The Ties That Bind

A RPG campaign lives and dies with the PCs. A GM can create an interesting setting backdrop, start the campaign off with a bang, and provide compelling reasons to want to explore the campaign world. However, the GM cannot force the PCs to actually stay together. Despite the GM’s best efforts, sometimes the various PCs’ personalities eventually shatter the bonds of the group enough that the party rather split up (or kill each other) than continue the story.

Classic PHB Illustration of Standard PCs

Classic PHB Illustration of Standard PCs

That flies in the face of why the gaming group decided to play the campaign in the first place. Here at the Front, I maintain that creating a party that wants to stay together is the shared responsibility of the players and the GM. While it can be interesting to have some intra-group tension within the party, the GM has a responsibility to not elevate the tensions to the boiling point where the various party members would rather trust complete strangers than the people they have been working with for the past few weeks/months.

The players, on the other hand, shouldn’t create characters that they know are going to drive the others up a wall and make the other characters stuff them into a barrel and ship them off to the nearest insane asylum for society’s betterment. A lone wolf character is another type that doesn’t really work well for a party situation. It’s a great concept, but if they want to be a loner, why would the others want them around and vice versa? So the responsibility for creating a group that will work for the campaign’s long haul starts right off the bat in character creation. The players figure out what roles they would like their respective characters to take within the narrative — likely factoring in what the other players’ want to their characters to play within the campaign narrative. Each player figures out a basic personality and background. However, even doing this doesn’t mean that the party will bond well enough to stick together.

Let’s look at an example. This party was put together to hunt for relics which they sell off to various collectors. It is made up of:

  • A street urchin that dreams of becoming a knight — the money gained from selling relics will pave his way into becoming more than a potential hedge knight.
  • A archer who seeks fame and fortune to distance himself with from the family he can’t stand.
  • An exiled foreigner on the run because of her beliefs.
  • An elementalist mage naive in the ways of the world due to spending most of his life in a school.
  • An archaeologist interesting in discovering relics and legends of the past and sharing those tales with audiences.

Not a bad group … potentially fairly well balance for various roles that could come up during various sessions. And yet, at this point while they may have a common goal of relic hunting there is really no compelling reason on how they know each other or why they are willing to work with each other but put their lives on the line for the others. At this point, there are looming potential trouble-spots based on some of these character concepts. Some are driven by purely monetary concerns and at least one character is running from their past which may cause the party to have to deal it  if it catches up with them.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect system for making this work. The crux of this is simply that if the players are open about the concepts and personality of their characters (while still possibly keeping some surprises down the line for interesting story developments), the players collectively can steer their sense of their own characters toward why would the put up with the characters when the times get tough or if their quirks drive them up a wall? This is harder to do if the characters really are meeting and getting to know each other for the first time at during the first session of the campaign. However, even in this case, I would suggest the players hold an out of game discussion before starting to make sure that the party won’t disintegrate as soon as their characters in-game get to know each other.

So how do you go about working with the other players to create a group that not only is balanced to deal with challenges the campaign will likely throw at them but creating a party that really does have each others backs through thick and thin?

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2 comments to The Ties That Bind

  • Rob

    Very much agree with the problem of “random strangers” which feeds into divisive “my guy would xxx.”

    I have long required Players to answer questions which include how they owe something or have some relationship to another PC, what shared experience/objective they have etc.

    Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition also had “backgrounds” which included similar “questions” in part hooking to adventure but also creating links between PCs.

    I also have required Players to agree to the “campaign frame” as in “officers of a ship on voyage of discovery” or “members of same disgraced military unit”.

    • Thank you for the response and mentioning the questionnaire from Warhammer. There are a lot of systems and supplements that have presented a questionnaire (of sorts) to help the player flesh out the character. (White Wolf went so far as to also recommend a prologue of quickly roleplaying important snippet events in the character’s past.) I don’t recall at the moment, how good the ones I have seen are good about forging party bonds, but I would suspect at least some of them do.

      That’s a great idea about getting the players to agree to the “campaign frame”.

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