & Dragons PC’s gain character levels granting them new powers. In other games there are no levels, but the power of each PC continues to rise. Even Call of Cthulhu has progression, but it is in a spiral going the opposite direction of most games.

Across all mediums, people tie progression in to RPG’s. In, say, Final Fantasy games, players “role-play” the characters about as much as they do in God of War or Tomb Raider, yet Final Fantasy games are called a role-playing game. In games like Call of Duty, they add “RPG-elements”, which mostly means accumulation of experience points (XP) for action to gain progression.

So even if tabletop RPG’s should have roleplaying and conflict mechanics as the centerpieces of the game, the zeitgeist of RPG’s demands progression. The solution? Make progression owe allegiance to roleplaying and all conflict mechanics (not just combat).

In all games, progression requires action. The action that progresses the PC’s the most will become the actions that are desired. In Dungeons & Dragons, further codified by Pathfinder, the main actions that give XP are combat related. This gives rise to the whole game being about “killing it and taking their stuff”. Even though Dungeons & Dragons clearly allows for roleplaying the mechanics to award XP for roleplaying are virtually meaningless compared to a heavily codified XP system for “killing” and “stuff”. The progression mechanic drives the way the game is played.


The latest iteration of White Wolf’s Storytelling System has character Aspirations (see God-Machine Chronicle or Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicle). The White Wolf systems have always had things like concepts and natures, which are supposed to drive forward character play. However, they never had a mechanic so thoroughly tied to the player guiding the stories.

Aspirations are directly tied to XP, through a system called Beats. Beats give fractional amount of XP (1/5) based on PC action. Most of the time, Beats are used to make the story more interesting. Players don’t get Beats for killing things as much as getting a Beat for choosing to take a dramatic failure on a roll. Facing a breaking point for a PC’s integrity? Take a Beat. Choose to go get a fix on your junkie PC rather than do something beneficial? Take a Beat. Most of the time Beats are driven through challenge and failure, but then again the World of Darkness is not a happy place.

Aspirations tie gaining Beats (XP) directly into the progression of the character’s story. A simple Aspiration might be fortifying my home with a lethal security system. Now the player and the GM start looking for ways to add that Aspiration to the story. The player knows that if he can tie it in then he gets XP. The GM also has a story vehicle and plenty of ways of making that Aspiration interesting (get illegal explosives, talk to a “survivor”, installation, testing, etc.).

Once the Aspiration is completed, it is replaced. Larger Aspirations requiring multiple sessions or whole campaigns get Beats for significant progress instead of full achievement. If a vampire wants to sire a childe (make her own vampire) she’s not going to walk down the street and grab the first yuppy that catches her eye. The Aspiration becomes a story-driven process of deciding why she wants a childe, what personality is she looking for, what ceremony (or lack thereof) is going to take place? After sessions of working on the Aspiration, the Aspiration might get replaced by “teaching my childe the ways of vampires”.

The game is now driven largely by the player character’s Aspirations, and the GM just has to put interesting conflicts in the way. This makes the player a proactive part of the game. A good GM will still put lots of stuff in the way for a player to have to react to, but the guiding force of the game is no longer just the GM.


Aspirations are really good to drive near-sighted play of a PC.  However, they are open to interpretation and don’t really give a sense to player time. For example, the Aspiration “to sire a childe” could be completed in ten minutes of discussion, resource collection, and maybe a few dice rolls, which would probably net that player a single Beat (and a childe). Aspirations also don’t always tie directly in to a progression. A player might make a security system and then spend the XP on an unrelated supernatural power.

Quests from Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine take the goal-oriented concept of Aspirations and piece meal it out into more digestible bites. Ironically it borrows from video-game RPG mechanics, which stemmed from tabletop RPGs. A quest usually results in another rewards beyond XP. Regardless, in Chuubo’s the quest is how you play the game.

An example from an excerpt is Haunted. A masked woman of incredible power keeps invading your dreams. A player needs 35 XP to complete the quest, and the bulk of it is going to be gained doing actions or playing in scenes. For example “having a troubled dream” or “talking to a scholar or sailor about your situation” both net 1 XP. There are also three bonuses that each can earn 5 XP towards the quest, but only once. A bonus might be “putting a name and face to the power that’s haunting you from afar” or “forming an important connection to it”. Upon completion of Haunted the player gets some supernatural power.

In the linked excerpt the PC has three active quests going on at once. He’s doing Haunted, but he’s also Learning the Ways of Fortitude (a region) and creating Precious Memories. So in one scene the character might head to Fortitude, get lost on the docks and have to ask for directions around Fortitude, talk to a sailor about being haunted, and then push the sailor’s fishing boat off and watch the boat until it disappears to the horizon. In one sense a player is gaming the system, but in another sense the player (with the GM) just created a pretty nice scene. The GM is there to help facilitate ways this can happen, but it’s more at the player’s request.

One of my favorite bits about Chuubo’s is getting bonus XP for owning a tablewide emotion. If you can get another player to face-palm based on your character’s actions, you get more XP. There’s emotions like high-fives and what not. I guess that’s a bit too tangential and meta-gamey though for this post.

Anyway, the quests in Chuubo’s are the story. The quests a player chooses will drive the scenes, the conflicts, and the progression of the character. It’s all neatly wrapped up in a very game-y system.

Wrapped Up

I feel like last decade’s cultural RPG mechanic was controlling of player narrative. The pendulum swung about as far away from the conventional GM acts, player reacts situation. Now I feel things are heading towards a great middle where the players have some control and a lot of direction. A lot of these things can be overlaid on any RPG system. There’s no reason not to have Aspirations in Pathfinder or even grab Chuubo’s quests and add it to Vampire: the Requiem, which will require a bit more finagling.

What Aspirations and Quests do is take less load off the GM, while not expecting that much more from the players. Last decade required players to bring a lot to the table, which many interested players are simply not capable of doing. I feel that if they just need to decide on direction the story can flow, the players can get invested and feel like they have some control, and the GM gets to be the one to react.


7 thoughts on “[RR] Character Story Mechanics”

  1. Really neat ideas, and a good exploration piece about what and how and why we can get mechanical rewards for actual character involvement in the story.

    However, it seems like (similar to the way most CRPG’s play), these mechanics are inevitably mechanical, and there’s not necessarily more story invovlement, just a separate plot checkilist on the table. I dunno. It certainly affords opportunities to role play, which is good. Spicing things up is good. But do these mechanics actually afford any NEW opportunities for role playing that wouldn’t have been there anyway?

    Maybe so. It sounds more like just a way for the GM to farm out development of plot threads to the players. And that can be an advantage in making sure your plot threads are the type that your players want to be involved in. It can also be off-putting to the players, though, that wanted to experience the game as a player rather than assistant GM.

    Pros, cons, flavors, milage, etc. :p

    1. Well I think that’s why the pendulum is swinging away from assistant GM (see last decade, also prolly next week’s post) and towards player… but it is player in control of their own fate. That’s a big difference from assistant GM. It is also a difference from a player that just leeches from the table.

      And, no they don’t offer new roleplaying opporuntities per se. They just narrow the scope of the infinite. The GM gets a better idea of what the player wants to see happen to his/her character. If the player can’t even imagine scenes s/he wants their PC in… why are they roleplaying?

      One of my favorite examples I’ve seen about Aspirations is a player Aspiration to see something happen to the PC, such as “get badly beaten for a mistaken wrongdoing”. The stories that could come of that! Now if a GM just beats a PC up (for story sake) it could be taken wholly a wrong way… lots of story/design space in these mechanics that get teased out of the woodwork.

      1. Aspirations definitely do sound the most interesting (and elegant).

    2. I know that as I’ve been getting into tabletop RPGs, I’ve seen quite a few people who’ve played a lot of video games and choose their course of action – even in a more story-driven, roleplay-heavy campaign – based on what they’d do if this were a video game (i.e. usually, kill all the things, try the next room, morality is optional). There’s no point trying to force players to play in a way that doesn’t interest them, but it’s sometimes nice for GMs to be able to provide incentives for roleplaying and character decisions for those players who might otherwise not think to do it.

      Certainly video game players are the types to follow mechanical incentives and not bother to do anything if there isn’t one, haha.

  2. One of my favourite mechanics in tabletop RPGs, and one my group adopts almost always via house rule, is the mechanic of ‘special experience’. Players often plan out how they are going to advance their characters. These plans, however, tend to be very gamey. A ‘special experience’ is a mechanic that GMs can use to encourage players to think of a more natural progression.

    Let’s for example take an adventure where the players are stranded in an inhospitable environment and have to survive. This survival is an integral point in that adventure or slice of the adventure and instead of having it solved with a single ‘survival’-skill roll it would be more dramatically interesting to have it solved with good ideas and roleplay. This can often lead to a memorable scene.

    Now once it is solved and the players have survived the GM grants them a special experience in the survival-skill or other related skills that were used during the challenge. This special experience allows them to improve their survival skill cheaper (for a limited amount) than they normally would. Usually, the survival-skill doesn’t have a place in their character plan but I find that many players will opt to improve it nonetheless since they have an incentive for it and it will be a reminder of a memorable scene for them.

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