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I just started running my first D&D campaign, and I've run into this problem. I want the story to go to places that involve the PCs personally, and help the players feel more invested. One player's character is both running from her past and searching for her family, so it's pretty easy to build a story that involves her. The problem is, the other three players are just there to find loot and kill bad guys.

When building the future of the campaign, it's pretty easy for me to think up cases where that one PC's past will come back to haunt her. (Also, this PC was cursed with lycanthropy, so one of the main quests for the party has involved dealing with that). But I don't want this campaign to be just about this one character; I want everyone's characters to have a part to play. I just can't figure out how to weave characters into a story if they don't already have some story to work with.

Are there any good methods for getting these PCs to play a bigger part in my campaign preparations?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Which version of D&D are you playing? Since you are referring to a particular game, not D&D as a whole, the tag [dungeons-and-dragons] is inappropriate here. Please replace it with the applicable edition tag, such as [dnd-5e] or [dnd-4e], to signal to respondents which game you're playing. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jul 5 '18 at 3:29
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The answer by NautArch is great and will surely help you mitigate this problem in future campaigns, but it doesn't help much where you're at currently. Here are a few things I've personally tried as a GM.

Make New Friends

And by friends I mean enemies. More specifically, an arch nemesis. Make one of the enemies the PC has defeated before come back for revenge. Make sure it's a personal revenge directed only at one of the PCs; if you make it an arch nemesis of the group it will become the arch nemesis of the involved PC.

PC: "Hey, I thought I killed you! I cut off your arm and stabbed you in the neck!"

NPC: "Yes, I died in pain. But some new friends took pity on me, filled up the hole in the neck, grafted a machanical arm on me and raised me back from the dead. You will now taste sweet revenge!"

Repeat a few times and make sure to constantly make the enemy stronger and more involved in the main plot. Soon you have a PC that's deeply involved.

Make Old Friends

And by friends I mean friends and family. Every PC has friends and family from when they were younger, even if it's not specifically stated in the backstory.

GM: "A letter is delivered to you. It says that your parents are held by a lich for ransom. With it comes a ring that you recognise as your mother's."

Naturally, the lich is involved in the main plot somehow and helping out the parents is a bit more involved than first anticipated. After they're rescued, it turns out the people you rescued are doppelgangers and that the real parents are either still prisoners or safe home in the village.

Make New Memories

Anything that happens or has happened during the campaign can serve as a hook for stuff to come back and haunt the PCs. If there is nothing in particular you can draw on right now, try to set it up.

GM: "Turns out, this is the home of one of the guards you killed in the town. She would have been here last night protecting her family, but thanks to you the monsters had no problem butchering the family."

Any situation that might serve as a plot hook in a backstory can be introduced during the course of an adventure instead.

Make Old Memories

Let an event remind a PC of something that happened in the past. This gives the player a chance to flesh out the PC and add things in a natural way. Also, repressed memories can work. It can be hard to pull off properly and it cannot be used too often but it's a powerful tool.

GM: "As you realise that you've been cheated by the merchant you recall something you'd rather forget. A time when you cheated a friend in a similar manner. Who was the friend, what did you do and why?"

PC: "I was fifteen and needed money for a new knife I wanted. So I made a bet..."

This is great for adding needed flavor or plot hooks to a character. You can even be pretty blunt about it.

GM: "A person from your past sends a letter to you that is deeply troubling. You need to help this person out. Who sent the letter and what does it detail?"

Make sure to ask follow-up questions to get a better grip on the situation.

Not only does this technique add hooks, but it also lets the players be a bigger part of the narrative and makes them more invested. It can really work wonders to make someone more engaged in the story, partly because they now get to play the exact story they want.

Just Make It So

Make the PCs be part of the narrative without any prior explanation. The explanation can either be made up on the spot or something the party has to investigate.

  • When the Big Bad starts wielding an amulet, one of the PCs react to it. Why is that?
  • Turns out, only the blood from one of the PCs families is adequate for a certain ritual. If the PC fights off the baddies, maybe the family of that PC is an easier target?
  • One of the PCs inherit a small statuette. It seems to be magical, but no one they ask seems to know how. There is, however, a mage that specializes in magical statues and figurines. Time for a new quest?

Whatever you do to help out the situation though, NautArchs answer is still in effect. You need to feel your players out and try to understand what it is they want with the campaign. You can even have a Session Zero in the middle of the campaign if needed. This is where we are, but where do we go from here? This is what I tried to do, but what do you want to do?

Anyway, good luck GMing. It's tricky business sometimes and much to learn along the way.

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Talk to your Players

The information below hinges completely on your figuring out what both you and your players are interested in pursuing at the table. This generally falls under a Session Zero where the table can discuss expectations and desires for what everyone is looking for.

Session Zero

I'd definitely suggest you set up a Session Zero to discuss the expectations from the players and for you about how the game and story would run. This is a great way to introduce the issue(s) you and the players are experiencing.

You can set this up with your players by stating that you'd like a better understanding of what they are expecting in your world and the game. It can also be used as a way to make sure everyone's expectations are being met. This includes the players expectations of the DM/game and the DM's expectations of the players.

Sample Questions

  • How much roleplaying are you looking for vs combat?
  • Will PC actions affect the greater world?
  • Do you want to pursue your own personal stories?
  • DO you want a sandbox to play in or are you looking for at least a main storyline to pursue?
  • If pursuit of personal stories is part of this, what happens in the greater world around us if time is spent not following the main story?

But what if the players have a different expectation than what you were planning?

Then you need to ask whether or not you are still having fun at this table. It is still possible to enjoy the table and the game even without backstory or character growth. But if that isn't the game you wanted to run, then you need to figure it if it can be. It may not be the fun you expected, but as long as you're still having fun, then let it continue (You just may need to shift your expectations in order to do so.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was going to be my answer. Different players prefer different rewards during the game. If the other players are fine with it let the story revolve around one character with the others just along for support and loot. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Jul 25 '18 at 18:13
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The best way to get people involved in the story - especially if you AND they don't know yet what they latch onto / like: Throw things at them (preferably when they are alone) and see what sticks. A few quick examples:

'As you go shopping for your Great Sword +1, a messenger boy covered in smelly filth runs into you - what do you do?'

'As you wander the market, you see a pregnant woman snatch a loaf of bread. She winks at you in passing. What do you do?'

Or an encounter with a wandering armor merchant with the most colorful and magnificently painted armor and shields they have ever seen. He is gay and very politely hits on any male PC. The man has good intentions but something in the paints he uses makes anything bought from him very... breakable.

Or have a noble - man or woman - be genuinely interested and courting one of the PCs and not easily dissuaded.

These kinds of simple situations can literally start session-spanning plot arcs, new friendships or alliances just due to the PCs reactions and interactions. And even more importantly, they give you information. The messenger boy can be an arc about adopting a streetrat and teaching them (having an NPC 'fan' is always interesting for group dynamics) or someone running from a group or mercenaries which gets the PCs a reward. The market encounter is mostly a simple question of morality. The wandering armor merchant could have to be chased down. Or maybe the PCs help him figure out the paint issue and help start a business. Or they just have a love interest. The nobleman/-woman can lead to arcs of political intrigues or just PCs trying to somehow, someway conform to the local quirks of nobility.

You can also do class-specific situations with at least most d&d classes - f.e. issues or problems with the organised faction related to / governing the class in question.

To finalise: I would think of interesting situations, use those when more active people can't interrupt (in case thats an issue) and see what happens. Then go from there and work future dominoes into that.

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A DM I used to play with had a house rule where each player could make a character trait or backstory point for another player’s character. Some things were goofy, but it added some depth. I’d recommend having the player with more story declare it on one of the others and see if the other players jump on.

Another good way to increase involvement is to take suggestions outside of the session. Ask them for input on things. Ask them to name towns or NPCs. Ask one if they’d rather fight goblins or gnolls in the next session. Show them that they can make an impact on the world. Try having each player help in the creation of a session and be encouraging and supportive of their input.

Finally, you can just use their class or character-specific details to dig for background. Ask a ranger why their character chose their favored enemy. Ask a druid why their character wild shapes to that specific animal. Ask a cleric or paladin why their character picked their specific deity. Ask a fighter why their character uses a specific weapon. You could get the gears turning from all kinds of things recorded on their character sheets.

In short, elicit information with questions piece by piece and encourage creativity.

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The looters are excellent for story additives. Here are some simple ideas to give them some flare.

Maybe they loot someone who has, unbeknownst to the players, stolen goods and when selling their loot they get approached by the owner or perhaps guards even arrest them or worse maybe the guards arrest the shopkeeper for trying to fence your looters stolen goods and that shop closes.

Or Perhaps the looters go murder hobo killing bandits, cultists, and everyone in every encounter, well when they do, someone turns out to be actually related to a local well regarded NPC and they personally make the party out to be a band of murderers, ruining their reputation.

Or Perhaps the looters are of a specific race, play that card against them. Maybe place a higher leveled NPC in the local area who taunts or bullies the looters or even robs them but doesn't harm them otherwise.

Another good way to play with their game play behavior instead of their characters background is by including a cursed coin, its my specialty. Have a looter find a large mysterious coin with markings from a far away land and maybe with gems too. Taking possession of it that player will refuse to give up the coin and they start to become obsessed with collecting coins, even refusing to use them in sales, leaving the cursed player to bartering. Until they figure out they must destroy the mysterious coin before they can buy stuff with coins again. That in itself will force the unbeknownst looter into a campaign all their own.

Anyway good luck!

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