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.