It’s a common enough thing; even when players take part in other games and game types, there’s a certain tendency toward elitism; each group regards their style and genre as the best type of gaming, even though they often take place in wildly different media formats and cover the entire breadth of human experience in substance and style. The thing is – we, as both players and GMs, can often pick up useful lessons from other games, and appreciate what they did in a way that appealed to us as tabletop players. Today, I’ll be looking at Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG that my wife and I play.
The entire core game has a personal story woven into it.
This is not a particularly common thing; while many games are coming to have instances, voice acting, and other things to make the story personal to you, Bioware made the entire core portion of SWTOR something that specifically spoke to the character you chose to play – and, often, to the species and gender you selected while making that character. Each of the eight classes has a personal storyline on each of the planets up to the end of the third act of the game, weaving the character storyline together with the planetary storyline and the sidequests to give a much more dynamic feel to the world.
On top of that, all eight classes have their own part in the grander story, such that in order to see the entire story you need to either play all eight classes or group with people from beginning to end. NPCs and class companions often show up or get referenced between classes as well, giving the entire story a much more interconnected and lively feel to it.
We can pull a lesson from this as GMs and players; giving each person at the table their own part in the greater story can give them that much more investment in it. While everyone is present for those moments where you take on big bads or embark on raiding starports, sometimes there are those moments where the backstory and personal story arc of a given character come to the fore, letting them have the undivided spotlight for a little while. At the same time, invoking those NPCs in the personal moments of other characters can enliven the game; perhaps the contact of the sneaky spy gets mentioned off-handedly by the police officer the above-board soldier is talking to, as an informant for the authorities.
Certain worlds are visited at different times by the different factions.
Balmora, the war-torn battleground of a world, and Taris, the toxic ruins of a pulverized planet-city, are visited at different points by the Republic and the Empire, and this shows different snapshots in time for those planets to people with characters on both sides. Taris is painstakingly rebuilt by the Republic characters in hopes of showing that the Republic never backs down, only to be thoroughly savaged by the Empire later because they can’t let the Republic have such a success story for their propaganda. Balmora gets thoroughly conquered by the Empire with the help of Imperial players, only to have the Republic’s now-legendary heroes arrive to lead a furious liberation effort.
Even Corellia, the capstone of the core game, has slightly different timing; Imperials arrive and crush the resistance forces that have been holding the military at bay as their personal stories wrap up, while the Republic’s heroes arrive just after and shatter the tenuous grip the Empire has established.
This is something we can apply when a given group continues playing in the same world over an extended period; showing the impacts of previous player groups and how events have played out in their wake can give players a sense of ownership and continuity that lets them invest in the world in a way that one-off campaigns that skip from setting to setting don’t really permit.
Decisions have impacts.
Even early on, the decisions you make have impacts; the interactions with your companions will shape how they respond to you later on, decisions made during missions will have callbacks in the form of mail updates, and in the most recent expansion your decisions can actually directly impact your character roster; the February chapter potentially had a companion character quit your group, no longer able to tolerate your actions (or lack of concern over the actions of others).
This is something that Paizo is also good at, making callbacks in later books of their adventure paths to characters and events from earlier on, but all too often GMs find it difficult to keep it up when we’re doing our own games. It’s well worth the effort, however, and having the decision by a party to humor a goblin pretending to be a merchant may come back later when they run into the same goblin, now a little better off and willing to cut the players a deal since they encouraged the goblin in the beginning.
It can also come back when players make mistakes or when things go bad via dice rolls; the lord’s daughter, accidentally killed during the fight to save her, becomes the reason why that lord refuses to lend aid when asked to help against the larger threat; or the ghost of the daughter begins to plague the manor and must be dealt with; or the lord, distraught with grief and blaming the players, joins up with the larger threat as a matter of engeance against the PCs. Decisions and actions can and should have impacts; players who flaunt their PC status and think they can casually get away with crimes by virtue of being PCs can and should end up in jail, or wanted for murder if they fight and kill the town guard.
Players start small but grow to have a major impact.
In SWTOR, you begin as a relative nobody; even for the classes that imply a backstory, you’re no one in the grand galactic scheme. By the end of the core game, you’ve become an important figure in galactic matters, shaping the course of events across the entire galaxy. Play through the expansions and you come to organize a rough alliance between the factions – and then become important enough to be regarded as a legendary terror by the common populace of the new threat.
PCs should have the same rough course; from people who can be important, but only on the most local front, gradually growing to people whose names are known across a region, if not across all civilized lands. If some of the players are knights, soldiers, or other military individuals, let enemy forces recognize them and accord them respect. Let the players arrive at a tense situation and have the enemy force completely back down when they hear who they’re facing.
When old enemies join into an alliance with the players against some other threat, let those foes acknowledge that the players are the legendary figures they are, acknowledging them as the leaders if they want the job. Have old enemies that are against them unite and openly acknowledge that they can’t stand against the players by themselves. If there’s one thing SWTOR does well, it’s making you feel like a powerhouse and and important figure. Do the same in your tabletop games and you’ll get stories the players cheer about for years to come.
While this is the first post of this type, talking about specific games and how they can apply to the table or what they’ve done right from a tabletop perspective, it won’t be the last; I hope you’ve enjoyed it!