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I'm going to start a new campaign soon and my players and I are looking for a campaign that is somewhat close to the feel of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV series. With that I mean a campaign that mostly happens around the normal, regular, everyday lives of the PCs, with the monsters being metaphors for some of the real-life problems of the PCs.

But here I have a problem - how can I make the daily lives of the PCs interesting? What problems should I tackle and how should I tackle them? How can I make mundane parts of the PCs' lives like school, work or even family dinners interesting without having to bring in some cultists with revolvers?

Quick summary: How can I make the daily lives of the PCs interesting without resorting to combat or the supernatural?

I'm more interested in help in terms of techniques than help with finding a system to use.

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Refer to the source

If you want to create a campaign close to Buffy feel, you must watch or re watch Buffy, paying attention to get ideas for the game you want, and how they implement them. You must understand why they make the things they make in the way they make.

In my opinion, Buffy as a (comedic) supernatural teen drama has the best balance between normal life and supernatural plots of its genre (that I have seen), at least it's the most entertaining.

Ally with your players

You need them to create motivated characters, with interests on family, friends and romance relationships, as well as other mundane goals, such as getting good (or sufficient) grades, be popular, get money, look cool, ... Characters also need detailed personality and merits and more importantly flaws (as being a bad student, socially awkward, jelous,..).

You will also need them to be proactive to acquire mundane objectives (for example getting a date with someone), and to share them with you, possibly with the group. This way you can prepare the plot and related scenes. Bonus if they also suggest problem for their characters (as someone trying to compete in romance, or a familiar getting sick).

Finally, players must know that relationship their characters have with other player characters: friends, allies, romantic interest, friendly rivalry, ... (I recommend not to make them enemies), and to interact between them in that terms (In Buffy protagonist talk a lot between them and share their points of views). They should try to keep their character somewhat tied to the group, and not to make others away from them. If two PCs get angry at each other, they should finally find a way to solve it in the medium term, or one PC must leave the "party" and a new one must be created.

Sketch the season

I could write quite a lot about how to make Buffy-style seasons, but I think the questions demands for much generic advice.

You should lists the plots you have (mundane and supernaturals) and create related events for them. Then distribute them between episodes (game sessions).

Of course, as you are playing an interactive form of fiction, those sketches must change continuously, reflecting you players actions and interests. But an updated list help you don't losing any plot and to prepare a good mix.

Prepare the scenes in advance

As said before, watch Buffy series to know how to get the feeling. Look at each scene and think why it is added. A scene should always have at least one plot objective. You don't see every meal, every class or every conversation. You see the scenes that matter for something.

Face every session as an episode, and prepare scenes related to the plots your characters have at this point (such as an NPC asking a PC to go out, or a teacher picking on a PC, or a PC mother having a new love). Also, be prepared to create scenes for what your players want to do (the more you can advance, the better), and try them to be interesting and meaningful.

When playing those scenes, try to be short. Many of them don't concern every player, so all the others are waiting. If the scene is interesting, players won't get bored, as if they were watchers of a TV series. But you must try to end them quickly, or they will lose the interest. This can be harder that it sounds.

Making the mix

The hard thing here (and on a TV series for that matter) is to get the right mix of supernatural and mundane attention. This must be thought for each game session, as well as for the whole season. The amount and the pacing depend heavily on personal tastes, so I will tell how I would do it:

Supernatural plots are primary, they get like the 66% of the attention. They are usually more urgent that personal life (lives are in risk), although an evaluation test is also quite urgent.

Mundane plots are secondary, but they are also usually more long termed. So, today I must stop an evil cult incantation, but next week I will still see my love interest. It's like a background in motion.

The question about this balance is: are characters trying to live their lives while dealing with supernatural danger, or are they trying to face supernatural threats while dealing with their lives?

Make a good system choice

If you haven't already chosen your system, think of how every of them is going to impact on your campaign. Each system is tailored toward some objectives, so choosing one aligned to yours is a key to success.

For instance, in my opinion, D&D would be a terrible choice for the campaign you are talking about, but also BSR, Rolemaster, and many others.

I feel very comfortable with World of Darkness system, and I have used for similar games as yours. It has a physical/social/mental balance that I feel very appropriate to represent students and high-school situations. The background system is very useful, once you readjust it (Resources meaning how rich is you family, Fame meaning high-school popularity,...) and a key to a very social game. Of course, players need to create believable characters (for instance not having Firearms 3), but even that can vary according to the campaign tone (many Buffy characters would have ridiculously high ratings on some skills).

Of course, there are systems that are more tailored to that specific situation. In other answers, you can read some recommendations like Monter Hearts. I have not played any of them, so I cannot give you advice.

Just try to know the system you are choosing and think about the game and plot impact of the main mechanics before making a decision.

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+1. A well thought answer. I especially liked your section about how to make the mix. –  Yosi Jul 7 at 10:59
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I have two systems and one book to recommend. PTA is a great game, as is Apocalypse World, but if you are interested in supernatural soap opera, there are two even better fits:

Monsterhearts

Monsterhearts is an amazing game - it's based on the Apocalypse World engine, but focuses on the teen relationship drama piece of Buffy. I have used it for a drop-in replacement for the Buffy RPG, because it did such a good job of creating that feel.

In addition to the standard Apocalypse World mechanics and attitudes, Monsterhearts has implemented a system for tracking the emotional power PCs have over each other. This emotional power is known in the game as Strings and many of the basic and playbook-specific moves focus on the acquisition and use of Strings.

This game is about drama and even melodrama though - it requires the participation of players and their buy in to the ideas of the game. Which means it can make family dinners interesting if you're trying to introduce your parents to your werewolf boyfriend or trying to explain how your strange urge to consume human blood is hurting your grades, but not if you don't pursue your character's dramatic goals.

The website blurb puts it succinctly:

Monsterhearts lets you and your friends create stories about sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles. When you play, you explore the terror and confusion that comes both with growing up and feeling like a monster.

Based on the Apocalypse World engine, this is a game with emergent story, messy relationships, a structured MC role, and a focus on hard choices. Monsterhearts draws on source material like Twilight, True Blood, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Misfits, The Vampire Diaries, An American Werewolf in London, Cursed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

If you like supernatural romances, or stories of monstrosity and personal horror, or if you just like watching sexy people ruin their lives, then you’ll love this game.

If you want to focus on the killing-a-monster-every-week part of the series, try the aptly-named Monster of the Week.

Hillfolk / DramaSystem

Hillfolk is the name of the book and the name of the first game implemented for the DramaSystem. DramaSystem is designed specifically to model serial drama like we see on modern TV. It's based entirely on following the desires of the characters and their interactions amongst themselves. The website blurb states:

In an arid badlands, the hill people hunger. Your neighbors have grain, cattle, gold. You have horses and spears, courage and ambition. Together with those you love and hate, you will remake history—or die.

With the Hillfolk roleplaying game, you and your group weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Its DramaSystem rules engine, from acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws, takes the basic structure of interpersonal conflict underlying fiction, movies and television and brings it to the world of roleplaying. This simple framework brings your creativity to the fore and keep a surprising, emotionally compelling narrative constantly on the move.

The main book contains a large number of additional settings beyond the iron-age raiders of Hillfolk. One of them is called Inhuman Desires. The nutshell description is:

Monsters in love fight to retain their humanity amid struggles for power, survival, or a way out.

Additionally, it's simple enough to put together your own pitch - campaign settings are just a couple of pages and can be even less formal when put together collaboratively by your group.

Hillfolk / DramaSystem has replaced Primetime Adventures for me and my group in the "let's play a great TV show!" slot.

Play Unsafe

This book by Graham Walmsley offers a number of GMing techniques based on improv theory that have become practically dogma in the years since it came out.

Playing status is particularly useful for the creation of drama.

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Thanks for your answer, and both of these systems are great. But I'm really looking for help in terms of techniques. Thanks again. –  Yosi Jul 6 at 18:45
    
@Yosi You cannot learn more about how drama works in a shorter, more applicable format than by reading the Hillfolk book. It is the gameified practice of the theory put forth in the book Hamlet's Hit Points. I use techniques from the game in all sorts of contexts, including other games now. –  gomad Jul 6 at 18:50
    
Thank you very much and I'll read both of these books again. It's too long since I've read them, so this suggestion came just in time. :-) –  Yosi Jul 6 at 18:56
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Please keep in mind this answer is not supposed to replace any of the other or to be a complete answer to your question, but I'll try to outline my approach to handling the similar issue.

I've been Storyrelling (GMing) a few similar campaigns in World of Darkness system, which is I believe perfect for this kind of premise. The idea of each one of them was that players create a bunch of mundane people, living mundane lives and as the story progresses, they discover the supernatural part of the world, which has been hidden to them.

Little by little they find themselves more and more involved with "the other world" but the idea is that at least for some time they will struggle to walk the line between supernatural and mundane. To what extent - it's up to them.

Step 1: Create a rich mundane background

Supernatural should NOT be something that will change their boring life to an interesting one. The players need to have a rich backgrounds, families and friends, jobs, responsibilities and roles they play in the society, people they depend on and people that depend on them. Having a bunch of hobo orphan PCs that are doing basically nothing until that hooded man approaches them is a recipe for disaster.

"Sacrifice" the best part of the first session for mundane life development. Let them meet in a mundane situation, present a problem to them (even a simple one, like one of the PCs house burns down, or if they work at the same company, it's about to go under). However, happiness should be abundant in this world, and the aim is to make the PC want to carry on with their lives. Do not describe Buffy washing dishes, instead, let them be a valuable asset to the sports team or a successful rockman.

The problem is that the PCs might not be interested in these kind of activities just for the sake of it. Provide rewards, resources, monetary gain, retainers in the form of interesting, specialised NPCs, like "the outdoorsman" friend, the gun nut, hobby botanist or med student. Make sure that those assets are vital to their future supernatural quests and that they complement areas where PCs are lacking.

Step 2: Foreshadow

Impress how important this mundane life is for them. If you introduced them to some supernatural stuff, impress on them how disruptive this is for their life and how easily dabbling with supernatural can get them from safe, stable life to rock bottom.

Let them meet an NPC who had his life destroyed by supernatural. Be it a broken vampire hunter, who is on a verge of committing suicide before they finally get him, as they did his family and friends. Show them a mumbling deranged hobo, who speaks about "the setup" and "reptilian establishment", when you know that indeed an alien replaced the town's mayor.

Let the players see how they will end up if they commit too much to supernatural affairs.

Step 3: Introduce the supernatural

No one goes from being a high school teen to being a full blown werewolf hunter overnight. Show the players a bit of supernatural, let them witness a vampire attack or some ghost manifesting, but do not let them interact with it too much. They have to know something is out there, but make it bigger than they can handle. Little by little, they will start seeing more and more areas where supernatural influences the mundane.

Make it relevant to their mundane life, but with small stakes - maybe there is a witch who wants to use a bit of arcane power to curse their football team - and get the sweepstake. They will probably act to "save the day", if not, let it be, there will be more of that to come. Describe the outcomes and make them aware that supernatural is successful and covert.

Also, make sure they will need to remain quiet about it and that revealing the monster would actually make things worse. If they try to do it anyway, they should be ignored and ridiculed by the mundane people.

Step 4: The slider

If you don't want the teens to stockpile on stakes and silver bullets from the first glimpse of a fang, let them feel that if they fall into this world, there might be no turning back. It could be done by an advice from a wise uncle who chose to ignore the witches and weres, whatever you like.

Establish some sort of a slider in your head, with "MUNDANE" on one end and "SUPERNATURAL" on the other. Players actions will be to remain in the middle. If they are pursuing it unilaterally, this aspect of their life should benefit but at the expense of the other one. Should they go to the extreme in their commitment, let them see the other end crumble.

They undertake to clear the city from vampires? They succeed, but their families struggle and they are never present to help, causing some regret. They try to work out digital-mystics' conspiracy in the authorities? Techno-freaks target their friends credit score, now his house mortgage is defaulting to the bank, as a revenge/deterrent.

On the other hand, they choose to pursue mundane affairs, the digital mystics get the local government under control, with new harsh policies in place affecting everyone. Or a marauding group of werewolves establishes a den in the forest, threatening the community and by extension their mundane life.

Make it a choice between the ones close to them or things only they can handle and make sure they do not have enough resources to handle both. Think Spiderman, is Aunt May more important than Venom's activities? Well, sometimes she is. Note, that they should get much more rewards and positive outcomes from their efforts in mundane life. Make it so that they gain resources from mundane life and spend them on supernatural one.

Step 5: Pull and Push

Both of those lives should pull them closer and push them away at the same time.
Mundane life should pull them with safety and success, happiness and resourcefulness. This life has a better reward to effort ratio and is mostly about positive reinforcement.

However, it should also be a bit disappointing, with a sense of lone-hero alienation, as no one in the mundane world can truly understand them. The double life is a burden here, and mom calling to see why you're not home is a nuisance when you are stalking a werewolf.

Supernatural life should pull them with mystery and power (that comes at a price), enticing characters and drama. However, this life is also dangerous and taxing and the effort spent there rarely pays off.


The idea is that whenever they make a decision, both worlds should oppose that. Doesn't matter which they choose. From that point there will be two interesting resolutions - either they commit fully to one of the worlds and the other one becomes a haunting past that pesters them all the time or they straddle that thin lane, trying to juggle too many balls at the same time.

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Excellent answer. I would like to use some of these ideas on future chronicles. I enjoyed particularly step 2 and 4. –  Flamma Jul 7 at 16:08
    
+1 for the same reasons as Flamma's. Looking forward to read the updated answer. –  Yosi Jul 7 at 21:08
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Here you go. A bit less grim version of the same idea. –  eimyr Jul 8 at 10:41
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You cannot be too mundane, or it will be dreadfully boring. So, what I'm describing is probably just a bit more than the mundane everyday.

It's important to have a strong social context. Nobody grows up in a vaccuum. So, make sure that each PC has connections with interesting people, places, or organizations. Even in everyday life, there is always a holiday or social gathering like weddings, funerals, graduations, and ceremonies of various sorts always going on. Even just a celebration dinner for a relative visiting from a long distance. All of these things are what bring a bit of interest to ordinary lives.

Discover where you want your points of conflict to be. Is the chess club rivals with the computer club? What happens when one of the PCs belong to both clubs? It's that kind of subtle conflict that you can build into something bigger if you really want.

What happens when your dad dates the school principal? Probably nothing most of the time...until you get sent to the principal's office and she goes easy on you, or hard on you. Things could go either way, but you need to give a good reason for it. And that reasoning is hidden by the principal's personal way of thinking and what motivates them the most.

This is the kind of everyday subtelty I think you're looking for, and I think the answer lies in the motivation and attitudes of each of your NPCs.

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See my answer to How can I avoid focusing too much on one player character?. There I describe a technique I (re-)invented the "prologue". The idea is to show that heros have interesting menial tasks/events, like witnessing a minor crime, which might've even been "necessary". Don't concentrate on the examples but on the underlying ideas:

  • What choices does the character have to make? (Fantasy genre: Does he turn in the beggar child to the guards for stealing the bread being delivered to a noble? Modern: Will he still beat up the guy in debt to a "friend" after learning the guy had an accident and a family to feed?)
  • What does a choice made mean for the character? (Is he upholding laws, even if they benefit the rich while the poor are suffering from them?)

If you really want to go modern-day-school-opera setting then have your typical bullies and cliques around as a set up for that kind of short stories. They gang up on other pupils have some nasty rumors and the like. The PCs can then choose the easy way and join into bullying or they can stand in for the weak. In the first case there should be the usual social reward (invitation to the party, access to group resources,...). In the second case there might be consequences like they are targeted themselves but made some nerdy friends, who can help in their way.

However don't overdo it. One or two encounters seem ok to me. You can also briefly describe that there is some event the PCs take part in and only provide details if asked. In that case the event can turn out to be boring. Your players will take the hint not to ask about events that you don't detail on your own. Then you can have an event that looks trivial and describe a little something in the brief description that would've been interesting. Whenfollowing up on that little something you can put in clues to the event and retell it as though the PCs remember something they didn't took much notice of (so they should struggle with remembering, maybe getting something wrong in the first try).

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A really neat idea, especially when used in conjunction with moral dilemmas like you've suggested. Thanks. –  Yosi Jul 7 at 10:57
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Yes, I kind of concentrated on moral dilemmas. However you can vary it with social dilemmas: "What group do you prefer to associate yourself to?" Above I presented snobs vs. nerds, because it can also have moral implications (sort of tv trope). You can lessen the moral implications by having competing snob groups. I like some moral dilemma as most people strive to be good but fail because of the easy way. The important thing is to not overdo it. Your players won't have fun, if you "retaliate" too hard on either moral side. Let them be good, bad or anything in between with some consequences. –  NoAnswer Jul 8 at 9:52
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Here's what I do in my heavy-RP games to make the "everyday" engaging.

Investment

Warning, this does require PC buy-in up front - if they try to play the "orphan loner vigilante" angle like 90% of D&D characters, you're going to have a difficult time. Consider requiring them to generate two relationships with NPCs and one with a PC at character generation, or otherwise similarly become a defined part of a social web.

NPCs, NPCs, NPCs

Seldom is "doing the dishes" the interesting part of everyday life - the interest largely comes from NPCs. You will need to keep an extensive roster, along with trackers of their opinion of each of the PCs. I've been known to keep a Rolodex of index cards (old school!) with the NPC's major details (you can pull up a computer file with more if needed) and a sidebar for a relationship with each PC and relevant NPCs - type ("flirty," "jock hate," whatever) and I track +'s and -'s for strength, adding more +'s and -'s as the PCs do things/make social rolls that influence their opinions. And don't forget NPC on NPC - the world is more "real" if they are having conflict and alignment around the PCs (a lot of the Buffy drama is when something goes wrong in some pair of NPCs' relationship, you will note).

In my current Pathfinder campaign the PCs are command crew on a pirate ship. It would be so much easier to have them have "Crewman 1-30" and let them 'get to the adventure.' But that's not what I do - I have a long ol' list of each crewman's name and their deal. As a result the PCs have extensive opinions about them and have meaningful discussions about who to leave in charge, who to bring on shore missions. "Let's bring Slasher Jim the serial killer. But let's leave Tanned Hank, that guy's going to get himself killed by charging in all the time and he's our only ship's carpenter. And don't leave Little Mike and Mase alone together, Mike hates Chelaxians and Mase is ex-Chelish Navy." The backdrop of the real concerns of running a ship and dealing with people with real-ish personalities and behaviors raises the stakes when a monster appears or they get attacked by the Chelish Navy. My otherwise-mercenary pirate PCs have spent phat loot on a Raise Dead scroll for Lefty the teenage castaway crew member, and one has gotten married and decided to try to have a child (first time I've had that happen in ~20 years of GMing). The NPCs get under their skin. It adds a lot of texture when they go to kill a shadow demon or whatnot.

Random Stuff

Make lists of random things and events to toss in to help emulate the somewhat random nature of life. Have some random tables. I randomize weather every single day for my pirates, and we've had entire sessions spent trying to weather storms and find islands to stay over at for repairs. Every TV show, movie, etc. you watch, write down a wrinkle you see in it. "Someone forgot an anniversary and their SO is pissed." "Car breakdown means they're calling their friends every 20 minutes trying to get a ride somewhere." If you are desperate, launch into a marathon of Friends or Nickelodeon/Disney tween shows to get a huge laundry list really quick.

Remember the three kinds of conflict from high school English - man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self. And man vs. man doesn't have to be violent, it can be jock-vs-geek social or "grandma is staying over and she gets my room but all my demon hunting stuff is under my bed" or "the lights are out from the storm and I have a term paper to finish" or whatever. All those are engaging to people without kill factor.

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There's two rpgs that I've seen really do this well; but they do it through different means.

Primetime Adventures

Primetime Adventures has two mechanics which work great and really focus play to make this work. First, Issues. Each character has an Issue, which is a loaded personal issue that the player has chosen for the character. This is a "Flag", the way the player tells the GM and the rest of the game group that this is what they'd like the story to revolve around.

Second, the right to frame a scene (to set up a scene) goes around the table. This allows players to shift the spotlight or the focus onto the aspects of the story they're interested in.

What this means is, is that having dinner with the family can be loaded and played well because everyone at the table knows if your character has "trying to earn the respect of my father" as an issue, that it's not JUST any old dinner, it's a dinner where your father is going to say something and drama will happen.

So, you can put Flags and player driven scene framing into your game to help.

Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World does this a little differently. The default of the setting is that it's a barely surviving outpost in a world gone mad. The game explicitly tells the GM to spend the first session relatively low key - ask how they get food, water, and let the players simply tell you the overall setup of the camp. This not only tells you about how the outpost is surviving and how the setting of it works, it also tells you a bit about the character and their role in it all.

A second thing is to constantly ask questions of the players, or, sometimes, when they ask a question, let them also be the one to answer it.

"If we've got control of the reservoir, where are the raiders getting their water from?" "Good question! I don't know! But you know what? You are out scouting when you find out the answer. You're flat out against the ridge, wind cutting to the bone, and you pull up your binoculars... how DO those raiders get their water?"

This is a slower method, but puts a lot of power in the players' hands to establish their characters and the setting. A major part of it is establishing relationships in their daily life, which lets you figure out neat characters, fun little setting bits, etc. so that when you do have down time from action, you can have them sit in their favorite chair, or describe their quiet spots.

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Thanks for your answer. These are two wonderful systems. But I'm looking for help in terms of techniques. Thanks again, Yosi. –  Yosi Jul 6 at 18:47
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Yes, I explained the techniques they use, so you can use them in whatever game you're running. I've noted the systems in case you want to look up further details directly. –  Bankuei Jul 6 at 19:33
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You can not make daily lives seem interesting.

If doing the dishes were interesting, noone would play RPGs. Witnessing a crime is not part of daily life.

No wonder James Bond is never shown as he fills out ammo request forms, or files the receipts of his expenses.

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The question compares the desired feel to a specific TV show. In that show, mundane and supernatural lives are crossed. Right, you don't see Buffy doing the dishes on every episode, but you do see how she tries to keep relationships, care after her family or adapt to university. What is more, most TV shows have no supernatural background and many of them only deal with mundane lives. People still see them, so maybe real life isn't as boring as you suggest. –  Flamma Jul 7 at 16:15
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