This experience is what I try to deliver for my players when I get back behind the GM screen, but it’s not always easy. I struggled with it a lot in my early days, and even now I’m not perfect.* However, I’ve developed a repertoire of techniques that have served me well. If you want to customize a campaign for your players but aren’t sure where to start, this is how I do it.
Ask Them Questions
Asking players what they want – what a concept! Does something so obvious even need to be written down? Turns out, what questions you ask and how you ask them are crucial. If you go to your players with a completely blank canvas and ask, “What do you want to play,” you’ll get confused stares more often than helpful answers. Most players don’t carry a fully formed RPG storyline in their heads, and even those who do probably won’t know how to best apply it without any context.
Instead, the best approach is to create your campaign’s basic premise first, and then ask what parts of it interest the players most. Sometimes your system will determine the basic premise for you. If you’re playing Mouse Guard, the automatic premise is that you’re a group of guard-mice traveling from town to town solving problems. If you want something else, you’ll need to specify. For more open-ended games like D&D or Anima Prime, you’ll need to come up with the basic premise yourself. Maybe you want a game about peasant farmers protecting their homes or exiled martial artists in search of a new master. Either way, tell your players!
Once you’ve told your players what the premise is, you can ask them what elements interest them. In a fantasy peasant game, would they have more fun playing as the village militia or the village council? In an urban fantasy game, is there a specific type of monster they feel an affinity for? If you have very specific plans for your game, then ask more specific questions. Once you’ve decided you’re going to run a game about four teenagers transforming into supernatural creatures, you’ll need to know things like what social clique a player prefers and how much angst they’ll feel when it turns out they’re dating the villain.*
Take note of what your players are interested in, and use the information to plan a few possibilities. Stay light on the details for now. At this stage, everyone is just theorizing about what they might like, so it’s too early to set anything in stone. You’re just narrowing down the options.
This is also a good time to weed out players who just aren’t interested in your premise at all. If you want to do classic high fantasy and one player just doesn’t like anything premodern, that’s a sign the campaign won’t work for them no matter how much customizing you do.
Note What They Do
Now you’ve got your notes of what the players want, but you don’t want to rely on those notes too heavily. Players can change their minds, and it’s often difficult for them to know what they want from your game until they’re playing it. That’s why you have to pay close attention to what the players actually do.
When a player demonstrates an interest in some aspect of your world, that aspect should become important to your plans for the story, even if it isn’t something you originally meant to include. The more players who are interested in a given aspect, the higher priority it deserves.
Ideally, you can fold whatever interests the player into your existing plan. For example, you might be planning a campaign about evil elves invading a human kingdom, but two of your players are really interested in overthrowing feudalism. Well, it turns out the elves not only support feudalism, but they want to make it worse. Now your players’ personal interest is tied directly to the main plot.
However, it won’t always be that easy. Sometimes your players will be interested in things that have no relation to your original main plot. If that happens, I recommend giving precedence to your players’ interests wherever possible. They’ll have a lot more fun if the campaign reflects their interest rather than being railroaded through your plot, and if they’re having fun, you’re more likely to have fun.
Fortunately, you can take steps to avoid conflict between player interest and your plans. I do this by dedicating three to five opening sessions to purely episodic problems. I hit the party with dragon attacks, smear campaigns, food shortages, and other obstacles that can be dealt with in a single session. Then I mix a few longer plot hooks into these immediate problems and see what the players react best to. Only then do I start to make concrete plans for the campaign, but I never stop paying attention. If a player develops a new obsession just a few sessions away from the climax, it’s still worth seeing if I can work that in somehow.
It’s critical to give the players a lot of prodding in these early sessions. If you simply give the party a sandbox to play in, you’ll find out what interests the most active players, but the more passive ones will remain a mystery.
Look at Their Abilities
So far we’ve talked about asking your players questions before the game starts and then watching what they do in the session. Both of these methods are valuable, but they require interacting with other humans in real time, which isn’t always reliable. Good news though, there’s a way to customize your campaign with no players around: look at their character sheets.
A player’s character sheet says a lot about what they want and how you can give it to them. If they spent points on an ability, then they probably want to use that ability. Make note of your PCs’ highest skills, then plan problems where those skills are essential. If a player goes for a generalist approach, spreading their points evenly among multiple skills, then craft a plot where multiple skills are required.
Skills and core abilities are usually the easiest to plan around because they’re what players actually roll, but you can use nearly anything on the character sheet. If a player bought one of those miscellaneous advantages that lets them, say, see in the dark, you can give them a moment to shine when the power goes out. If you’re using a system that has players write down important roleplaying guides like Beliefs in Burning Wheel or Darkest Self in Monsterhearts, even better! Then you have a direct note from the players about what they’re interested in. If their character sheet says that they must discover the source of all magic, you’ve got a storyline with guaranteed interest.
You can use PC abilities to plan major turning points and climaxes, but the little stuff helps too. Players enjoy being validated for their spending choices, and they like to know they had the right tool for the right job, even if that job was bringing back a few lost sheep. Sessions that take each PC’s abilities into account will always be more satisfying because they are inherently unique.
If you feel like upping the difficulty to Hard Mode, you can even craft encounters based on what a player didn’t spend points on. There’s a lot of fun to be had when the battle-hardened veteran is invited to a tea party or a sly politician finds themself standing in the shield wall. Just make sure you pick the right player for this. Some players enjoy being a fish out of water, while others will resent being in a position where none of their skills are useful.
Use Their Relationships
An important complement to what a character can do is who they know. These are a PC’s relationships, and sometimes they’re written down on the character sheet, but just as often they’re random NPCs the player takes a liking to. Either way, you can use them to build a custom experience.
If a player spends a lot of their time talking to or about an NPC, make that NPC important to the story. It doesn’t matter if they were originally a one-session villain, a minor ally, or a random farmer: they matter now because a player wants them to. If you can smoothly meld the NPC into your plot, then do it. You never intended to bring this smuggler captain up again, but the party was super into them, so now the captain is a secret rebel against the evil space emperor.
But even if there’s no smooth way to integrate a beloved NPC into the plot, you should probably do it anyway. Sure, it’s a little contrived that a random scribe happens to know the ancient ritual for saving the world, but the PC dating them won’t care. As long as you keep things from getting completely unbelievable, your players will probably go with it.
Of course, you can take steps ahead of time to make this easier on yourself. The first step is not to invest a lot of time fleshing out an NPC until you know the players like them. Stick to this rule even if you like the NPC a lot. A single motivation and a few characterizing details are all you need when introducing an NPC, lest you end up the subject of a joke about how you spent hours on this wise and noble king only for the PCs to flock around an unnamed woodcutter.
Another way to maintain flexibility is to keep an NPC’s background mysterious when you first introduce them. Drop a few hints that there’s more to them than meets the eye, that they know more than a person in their position should. If the players aren’t interested, it’s no loss for you. But if they are, you’ve already laid the groundwork for the NPC to become important.
Reserve Their Spot
Once you have the basics of customizing content for specific players, it’s critical to keep that content properly reserved. Players get understandably upset when someone else swoops in to take over their storylines. They thought something was just for them, and the rug was pulled out from under them. In fact, their disappointment is often proportional to how much they were enjoying the content in question, so all the work you’ve done until now is suddenly turned back on you.
Keeping one PC from stealing another’s thunder is a tricky business, especially when mechanics get involved. If you planned a climactic battle between a player and their nemesis and the player loses, it can seem natural for another PC to step in. This is especially true if the second PC is more mechanically optimized. This situation isn’t just limited to combat. You might have spent several sessions building to one PC making an epic speech, only for someone else to butt in with their character’s superior skill.
You can stop this spotlight-stealing via GM fiat if you have to, but that kind of heavy-handed approach should be a last resort. It’s better to establish why only one specific player can solve the problem ahead of time. Perhaps they’re the only one who can wield the special sword that defeats the villain’s armor, or perhaps the villain only cares about defeating one PC in particular and will withdraw when that PC is down.
It’s also important to make sure one player’s content doesn’t have negative consequences for the entire party. If PC Kendra’s villain attacks the entire party, you can hardly blame PC Paul for stepping up and vanquishing the enemy. The same is true for social conflicts. If one player’s upcoming speech determines whether the entire party is imprisoned, the other players will want input.
None of this is to say that players can’t share customized content. They absolutely can, especially if their characters have good chemistry. You can encourage sharing by creating a political conflict that appeals to multiple PCs, or crafting an NPC who’s one PC’s sibling and another PC’s romantic interest. But when content is specifically customized for one player, it should stay with that player.
Make Them Special at the End
Let’s say you’ve done everything right up until your campaign’s finale. Your players each feel like the game was custom built for them, and as a result they are super into it. Now you’ve got to finish everything with a grand display, but you also need to make sure each player feels like their character had a unique hand in things. As with any other story, a campaign’s climax is what the players will remember most, so it’s important to pull out all the stops.
For some players, you won’t have to do anything extra. If your climax involves the League of Free Worlds facing down a demonic invasion, then the PC-diplomat who put the League together is probably covered. But that won’t be the case for every PC.
In this final chapter, it’s time to use everything you’ve learned before, but make it bigger and more important. Each player should get at least one moment where their character’s skills and abilities are vital to saving the day. This means your climax is probably gonna have a lot more content than a standard session, but that’s fine. No one objects to a two-part finale.
Those relationships you’ve been building for the rest of the campaign should show up now. The PCs’ mentors, rivals, and lovers should be front and center, either needing the PCs’ help or contributing something vital. The finale is also the best time to focus on any setting aspect the players have been super into. Sometimes this requires a bit of tap dancing on your part. Maybe half the group has been really into expanding public libraries, while the other half has spent their time lobbying for better laser-gun control. In that case, your conclusion could be a legislative battle where weapon restriction and library funding are part of the same spending bill.
If all else fails, you can always hand out special powers or cool tech to any PCs who don’t yet have a special role to play. Players love discovering their character has a new ability, and it’s the last session, so you don’t have to worry about the new power unbalancing anything. Viewed through the lens of novel or film storytelling, this kind of ending is likely to seem a bit scattered, but that’s okay. In roleplaying, it’s more important to give each player a good time in the moment than it is to have an ending where everything lines up perfectly.