Role Playing 101 #11: How Embedding makes your Players better Role Players

Know this situation? Your heroes enter a new town you spent all week detailing. You thought about the innkeeper, the lord, the abbot and his secret wife, the beggars, the insane jealousy of the baker toward his daughters, and the murder mystery you want to involve your player heroes in. But you never get to sharing the details.

Because the first thing one of the heroes does is blow up the lord with a fireball.

Why did he do that? Out of sheer boredom perhaps. But even bored real people wouldn't just blow up random others. Only psychopaths might. And they wouldn't live long if they acted like that. So why do players do that? Usually just because they can.

It's not just that there is little consequence for doing these things. Sometimes there may be, but usually these consequences resemble the police helicopters in Grand Theft Auto. You'd wonder why the police goes after you and not after the enemy goblins. The point is that most heroes are hardly part of the game world. They are built as loners, often without living family, no social station (they're beginning heroes, aren't they?), nobody who knows them, and usually nothing to lose.

Embedding the Heroes makes them Count
I found that embedding the player characters in the game world is a very useful technique to counter this. It helps make characters more real, more easy to identify with, perhaps more careful, and certainly more interesting to play. Embedded characters are more part of the game world than makeshift ones.

To embed a character, the game master needs to sit down with the player, and together write a little player history. Where usually the player makes up a background on his or her own, if any, referee and player now cooperate. The hero needs parents, siblings, former jobs and positions within the game world, people he or she has befriended or have become enemies, and perhaps a traumatic experience or two. Important is that all these things have a real place in the game world.

Give the Player Heroes Responsibility
The second thing that's very important for embedding is to give the hero a social position. If you dare, give the hero a place in society that counts. Like being an advisor to the local lord, or perhaps the heir of that same lord, a secret agent of the papal inquisition, officer in the city guard, or first candidate to become abbess of a mighty cloister.

These positions give the player character assets. These could be income, a knowledge base, land, or people who work for them. Henchmen, bodyguards, servants, employees, militia, clerics, apprentices, spouses, children and so on. But apart from the assets, there are also responsibilities, both to their superiors and to the people they protect or employ. Suddenly as a player you don't just rescue a villager and bring him to safety, but you also provide a roof for the villager and organize a community. You might even have to command the army to protect the village. Or send out punishing expeditions to enemy brigands.

Embedding opens new Venues of Adventure
And then there are debts and costs. What if your father the Lord left the estate you inherited in disarray, and with large debts? How do you solve that? What if you find out your father was pressured into these debts by corrupt officials? What if the winter is so cold that your peoples supplies run out? What if you find someone is introducing false coin into your realm?

Villagers and fellows are worthwhile too. They might pay the ransom when you were captured and get you free. Or they might help you out of other tight spots. If you do well, your reputation may rise throughout the country and people may come from afar to live in your province.

Player characters work hard for fame and fortune. Players may do the same. So, why not give it to them, instead of postponing it until they reach umpteenth level? Fame and fortune surely have their own problems, and are fun too. Try it. I did, and found a much more interesting game.


  1. I have been doing this with my latest Pathfinder campaign. I borrowed from ideas of Dresden RPG, Smallville RPG, and Apocalypse World.

    I started by forming up a relationship map using Smallville as a guide. I cut down on the relationships (I have 9 players) and went with each player having a past (Fate style) first adventure experience with two other players. This gave me my initial set of relationships.

    I then asked each of the players what they did for a living (job in the town) and who trained them in their field (class).

    This gave me two relationships (one usually a place) and a second that was a person or family.

    This was the starting point after character creation (we actually did more prior to this point as I had the players actually answer questions on the nature of the world; so, it is 70% their world because they chose most of the locations and nature of the conflicts in the story like in Dresden Files RPG).

    At the end of each game session, I usually assign a 'homework' question to be worked on the players for the following week.

    Session 1: Players had to think up an enemy that they might have made growing up (Mouseguard RPG was my inspiration for this).

    Session 2: Players had to think up a friend that they might have made growing up. I also asked for details of one thing each player liked in regards to their friend and one thing they did not like in regards to their friend.

    Session 3: I asked the players what they see when they look up in the night sky and what do they see in the day light sky (players are designing the world and we hadn't designed this item as a 'fact' yet). I designed some legends off of their choices of artwork and statements.

    Session 4: I gave the players part of a tower (2 floors of space in a 50' diam) to control along with a pair of servants. I also made sure that in Session 5 adventure that they received some furniture (beds, tables, chairs, and such) to get started on decorating their tower and making it home.

    Session 5: I'm having them roll a (d4-1) with 4's being an Exploding die (4+d4-1) to determine how many siblings each player has.

    One of the important things, is not to use these relationships to 'punish' the players but to make sure they are resources and chances to gain in roleplaying.

    One player choose Fortune Telling as part of her business connection. I've had her run into clients during encounters and be invited to events to do readings.

    Another player is part of a ninja clan and chose to have another ninja clan as her enemy. I've had things like one of her students follow her around or run into things trying to impress his teacher. She has a friend which her Uncle that trains her and he has at times stepped in to make sure she doesn't embarrass the clan with a poor performance (she did poorly on some stealth roles and I used the uncle as a 'save' but the character did a scene of extra training with the uncle as a result).

    When the players see the extra characters are just used to colour the story and can provide some assists (one character had the parents cast a higher level spell than they could currently cast and another has the ability to tap into their holy order's armoury ~ I use a favour/token system to represent these assets), then they are open to having them part of the story. The players chose these relationships which makes them feel happy to see how they are being used and played out.

  2. @GM Dave: That's great!
    One of the things I see you did is build further history and contacts after the first session. So you embed the heroes further and further into the world as the play progresses. That's good. You don't have to embed in one go.