Increasing Immersion with Obligation

We started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EotE) campaign last year, and one of the more interesting components of character creation is the Obligation system. Obligation is introduced during character creation and remains an ongoing device throughout the life of the campaign that can be used by both player and game master (GM) to facilitate storytelling, increase tension, and introduce surprise action. I believe the Obligation system is an example of how mechanics can affect the amount of roleplaying and immersion at the table.

When building a character in Edge of the Empire, one of the steps is selecting the character’s Obligation. Quite simply, no one in the Edge of the Empire is a self-starter; every character owes somebody something.  While some players may enjoy forming a backstory – complete with layers of drama and intrigue – creating a detailed backstory is not something all players (or GMs) enjoy. For example, a player does not have to create any meaningful backstory for a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons character; the character is built by selecting desired attributes, powers, and gear. The player is asked to select Alignment to designate his or her moral compass, but after that initial selection is complete, alignment rarely comes into play for most groups. In other words, creating a backstory with any detail for a 4e D&D character is up to the discretion of the player and GM; Edge of the Empire’s Obligation system forces players to create a bit of backstory for their character.

Prologue Comics Wookiee Life Debt

I believe the Obligation system is something that could be used by other roleplaying game systems to enhance character creation and increase immersion. It forces the player to not answer answer the question, “What do I want my character to do?” But to also answer, “How did my character get here?” I will discuss the benefits of consequences of the Obligation system below.

Obligation Explained

A character’s Obligation value is a designation of how much they are obliged to a certain individual, cause, or behavior. As previously mentioned, no character “just appears” in the world from scratch; each character evolved from someplace. Obligation is a mechanic to formalize the character’s evolution and infuse it into gameplay. Examples of Obligation include Bounty (the character has a price on her head for some reason), Debt (the character is financially bound to another), and Oath (the character is sworn to a specific person, behavior, or deity). The rulebook provides information on how much Obligation each character starts the campaign with, which is based on the size of the party. Each character in the party can share the same obligation, or they each may have an individual obligation.

For players who are not feeling especially creative during character creation, the Core Rulebook for EotE provides a nifty table of possible obligations that relies on a d100 roll. Otherwise, the player selects the obligation that fits best with their desired character. The player has to spend some thought on where the character came from. During the first session of our campaign, the GM worked with the three players during character creation and we all bandied about ideas for our obligations and how we came to meet in the first place. This process took about 90 minutes, and it was thoroughly enjoyable as I now have more information about who I’m traveling the galaxy with for the campaign.

Always in Motion is the Future

If the Obligation system stopped there, then it would not be terribly different from Alignment in D&D 4e. However, obligations can come into play during any session once the campaign gets started. As mentioned earlier, each character has an Obligation value and each character’s values added together create the total Obligation for the party. At the beginning of each session, the GM rolls to determine which character’s Obligation – if any – come into play. This roll is kept secret by the GM (and whether the GM wants to fake the roll behind the screen to produce whatever result he desires is another post for another day…). If the roll (d100) “hits” one of the character’s Obligations, then complications related to his or her background will be a factor at some point in the session. The higher the party’s total Obligation value, the more likely a d100 roll will trigger complications.

Pizza the Hutt

But you’re gonna pay it – or else Pizza is gonna send out for you!

Perhaps a bounty hunter attempts to capture or kill the character (Bounty). Perhaps an agent of a Hutt provides the character with a “friendly reminder” that a gambling debt is owed (Debt). Or perhaps the character has sworn an oath to protect Force-Sensitive humanoids and rescuing one such creature puts the whole party in peril (Oath). The storyline of the campaign continues but each character’s Obligation can take center stage at any moment. The system gives the players and the GM a lot to work with in terms of immersing into the world. This immersion is perhaps easier because most of us have been thoroughly familiar with the Star Wars Universe for over 30 years.

As a campaign advances, players can perform actions to reduce their Obligation value – get a bounty resolved, pay off a Hutt, etc. They can also take on more Obligation throughout the campaign. But why would any player ever want to take on more Obligation – and thus more complications – during a campaign?

Because Obligation has its benefits.

Well, You Said You Wanted to be Around When I Made a Mistake

During the character creation process, each character can choose to take on more Obligation for additional Experience Points (XP) or credits. Edge of the Empire allows players to upgrade characteristics, talents, and skills with XP in addition to buying new and improved gear (e.g., blasters, armor, ship components) with credits. By taking on more Obligation, a player can speed up the process of leveling. I took this bait when creating my droid; I was just out of reach of getting a skill I thought was vital to the type of character I wanted to play – so I took on more Obligation to get a small boost to my starting XP.

The other two players did the same – one for additional credits to buy a better blaster and the other also for additional XP. As a result, our group has run into many a complication during our first handful of sessions. My droid has a bounty of his head from Black Sun, our smuggler is attempting to settle an old score with a friend who is now an Imperial Officer, and the aforementioned Force-Sensitive character took some risks to protect a NPC – putting the entire party in a crisis). Even though the Obligations create complications at times in the campaign, each player is more immersed in their character. Each one of us in the party had to make a calculated decision about whether or not additional XP or credits were worth the long-term consequences of the higher Obligation.

Adapting Obligation to Other Games

Obligation could be used in most game systems. For example, a DM could offer the Obligation system as a way to enhance character creation in 4th Edition D&D. Although extra gold at the beginning of a campaign is not that big of an enticement in the 4e rule system, players could have the option of choosing an extra Feat or increasing a certain skill. Regardless of the game system, the GM can learn what players value at the start of a campaign and tailor the Obligations rewards to those values.

In addition to helping players boost their characters at the beginning of a campaign, the Obligation system helps to shift some of the creative burden from the GM to the players. At the very least, the GM will have at least one emotionally charged plot hook for each character playing in the campaign. And that alone is reason to smile if you are languishing behind a GM screen trying to conjure up interesting storylines for the players and their characters!

About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
This entry was posted in DM Advice, PC Behavior and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Increasing Immersion with Obligation

  1. Sporkchop says:

    So, what happens if a PC, or all the PCs manage to fulfill their obligation? Are they free and clear
    ? Do they set up a new obligation? Is the expectation that once roleplaying their obligation has helped pull them into their character that they’ll have good momentum to stay invested without playing shallow and meta-gamey?

    I really like the idea of this mechanic, and would love to give it a try in other games, especially to see if I can better draw in my players who tend to be “along for the ride”.

  2. Dave says:

    I like the sound of this too! I run an OD&D campaign and a Classic Traveller campaign as well, and I can see using this in both games. Is the mechanic described more fully anywhere other than in the paid version of EoE?

  3. Pingback: Ramblings of Jacob and DelosObligation: A Character's Driving Force » Ramblings of Jacob and Delos

  4. Pingback: But Now Here You Are, And Here I Am | The Id DM

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