I think attachment is of vital importance in helping a campaign generate the kind of self-sustaining momentum which can lift it from a mere activity to something special. Attachment, a subset of feelings and reactions in the larger concept of Investment is something which occurs to a large degree on the players’ side of the screen, but is not wholly the province of the players. While it can be sparked without intervention of the GM – particularly by players who are GMs themselves, it cannot be sustained by the players alone; it needs a little love and attention from the side of the screen with all the charts on it.
What is Attachment, really?
I posed a question about how to generate Attachment on Role-Playing Stack Exchange recently, and got some great answers. What, however, is attachment?
When I think of it, player attachment to locations, cast, and tools represents them sharing the burden of defining that story element’s existence with the GM and contributing a special spark of life that heightens its reality and importance beyond that of the useful background noise which makes up most description.
The example I come back to most often for this is drawn from my first experience of a communal attachment of a group of players to one object in the game universe. During university a millennia ago, when the Star Wars Roleplaying game was new and in its first edition, my fellow players and I – first just two of us, but then the whole crew, made a home out of a dilapidated old freighter that we took from Imperial impound during one of our many, many, many escapes from detention. It was a meaningless bit of background detail, and it was probably the worst option of all the ones in the yard that the GM described as our characters were running and looking for escape routes.
It didn’t matter. We successfully broke into it, successfully got it to start despite its reluctance, and escaped in it. From that point on, it almost felt like we owed it something.
We all invested time, energy, creativity, and character resources in defining, refining, explaining, and improving this ship of ours. We never anthropomorphized it, but I would daresay we loved it. We worked on its engines, and its armor, and its weapons, and its navigation systems, and its legitimate and less legitimate cargo spaces… and so on, as best we could; growing ever more creative as the practical limits of black-market ship customization were skillfully represented by the GM. The ship did not become another character, but it became a significant part of our group identity, and we would have died to save it.
This is my standard for what Attachment is. I do not expect it in every single game, but I do look for it in long-running games, and wonder at its absence when it does not manifest.
Investment in the game world and genre facilitates opportunities to embellish and enjoy the little and large attachments which our characters would naturally form, and amplify the foundation work of the GM until our 2D imaginary environment begins to resonate in full 4D imaginary glory. Hell – maybe even 5D.
How do we get it?
First and foremost I would say that the players have to want it, as much of the initial bonding and expression of interest will come from them. Just like no one should waste too much effort trying to predict where a plot will really go once it is released into the wild, no one should worry too much about developing deep details in things prior to expressed interest by the players. What you should be doing is paying attention to what reactions they have in each scene, and note their interests carefully whenever and wherever the players express them. Plant seeds of possibility, and let the players nurture them into vines which will cling to your ongoing campaign like verdant ivy. Cling I say. Like ivy. On the very brick and mortar of your glorious prose and nourished by…. You didn’t think I was going to finish this metaphorical di/trans-gression, did you?
Our attachment manifested in many small ways at first, most notably a refusal to give up on what truly was a terrible ship. It somehow suited us, and we it, and we fully intended to overcome those failings in ourselves and what we quickly realized was going to be our new home. We named it, we personalized little narrative aspects of it. We mapped it in excruciating detail and made copies for each character with secret areas and extra details painstakingly penciled in. You’ve been there; you know what I am talking about. The bathroom was next to the alcove where right from the beginning we intended to put a Bacta tank.
This level of involvement never let up. We were always dreaming up new ways of fixing, enhancing, augmenting, rewiring, or disguising one aspect or another of the ship. We talked about it as much in-character as we did the plot of each adventure. It was often a way to distract the guards from the horrible, but bloodless, violence we were about to do to them.
The GM gets involved in this nonsense?
Once attachment has been sparked, it becomes the responsibility of all players, most definitely including the GM to fan the flames and bring this enhancing element to light. In my example above, the GM was not thrilled with our choice of escape ship, and less thrilled about our decision to keep it, but his instincts were good and after a few attempts to persuade us in and out of game to sell or junk it so we could look for something better, he chose to run with the idea. Missions became less about ‘the right thing to do’ and started being more about being, ‘the right thing to do, plus an opportunity to get part X for system Y.’ We still stayed on the same campaign track he had envisioned, but the reason for our involvement was now wholly ours and it was an organic, living, and evolving thing, rather than something we had blandly chosen before our characters were even finished. This attachment led us from interest in the game and love of the Star Wars universe, into full-on investment in the campaign. We couldn’t wait to get the dice out when it was time to play.
Another fantastic thing the GM did for his part of nurturing our attachment was to also keep careful track of our progress with repairs and improvements. He could give a rumor mill better life than almost any GM with whom I have ever had the pleasure to play. As our death-trap of a ship got more and more impressive, and as our own exploits got more and more embarrassing for the Empire, word of our ship began to get around. To hear people speak words of hatred or envy of our prized vessel was a reward more precious than any force points could be. It was as tangible and desirable a reward as seeing our characters develop, and recording our progress in our version of resistance against the oppression of the Empire.
An engineer, our GM saw much more quickly than we did that eventually, we would run out of things that we could reasonably do to and for the ship and that our energies must be directed elsewhere. He could have just let our passion for the ship wane, but he was a smart fellow. It’s possible that he still is, but… who can say. What he did was to shift the focus from improvements to disguise and flexibility, so that we could always focus on developing a new ID or registry for the vessel, and tracking down specialized equipment that would let us undertake missions that no one else could. Our passion for the ship burned on.
In the end, I think he came to love the ship as much as we did – and now, looking back, I think that is part of the package. For attachment to survive and thrive, and by extension, for the campaign to come to life and be a vital part of the players’ lives, the GM has to love the characters and all of their silly and inexplicable attachments. The GM has to love them more than the story – even when it is necessary to strip them of their prized attachments, burn down their homes, kill their puppies, and send them in chains before their worst enemies, it must be with love, understanding, and above all, a desire to see that story grow and flourish in new and exciting ways. The GM is a source of challenge and opportunity for change – not a source for punishment or wish fulfillment. The GM is the spark of creation, and the players are the forge on which… Yes, you are right – it is time to stop.
Do you have other suggestions for how attachment can be seeded, aided, spotted, and/or enhanced?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
‘Always Say ‘Yes…’’
‘Discomfort, Fear, Terror, and Vast Cosmic Horror, on a dime a day’
‘Billy Idol on Gaming’
‘The Goals of an RPG, or the R.P.G’s of gaming’
- What are the Roles of the Master? from Roles, Dice and Fun (mortengreis.wordpress.com)
- Romance in RPGs from Roleplaying Tips (roleplayingtips.com)
Darken others' doors: