During the many hours that I spend thinking about my various Tabletop Roleplaying Games (can’t just say “Dungeons and Dragons games” anymore, since I’m finally running and playing other games), one of the things I think about the most is my players’ emotional investment in our shared stories. I do my best to give them stories and non-player characters to care about, but I can’t exactly force it. They’re only going to care if they find something they feel is worth caring about and then make the effort to care. I tend to focus on the story elements, since I’d prefer that they care about the game as a whole rather than individual NPCs or one-time encounters, but it is usually a lot easier to make them care about an NPC than the game itself.
Most of the time, you can make an NPC sympathetic, interesting, and a little bit quirky without too much of an issue. It is a roll of the dice (pun absolutely intended) as to whether or not the players will care about any given NPC, but the nice thing is that you can always toss one aside if your players are not interested and make a new one. In any given TTRPG, you’re probably going to run through multiple NPCs in any given hour of the game, or session at the very least. NPCs fill the world and the players will wind up picking whichever ones interest them and you can just expand from there. For instance, I had an NPC rogue in one of my games that was around mostly to serve a narrative purpose in the first session, assist with some skill checks if the party chose to go somewhere they would need a trapfinder or the like, and provide a safety release valve in combat scenarios that involved the entire caravan the party was traveling with. Eventually, they also wound up providing a second voice for the caravan itself and a source of supposed romantic tension as one of the players jokingly shipped them with another player’s character.
Eventually, they died. It was a rough fight, also claiming the life of one of the player characters as well, and I thought that would be the end of it. I’d come up with some other stuff to give the character more depth, but I’m not precious with my NPCs. They’re there to serve a purpose and are easy ways for me to introduce threat without it feeling like I just hit one of the heroes with a bus. Instead of a hero, I hit the sidekick. The players eventually insisted on bringing the NPC back to life and, since they were willing to go through the rigmarole involved, I wasn’t going to stop them. Then the NPC died in the next major encounter after that and the party once again tried to bring them back. This time, the ritual failed and the party swore to bring them back, no matter what it took. Now they’re investigating how to bring someone back after a ritual fails and I’ve given them a nice little high-level quest for a massive diamond formed in the heart of a mountain. Good times.
I couldn’t have predicted they’d get this invested in the character. I thought they’d wind up more interested in the revenant they fished out of a river or the caravan leader, who was just some dude, who was entrusted with secret documents to take from one country’s leadership to another’s that were apparently so valuable that the caravan was attacked by assassins. None of which caught their interest for very long. They loved the Revenant for a while, but there was no talk of trying to bring him back, or finding out what happened to him after they learned he was the result of an experiment to see if a necromancer could artificially induce a revenant that would hunt a killer who had not actually killed him and he turned into dust when the necromancer concluded his experiment by slaying the person binding the revenant to unlife. They just moved on from the caravan leader, even though he was a family friend/relative to one of the player characters and clearly up to some shit. I certainly wouldn’t have planned it that way, but you make stuff, let your players pick what they like, and then do your best to run with it.
As far as the story goes, all I can really do is try to make cool stuff. I have no idea if they’re actually super invested in what might happen or just enjoying themselves on a per-session basis, and I’m honestly not sure it super matters right now. As long as we’re all having fun, I’m happy with whatever we’re doing. I’d love to be able to figure out what kind of stories they’re willing to emotionally invest in, since I’d love to overwhelm a player with emotion (not, like, in a mean way, just in a “dang, that’s some good storytelling” kind of way). I think that if I making sure I’m investing in their stories, building things out for them, and checking in with them regularly, I’ll probably get there eventually. None of my games are meeting weekly right now, at least not ones I’m running, so it’s difficult to tell if people are super invested because it’s difficult to retain details across multiple weeks without a session. Everyone asks questions like someone who wasn’t paying attention and that’s just because it’s been so long. Even the most meticulous of notes can only remind us of the details of what happened. They can’t make us feel that way again, nor can they entirely re-immerse us in a story that’s been set aside for multiple weeks.
Like I said, as long as my players are enjoying themselves, I’m happy. I’m going to keep doing what I can to get them emotionally invested because I think that’s a good focus for me to have as a storyteller (specifically to give them things they’re interested in investing in rather than manipulating them into investing), but I’m not going to be upset if it doesn’t happen on my time scale. These things take time and we’ve all got plenty of it (you know, probably).