Running a psychological campaign in Braythe: Shattered Realities | World Anvil

Running a psychological campaign

There are many ways to play a roleplaying campaign. As a rule of thumb, if everyone at the table has fun, you're doing it right. Still, every setting has its theme, and Braythe is no exception. The overlying concept is that of survivors fighting to build a new, hopefully better life.   This idea offers a lot of chances at intense roleplaying. Player characters might start emotionally scarred, and slowly find their true self again. Or they might have lost everything, and step by step build something new where they can actually be happy. It also offers many chances at conflict: From different concepts of survival clashing with each other, to internal conflicts as a character overcomes their personal flaws and fears.   Many elements of the setting are created with such campaigns in mind. The entire society of the city of Felmor’s Nest is based on psychological models of dysfunctional families, to give just one example. Braythe: Shattered Realities offers you a roleplaying experience where you can dive deep into the Human mind and soul. A roleplaying campaign that goes all the way into this concept can be deeply satisfying, with complex character arcs and profound emotional experiences.   Of course, it is completely up to you and your group how far you really go. The worlds of Braythe can simply be a somewhat supernatural playground for any kind of campaign. There's nothing wrong with that, and as said: As long as everybody enjoys it, you're doing it right.   But if you as a game master want to play a psychological campaign, make sure to check in with your players on a regular basis. The entire theme of the setting is based on aspects of the real world. That means if, for example, you decide to bring up the topic of abuse, it could be highly triggering to some people in your group. Before starting the actual gameplay, have a so-called Session Zero that covers these topics, where everyone in your group should give their consent to deal with the topics you want to include. If someone doesn't - ensure the rest of the group respects that. Some players might also want to discuss this privately - give everybody the chance for that, even if they don't specifically ask for it.   Even after everybody gave consent, the game master should check back on all players occasionally to make sure nothing has changed. Sometimes, people don't know their own emotional triggers, and if they come up during a game, they should be addressed and handled with respect and understanding. And if you want to include new topics that were not covered before, just make another Session Zero.   If you feel unsure about how far you can and should go, there's another rule of thumb: When in doubt, ask your players first. And if you still have a weird feeling about something, trust your gut instinct.   Psychological campaigns can be an amazing experience when you handle them in a mature way, but you can also get there step by step. Starting with more classical adventures, only adding the occasional psychological aspect, is a good way to feel out how these topics work for you and your group.   Also, remember that the theme of Braythe is not just any kind of psychology - it's the journey from surviving to thriving. The premise of such stories is that, despite all challenges, in the end things will be better than they were before. You could have a deeply psychological horror campaign in the Braythe setting. But in the long run, no player character should come out with mental scars deeper than before, and instead have healed and grown stronger. Ultimately, campaigns following the theme of Braythe: Shattered Realities are tales of hope.   Again, all this is absolutely optional. If you and your group prefer any different theme, go for it. However, if you choose to explore the theme of Braythe, the following guidelines and suggestions might help you plan such a campaign.  

Why change is essential to psychological campaigns in B:SR

  The theme of Braythe is deeply tied to the concept of character development. When player characters explore a world, they do so to have an impact (otherwise, they would only observe and study). They go adventuring to change the world, or at least their own lives in it.   In a similar way, if the characters explore their own minds and souls, it should have an impact on their inner world, and in consequence on their relationships with others. Changing ideals and alignments, overcoming flaws or inner conflicts and learning to become more emotionally resilient or open-minded are perfect examples for such character development.   The game master can also include rewards that are slightly different than usual. If a character heals a great emotional wound from their backstory, this could result in a permanent increase in Wisdom, instead of handing out gold or magic items. Understanding methods of manipulation might lead to increased resistance to being charmed or otherwise mind-controlled. Solving a personal conflict with an NPC might turn an enemy into an important long-term ally. As a game master, you should get creative to reflect how not only the player characters’ power increases, but their lives gradually improve and they get more and more mentally and emotionally resilient.  

Psychological character arcs in roleplaying

  There are many aspects from real-life psychology that can fit into roleplaying campaigns. Playing a role is, after all, nothing else than making up a psychological entity, with its own feelings, thoughts and experiences. The following concepts offer you some very specific examples on how to implement psychology in roleplaying. Of course, these aspects are far from being the whole story. If you want to learn more, you can read books and articles about the nature of the Human mind, trauma therapy or systemic therapy. Ressources for writers on how to develop character arcs are also extremely valuable. These are the sources that were used in the creation of the following list, too.  

Transformation arcs

  The world of Ashandri invites players to have detailled background stories. Who were the characters before the apocalypse, and who were they afterwards? How have they experienced this terrifying event? Pretty much everyone in Braythe has lived through traumatic experiences that impacted them forever.   When developing a transformation arc out of a player character's backstory, don't just focus on the outside events. Work with your player to understand where the character stands emotionally, and how the player would like to see their character evolve. A typical and well-working concept is that the character believes a certain lie. The PC may not even be aware of it, but it guides their behaviour. Here are a few examples of what such a lie could be:  
  • Might makes right: If you are capable of dominating others, you have the right to do so. Seeing a dragon god destroy your world is definitely an event that can make some people think that way.
  • Love has to be earned: The worth of a person depends on what that person does for others. Such a character will have problems to say "no" to others, feel the need to save others, and so on.
  • The family has to be protected: Whether it's the blood family or a chosen one, the family as a system and all of its members have to be protected. This is true even if family members act evil or the system fails, or the one protecting the family only gains suffering from it. Those who refuse to protect the family have to be banished.
  • Always be prepared for the worst: Especially in a world that has experienced an apocalypse, there are those who believe they are never prepared enough. Greed, the desire to control others and an unquenchable thirst for power can all be symptoms of such a belief.
  • Your role is your identity: A character grew up having a certain role or function - in their family, their home town, or any other social system. To them, this role is all that they are. If they are asked to do something that fits this role, they will do it, and they have no idea who they are beyond that.
  In the final challenge, the end of this story arc, the PC should not just need physical or magical powers to succeed. Turn the scene into an emotional trial, where that character can show they now see through the lie: Not only can they not be manipulated by it anymore, their own behaviour is now guided by a new and better belief.   The necessary "lessons learned" to get to this point need to be implemented in previous sessions. Let the character face situations where the belief in that lie by other characters creates danger and suffering. You can even point out how a certain situation reminds the PC of something from their past. Even failure can be a valuable lesson, when the character sees the negative effects of the lie.   Step by step, the character learns to identify the lie in all its variations, and replace their old belief with a healthier one. Through a series of failure and victory, they will one day be ready to face their own personal symbol of this lie: An enemy that, to this player character, embodies the old belief and has to be overcome.  
Example of a Transformation arc
  Naryth the Sorcerer has always been an outsider. He was different from birth, and people felt it. When he discovered his natural magical powers at youth, the people in his home town avoided him even more. The only times they acted friendly was when they needed him and his abilities. The lesson he learned was that he only had worth if he could do something exceptional for others.   When the apocalypse hit, he did what he could to save others, risking his own life - because he felt he had to earn his own survival.   The story arc for such a character could include a villain exploiting the PC’s inability to see his own value. At the beginning of the campaign, the character could meet other people with a similar problem. Watching them get exploited might create the first doubts. Later adventures then include situations where the character learns to say “no”, to refuse being exploited, until he’s finally ready to face the original villain. This could end with the PC simply cutting the villain out of his life. Or the NPC is so evil that he won't allow the character to walk away, and freedom is only achieved by killing the villain in a final battle.  

Redemption arcs

  In this character arc, the PC sees himself or herself as the villain. Maybe they did something evil during the end of the world, because it was their only chance to survive. Or something bad happened as a consequence of their inaction.   Such a story arc usually ends in forgiveness - by others, but also by the character forgiving themselves. A manipulative villain can be part of such a story, someone who pushed the character to act (or not act) a certain way. But the focus is on the PC’s own decisions, and the resulting shame and guilt.   A redemption arc often begins with uncovering secrets. The player character tries to forget about their past, but their personal history haunts them. Maybe they meet someone they have wronged, or they are asked to find a villain - only to realize they themselves are the bad guy. Trying to keep the secrets might make things worse in the beginning, leading to a so-called "fall arc": The character's situation gets worse and worse through wrong decisions and avoiding their past mistakes.   As the theme of Braythe is tied to hope and a positive future, though, this should only be a part of the journey. At some point, the secrets are revealed, and the character has to (or wants to) accept responsibility. They need to face themselves, and become a better person in the end.  
Example of a Redemption arc
  Sari was a reclusive sage living in Dvarys. She heard about the increasing turmoil in the world, but instead of caring about it, she only isolated herself even more. When the last days came, and it got so bad Sari couldn't ignore the problems anymore, she was terrified.   She fled her home and encountered a group of refugees. Understanding that her survival chances might increase in a group, she went with them. But it was too late: The apocalypse came, and Zathruax ripped the world apart. As the flames engulfed Dvarys, it was clear that their death was inevitable.   At that very moment, Sari heard a voice in her mind. A dark, terrible voice. And it gave her a choice: She was offered either her own life, or that of the other refugees she accompanied. But the price was her soul, and she had to decide immediately. Sari chose - her own life. At that moment, she became a warlock, and was teleported to a safe place. Just before she vanished, she saw her former companions burn and die. This was the defining moment for Sari, and the feeling of guilt never left her.   The character arc might include Sari serving her warlock patron as a way to punish herself. She tells herself that she is evil, but at the same time, she can't stand the thought of others seeing her that way. She does everything to hide her secrets, and everytime she follows the command of her patron, the guilt only gets worse.   At some point, her secrets are uncovered, and her companions learn her story. They decide to free Sari of her patron while the warlock begins her journey of redemption, trying to make up for past sins and learning to forgive herself. At the end of the character arc, Sari will face her patron, defeat it - and possibly become a multiclass character.  

Growth arcs

  A growth arc is basically a smaller variation of the transformation arc. The character changes, but in a more subtle way. They don't reinvent themselves - rather, they become a more rounded and well-developed person. The PC basically stays the same person, and only certain aspects change or are incorporated into the character.  
Example of a Growth arc
  Vey is a Half-Orc from the Ember Wastelands. She fought in the battles against Delvaroth - every single one. These experiences spawned a deep hatred towards any Delvarati: A deep-seated prejudice that gave the otherwise rounded personality a one-dimensional view when it came to this topic.   During her adventures, Vey meets evil NPCs from Delvarati, anchoring her belief even more. But later, the Half-Orc also meets other characters from Delvaroth, maybe even gets saved by one. An alleged evil Delvarati might even turn out to be good. Step by step, the old belief crumbles.   At the climax of this arc, Vey has to rely on a character she once hated - and the group defeats a great evil because she does.  

Character arcs and thematic truths

  It's entirely possible to include character arcs as independent, parallel storylines into your campaign. One adventure, session or sidequest revolves around one PC, the next one about another, and so on. But if you prefer to tell one big story that combines them all, thematic truths are what you need.   A thematic truth is an overlying concept that unites all character arcs. It can be something astonishingly simple - most great truths are simple once you understand them. But it's something that all characters in your group miss, and they need to find it to complete their arc.   To take the above examples:  
  • Naryth has to learn that everybody is a valuable person, and their value isn't defined by what they do for others.
  • Sari has to understand that her past sins don't have to define who she will be in the future. She has to learn to see her value despite her sin.
  • Vey has to learn that people are individuals. The value of a person doesn't depend on where they come from.
  From this perspective (and there may be others), the unifying truth is that every person is important, that everyone has a value all by themselves. No matter where they come from, what they did or failed to do.   The big bad evil of such a campaign could be a character who sees the world in the exact opposite way. People aren't individuals, they are faceless masses that are only worth something if they are of value to the bad guy. He manipulates others through guilt, shame, agitation and love deprivation. Defeating this villain could be the climax of all three character arcs, especially if he played some important role in all of these arcs before.  

Don't overplan

  While a psychological campaign definitely needs a certain amount of planning, always remember that you are not writing a novel. There is no absolute clear path from beginning to end that you as the game master control. The players and their decisions have an impact on the story, and you have to be prepared for that. And as paradox as that sounds, a certain lack of preparation is key to that.   Having a rough outline of how the campaign is supposed to evolve is good. But leave room for changes, for unexpected twists and for the option that your players and their characters come to entirely different conclusions than those you imagined. Because, as any experienced game master will tell you, these things WILL happen.


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