Creating a Living Breathing World from your Armchair
This is one of the last Lazy GM articles I have planned for a while. This one tackles how you can present the PCs with meaningful choices in a world that continues moving without their influence, when you don’t have time to design intricate timelines and rigidly stick to them.
The goal of a “Living, Breathing World” is to create verisimilitude by having events, both minor and major, occur regardless of what actions the PCs take. Some of this requires a timetable. If the PCs are dawdling and the villain has specific dates to put his plans into action, the PCs can find themselves losing important battles because they did not act, or act soon enough. So in this case you do need to at least keep track of the current date, so that when you hit D-Day, the roof can explode off of the castle.
However, I’m talking more about how choices in some console or computer role-playing games can be unrealistic and how to avoid it at your gaming table. No matter how good the plot and dialogue are in a game like this, sometimes you get the distinct impression that you can just play all the story. You can save the town from a goblin raid, and then you can go hunting for treasure off the shore, and that villainous wizard is still there waiting for you to thwart hm when you get back.
The best way to deal with this so that you remember to advance events when the PCs aren’t around is to ignore the conceit that the PCs make the world go round. We all know that it is 100% true. You wouldn’t be running the game for the players if their characters weren’t the most important, and you wouldn’t feel like carefully laid plans were upset when one of the PCs can’t make it, or has to give up the game.
However, when I do this, my first mission as the game master is to pretend that they don’t. If your antagonists don’t naturally carry out actions based on their own motivations and personality and events never appear to the PCs from a news source first in a newspaper, then you don’t have a “living, breathing world.”
The prime movers have to execute their plans whether the PCs are around to interfere or not, the world is always changing somewhere and the story marches on. It also means that no matter what choice the PCs make, there is always something unfortunate occurring that can draw their attention. Whether it be for a side-story or for the main plot down the road, the fact that the PCs need to make choices that have consequences makes the game better in all respects.
Realistically, this can seem like a lot of work. But remember all that work I said I did making rounded characters? Even if I don’t have plot hooks to turn into campaign events, I have the motivations of the people on stage. Returning once again to my campaign about the heretical cardinal, we have a powerful man who is willing to poison anybody in his way. His ultimate goal is to become Pope, and he wants the support of the entire Church, so he is unwilling to act overtly whenever it could be made from baseless rumor into fact.
So, before he even tries to assassinate the Bishop, he’s already working on slowly killing the Pope. He is also insinuating himself to the rest of the Council of Cardinals, and working to appear benevolent and compassionate to the populace at large. Even as a cardinal he has limited resources to act in public, but as a powerful man he has further resources to use from the shadows: assassins, corrupt merchants, and an upper class that is obsessed with comfort in this life and the next. This discounts entirely his connection to the witches.
It doesn’t take much effort to add a news tidbit every once in a while about the Cardinal doing some mission of mercy or speaking out on behalf of the peasant population. It also doesn’t take much effort to have the gossips speak about relics going missing throughout the area, or people turning up poisoned. If the PCs don’t go investigate, why they died is immaterial. However, it is easy to have a poisoner actively poison people in the background of the campaign.
Now, this isn’t to say that every secret society, every villain, every enemy tribe and nation, and every political leader should do something that is newsworthy or significant every session or story even. Sprinkle events like sugar on top of a cake. The current antagonists of the party are the ones you should focus on, but you should still consider if only for a few minutes at the beginning or end of each adventure, what the rest of the world has been up to.