Caring about characters is a tricky thing. Many GMs struggle just to get players to like their own character–to treat their character as a person, with coherent thoughts and feelings, instead of viewing their character as an attractive array of powers and stats.

Once you do reach that lofty pinnacle of caring about your character, there’s a further step awaiting. Now that your character is becoming vivid and real to you… what about all of those other characters at the table? Unwinder’s question touches on that topic…

Hi, I’m starting a new campaign soon, and I’ve noticed sort of an issue with some of the campaigns I’ve run in the past – Nobody cares about anyone else’s characters.

Sure, they’ll rescue each other when they’re in trouble, and sometimes they’ll strategize with each other in particularly rough combat situations, but aside from that, they’re completely unrelated characters who just happen to be on a team together. Whenever roleplaying occurs, it’s strictly PC/NPC, and never PC/PC. Looking at all the PCs from my last campaign, I can remember their character concepts, their trademark moves, their personalities, but I can’t remember at all how any of the characters related with each other.

I’ve got a few ideas (which I’d love to share) but I’m wondering if you’ve got any tips for encouraging characters to work as an ensemble rather than a group of six totally insular protagonists, at character creation and beyond.

Before I begin (and possibly forget to extend the offer): I’d love to hear your advice Unwinder! Please share your ideas in comments.

As for my own answers… they’re a scatter shot. You can approach character identification from a lot of different directions.

First, Love Yourself

Not to be all ‘Dr. Phil’, but getting players to care about each others characters probably won’t happen before they care about their own. If they spend all of their time calculating deflection angles and visualizing the circumstances that net the largest attack bonuses, they’re probably not ready to spend their characterization on interpersonal bonds. So, step one is to make sure that they care about their own characters. (I’m going to just assume that this step is taken care of. If you need help with this, the Stew has a lot of articles on the topic. I’d love to recommend a dozen.)

By Design

One way of creating characters that interrelate is to make their relationship part of character generation. There are a lot of ways to tie characters together–heck, I wrote a whole article exploring some methods to create binding ties. But binding ties or group character generation don’t necessarily involve player level interest–interest is a deeper level of buy in.

So why did I bring it up? Because before the game begins is the perfect time to get people interested in each other’s stories. During the game, players have a lot to keep track of–their character’s thoughts and motivations, the math behind their powers and abilities, puzzling out your mysteries (with their flashlight), plus keeping track of each other’s health and combat status, tactical analysis, and so on. Before the game begins–before all of the distractions crop up–you can identify a character’s core story, their sine qua non. If the player has an interesting core story for their character, this can be the moment that everyone buys in as an audience for the story.

If you have characters with similar backgrounds, picking good wedge issues to set them apart should interest both players. They already know that their characters are fundamentally the same at one level… so hopefully they’ll pay particular attention to their dark twin.

In Early Play

If your game has a prologue, where the GM runs a scene or two with each character as individuals before the game starts and the characters meet each other, think twice about sending the other players away. I know that as a GM, my first instinct is to run the prologues 1-on-1 (if nothing else, to prevent everyone else from twiddling their thumbs or talking to each other during the prologue) but you’re passing up a great opportunity to develop player level interest in other character’s stories.

As the Campaign Continues

Often, it’s not PCs who have the information you need. If you need a copy of the blueprints, you’ll chat up the architect to find out where the plans are stored. If you’re trying to figure out which nobles are aligned into factions, you need to talk to the nobles, their servants, and so on. At that level, talking to NPCs is about advancing the plot.

Fixing this [NPCs have the information] has the fun solution of making PC backgrounds key to the plot. This is great for a host of reasons (player buy-in is guaranteed, given that it’s their idea; players love it when their work is acknowledged), but it also gives players a reason to feel like a PC/PC conversation isn’t holding up the game. Sometimes even this will be shorthanded–“I tell them all about X”–but providing them an opportunity and a prompt is a good way to encourage deeper interactions.

At other times NPCs are interesting for different reasons. Sometimes your scientist PC speaks with scientific peers to underscore that the character is important in the world of science. Or a PC talks with a stay-at-home NPC to emphasize how widely traveled the PCs are. When PCs talk to each other, it’s hard to evoke these differences–everyone was involved in fighting the dragon. It was cool when you got Mr. Johnson’s fingerprints with the smart-glove, but let’s not rehash the details… This same abridging is often seen in movies and fiction, where the director drops into a bonding or retelling scene in motion, usually joining the action just before the scene’s end (or transformation into conflict). You can mimic this by starting a scene with heavy direction, saying ‘go’, and cutting once it’s played out. For example: After the third watch relieves Tristan and Diana; the camera zooms in on them a few minutes later, warming their hands at the fire, and conversing in low voices so they don’t disturb the watchers or wake their sleeping friends. Go.

Party games can suffer from “the PC blur”, where characters cease to have different motivations and takes. By the third or fourth mission, they often get hired as a whole–as “the team that solved X”. In many ways, this is realistic–and on the player side, 17 sessions of common history swiftly outweighs a few days of months old thinking about your character before he joined the group. While the character may have lived for 25 years before joining the elite seal team, the player has experienced most of his character’s life at the same table, undergoing the same experiences, as the other characters.

Varying this can be tricky. One way is to approach different PCs with hooks appropriate to their background. We got into this mission because the nun had a vision of vampires taking over the city. The next mission is a standard contract, relentlessly negotiated by the lawyer, who got the client over a barrel and is landing us a great fee. The next story begins when Jamie’s sister comes to her bawling because her boyfriend was seized by suits in a limo…

A different approach is to run a non-party game. When the PCs only overlap each other’s activities lightly, there’s more reason to be curious about what they’ve been doing. This can work particularly well in games centered on each character individually, where their common ground is a theme they’re exploring, or different reflections of a similar problem. (Conversely, this style of game is terrible if they can’t appreciate each other’s stories, because their character will be spending even more time out of the spotlight than normal.) Reluctant allies make for better PC/PC conversations than deeply committed allies–if only because there are more chances for something interesting (disastrous!) to crop up when they talk. The audience is on the edge of the seats, whispering “Don’t mention what you did to Mr. X, wait, no, don’t talk about your boss…” when mentioning it could have real repercussions. (Tabulazero has a good response that delves more into harnessing player conflict to this end.)

As a Player Responsibility

In the end, you can provide the opportunities, but it’s up to the players to take advantage of them. Sometimes, players show up to the game completely unprepared–they haven’t thought about the campaign since the they walked out the door at the end of the last session, their character sheet is at home, and they don’t have their pencil. Or they’re at low ebb because they’re exhausted by a week of work, and are just able to keep attention enough to respond when it’s their initiative count.

Sometimes, though, it’s because they’ve never thought about what it means to be a better player. Being interested in other peoples’ stories often requires more effort than things that involve you directly–like reading your book, checking your email, or starting a side conversation. In many ways, a player has to commit to paying attention to the other characters before they earn the reward–getting to watch more cool stories being told at the table.

Tips, Tricks, and Pearls of Wisdom

How have you encouraged more attention to OPC stories at your table? As a player, what marks another character’s story that you want to pay attention to versus the stories that you can’t wait to end? Am I way off when I babble about “the PC blur” that often takes over party style games? Please share your observations and help us out!